Home » criticism, Fiction

Manhattan Picaresque

By (July 1, 2017) No Comment

Golden Hill
By Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber, 2016

In “The Author’s Preface” to his 1748 novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett contends that Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Alain-Rene Lesage’s Gil Blas, which he had recently translated into English, differ markedly from the Romance, which “owes its origin to ignorance, vanity, and superstition” and depicts its characters as “sacred and supernatural.” Instead, Smollett hopes to follow these foreign examples, creating an English novel in which the main character is realistic and relatable: “The reader gratifies his curiosity in pursuing the adventures of a person in whose favour he is prepossessed,” he writes, “he espouses his cause, he sympathises with him in his distress, his indignation is heated against the authors of his calamity.”

Francis Spufford’s debut novel, Golden Hill, introduces readers a to just such a person occupying the sort of interesting story that Smollett’s preface describes—a mysterious, youthful Englishman on a mission in the New World, whose arrival inadvertently exposes an underbelly of economic uncertainty, political tension, and the impossible romantic yearnings of its diverse and complex inhabitants.

Golden Hill begins with the arrival on Manhattan Island of Mr. Richard Smith, a freckled youth of unknown origins, who, in possession of a money order from Messrs. Banyard & Hyte back in London, seeks out Lovell & Co. on Golden Hill Street to cash in. As the note is for “one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence,” Mr. Lovell must await separate confirmation in the form of two letters from Banyard & Hyte currently crossing the Atlantic aboard the Samson’s Venture and the Antelope. In the meantime, Mr. Smith is free to explore the city, and, according to the narrator, he does so with great anticipation:

For what soul, to whom the world still is relatively new, does not feel the sensible excitement, the faster breath and the expansion of hope, where every alley may yet contain an adventure, every door be back’d by danger, or by pleasure, or by bliss?

During the course of his adventures in New York, Richard will experience danger, pleasure, and bliss, but his own journey will have important consequences for those he meets along the way.

Written in the style of 18th century fiction, Golden Hill draws particular inspiration from the picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, which relate the adventures of their eponymous heroes (Tom Jones and Roderick Ransom), usually disreputable yet attractive individuals of questionable birth. Although Mr. Smith has his foibles, he is more innocent than rogue for most of the narrative, but the mystery of his birth and his purpose creates both excitement and fear in Manhattan’s respectable citizens. Who is this mysterious man with the common name? Is he a member of the lower orders attempting to raise his status through financial fraud? A foundling? A wealthy ne’er do well hiding privilege and status? An operative (of the crown, the Pope, the Republicans?) deployed to sow seeds of political turmoil in the colonies? Or is he (as the Lovell’s slave Zephyra suspects) Lord Eshu, the trickster who conveys messages to the Yoruban Gods on behalf of human supplicants? On this and other subjects, Mr. Smith’s lips are sealed, and so are those of the novel’s narrator, who is equally ruthless about keeping the protagonist’s secrets.

The world into which Richard Smith sails is one not quite on the break of rebellion, but one of nascent Republicanism in which a newcomer may serve as a catalyst for unrest. Arriving shortly before Pope’s day, he witnesses the humorous mock violence that that confirms the loyalty of the citizenry to the crown—what the narrator calls a “patriotic orgy”:

The Pope was the first for the furnace. Two men on each side, they swung him crown and all like a battering-ram, as near as they dared get to the hellmouth, and flung him upon the coals. He rolled a little way, and came to rest on his bulbous nose . . . For the Pretender, next, the crowd counted in its blundering voice-of-many voices as the effigy swung . . . And as Price Charles Edward Stuart leapt into the ash, an explosion of hoots, jeers, catcalls, whistles.

Fawkes went more reverently, being a more ancient and toothless enemy. Just a count as he swung in the air, and then a happy universal sign of justice done.

Back home, the crown has recently thwarted the Jacobites, and King George’s War is of great concern in the colonies—the Mohawks bring the scalps of Frenchman from Canada, which Mr. Smith discovers nailed to a gibbet near the fort on his first day in town:

The board was strung with dark blotches and streamers; rustling congealments Smith puzzled at til, leaning close enough, he saw the fibres the wind stirred were human hairs, still rooted in the parchment-yellow of scalps.

Despite this display of loyalty to the homeland, the Assembly is so frustrated with the Governor’s commitment to war with the French that they have refused to sanction the funds to pay for the soldiers’ board. Moreover, any political move will, as we learn from Mr. Lovell’s business partner, Mr. Van Loon, have repercussions for commerce.

It is within this framework that Spufford’s characters explore their own concerns relating to personal liberty. While the narrator acquaints us with Mr. Smith’s position on slavery early in the novel, it is not until he stumbles upon the clandestine relationship of Septimus Oakeshott, the Governor’s secretary, and Achilles, the Governor’s slave, that he voices his abhorrence directly. While another character might experience disgust over a homosexual, inter-racial encounter, Mr. Smith’s response to the situation reveals the complex ways in which questions of equality play a role in the narrative:

‘What, you think I’m a low fellow for consorting with a slave?’
‘I think you are a low fellow for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of being refused.’

Although Mr. Smith’s preoccupation with the slave trade will remain a mystery until the novel’s end, here and elsewhere he allies himself with the reader, who also sees in this early Manhattan as a corrupt world where slaves are commonplace and only an outsider would note their presence.

While Golden Hill engages in the slavery debate, it also questions the status of women, and uses Lovell’s two daughters—the frivolous and largely content Flora and the serious and marginally rebellious Tabatha—to stage the frequently humorous debate. When Flora inquires whether or not Mr. Smith is in possession of any new English novels, Tabitha expresses her disapproval of her sister’s pastime: “‘I do not think it makes the bird feel better if the cage has pictures pasted to’t, however pretty.’” When Mr. Smith returns to dine with the family and brings Flora a volume of The Adventures of David Simple by Sarah Fielding, Tabitha promptly chucks the novel into her sister’s soup bowl. Her exchanges with Mr. Smith call to mind several Shakespeare heroines—at her best, Beatrice, but at worst, an untamed Katherine, and Spufford humorously allows the characters in the novel to voice such comparisons. As they discuss her love of Shakespeare, which, in her mind, counters the blatant lies of the novel her sister so adores, Richard suggest that the Bard may also be a liar:

She shrugged. ‘If so it is a style of lie I don’t care about. I don’t read Hamlet for the Danish news.’
“I think you like him because the comedies are full of quick-tempered women with razor tongues. I think you like to hear Beatrice and Benedick insulting upon each other.”
“Maybe,” she said laughing, “But you, Sir, are not Benedick.”

But while Spufford flirts with such conventions as the warring lovers, destined to be reconciled he never fully embraces them. Tabitha, a famous shrew like her late mother, also has her tricks, but unlike Beatrice’s, hers have teeth.

When a sharp turn of events in the middle of the novel suggest that Smith is a fraud (and it is Tabitha that serves as decoy so the authorities can arrest him), Spufford quickly abandons his narrator and allows the imprisoned Richard Smith to speak for himself. His history emerges in the form of an unsent letter to his father, which allows for the intimate confessional that the readers longs for. If we had any doubts about Richard’s person, we are now confirmed in his ultimate goodness, however flawed by the unsurprising vagaries of youth with which we can relate, from childhood rebellion against his minister father to his refusal of protection from his father’s own titled patron. Finally, we learn the damning secret that his grandfather was an emancipated slave. We also know he has committed some sins of the flesh, and sought unsuitable employment (first as dancing master, later as an actor) rather than live a safe, proscribed life—instead, he sought the danger of travel despite the fact that his very freedom in the colonies would be at stake.

It is also at this point that the narrative shifts from the comic adventures of a harmless youth to a tragic narrative. After his release, Richard returns to rehearse Spetimus’s production of Joseph Addison’s Cato, where he’s cast as Juba, Prince of Numidia and ally to the Republican Cato. To play a part that reflects his own African origins, and that also positions his character in opposition to the Royalist Governor, is convenient for the community given his outsider status. As a former actor, Richard makes two suggestions that improve the production—replacing one of the Lovell sisters with a professional actress and that Septimus himself replace an incompetent actor playing the role of Sempronius, the villain opposing Cato—that essentially provide an opportunity for further romantic and political conflict. Tabatha abhors the novel, but adores the theatre, and as she rather than her sister is removed from the production, Richard’s betrayal of her lead to personal and communal tragedy.

In true picaresque fashion, the theatrically triumphant yet sexually frustrated Richard finds himself entangled with the irresistible Euterpe “Terpe” Thomlinson. Married to a Colonial, she’s an ex-actress with talent and sex appeal. Her first appearance in the novel, at the Governor’s ball where she recites a Colley Cibber poem, take note of her beauty, but also celebrate her other fine qualities:

Her bosom strained the material of the tabard, and her thighs rolled in round magnificence as she paraded unhurriedly by. Except for those, like Septimus, disqualified by nature from the admiration of abundance, the men the length of the room watched her hungrily, and their womenfolk, with a more narrowed gaze, watched them watching. Once, Mrs. Tomlinson might have had a fresh, or ingenious charm. Now—said the judgment of the women’s gaze, at least, upon her six-and-forty years—she trembled, like a plumb already fermenting, about to burst in a mess of juices.

Many months later, Smith and Terpe find themselves in a quick succession of sexual encounters, commencing offstage after their triumphant performance and concluding in Richard’s boarding house. A final pre-breakfast encounter the following morning is interrupted by Flora Lovell, come to deliver a letter of truce from Tabitha, and soon the entire town is aware that Richard has made the Colonial a cuckold. Richard seems to be experiencing a Tom Jones moment, with Terpe as his Mrs. Waters, caught in the comedy of virtue quickly abandoned for the fulfillment of lust. That Tabitha is no Sophia Weston means little at all, for this loss is the first of many for Richard as this deliciously comic novel turns to quickly tragedy.

What should be a matter of domestic morality takes on shade of political honor, as the shaming of the Colonial reflects poorly on all Royalists in the colony. When Septimus gallantly challenges Richard to a duel for the colony’s honor, a patch of ice leads to a fatal blow, and Richard is behind yet again, this time mourning his only friend and unable to fulfill Spetimus’ dying wish of purchasing Achilles’ freedom. The fact that Judge James De Lancey, cousin to the English Prime Minister, is rival to the crown’s appointed Governor, and the jurors are men who would rather follow Juba (or Cato) than see justice for Sempronius (or Caesar), leads to his acquittal for murder. A charge of manslaughter demands no more than a branded thumb, and after days of feverish sleep in his room, Richard emerges a broken man who has one final shot at redemption.

While Mr. Smith has not come to incite revolution, as we discover in the final pages of the novel, his challenge to the slaveholding complacency expressed by the European pillars of the community is unwelcome. As contemporary readers we easily espouse Richard’s cause once we learn he is not a rogue, but rather an official agent of a London congregation (comprised of well meaning aristocrats and former slaves) charged with purchasing and freeing men and women from bondage. When Richard recovers himself, he takes slaves in lieu of cash, and, with Achilles beside him on a wagon, drives to Golden Hill Street to emancipate another prisoner. Despite Tabitha’s frustration with her domestic shackles, she is too comfortable and cowardly to leave. In the end, a happy resolution is not in the cards for Spufford’s would-be-lovers, eschewing the sort of romantic plot conventions present in those novels that Flora so adores. When Tabitha refuses his final offer of friendship and freedom, he extends a similar offer not motivated by romance to Zephyra who, pregnant with Mr. Lovell’s child, is in far greater need of an escape route than her mistress.

While Richard is the conscience for this slave-holding community, Tabatha serves as the final first person voice to offer a final commentary on the colonies both before and after the revolution. Now a never-married octogenarian, she has seen both revolution and the creation of a new republic. It is she who looks back, speculating on whatever happened to Richard, but also reminiscing amusedly about the fallout of the letter her father received in which Mr. Smith’s parentage and purpose were made plain. Ending with a character who, like Richard himself, was a perpetual outsider reminds us of the other element often found in the picaresque and which Spufford deploys so subtly: the satire shows the foibles of the Manhattanites, exposing all of their prejudices and complicating all of their desires when the truth about Mr. Smith is finally revealed. Whatever they feared of him, his parentage renders them the most gullible of fools as the one thing he was guilty of—passing as a white man—is a crime they never imagined.

Although Mr. Smith’s performance in the New World was about securing individual freedom, in doing so he exposed the shackles of those who would clamor for “liberty and virtue” without fully understanding how liberty is sometimes an unattainable dream and virtue is often another form of enslavement. While there is nothing preachy about Golden Hill’s conclusion, especially given that it comes in the honest and sometimes cynical voice of Tabitha Lovell, it nonetheless brings decidedly modern concerns to an 18th Century tale. In addition to bringing to life New York of the 1740s, Golden Hill offers compelling portraits of its English, Dutch, and African inhabitants, urgent and witty dialogue, and a tightly wound, action-packed plot that teeters on the edge of improbably without falling into the realm of the ridiculous. Golden Hill displays the craft of a seasoned reader of novels and an accomplished purveyor of all the best tricks in the fiction writer’s arsenal. Francis Spufford’s ability to tie together so many diverse characters in a comic novel with a moral center sets a new standard for the contemporary historical novel, which is most interesting when it brings us a fresh window on the past and reminds us of its relevance to the present.

Jessica Tvordi is Associate Professor of English at Southern Utah University, and she is currently completing a book-length study examining the representation of deviance in narratives of nation formation in early modern England.