The 18th-century novel, in this country at least, seems like an obscure subject for a revival, as it’s a form rarely seen outside of upper-level English seminars.
Yet “Golden Hill,” the first novel by British nonfiction writer Francis Spufford, reads like a contemporary work of Henry Fielding. It may have what it takes to capture the American imagination.
“Golden Hill” takes place in the colony of New York 30 years before the familiar events of the American Revolution. The old Dutch culture is subsiding in favor of English commerce, though the city holds only about 7,000 inhabitants, just a hundredth of the population of London. The slave trade is in full force, and New Yorkers still regard liberty as going hand in hand with loyalty to the king.
Into this setting steps one Richard Smith, a young man about whom nothing is known except that he carries a document entitling him to a 1,000 pound payout from a New York merchant named Lovell.
Classic writerly wisdom holds that to make a character interesting, you give him a secret. Spufford plays this game with the reader to perfection.
And the form helps him do it. In true 18th-century fashion, the narrator addresses the reader directly, musing about and making excuses for the imperfection of the storytelling. A novel doesn’t concern itself with internal insights and thoughts, says the narrator. Rather, “the four walls of our domain are: what is seen, what is said, what is done, and what became of it.”
With that sly excuse, Spufford hides Smith’s true motive until just about the last page, while sprinkling in tantalizing clues throughout. It helps that Smith seems to enjoy keeping people guessing, letting them think he might be, among other things, a Turkish illusionist, a French spy and an agent of the British government.
Thus the external plot takes precedence, and lucky for us it contains no shortage of action. There are illicit bathhouse trysts, harrowing midnight escapes, a duel, a murder, a fumbling attempt at flirtation and an amateur theater performance.
We shouldn’t do the Georgians the disservice of assuming they didn’t enjoy bawdiness or a good bit of irony, but the twists Spufford weaves into “Golden Hill” feel tailor-made for our present sensibilities and concerns, which may make it a more accessible read than Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” or Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela.”
Though Spufford’s language is believably old-fashioned, it doesn’t feel stuffy or obtuse. He has a great knack for descriptive writing. As just a small example: When Smith goes Christmas caroling, he observes, “There was no small-talk, only the muffled tread of feet and the hiss as snow fell on the hot tin of the lantern.”
Characters occasionally speak in phrases that ring endearingly modern, such as “Let us see: hmm, no.”
There are historical novels written in a modern style, where the reader gets to experience the sights and sounds and smells of that time and place. Reading novels from the past, on the other hand, can enlighten us to the way people thought and spoke and saw the world at that time.
Reading “Golden Hill” is a different kind of experience, almost a hybrid of the two, like reading a foreign work in the original language. The 18th-century style lends the novel a kind of faux authenticity, where we get to both play-act in the past and consider the ways in which our world and the world of our Founding Fathers differ and converge.
“Golden Hill,” by Francis Spufford (336 pages, Scribner, $26)