In my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, I describe a Victorian artist who is obsessed with painting his muse in the form of a beautiful mermaid. The Last Days of Leda Grey sees the mythical creature appear again, this time when an Edwardian actress plays such a part in an early silent film. 

A Mermaid, by Waterhouse

This is not a new preoccupation of mine. Just look at the sidebar of this blog! It began when I was five-years old, when one of the very first books I loaned from the local children’s library was Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid ~ a tragic, far darker story than the Disney version might imply.

But then mermaids are conundrums ~ these mythical sirens, half-women, half-fish at once being familiar, and also extremely exotic. From under the waves in which they swim surrounded by bones of long-drowned men these fantastical deceivers gaze back up through the mirror of the sea; although, should they be captured and removed from their natural environment they might become quite different: crippled, lonely creatures who must weep for the ‘other world’ they’ve lost ... unless, of course, they are the fakes displayed as curiosities in museums, or private collections.

I describe one such fraudulent creature, known as the Feejee Mermaid, a taxidermist’s masterpiece combining a monkey’s upper corpse joined onto the tail of a giant fish. And now, this monstrosity lives again through another historical novel that I simply couldn't wait to read even though it won't be published until January next year. 

How lucky I am to have received a proof of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, a gloriously entertaining Georgian romp by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

 Portrait of Mary Robinson by Hoppner ~ and perhaps a model for Angelica Neal

This delightful literary romance conjures so vividly to life the unlikely and charming friendship between our hero, Mr Hancock, a widowed, middle-aged ship owner who trades from his humble East End home, and the golden-haired, somewhat down-on-her-luck, London courtesan Angelica ~ officially known as Mrs Neal, and rather charmingly described as being "as cool and fragrant as rosewater custard."

The two of them are introduced when Mr Hancock ~ “a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverfish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips” ~ finds himself the unwitting owner of a hideous stuffed mermaid that Mrs Chappell ~ a brilliant caricature of the most decadent brothel ‘madam’ (just read and rejoice in the humour of her peeing in a pot in a carriage) is intrigued with the freakish mermaid and hires it to show in her ‘nunnery’, hoping the curiosity will draw a larger clientele.

Mr Hancock is also invited to enjoy the grand unveiling, but is then so shocked by what he sees performed by Mrs Chappell’s whores (all of which Hermes Gowar conjures with such salacious wit and colour) that he flees the brothel in disgust. However, he cannot forget the voluptuous charms of the lovely Angelica ... and so their relationship begins, though it's not at all the type to which Angelica is used.

As the novel progressed I found myself developing such affection for this oddly mismatched couple, both of whom are deeply troubled by events from inescapable pasts. Both are trapped in webs created from their self-delusion, also self-preservation, with Hancock often imagining the baby son who died at birth to be living, still part of his real world in scenes which are movingly disclosed. And then, when it comes to Angelica, so well-versed in the art of deceiving men, she also succeeds in deluding herself. Much like the fake stuffed mermaid, she may beguile her clientele, but for how long can she go on without losing her very own heart and soul?  

Such is the central theme of this novel where illusion and shameless trickery are linked to scandal and financial gain, where the glittering surface of beauty and wit conceal a darker underworld of sin, of neglect, of despair, and grief. Through such a mire the survivors try to swim ~ and sometimes sink below the surface too ~ which only makes us love them more. 

In this clattering Georgian London are extremes of wealth and poverty, with everyone striving to survive whether morally, or immorally. There may be gorgeous shell grottos and pretty girls in West End shops, but these scenes bear stark comparison to the animal activities going on at the hands of blood-stained butchers, or in the filth of night-time alleys in which women far less fortunate live out their doomed existences. As Angelica knows all too well, the future is precarious. “Simply go on as best you can ~ the wheel will turn. It always does.” 

But which way will the wheel turn for her?

As the story rolls ever onwards towards its final dramatic scenes, at times with shocking outcomes, the book almost transcends its bounds, becoming something more profound as it forces its protagonists ~ and also the reader observing them ~ to take a long hard look at their reflections in a mirror: to find the courage and the hope to face the truth of what they are.

As seductive as any siren's song, this remarkable, glittering Georgian tale has a heart of purest gold.

 Imogen Hermes Gowar ~ a wonderful new literary talent

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