The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
is a historical novel with elements of magical realism by Imogen Hermes Gowar. First published in 2018, and nominated for numerous awards, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
follows what happens when a mermaid causes chaos at every level of society. The book is highly regarded by critics and readers alike. Gowar is a British novelist who once studied archaeology. Before writing full-time, she worked in museums, and the artifacts she encountered inspire her writing. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
, Gowar’s debut, began as an award-winning historical dissertation before it evolved into a novel.The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
begins in September of 1785 in London, England. The protagonist, Jonah Hancock, is a middle-aged merchant who spends his life by the sea, waiting on news of his various ships and their cargoes. A widower who also lost his son, Henry, fifteen years ago, Hancock is a depressed and tired man who wants to live his life peacefully.
Henry appears to Hancock as a ghost on many occasions throughout his life. He reminds Hancock of what life could have been like if he had survived infancy. Whenever Hancock sees Henry’s ghost, his depression worsens, and he drinks too much. His ships are now his babies, and he will do anything to protect them.
The only people in Hancock’s life are his niece, Sukie, and his sister, Hester Lippard. Sukie is only fourteen but she already runs Hancock’s household. Hancock treats Sukie well. Unlike most men in town, Hancock treats women as equals, and he lets them speak their mind. Sukie takes full advantage of this freedom, as does Hester.
Hester’s primary goal in life is marrying off her various children. She thinks that Hancock should help her because he doesn’t have his own children to worry about. Hancock wishes that Hester would stop obsessing about the future because there is more to life than marriage; Sukie has so much potential, she would be wasted on a husband who didn’t appreciate her ambition and flair.
One day, Hancock’s captain returns home without a ship. Furious, Hancock demands to know what happened. The captain reveals a mermaid corpse that had washed up onshore. He traded the ship for the corpse because, according to him, mermaids are rare, but ships are common. The captain urges Hancock to display the corpse and charge people admission to view it. Hancock hates this idea, but wanting the money to buy a new ship, he agrees to the captain’s plan.
Meanwhile, Angelica Neal, a courtesan, returns home from the countryside. She spent many years living as a peer’s mistress until he died recently. She can’t remember the last time she was out in public. Now twenty-seven, it’s crucial that she finds a new patron soon before the men are snapped up by younger, prettier courtesans. If she doesn’t find a patron, she will end up homeless on the streets. In the background, a new mermaid appears, and she is very much alive.
Angelica’s old madam, Mrs. Chappell, finds out that Angelica is back in town. She invites Angelica back to the brothel, because she still has many debts to repay. Once she has repaid her debts, she can leave to find a patron. Angelica knows that she doesn’t have any choice but to return to the brothel, because Chappell will make it impossible for her to succeed in any other way.
One day, Chappell visits Hancock’s exhibit. She invites Hancock to the brothel, where he meets Angelica. Hancock doesn’t want to have sex with her because he doesn’t believe in extra-marital sex. Angelica thinks this is hilarious because men never usually show such scruples. She doesn’t ever plan to marry because she thinks marriage is a prison. Fancying Angelica, Hancock wonders if he can convince her otherwise in time.
In the meantime, Hancock meets another courtesan, Polly. Polly is a black woman who endures seemingly daily racism and taunts. The English elite despises black people because they equate them with slaves. Ordinary Englishmen only visit Polly because they want to try sex with a black woman as if she is a novelty. Polly hates feeling that she has no identity outside her color. Eventually, she leaves the brothel determined to make a better life for herself elsewhere, but readers never find out if she succeeds.
Meanwhile, Hancock courts Angelica. Determined to ignore him, she throws her energy into finding a new patron. She sets her sights on Rockingham, a soldier. He is a snobbish playboy who looks down on workingwomen, whatever their profession. He uses Angelica and then dumps her because he thinks he is too good for a working-class woman, never mind a courtesan.
Heartbroken, Angelica returns to Hancock and accepts his marriage proposal. They move to the countryside, and he adopts the second mermaid to serve in his basement as a pay-for-view attraction. Angelica demands that he lets the mermaid go because this is no way for anyone to live, and he eventually concedes.