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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Golden Hill
Golden Hill
A Novel of Old New York
by Francis Spufford

Hardcover (27 Jun 2017), 336 pages.
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN-13: 9781501163876
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Winner of the 2017 Costa First Novel Award.

The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution, in "a first-class period entertainment" (The Guardian).


New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won't explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Set thirty years before the American Revolution, Golden Hill captures an ancient iconography of New York not only in his depictions of the physical city and its diverse citizens, currencies, and costumes, but also in the clever and pungent language of his prose. Golden Hill is an update of eighteenth-century picaresque novels by the likes of Henry Fielding and entertains us with its savage wit, mystery, charismatic protagonist, and romantic storyline as it propels us toward a powerful revelation at the novel's end. "Intoxicating" (The Financial Times) and "as good a historical novel as you could read" (The Times, London), Golden Hill shows us a city provokingly different from its later self; but subtly shadowed by the great icon to come, and already a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself anew, fall in love - and find a world of trouble.

All Hallows
November 1st 20 Geo. II 1746
I

The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o'clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city's veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats' entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.

"I'm Lovell," said the merchant, rising from his place by the fire. His qualities in brief, to meet the needs of a first encounter: fifty years old; a spare body but a pouched and lumpish face, as if Nature had set to work upon the clay with knuckles; shrewd and anxious eyes; brown small-clothes; a bob-wig yellowed by tobacco smoke. "Help ye?"

"Good day," said Mr. Smith, "for I am certain it is a good day, never mind the rain and the wind. And the darkness. You'll forgive the dizziness of the traveller, sir. I have the honour to present a bill drawn upon you by your London correspondents, Messrs. Banyard and Hythe. And request the favour of its swift acceptance."

"Could it not have waited for the morrow?" said Lovell. "Our hours for public business are over. Come back and replenish your purse at nine o'clock. Though for any amount over ten pound sterling I'll ask you to wait out the week, cash money being scarce."

"Ah," said Mr. Smith. "It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of long notice."

And he handed across a portfolio, which being opened revealed a paper cover clearly sealed in black wax with a B and an H. Lovell cracked it, his eyebrows already half-raised. He read, and they rose further.

"Lord love us," he said. "This is a bill for a thousand pound."

"Yes, sir," said Mr. Smith. "A thousand pounds sterling; or as it says there, one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money. May I sit down?"

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2017 by Francis Spufford. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. "What a difference a frame makes!" thinks Mr. Smith while first looking in on the room occupied by Tabitha, Flora, and Zephyr, less than an hour after arriving in New York (p. 10). What difference does the frame of Golden Hill, revealed in Tabitha's postscript on pages 295-299, make in your understanding of the novel? What difference does it make in your enjoyment of the novel?
  2. Saracen conjurer, agent of the French, actor, rogue, mountebank: Mr. Smith is called each of these things at some point during his time in New York. Which label is most fitting and why?
  3. Mr. Lovell offers a definition of "commerce" in the following: "Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand out-stretched" (p.5). How does this definition apply to Mr. Smith's mission as revealed later on? Would you call his purpose in New York "commerce" or something else?
  4. Though he is never identified, who do you think the long-haired thief who stole Mr. Smith's pocket book is? For whom was he working?
  5. Golden Hill is set in 1746, eighty-two years after Manhattan passed from Dutch to British sovereignty, and thirty-seven years before it became American. Describe the various attitudes of the Manhattanites toward Britain and Holland. Where do you see fault lines that portend the coming revolution?
  6. Examine Mr. Smith's dreams during his nights of fitful sleep, first on Septimus's too-small sofa (p. 89-90), and later on the night after his thumb is branded (p. 266-267). From the chessboard to the "wine-coloured snowman," what do the symbols in these dreams reveal to us about Mr. Smith and his feelings toward his mission?
  7. Why was Tabitha pretending to be crippled? Why do you think Mr. Smith refrained from asking her to explain her behavior (p. 97)?
  8. Cato, the play put on by Septimus, is the account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius Cato, a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the tyranny of Caesar made him an icon of virtue and liberty. As Septimus says, it "tickles all the themes that New-York loves best." Considering the political atmosphere of New York in 1746, do you agree? Considering the New York City of today, do you agree?
  9. "A villain is hard to do without," says Mr. Smith to Septimus, about the role of Sempronius in their production of Cato (p. 205). Who, if anyone, is the villain of Golden Hill?
  10. Mr. Smith says a phrase to Zephyr in the Ghanaian language Twi that is not translated: "Aane, me ara ni nnipa a wo twen no" (p. 288). What do you think he is saying to her?
  11. Mr. Smith tells Tabitha that she is "a bird and a cage" (p. 281). What does he mean? Is this true of other female characters in the novel? Is this true of Mr. Smith himself? What other literary figures or film characters fit this description?
  12. Golden Hill presents a society in which novels are shown to inspire addiction (Flora consumes them "like laudanum") as well as aversion (Tabitha calls them "Slush for small minds," "pabulum for the easily pleased"). Find other examples of meta-textual references throughout Golden Hill, including places where the narrator overtly intrudes upon the story. How do these moments force us to reevaluate the novel's universe and purpose? What shortcomings of the novel as a form do these moments expose?


Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Immerse yourself in Mr. Smith's New York City by finding maps of Manhattan and the surrounding region from the early 1800s. Locate streets and landmarks mentioned in Golden Hill.
  2. Research picaresque novels and decide if Golden Hill fits into the traditions of the genre. Read another modern picaresque novel from the list below and compare its style to Golden Hill. What qualities do they share?

    Handling Sin by Michael Malone

    Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

    Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne

    The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

    Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

    The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  3. Revisit the poems recited by Sinterklaas (Judge De Lancey) about Hendrick, Mr. Lovell, Piet Van Loon, Mr. Smith, and Tabitha on pages 192 – 197. Take turns composing poems about other members of your book club that "praise the virtuous, at this time / And pay back wickedness, in rhyme!"

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A young man with a fast tongue invents himself afresh - and finds a world of trouble in eighteenth century New York.

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Spufford brings American history to raucous life through the story of Mr. Richard Smith, a mysterious British stranger arriving in New York in 1746 to collect a debt owed by a local financier. While awaiting a ship bringing proof of his purchase of the loan, Smith is thrown into the tumultuous local politics of Governor Clinton's petty feud with Chief Justice James De Lancey, and the financier's family drama. Spufford enriches the story with escalating adventure (and an abundance of humor) while Mr. Smith pursues the secret plan he intends to enact when the financier's funds come through.

After delivering the debt collection papers to the financier, Smith encounters the man's two daughters, Flora and Tabitha Lovell, the former a novel-reading romantic belle of the ball, the latter a quick-witted troublemaker in whom Smith finds an appealing verbal sparring partner. Their romance, and Smith's plans, are imperiled by a host of obstacles, as he is robbed, imprisoned as an impostor, and entangled in an affair with the wife of a close associate to the governor. Then, having made an enemy in the governor's camp, Smith is forced into a duel with his only friend in New York. Within this tight circle of intrigue and feuding where, as one character puts it, "all the little planets circle closer, jostling for company," Smith must keep his eyes on the prize – his secret mission. The reader is kept in the dark about the details of this undercover operation until the novel's close. Most will guess it, but the true surprise in the end turns out to be something totally unrelated.

In one of the most vivid scenes, Smith witnesses the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night (see 'Beyond the Book'), a.k.a "Pope Day," and is almost murdered for being a suspected Catholic. An effigy of the Pope is hauled through the streets of Manhattan by a procession of men, on their faces a "swollen straining gargoyle seriousness," and bonfires cast "dancing demon shadows creeping between dark walls." Elsewhere, Spufford is guilty of descriptive glut, using a string of words where one or two would do, but this is an active style choice, one reminiscent of Victorian literature. Golden Hill's first sentence runs on for a rambling half-page that is likely meant to evoke the opening of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. The language is downright musical at times, as when describing the local theater — "very dusty and dark and cumbered by lumber it was." The tone and themes of Dickens permeate the book (most notably in the critique of slavery and call for social reform), and there is a dash of Jane Austen as well. Tabitha Lovell is a darker Elizabeth Bennett, and her banter with Smith is very reminiscent of the exchanges between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.

Spufford's use of voice is extremely clever. The central narrator seems to be omniscient with a direct line on Smith, but is a distinct character and a very canny one. Spufford also makes intelligent use of epistles to provide a window into Smith's history and motivations.

Golden Hill, which won the 2017 Costa First Novel Award, is studded with a lot of great details for history lovers, the still loyal colonists sing old English ballads and a long descriptive passage on the bustling New York economy, mired in slavery, is both evocative and informative. Serious devotees of historical fiction will appreciate Spufford's unrestrained verbosity and knowing winks toward his influences. Golden Hill's nimble story and whip smart humor is a handsome reward for the loquacious digressions.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Publishers Weekly
His ironic, sometimes bawdy sense of humor and coy storytelling may frustrate those who do not "cotton" to the "cant," but patient readers are rewarded with a feast of language, character, local color, and historical detail.

Booklist
Starred Review. Readers bounce through chases, courtrooms, brawls, debtors' prison, and a momentous steam-room sex scene, and it's all great fun. But most pleasurable is the prose itself, which is clever, silly, and perceptive, somehow managing to seem perfectly historically calibrated while poking fun at itself for such efforts. A virtuoso literary performance.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Nonfiction author Spufford (Unapologetic) makes his fiction debut with this successful homage to the great master of the picaresque novel, Henry Fielding. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award, it's sure to have a wide readership.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.

Financial Times (UK)
The intoxicating effect of Golden Hill is much more than an experiment in form. [Spufford] has created a complete world, employing his archivist skills to the great advantage of his novel ... This is a book born of patience, of knowledge accrued and distilled over decades, a style honed by practice. There are single scenes here more illuminating, more lovingly wrought, than entire books.

The Times (UK)
Like a newly discovered novel by Henry Fielding with extra material by Martin Scorsese. Why it works so well is largely down to Spufford's superb re-creation of New York ... His writing crackles with energy and glee, and when Smith's secret is finally revealed it is hugely satisfying on every level. For its payoff alone Golden Hill deserves a big shiny star.

The Guardian (UK)
Splendidly entertaining and ingenious ... Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly ... a first-class period entertainment.

Daily Mail (UK)
Paying tribute to writers such as Fielding, Francis Spufford's creation exudes a zesty, pin-sharp contemporaneity ... colonial New York takes palpable shape in his dazzlingly visual, pacy and cleverly plotted novel.

Author Blurb Iain Pears
Francis Spufford has long been one of my favourite writers of non-fiction; he is now becoming a favourite writer of fiction as well. Golden Hill is a meticulously crafted and brilliantly written novel that is both an affectionate homage to the 18th century novel and a taut and thoughtful tale.

Author Blurb Jo Baker
I loved this book so much. Golden Hill wears its research with incredible insouciance and grace; a rollicking picaresque, it is threaded through with darkness but has a heart of gold.

Author Blurb Nick Hornby
Francis Spufford has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature.

Author Blurb Mark Haddon
Addictively readable.

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Guy Fawkes Night

In one of the most memorable sequences in Golden Hill, the protagonist, Mr. Smith, attends a Guy Fawkes Night celebration that goes terribly awry after an effigy of the Pope is burned. Smith is taken for Catholic and pursued by an angry drunken mob.

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, depiction In Britain, Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of the failure of the 1605 assassination attempt on King James I and much of England's aristocracy. The conspirators, a group of thirteen disgruntled Catholics, planned to blow up Parliament to achieve its desired goals of gaining greater religious freedom under the reign of the Protestant King, as Catholics were persecuted in England at the time. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were placed in the cellar of the House of Lords, but then several of the conspirators changed their minds, concerned about the potential for very significant civilian casualties. One of these sent out a warning letter that was received by the King. The authorities stormed the cellar and discovered one conspirator, Guy Fawkes, still present. He was taken into custody, tortured, and executed. This occurred on the night of November 5, and ever since, that date has been heralded with bonfires and celebrations of the failure of the assassination plot.

Guy Fawkes celebration in England, 2010 In America, before the Revolutionary War, the event was often celebrated as "Pope Day" with more sinister connotations. As Spufford describes in Golden Hill, it was used as an excuse to express violent anti-Catholic sentiments. This was a particularly strong tradition in Boston in the 1760s. An account from the Massachusetts Gazette from 1765 specifically describes the event as designed "to exhibit on Stages some Pageantry, denoting [the citizens'] Abhorrence of POPERY" in addition to celebrating the discovery of the plot. Effigies of the Pope, the devil, and others "signifying Tyranny, Oppression, [and] Slavery" were burned. Gangs, slaves, and servants took the opportunity of the chaos to engage in bloody brawls in the streets. In a more mild show of religious bigotry, boys and young men would dress up like bishops and blow into conch shells, dubbed "Pope-horns."

The celebration Smith witnesses in Golden Hill occurs in New York in 1746, and begins with the crowd chanting a slight variation on the traditional patriotic poem "The Fifth of November" which begins:

Remember, Remember!
The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!


In Britain, Guy Fawkes Night, usually referred to as just Bonfire Night, is still observed with fireworks and bonfires. While there have been calls on Parliament to abolish it by those who see it as anti-Catholic, few in Britain today would think of it as such, with people of all beliefs taking part. But there is no doubt that there are fewer celebrations, and often of smaller scale than there were a few decades back. In part this is due to more stringent health and safety regulations, and in part due to the growth in Halloween which appears to be replacing Bonfire Night in many areas.

Picture of Gunpowder Plot depiction by Henry Perronet Briggs
Picture of Guy Fawkes celebration by Heather Buckley

By Lisa Butts

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