Golden Hill by Francis Spufford


Francis Spufford is a British writer of non-fiction; this is his first foray into fiction. It is set in 1746 in New York and is written in the style of novels of the time. While I assume concessions were made to make it more readable for the modern reader, still, I needed to look up many words (and was grateful that the kindle makes that so easy). Speaking of words that I needed to look up, this is a picaresque novel. In case I forget, or you don't know, a picaresque novel has as its main character an adventurous young hero or heroine of low social class who lives in a corrupt society, e.g. Moll Flanders or The History of Tom Jones.

A attractive young man named Mr. Smith arrives in New York and immediately presents himself at a "counting-house" with a bill for 1000 pounds, a princely sum at the time. Because he is unknown to anyone and declines to say what his business is, he must wait for confirmation that the bill is genuine, but is given enough to live on in the interim. New York at the time is a small town of 7,000 and within hours, everyone knows about the mysterious stranger.

The boarding house where he stayed was on "Broad Way." The descriptions of the locations of the action are specific and fun to locate on a map. It took a bit to realize what the Dutch-looking names of Bruckelen and Bouwerij referred to.

Over the course of the months of waiting, Mr. Smith does have adventures, including some near-death escapes. These dramatic events serve to remind you that you cannot have expectations for Mr. Smith as a character, except that if something can go badly wrong, it will. I found that I preferred to skim some of the most gruesome descriptions.

His friend Septimus, who was full of surprises himself, describes his realization about how he was treated differently in New York compared to England:

I had a visitor, a year after landing, a grand connection of my father's bishop, come to survey an inheritance he had come into, down in the Virginias. And it puzzled me, why I found I so disliked his manners speaking to me, more than any here, more than any number of Van Loons or Van Rensselaers, or William Smith in his cups, or Judge DeLancey at his most self-satisfied: till it came to me, that he addressed me, as a matter of course, as a Secretary, with all my nature that it was needful to know comprised in that title. And I realized I had grown insensibly used to being treated, even by my enemies, as a man, with my nature all to be proved by what I did and said.

I had noted this passage as an interesting reflection by the character and indicative of the style of the language of the book. And I wonder why Virginia is pluralized. I am not an authority on Virginia's colonial history, but growing up here I never heard it referred to in the plural until after West Virginia was formed during the Civil War. 

In the end we learn the reason for Mr. Smith's secrecy and I was suitably impressed. It was both truly a surprise and a satisfying end to the book. A further surprise turns up when we learn who is telling the tale.

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill, Scribner, 2017, 320 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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