In his book, I May be Some Time, Francis Spufford writes about Scott’s journey to the South Pole. He says, ‘One is there in imagination as one reads, but with the possibility of instant withdrawal; one feels for the human figures at the centre of the scene, but one is not exactly in sympathy with them, though it is through their eyes that one is seeing’. Until now, Spufford has been known as a prize-winning writer of non-fiction. In his first novel, Golden Hill, I wonder how he sees the human figures he creates, and if others will read Golden Hill with the same frosty detachment.
First let’s get one thing straight. Spufford’s writing is genius. His descriptions are outrageously evocative, whether they are of New York in 1746 with its ‘square-towered stone church that might’ve been transplanted (like a rose root in moistened sacking) from any county town of the English shires’ or the frozen New York winter when ‘reaching fingers of ice growing out from each shore met in the middle and locked (…) rigid as in the heart of a child’s marble’, because he uses the most unexpected metaphors to great effect. And his knowledge of the world behind his story is so incredibly rich that you feel illogically convinced he must have experienced it first hand.
Then there is the historical resonance. Old York whispers to the New. Many of Spufford’s characters are New York originals, Dutch colonisers who run the town with a church-going colonial zeal that paves the way to Django and George W. Bush. There is a strangely recognisable familiarity to this New World, which is half cowboy, half puritanical.
Here is the gist: an Englishman named Smith, whose motives are secret, lands in New York in 1746 with a bill for payment of a thousand pounds, which he demands in cash money while rebuffing all attempts to reveal the use he’ll make of it. The secret keeps you turning the pages, which is a neat hook, although a bit of a tease (frustration almost made me flip over to the last thirty pages of the book to find out, but I managed to hold off). And yet, for all the falling in and out of trouble, the near lynching, trial by New York jury and tragic blundering that Smith’s secrecy engenders, do we actually care if he lives or dies?
We never really know what drives Smith, his principles or his values or his past, and because we never really know him it does seem hard to care about him. Does it matter? Not necessarily. It does prevent the book from touching a deeper chord, but this is in keeping with the kind of novel Spufford has written. Golden Hill is stylistically bound to the eighteenth century it describes. Writers such as Fielding and Smollett were there to entertain and to transport the reader into a damned good yarn and they did. It was only later, when the dark days of industrial progress brought forth writers like Dickens that the English consciousness needed to try and make sense of the social mess that progress had ushered in, and it could be we still need to.
You might then class Golden Hill as a man’s book, but there is much more to it than counting houses, cash and survival in the city, and perhaps there could have been yet more if Smith’s secret had been teased out sooner — but no spoilers.
Any Cop?: Spufford infuses Golden Hill with the incisive power of his non-fiction, and that should be enough for anyone.