Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is set in New York 1746, and is about the enigmatic Mr Smith, a stranger who arrives from England with a bill for £1000 guaranteed by a London firm.  He intends to change this into local currency for some secret purpose, but discovers that letters of security validating his bill have gone astray.  Before he can receive the cash he has to wait until the next ships arrive from London with confirmation of his worth.

This is a book filled with action and adventure.  Whilst the town waits for news that his bill is legal, Mr Smith is a novelty and a fascination to the citizens of New York – is he wealthy and maybe powerful, or just a cheat and a sham?  He moves in New York society, where he is reluctantly accepted, and is drawn into various adventures.  He becomes friends with a member of the local British garrison, and with a Dutch trading family, whose rebellious daughter he finds both attractive and difficult.  He is robbed and beaten up.  There is a duel.  He is imprisoned and released, only to be imprisoned again.  He puts on a successful play, hinting at his own undisclosed background, and takes a central role, guiding others.

Spufford recreates the New York of 1746 in a way that seems realistic, yet is very dramatic. There are balls and bonfires, high society dinners and thespian pursuits. He shows us the rivalry between the British governor and the locals, and we witness some of the ways these rivalries play out.  We visit the houses of Dutch merchants, with their slaves, their un-British customs, and their Christmas celebrations.  Then there are the bars and coffee houses where business is done, the narrow streets where Mr Smith chases and loses his assailants, the thriving port of New York and the deep winter cold.  It’s a varied and rich world of the imagination.

The characters in Golden Hill are interesting and unusual: there is homosexual love in the form of a relationship of passion and mutual respect between an English officer and a black slave.  There is an unsightly but well imagined coitus between Mr Smith and a local woman of ample proportions; this moment of weakness on Smith’s part turns out to be a dramatic mistake, and a key turning point in the plot.  The Dutch families and the British military appear in all their finery replete with linguistic quirks and personal idiosyncrasies.  The Dutch sisters are rivals, one light and kind, the other dark and teasing.  The vagabonds and bullies that throng the port are well imagined.

Spufford narrates Golden Hill imitating the voice of an eighteenth century writer, using archaic vocabulary and sentence structures that give the novel an authentic atmosphere, and a fine comic twist.  He has researched his subject well, especially with respect to the dramatic performance of Addison’s Cato, though it was harder to imagine how Spufford’s New York fitted onto the contemporary map: I would have liked to see that, and liked to have been told even more about the New York of 1746.

Spufford writes well.  I found his accounts of the sexual act, and of sexual feelings quite credible, and his descriptions of love and death very moving.  The fights and chases were exciting, the descriptions varied and original.  All in all it was a great book, though I have to say the final denouement, when we discover the true reason for Smith’s arrival, did not really come as a great surprise.

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