In 1780s London, a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature—and meets a most extraordinary woman—in this much-lauded, atmospheric debut that examines our capacity for wonder, obsession, and desire with all the magnetism, originality, and literary magic of The Essex Serpent. Read more...
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In 1780s London, a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature—and meets a most extraordinary woman—in this much-lauded, atmospheric debut that examines our capacity for wonder, obsession, and desire with all the magnetism, originality, and literary magic of The Essex Serpent.
One September evening in 1785, Jonah Hancock hears an urgent knocking on his front door near the docks of London. The captain of one of Jonah’s trading vessels is waiting eagerly on the front step, bearing shocking news. On a voyage to the Far East, he sold the Jonah’s ship for something rare and far more precious: a mermaid. Jonah is stunned—the object the captain presents him is brown and wizened, as small as an infant, with vicious teeth and claws, and a torso that ends in the tail of a fish. It is also dead.
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlors and brothels, all of London is curious to see this marvel in Jonah Hancock’s possession. Thrust from his ordinary existence, somber Jonah finds himself moving from the city’s seedy underbelly to the finest drawing rooms of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of the coquettish Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on—and a shrewd courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting sparks a perilous liaison that steers both their lives onto a dangerous new course as they come to realize that priceless things often come at the greatest cost.
Imogen Hermes Gowar, Britain’s most-heralded new literary talent, makes her debut with this spellbinding novel of a merchant, a mermaid, and a madam—an unforgettable confection that explores obsession, wonder, and the deepest desires of the heart with bawdy wit, intrigue, and a touch of magic.
Mermaids and mistresses
Imogen Hermes Gowar was once a gallery assistant in the British Museum in London. “It was a very gothic job,” she says, “with lots of standing around.” To pass the time, she made up stories about the artifacts on display—ancient Roman vases, medieval chess sets, Renaissance table settings.
“Who had these things belonged to?” Gowar would ask herself. “What rooms had they been in?”
It was also a difficult time in Gowar’s personal life. Right after Gowar graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in archaeology, anthropology and art history, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Gowar moved back home and took the museum job. In the evenings, she wrote short stories based on her favorite objects in the museum. Eventually, she became obsessed with one artifact in particular—an 18th-century “mermaid” from Japan, constructed from the mummified corpses of a monkey and a fish.
Over the next few years, Gowar slowly turned her mermaid story into a novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical fantasy in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
“I really had no life,” she says of her writing process at the time. “I couldn’t afford to leave the house, so I was writing a thousand words a day . . . sometimes to the exclusion of everything else—no sleeping, no dressing, no washing.”
Set in London during the height of the Georgian era in 1785, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is the story of a widowed shipping merchant, Jonah Hancock, and the city’s most fascinating courtesan, Angelica Neal. When Jonah procures an alleged mermaid corpse from overseas, he makes a small fortune exhibiting it all over town. Meanwhile, Angelica woos him at the behest of her former madam, who wants to display the curiosity at her brothel. The eventual romance between Jonah and Angelica gets complicated when one of Jonah’s ships catches a real mermaid off the coast of Scotland and brings it home.
Gowar says she set the book in the late 18th century because the era hasn’t been written about as much as the Regency and Victorian years that followed. And while she did rely on the biographies of courtesans to develop the voice of Angelica, most of her research for the novel was tactile. “My whole degree was [in] asking what you can learn about people from the objects that belonged to them,” Gowar says. “Historians look at written records first, but they seem to be learning from archaeologists that there is so much you can find out that’s not written.”
Gowar’s attention to physical details is deeply impressive. To ground her fiction in historical reality, she adopted a “method acting” approach and immersed herself in the objects of the era. “I cooked quite a few things from 18th-century cookbooks,” she says, “which was interesting because they don’t start with a list of ingredients, and nothing is in a specific weight.”
The characters of Jonah and Angelica were inspired by historical objects, as well. “With Jonah, it was buildings and houses,” she says. “I was interested in the history of [the London district of] Deptford, because the architecture is very tied to shipbuilding.” In fact, Jonah first appears in the novel in his Deptford dockyard-adjacent office, which Gowar describes as “coffered like a ship’s cabin.” Gowar recalls spending a lot of time walking the streets of South London to get a better understanding of Jonah’s world. “A lot of the houses were built with wood that was cut for ships by world-class woodcarvers,” she says. “People who were supposed to be making captain’s cabins were doing the moldings on what were otherwise very humble houses.”
“Historians look at written records first, but they seem to be learning from archaeologists that there is so much you can find out that’s not written.”
For the extravagant Angelica, Gowar got even more physical with her research. “It was mainly clothes,” Gowar says. “I sewed a dress called a chemise à la reine, a white poofy dress like Marie Antoinette would wear. It made me understand how radical it would feel to wear this flimsy muslin thing instead of a jacket with stays and pins holding everything together.”
Of course, there is a glaringly ahistorical element at the heart of the novel—a true mermaid. It seems an odd choice for a writer so devoted to capturing realistic details from the past, but according to Gowar, 18th-century mermaid folklore tells us a lot about British society and culture at the time.
“The stories of mermaids and mistresses run really close together,” she says. “They’re often portrayed in the same way—a sexually powerful woman who can be quite dangerous. She lures men to her, so in a way, it’s not the men’s fault. It’s a way of making it more palatable when your husband goes off and has a woman in another port. Making it supernatural puts the danger outside the realm of humanity rather than within it.”
After publishing this January in the U.K. to rave reviews, Gowar’s novel was optioned for film and television by the same production company that adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall for the BBC. Today, Gowar is already working on another historical novel, but she can’t reveal much about it. “It’s very different—still set in London, but during the 20th century.”
The success of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has allowed Gowar to start writing full-time from her new home in Bristol. “Nothing in my day-to-day life has really changed, but it means I can live with my partner,” Gowar says. “It’s a gift. It feels like I have a lot more options now—like I have a job that I love.”
Author photo by Ollie Grove.