Reading guide for Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill

A Novel of Old New York

by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford X
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2017, 336 pages
    Feb 2018, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will 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.

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