Golden Hill – Francis Spufford
Everybody has a novel in them, they say, and often that’s where it should stay, in my experience. It might be seen as a bit of a gamble for an accomplished writer of non-fiction – his debut account of the Scott polar expedition, I May Be Some Time, won him literary prizes – to turn his hand to a novel but Spufford has produced an astonishingly impressive and highly entertaining piece of work.
In November 1746, a young adventurer, Richard Smith, lands in Manhattan with a money order for £1,000, a stupendous amount of money, backed by a reputable City of London firm, which he immediately presents to the owner of a counting house on Golden Hill Street, Mr Lovell. The bill is to be paid in sixty days and the absence of any corroborating evidence and Smith’s reluctance to reveal much about himself or what he proposes to do with the money provokes suspicions that he might be a trickster.
The novel recounts the various adventures that befall Smith during his stay which include a roof top escape, a duel, the killing of his only associate, Oakeshott and being caught in flagrante delicto with the local trollop and actress, Euterpe Tomlinson . The protagonist finds himself in and out of a debtors’ prison and in grave danger of dancing the hemp jig ie being hung. In this book Spufford recreates the feel and pace of a Fielding or Smollett novel of the era.
As a newcomer to the nascent Manhattan – it has just 7,000 inhabitants and is more of a village than a city where everyone knows each other’s business – Smith is able to compare and contrast what he finds with what he left behind in London. The streets are clean, there are no beggars and the dread marks of smallpox are remarkably absent from the visages of the inhabitants. But it has its own set of horrors – slavery, a gruesome tableau of rotting scalps of Frenchmen presented annually by the Mohawks as a gesture of friendship towards the English and Dutch – and is riven by factions.
The language Spufford deploys is intoxicating. It has just the right mix of archaisms to maintain the pretence of being written in the mid 18th century without making it a chore for the modern reader. Whilst the paragraphs and the sentences can be long with multiple subordinate clauses, they proceed at a pace and do not get bogged down by their intricacy. And his metaphors are brilliantly evocative, painting a crisp, clear image in just a few words. To take just one example in describing the forming ice on the river he writes, “reaching fingers of ice growing out from each shore met in the middle and locked ..rigid as in the heart of a child’s marble”.
A mix of narrative and epistolary style, a melange of real and imaginary characters, a tale of trust and doubt interspersed with the complexity of relationships, Spufford has produced a thoroughly entertaining read. Smith, though, is a frustratingly mysterious character. We don’t know what makes him tick and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him as he lurches from crisis to crisis. And the ending with its double climax is as unexpected as it is bemusing.
A good holiday read.