*Image from The Book Satchel.
Three stars. (Circe is a tough act to follow, and so I am possibly grading on an unfavorable curve.) At one point in this book, Gower mentions the novel Evelina by name, and when she does, I thought, “Yes! Yes! Evelina! This is Evelina, rebooted.” The related and often problematic themes I studied in the 18th century British literature class in which I read Evelina were practically jumping off the page: sex, ownership, marriage, and gender roles. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock revisits this thoroughly 18th-century web of themes but with a fresh 21st century look: a blunter take on gender dynamics and a kind of shocking (appalling?) realism that would have left many an 18th-century woman calling for smelling salts. (The orgy scene! The description of Bet Chappell peeing in the carriage (“gray cauliflower”?!)! The deeply disturbing story of Polly in that alley!) Gower also borrows from many of the period’s literary conventions, including its prevalent volume-based book structure and its naming idiosyncracies, i.e., “Lady D—“, all of which immerses us further in the time period and calls our attention to its formalities and proprieties.
And so we ask: why are we here, in such a carefully-drawn eighteenth century world, where Gower’s fastidious study of the period is so evident? For one thing, her uber-realism and adoption of the literary customs of the time creates a kind of dialectic in which we are prompted to look at the clearly-drawn social and gender “rules” and compare them to our own. Here, reader! The author is saying, snapping her fingers, as she breaks her book into antiquated seeming “volumes.” Look at these odd things we are doing here to mime the times! Now think about the distance between then and now. What’s changed?
At one point, Angelica mulls over the fact that marriage has not been the escape she had expected from her former life as a courtesan: wifedom bears its own kind of constraints. She comments that “She will never be simply her own self in the world again; the courtesan Angelica Neal, a personality all her own, is being parcelled up and claimed by connection upon connection. She is ‘wife of’ and ‘aunt of’; later she will be ‘mother of’…and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left.” The insight is distinctively modern. The subtext is this: women have few options available to themselves, and none of them entail freedom. Rather, whether a woman decides to become a prostitute or a wife, there is an inevitable subjugation of the self — a kind of erasure. And so we are left to ask: what is different and what is the same today? How have the constructs of marriage and sex evolved over time? Have they? Along these lines, the world in which Angelica lives is explicitly — painfully — transactional; we hear about the costs of things, the exchange of money for sex, debts, accounting books, and the many ways in which women pinch pennies (darned stockings, sheets stitched back together at the threadbare bits, etc), the notion of the “kept” woman. And so it is impossible not to also think of marriage as a kind of prostitution, an exchange of money and social standing for sex. And again we must muse over the institution of marriage today, how and why it exists and in what state?
But let me dwell on the passage above for a minute longer. We revisit its imagery — “this dividing and dividing and dividing until there is nothing left” — in one of the final scenes of the book, where Angelica kills, or erases, the mermaid by taking bucketfuls of water from her tank until she is completely dissolved. Earlier, we have seen indications that we are to understand Angelica as a kind of equal to or echo of the mermaid. Both are objects of fantasy and lust whose captors hazard great danger in their entrapment. At one point, Angelica performs as a mermaid in order to catch the eye of a suitor; in an interesting plot inversion, her would-be husband Mr. Hancock promises to catch a mermaid in order to endear Angelica to himself. And so the book throws desire, money, sex, and property into an ongoing game of catch and release. What are we to make, then, that Angelica is the one responsible for the dissolution of this swapping of capital at the very end? She is killing her alter ego, literally draining her from the world. Is this an act of female empowerment — is she killing of the vision of the over-sexualized, objectified woman? Or is it a suicide of sorts?
For all its sophistication in the handling of these themes, and for all its impressive accuracy with detail, I found the book overlong and tedious. Long descriptive passages of boatyards and petticoats would leave my thoughts wandering off the page and into the realm of grocery lists and dinner plans for the week. I would occasionally leave the book for a few days and need to reread a few pages in order to remind myself of what had just happened, so drawn out were the scenes. I found the poetic interludes in italics interspersed throughout the novel turgid to the point of unreadable. And I thought its characters cloyingly cartoonish. Many of them were drawn with clever archness, but I tired of the sardonic commentary and found myself longing for a deeper connection to the characters in this lengthy tome. At least give me someone to hang on to! You are merciless! (Did Gower hate her own characters?)
All in all, a beautifully crafted oeuvre, but difficult to enjoy.
+We will not be convening in December for an in-person book club given the holidays, but I will be announcing a January book club pick soon! For now, just know that I am taking a break of sorts and reading this. I need a juicy page-turner after feeling slovenly taking a full month to read the above.
+Just ordered one of these — possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ordered in awhile. But hear me out! I often cook from recipes on my phone and am shuttling my phone around the kitchen as I work. And I also think it might be nice to have it upright while I’m working. Mainly I’m intrigued by the reviews…
+Ordered one of these for organizing the corralling the bags of chips, crackers, and bread I always find jammed in everywhere in our snack cabinet. I love this brand for Scandi-sleek home and shelf organization. (Also check out this magnetic spice rack!)
+Speaking of Scandi-cool: I am dying over this sleek stepstool. We currently lift mini up and have her stand on the sink while she is brushing her teeth, but she is not too far off from getting the job done with a stool. This would be a pretty one to have around for the purpose.
+Super fun sweater. Lowkey festive. Love!
+DYING over this print, which looks like it should cost a lot more and come from a storied china shop in London. I am definitely ordering a few of the coffee mugs.
+Buying one of these garlands for our buffet.
+I have seen variations on these fuzzy slippers all over the place and I think I need them.
+Getting down to the wire: are you ordering holiday cards this year?
+In case you need to hear it today: you are enough.