Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

I am not at all sure that I have read a more purely enjoyable book this year than Golden Hill. It ticks many of my personal-preference boxes: set in the eighteenth century (New York City, 1746), exploring finance and trade and the intersection of the political with the personal. I was hoping that it would be a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. And in many ways, there were similarities, but Spufford is doing something with the material that is totally his own, and with such confidence in his plot and such exuberant yet finely controlled language that I smiled more times than I could count. One of 2016’s most unalloyed reading highlights; I keep trying to think of reasons to dislike it, and am unable to come up with any.

Further to journaling, here is some elaboration on the reasons that I did like it:

  • Its echoes of David Simple/Tom Jones/Roderick Random (eighteenth-century English picaresque novels) are entirely intentional. David Simple in particular is referred to repeatedly, explicitly, throughout the text; I like that Spufford has done his homework. I also like how good-humoured he is about these novels, and about novels in general, often in quite a meta way. For instance: his protagonist is Richard Smith, who appears in New York with an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket. Smith falls in love with his banker’s prickly eldest daughter Tabitha. At a dinner one night, Tabitha’s sister Flora, who loves novels, asks Smith to pass her his copy of David Simple. He hands it to Tabitha to pass down the table. Mistake: Tabitha is a self-professed hater of novels (though she is by far the brightest woman Smith meets). She hurls it down the table in disgust, where it lands in a soup bowl and is fished out by another dinner guest.
  • It is intensely atmospheric; more specifically, it evokes in great detail just how provincial colonial New York was. In 1746 there was still a strong Dutch presence there; Richard meets the influential Van Loons, and a powerful judge drives in to town from “his farm in the Bouwerij” (the Bowery). There are just enough surprising touches like that—moments where Spufford’s use of the old name for a place meets my awareness of our contemporary name for the same place—to make the setting seem both utterly familiar and utterly alien, and yet it never becomes an end in itself, it never yanks you out of the story. I spent several pages eagerly following Smith’s progress up a semi-rural road referred to as the Broad Way. It took me quite a long time to work out that this was, of course, what the famous Broadway had been in 1746.
  • Language and syntax are just antiquated enough to be interesting and believable, without being actual pastiche. Through various plot twists (again paralleling the picaresque tendencies of eighteenth-century novels), Smith is imprisoned; his letter to his father is both painfully poignant to read, and a sheer delight because of how perfectly it adheres to the style of the time. The main body of the narrative doesn’t use archaisms very often; instead, the structure of the sentences and judicious word choices (“I am become”, “a civil attention”) keeps the historical flavour correct.
  • The male gaze is repeatedly flipped, challenged or interrogated. Smith is, at one point, seduced by an “aging” (she’s forty-six) actress in a bathhouse; the narrator, delightfully, breaks off mid-sentence (this is another eighteenth-century thing, though people forget it: narrators that directly address, manipulate, and often annoy, the reader). “But why always Smith?” we are asked. “Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room? …Should we not, at least, pay a little attention to [her] view of him?” It’s good; it maintains that lightness of touch that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way novels are discussed, though the point is serious. Plus, the late revelation of who, exactly, is narrating this story flips much of what we’ve seen and been told over the past 300 pages, which I very much enjoyed.
  • Related to the above, I think, is the fact that Spufford addresses homosexuality, slavery and women sensitively but, broadly, within the mindset of the times. He writes, for instance, a relationship between an African slave and a young white male secretary for the Governor, and picks his way delicately but confidently over and around the many faultlines of power and secrecy that their relationship implies. When Smith finds out, he tells the secretary—Septimus, one of his few friends in New York—that he does not think the less of him for sleeping with a man, or even for sleeping with a black man, but “for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of it being refused.” (The relationship is consensual, but for Spufford to characterise Smith by making that his major concern is efficient to the point of mastery.) Smith’s relationship with Tabitha is equally complicated by the fact that she is what Kenneth Clarke would call “a bloody difficult woman”. Although Smith is attracted to her—and although he is also a highly unusual man—he has to devise his own script for interacting with her; his society and upbringing have given him one that is too limited to be helpful. In devising that independent script, he frequently makes mistakes, sometimes approaching the unforgivable, and Tabitha likewise. Spufford doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a mark of real emotional honesty in a writer.
  • That emotional honesty leads to another thing: he’s not afraid to make bold plot choices. A major character dies three-quarters of the way through the book. Smith is in jail, then out of it, then in again. The first chapter is hardly over before he’s had his order for a thousand pounds stolen from his hands. And the ending—when we finally learn why he is in New York, where the money is from, and what he has been charged to do with it—is both brilliantly unexpected and makes perfect sense.

I’m so glad this book is in paperback now. I want everyone to read it. It would make an ideal Christmas holiday escape: cracking plot (you’ll be up past midnight reading) meets the vivacious clarity of truly excellent writing. It’s on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire now; I can’t praise it more highly.

Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber.

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18 thoughts on “Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

  1. ian darling says:

    I believe Francis Spufford’s mother was the historian Margaret who wrote a fascinating study of chapbooks – good to know that this powerful historical imagination runs in the family!

    • No way! He’s also written some amazing nonfiction, which I very much want to read now: one on Soviet Russia, one on children’s lit, one on mid-C20 English nerds, etc. It must indeed run in the family!

  2. The fact that the woman asks for the book so she can throw it in a soup bowl just tickles me. Also, the cover is quite striking; I love the yellow highlights. The only two suggestions I have for you are to include a basic plot synopsis so I can follow along with your thoughts better, and include breaks in paragraphs instead of bullet points. I know the bullet points are there because these aren’t connected paragraphs in a traditional essay, but the closeness of all the text definitely made my eyes go squirrely!

    Have you read Jane Austen’s very early work? I’ve heard it’s quite humorous in the same way that this book sounds funny. Or perhaps it was your blog that led me to realize Austen even HAS very early (teen years) writing!

  3. I do like the way that WordPress suggests Great Posts from your blog when I get an email that you’ve visited mine! Otherwise I might have missed this, and I have fond memories of Spufford’s The Child the Books Built so I want to read this too.

    • Ha, I didn’t know it does that! That’s great. Ooh, if you’ve read Spufford’s other work then don’t miss this. I’d really like to read his nonfiction.

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