Good historical fiction takes more than research. Henry James once said that writers needed to shed everything that made them modern to feel their way into a completely alien world view — a near impossibility. But this ideal historical novel, bristling with ancient prejudice, would be rather heavy going for a general readership, and successful ones often come populated by dismaying modern stand-ins. Noted non-fiction writer Francis Spufford’s debut novel Golden Hill — an update of 18th-century adventure romps by the likes of Henry Fielding — is successful because it makes us feel entertained and uneasy with the past.
In 1746, Englishman Richard Smith arrives at the office of a New York merchant with a bill for £1,000. While waiting for his money he attempts to hide the true nature of his visit without overtly lying, striking up a friendship with a gay civil servant and falling for Tabitha Lovell, his creditor’s sadistic and brilliant daughter.
Smith is a cipher even to us, the intrusive 18th-century narrator fortifying his mystery with interjections: ‘I do not want to write this part of the story, and am quibbling to hesitate’; ‘What, if anything, Mr Smith confessed, this history must not tell.’ These blind spots were conventional, primitive drawbacks to the early novel. Spufford turns them into modern devices to intrigue and tease the reader as Smith runs the customary gauntlet of debtor’s prison, angry mobs and wasteful duels.
Golden Hill isn’t a pastiche, though its characters are regularly ‘confus’d’ and ‘mazed’ and write bravura letters packed with capitalised nouns. The book takes what it needs from the old to furnish a new yarn and a freshly imagined look at America before revolution. New York smells cleaner than London but is strangely lawless and barbaric. Never mind the French scalps displayed in the market, sent as tribute from cooperative Natives. The townsfolk’s insidious attitudes are more unnerving.
Walking in rural New York, Smith is struck by its idyllic beauty before realising the land is kept at the cost of slavery. Playing an African role in some amateur dramatics, the novel’s nifty play-within-a-play, Smith is given racist reason not to black up: American slave-owners won’t want to countenance a dark-skinned romantic lead opposite their daughters. Strange place, where blackface implies progress.
This is Spufford’s first novel, but since the early 1990s he has won awards for liberty-taking non-fiction that feels its way into distant places or times, such as Antarctica or Soviet Russia in the 1950s. His early New York feels no less real.