Francis Spufford: Golden Hill

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Golden Hill is a great idea brought to life with tremendous wit and skill. Set in New York in 1746, and written in the style of Fielding or Smollett, it tells the tale of Richard Smith, a young man who arrives with the 18th century equivalent of a bank cheque for 1000 pounds, which he presents to the local counting house for payment. Is it a fraud? They have to wait for the arrival of the next ship with letters from the London bankers to confirm it’s genuine. And in any case, it will take Mr Lovell’s counting house sixty days to raise such an enormous sum. In the meantime, the mysterious Mr Smith is the talk of the town, and his rather naïve belief that this is a simpler and more wholesome society than the one he knows in England is quickly exploded. His purse is stolen on the first night; he barely escapes with his life when he’s mistaken for a Jesuit by an anti-Pope faction on bonfire night; he is – he thinks – threatened by a smooth-talking Chief Justice who thinks he might be going to use his money to help the Governor buy votes. He makes a sort-of friend, but the friend doesn’t seem to like him much; he falls in love but the girl betrays him; he’s seduced by a voluptuous actress; he’s put in prison, he fights a duel. As he learns,

This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do. (41)

It’s a page-turner that bounds along and keeps you guessing to the very last minute about Richard Smith’s real purpose and his eventual fate. And it doesn’t fall into the expected pattern of hero threatened, hero rescued, all’s well than ends well. Smith is often threatened, physically and morally, and the dark shadows are never entirely dispersed. Spufford is interested in all his characters, and we are too. And he has a lot of fun with an omniscient narrator who confesses to us, when he tries to describe a card game or a duel, that he doesn’t actually know anything about either:

The truth is, that I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader’s mercy, or rather their sense of resignation. (266)

There’s lots more fun to be had in this witty pastiche, and the New York of 1746 comes alive in rich and fascinating detail:

He jumped out of bed in his shirt and threw the casement wide – rooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated,  of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with the greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and behind a slow-swaying fretwork of masts; the whole prospect washed with, bright with, aglitter with, the water last night’s clouds had shed, and one – two – three – he counted ’em – six crumbs of dazzling light hoisted above what must be the weathercocks of the city of New-York, riding golden in the hurrying levels of the sky where blue followed white followed blue. The Broad Way, it turned out, as he leaned and craned from the window, was a species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad, lined on Mrs Lee’s side with small trees. Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians were passing in both directions. Somewhere, too, hidden mostly by the branches, someone was sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongue as if their heart had long ago broken and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag. (21)

Dutch, English, Scots, traders, mariners, government officials, petty crooks, farmers, butchers, clerics, lawyers, actors, soldiers and all kinds of chancers jostle together in this small town where little domains of wealth and luxury elbow up against poverty and shackled lines of black slaves shuffle through the ordinary business of the streets. And across the river, at the top of Manahatta, immense, wild landscapes that make the buildings and business of New York seem as insignificant as the paper gardens made by girls like Tabitha, clever girls who don’t have enough to do.

Americans should especially enjoy this book for the picture it gives of the beginnings of their nation, but I loved it too. Yes, the plot creaks a bit, but it’s so full of life, so interesting and so entertaining. Highly recommended.

 

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