Book review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford PIC: Bart Koetsier/PA Wire
Francis Spufford PIC: Bart Koetsier/PA Wire
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Francis Spufford already has a prestigious reputation as a writer of non-fiction: The Child That Books Built is now something of a modern classic of the genre-knotting form; Red Plenty is an astonishing account of Soviet technophilia and Unapologetic is a fine piece of polemic against atheism – even though it struck me as sometimes intemperate.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford | Faber & Faber, £16.99

So why turn to the novel? The simple answer is that it transpires he is rather good at it. But it is a slightly complicated path to get to that judgment. In that respect, his fictional debut owes much to his non-fiction.

Golden Hill begins in New-York (then hyphenated), in November 1746, with the mysterious Mr Smith striding confidently towards the counting-house of Lovell & Company and presenting a bill for £1,000 he wishes to be cashed. Almost immediately I had one major concern. Though there are numerous less successful versions, two of the greatest post-war American novels are set in the 18th century and pastiche 18th century novels; John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Furthermore, many attempts at “recreating” the 18th century style end up as a lot of lawks-a-mercy-ing, undone shifts and “Quaffing of Canarie-Wine”. Actual 18th century novels tend to be rather more complicated.

Anyway, it rattles along rather nicely. Smith seems to take a secret pleasure in actually encouraging the belief that he is a confidence trickster of some sort. He makes cautious friendships with Septimus, the equally secretive Secretary to the town’s Governor – and it was a town at the time, with a population of 7,000 compared with London’s 700,000 – and with Tabitha Lovell, daughter of the local financial big-wig. Tabitha is sharp-tongued, sarcastic and a wholly worthy descendant of Austen’s Emma Woodhouse; but she too has a secret that would not have been in an Austen novel. The plot ticks off the requisite beats – potential love, prison, dances and dinners and duelling, epistles, a brilliant section where the principle characters agree to appear in an am-dram version of that classic of the period, Joseph Addison’s Cato – and my niggles started to grow. Not because it wasn’t a wholly enjoyable experience to read it, but that some things seemed out of kilter.

Very early on in the novel – page 19 – some of the verbs are apostrophised (retain’d, back’d, confus’d) and some not so (scurried, misliked, knocked). The apostrophe is a bit ye olde anyway, but why mish-mash them? A few pages later there is a tiny literary reference to Philip Sidney’s poetry – “With what sadder steps”, winking at the 30th sonnet. A little, excusable curlicue? In the sermon Smith hears in Chapter II there is an especially odd point, where the minister makes mention of all the novelists that Golden Hill is imitating: both Henry and Sarah Fielding, Richardson, Lennox, Smollett and Sterne. Here’s the rub. There is no way that anyone – let alone anyone in New-York in 1746 – could have read Roderick Random (1748), or The Female Quixote (1752), or Tristram Shandy (1759). I simply couldn’t believe that someone immersed in the period could make such an obviously glaring error.

Then there came the tonal shifts. A discussion about current London drama makes copious use of the redacted dash for personal names; not otherwise used often in the novel. While describing the duel, with all due technical terminology, the intermittently intrusive narrator laments “But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle, than if I shouted numbers at you”. One scene features the card game piquet. “Now it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what follows, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules…” The rules are then confusingly explained, ending “Wait – wait – alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled again and started over again as the game is begun. We are out of time, with little enlightenment secured.”

The wonderful thing is that all these infelicities and half-hints are rewarded. The mystery may on the surface be about Smith’s money, whether it is ill-gotten and what he will use it for; the deeper mystery is who is telling us about Smith’s mystery. Both revelations satisfy – and, although I guessed the first relatively early, it is pleasingly foreshadowed. The second can also be deciphered, and readers should take note that one character describes how a stage magician diverts with applause. It is exactly the strategy Spufford uses.

The epigraph is taken from the work of Smollett, also mentioned in the sermon, and Spufford strikes me as a novelist in the same vein. Richardson is more psychologically dissecting and distressing; Fielding more whole-hearted if less astute and Sterne more dazzling and self-conscious. But Smollett was always able to be empathetic, to be alert to injustices, to be unafraid in discussing the welter of horrors in the century, and to be pessimistically optimistic. It is an honourable path to follow. I hope this isn’t Spufford’s sole venture into pure fiction.