Book Review – The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

First published, 2018

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I wish I could give more than five stars. This may be my favourite novel.

I am a floating member of a second book club. I’ll explain: I’m not a member, but I go to their meetings because I have known a lot of their members for many years, and maintain the fervent hope that, one day, they’ll read me. In the meantime, we drink, we chat, and they have olives. They’re a nice bunch.

When I went to their last meeting, they had just finished this novel. It sounded fascinating, and one of their party lent me her copy.

The novel is set in the eighteenth century, and much of the language is of the time, which gives it an ethereal and authentic feel.

The story revolves around Angelica Neal, a highly trained and cultured lady of ill-repute, and Jonah Hancock, a humble merchant with a number of ships, who makes his money in trade. A captain of one of Mr. Hancock’s ships returns from a voyage to inform him that he has traded one of the ships for a mermaid. It is a half-monkey, half-fish construction, stuffed and mounted, and quite hideous to behold. However, the captain believes that Mr. Hancock can make his fortune by exhibiting this poor stuffed creature.

As his fame grows and his creature becomes a figure of some notoriety, Mr. Hancock comes into contact with the worldly and experienced Angelica Neal. Mr. Hancock, at first bedazzled by the sight of Mrs. Neal, has his ardour tempered by her eager hands. Feeling his rejection, when Mr. Hancock attempts an apology, Mrs. Neal insists she will have nothing to do with him – until he provides her with a mermaid of her own.

There’s a wonderful moment when Mr. Hancock meets Mrs. Chappell, an old bawd who makes him feel uncomfortable:
“She has a great powdered thatch of a wig and no neck at all to speak of, although a large jewelled cross gleams in the crease of flesh where one might once have been.”
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Volume I, Chapter Nine, page 79.

There’s also a discussion on class which I very much doubt has ever been worded more accurately:
“For class is a type of bubble, a membrane around one, and although one might grow within this membrane, and strain against it, it is impossible to break free from it. And a man of nobility is always such in his soul, however he may fall; and a man of humble sort is always such in his soul, however he may climb.”
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Volume I, Chapter Seventeen, page 159.

The language is beautiful, the story a delight, there are moments of humour and heartbreak and I loved this book. Highly recommended.