‘There’s the lovely power of being a stranger’, Smith went on, as pleasant as before. ‘I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.’
In Golden Hill (2016) by Francis Spufford, winner of the Costa Book Award for first novel, a charming and handsome stranger, Richard Smith arrives aboard the Brig Henrietta on the shores of New York in 1746. With him he brings a bill for an astounding amount, £1,000, which he presents at the counting house of Lovel and Company horrifying Mr Lovell. While Lovell is suspicious, as Smith declares that he will wait the full period for payment, and other copies arriving on two other boats will confirm his claims, he agrees to accept him as genuine for now. Smith also has with him four gold guineas on which he hopes to live in ease till the date arrives. Installed at a comfortable inn, he is eager to begin his life in New York but the very next morning, he suffers a setback which requires him to approach things differently. Meanwhile Lovell and his two daughters Tabitha and Flora and his business partner and his family, the Van Loons begin to cultivate Smith’s acquaintance, but one can tell there is resentment and they are all also looking for the first opportunity to trip him up. Separately, he also befriends Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the Governor and Hendrick Van Loon, a journalist and son of Mr Van Loon.
Compared to London which had a population of around 700,000 at this time, New York with 7,000 is a far smaller place. So, while it gives Smith an opportunity of reinventing himself, it is also a place where everyone knows everything, even the smallest bits of news travel like wild fire, and not everyone is particularly friendly. He soon finds himself part of a performance of Cato being put together by Oakeshott (who proves himself a friend more than once), and also being drawn into the political tensions between the Governor Clinton and the much better-connected Chief Justice De Lancey. In a fraught atmosphere with politics, unpredictable mobs that form at times, and his own background and purpose to which Smith gives not the smallest hint, he is at most times on rather shaky ground, with trouble never being far away. What is he really there for? Does he manage to fulfil his purpose, or fall into one of the many traps in his way?
Golden Hill is a wonderful, absorbing book which keeps the reader engaged all through both in the plot itself, and also the picture it paints of New York in the mid-1700s, still in its early days, civilised, yet wild, with much that is unpredictable and dangerous, perhaps as much as in the wider ‘new world’.
But I start with the actual book. I have a paperback published by Faber and Faber in 2016, and it is a lovely book. The cover (both the title and illustration) has pretty gold detailing almost like foil embossing (though in the image on the left, this just looks ‘mustard’). Inside we have a small map of the place, and each section of the book has a small pen and ink illustration linked to the general direction of the section, all details I liked very much.
The plot is an engrossing one, with the reader as much in the dark as Lovell and his friends (and indeed, the rest of New York) are as to Smith and his purpose. A brief interlude (in one of the many spells of trouble Smith gets himself into) gives us some hint of his background but keeps it vague and we are still no closer to learning it all. The New Yorkers themselves present a range of personalities, few of whom are genuinely friendly towards Smith—but unsurprisingly his wealth keeps them quiet for the most part; He seems to develop an interest in Tabitha, and there is some fun banter between the two, yet with her tempestuous and unpredictable nature, one can’t tell where one is with her. I don’t want to say much about the plot but it is one with all sorts of unexpected developments, taking one in directions one doesn’t quite see coming, and thus one that keeps one reading.
I also really enjoyed getting a look into New York of the mid-18th century, with both English and Dutch cultural influences side by side (but French scalps greet travellers coming in), cricket pitches, churches of various denominations a small place where few can preserve secrets, and also a place seemingly innocuous on the surface but with much unsettling beneath. Spufford weaves in references to popular culture and some real-life people alongside the fictional and gives one an excellent feel of place and time.
A fascinating plot with an element of mystery, interesting even if not all likeable characters, and some wonderful writing made this one a really good read.
This was the second of my Ten Books of Summer.