The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a wonderful and intriguing novel that brought the sights, sounds and atmosphere of late eighteenth century London alive for me. What initially drew you to this period?
Thank you! I was interested in the late eighteenth century – particularly sex culture, courtesans and actresses – for many years before I thought to set fiction in that period. What drew me was the very singular, pungent language; the energy, the fun, the humour that is used to make all sorts of savage and serious points. My BA involved art history, so I found a way in via the cartoons of Gilray and Rowlandson, but I also read a lot of biographies and non-fiction. Two books in particular grabbed my attention: Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin – a warm, thoughtful biography of a genius comic actress who was horribly betrayed – and Lascivious Bodies by Julie Peakman, a survey of eighteenth-century sex which literally made my jaw drop on several occasions for its sheer filthiness. I really couldn’t help but be drawn to the 1780s: there’s so much going on and it’s all wonderfully over the top.
Were there any specific places or events that inspired you?
An account of a party at Charlotte Hayes’ infamous high-class brothel really stuck in my mind. After one of Captain Cook’s voyages she was permitted to exhibit some of the artefacts he had brought back, and threw a party in which the entertainment was a group of young women and men performing what she called an ‘Otaheitian Love Dance’. Essentially this involved their having sex in front of a room full of the great and good, culminating in a group orgy. From the moment I started writing my book I knew it had to have a scene like that, although some members of my family might feel differently.
And what about people? The two main characters, Jonah Hancock and Angelica Neal are very different but both vivid in my mind – are they based on real people you uncovered during your research?
For Angelica, I gleaned biographical details from many women who would have been her contemporaries, including Elizabeth Armistead (who married Charles James Fox), Mary Robinson and Emma Hamilton. However, the woman who inspired Angelica the most was the actress and courtesan Sophia Baddeley. For a while she was the most desirable woman in London, but she was incapable of controlling her spending – the only way to keep her from going shopping was to get the hairdresser to come over so she’d be forced to stay in her chair – and she chose men who couldn’t afford her debts, so that eventually she gained a reputation for being too expensive to go near. Sophia’s friend, who lived with her during the years of her fame, wrote a tell-all memoir which really captures her manner, language and personality. Sophia’s social mis-steps and financial anxieties brought it home how precarious that life really was. There is some of her energy and, dare I say it, pig-headedness in Angelica.
There’s clearly a wealth of research underpinning your novel making it feel very authentic, can you tell us a little about the types of research you did?
I spent about ten months intensively in the British Library, reading in all different directions – print culture, consumerism, vernacular architecture – very little of which explicitly made it into the book, but which informed the attitudes and the movements of my characters. The best thing about the British Library was being able to hold and study real historical documents: Harris’s List, for example, a kind of Time Out of sex workers; Nocturnal Revels, which shared gossip about madams and sex parties; court transcripts of crimes ranging from petty to lurid, and a scrap-book some thoughtful Victorian had made of all the eighteenth-century newspaper clippings mentioning Deptford, from highway robbery to the launching of ships. I read a lot of academic texts too, but all the contemporary media really added texture and depth to my understanding of the eighteenth century.
I also walked an awful lot. The footprint of many London streets are the same, even if the buildings are not, and the physical act of walking from place to place, as my characters would have, made me feel I understood them better. I tried to understand the geography of London as they would have done – a city arranged along a river, and navigable by it.
I tried to do as much physical stuff as possible. I like to cook, and made a few recipes from Frederick Nutt’s The Complete Confectioner to get an idea of what Angelica might have considered delicacies. I also made (and wore) a robe a la reine, and was surprised at how radical that felt to me as a twenty-first century woman! I sew a lot of clothes, but adding structure to masses of delicate muslin using only drawstrings felt freeing and daring.
Did you find anything during your research that you found truly surprising?
Oh, lots. I loved my research. I laughed every day – I’d always come home with a new fact or anecdote.
I enjoyed uncovering the shipbuilding history of Deptford, and what an unusual, artisan society it was – religious nonconformists who didn’t necessarily have a lot of money, but who were rightly proud of their own skills, and who kept shelves of books and expensive tea-sets in their little houses. My favourite real-life Deptfordite was a woman called Mary Slade – born Mary Lacy – who disguised herself as a boy and went to sea as a ship’s carpenter in 1759. She was the first woman to sit the shipwright’s exam, and returned home to build and live in Slade’s Place, a row of very fine houses, on what is now Deptford High Street. Some of them are still there, although you’d never know at first glance.
Mermaids play an important part in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – how were they perceived during the 18th century?
There was much more of a consciousness of mermaids as dangerous and perhaps malevolent than there is today. They were aligned very closely in the cultural imagination with unchecked female sexuality, and that for the Georgians was frightening – ideally women ought to be either single and virginal, or married and faithful, and in both cases they were answerable to a man. The mermaid stories circulating at the time speak to the absolute mistrust accorded to sexy lone females, and how dangerous their active pursuit of their own desires could be. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see these unnatural creatures as an object lesson in unseemly female behaviour.
It’s funny, though, how much the mermaids of folklore differed from those that were sighted or even captured. These were almost always quite small – two to four feet long – more animal than human, and hideous to look at. Mr Hancock’s mermaid is part of a tradition of ‘Feejee’ mermaids that were in fact brought from Japan. They were often made from the body of a monkey stitched to a fish’s tail and they really were exhibited in London during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I think it was their ugliness that made them particularly compelling: the Horniman Museum and the British Museum both still have mer-people in their collections (the Horniman’s is a merman), and they’re pretty scary to look at even today.
Why do you think mermaids have such an enduring appeal?
It’s really tempting to say that mermaids are appealing because of their prettiness, and certainly that’s how they are marketed to little girls, but I think there’s still a residue of power and mystery. When I was a child I loved to swim, and the idea of doing it in deep, dangerous ocean water was exciting to me. There’s a craze nowadays to swim wearing custom silicone mermaid tails: it looks amazing but the skill and strength involved is incredible. Like roller derby or pole dancing, it’s a sport that can be beautiful, feminine, and even sexy, but which demands a strong, trained, nourished body. I think mermaids still reflect a kind of female strength and capability that it’s sometimes hard to find represented elsewhere.
The London you conjure up is a vibrant and exciting place, but full of light and shade. Was that tension something you purposefully set out to explore?
Yes. I didn’t want to sugar-coat the fact that the eighteenth century, for all its intellect and elegance and humour, was a pretty hateful time. Most people were violently ageist and of course fat-phobic, there was no concept of feminism, and some of the thinkers we still admire also defended slavery and believed that Black people were created to be subservient to whites. I was never interested in writing a book that dodged those issues. I think there’s a lot in the book that is fun and indulgent, but there is no ideal past: if you want the gorgeous stuff, I’m afraid you need to accept the ugliness too.
I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the sweet treats Angelica enjoys. Are there any delicacies from the period you’d like to sample?
Loads! Most particularly I’d like to try things have been made with authentic techniques to see how they differ. Hand-churned ice cream, for example – Frederick Nutt’s suggestion for a parmesan flavoured one is very Heston – or sugared almonds, painstakingly covered in layers and layers of lacquer-like sugar. We forget the extraordinary work that once went into these things. I’d particularly like a cloud of whipped syllabub floating on sweet wine.