In 'The Mermaid And Mrs. Hancock,' Searching For Signs Of Humanity In Unexplored Seas09:51

"The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock," by Imogen Hermes Gowar. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock," by Imogen Hermes Gowar. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Imogen Hermes Gowar's new novel "The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock" tells the story of how a mysterious corpse of what is said to be a mermaid baby draws crowds and changes the lives of a merchant and a courtesan in 18th-century London.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Gowar (@girlhermes), who says she was inspired by a fake mermaid corpse known as a "Fiji mermaid," which she saw at the British Museum.

During the 18th century, people were fascinated by mermaids, Gowar says. They wanted so badly for mermaids to exist because they were searching for humanity in unexplored places, much like the way we look for aliens in space today.

"It's kind of a way of populating the void," she says. "Back then, the greatest kind of expanse that you could explore is the ocean, and you kind of want there to be humanoid creatures or something recognizable in it. So I think mermaids are an easy answer to that."

 Interview Highlights

On the "Fiji mermaid" that inspired the novel 

"There's a whole kind of tradition of Fiji mermaid. So the one that I was inspired by is in the British Museum, and I worked there for a while, and it was there that I saw it in the collection and kind of my brain started turning. But I know P.T. Barnum had one. It had originally started out being exhibited in coffeehouses in London as well, and I know that there are two in regional museums in the U.K. that were made as a pair — as a male and a female — and they're being reunited this year I think in some special exhibition."

A "Fiji mermaid," displayed in Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
A "Fiji mermaid," displayed in Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

On how the author's study of anthropology, archaeology and art history influenced the novel 

"I definitely kind of came in from this angle of looking at objects and trying to understand how they could shed light on people's stories, what place they take in people's lives."

On how that idea is explored in the book through clothing 

"I think maybe it manifests quite a lot. I have subsequently been told in the clothes that people wear, especially the women's clothes, that I really felt that someone like Angelica Neal — this courtesan, a main character of mine — I studied a lot of 18th-century dress to kind of try and understand her, how she would feel in her clothes. This idea that like you might unpick the adornments from one dress and the lace and Chanel, and then attach it to another one; whether you'd allow your stockings to get holes in them, or whether you'd always wear new ones; whether you'd let your corset in and out ... as you gained weight or lost it. And do you give your second dresses to your servants? That kind of thing like it says something about a person, how their values are and how they live. And I really felt that Angelica expressed herself through her clothing so that was certainly one of the things."

The mummy of an iceman named Oetzi, discovered in 1991 in the Italian Schnal Valley glacier, is displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano on February 28, 2011 during an official presentation of the reconstruction. (Andrea Solero/AFP/Getty Images)
The mummy of an iceman named Oetzi, discovered in 1991 in the Italian Schnal Valley glacier, is displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano on February 28, 2011 during an official presentation of the reconstruction. (Andrea Solero/AFP/Getty Images)

On how the mummified corpse Oetzi inspired her approach to objects 

"That was my first love, Oetzi, the 5,000-year-old mummified corpse that was dug out of a glass here in about 1991 I think, and they must've made a TV documentary about it, when I was quite, I would say between the age of 5 and 7. And I remember watching it and just being completely transfixed and drawing pictures of him over and over. He was a shepherd up in the mountains, and he had with him everything that he needed to live. So he had like this quiver of arrows, and he had straw stuffed into his boots to keep his feet warm, and he'd mended his cloak himself. They could tell that he was up there in the mountains for a long time, and he had to be very self-sufficient until he got back to the village and someone else would fix his stuff and give him new boots.

"That physical understanding of what it might be like to have been that person in the past to understand all these tiny details of their life, and I guess the ephemera of it, that's I guess always what I've been interested in. What's the texture of living in that world? You read about armies and battles and laws being passed, but who is it who's bringing in the food or making up the beds? Did these people miss their children? That kind of stuff is what I was always interested in, and I guess there's more space for that in fiction than there is in say archaeology when you do have to be very rigorous and strict with yourself and quite detective-like. That there is in fiction this space to play and to imagine."

"I definitely kind of came in from this angle of looking at objects and trying to understand how they could shed light on people's stories, what place they take in people's lives."

Imogen Hermes Gowar

On how the book explores the role of class and gender in the 18th century 

"I think the more that I research the book and the more I thought about what is the story here, I kind of realized that what I was doing was, in my mind I guess, almost a kind of survey of the options for 18th-century women. It's very much a world without feminism where if women try to do well by themselves, it might be at the expense of other women. That there is very little sense of solidarity. You kind of pull the ladder up. Like if you've done OK, you want to continue to protect yourself, and the way you protect yourself is by appealing to men who will protect you in this system that has no structure to protect you on your own as a lone woman.

"The idea of I guess morality and sexual fidelity in that kind of thing becomes actually quite a privileged thing to be able to indulge in. That to be a good person means you are in some way already protected, that you don't have to become a whore or a thief. You don't have to make those choices because you're not supporting yourself alone. It makes me more sympathetic to these women who I think history very easily dismisses as total floozies. That actually they have very little to fall back on except for their bodies and their attractiveness, and of course, they were using those things."

Book Excerpt: 'The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock'

by Imogen Hermes Gowar





Jonah Hancock’s counting-house is built wedge-shaped and coffered like a ship’s cabin, whitewashed walls and black skirting, beam pegged snugly to beam. The wind sings down Union Street, raindrops burst against the windowpane, and Mr Hancock leans forward on his elbows, cradling his brow in his hands. Rasping his fingers over his scalp, he discovers a crest of coarse hair the barber has missed, and idles over it with mild curiosity but no irritation. In private, Mr Hancock is not much concerned with his appearance; in society, he wears a wig.

He is a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips. He is not a handsome man, nor ever was one (and as he perches on his stool his great belly and skinny legs give him the look of a rat up a post), but his meaty face is amiable, and his small eyes with their pale lashes are clear and trusting. He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.

The light in the office has a murky cast to it, full of storms. The rain comes down in sheets. Mr Hancock’s ledgers are spread out before him, creeping with insect words and figures, but his mind is not on his work, and he is grateful for the distraction of a scuffling outside the office.

Ah, thinks Mr Hancock, that will be Henry, but when he turns around from his desk it is only the cat. She is almost upside down at the foot of the stairs, with her rear in the air, her hind paws splayed wide on the bottom step, and her forepaws pinning a squirming mouse to the hall floorboards. Her little mouth is open, teeth flashing in triumph, but her position is precarious. To right herself, he calculates, she must let go of her quarry.

‘Whisht!’ says Mr Hancock. ‘Begone!’ but she catches the mouse up in her jaws and prances across the hall. She is out of his sight, but he hears the thrum of her dancing paws and the dampish thud of the mouse’s body hitting the floorboards as she flips it into the air again and again. He has watched her play this game many times, and always finds her enquiring, open-throated cry unpleasantly human.

He turns back to his desk, shaking his head. He could have sworn it was Henry coming down the stairs. In his mind’s eye the scene has already taken place: his tall thin son, with white stockings and brown curls, pausing to grin into the office while all about him the dust motes sparkle. Such visions do not come to him very often, but when they do they always disturb him, for Henry Hancock died at birth.

Mr Hancock is not a whimsical man but he has never been able to shake the notion that, the moment his wife laid her head back on her childbed pillow and sighed her last wretched breath, his life diverged from its proper course. It seems to him that the one he ought to have had continues very nearby, with only a thin bit of air and chance separating him from it, and every now and then he catches a glimpse of it as if a curtain has momentarily fluttered aside. In the first year of his viduity, for example, he once felt a warm human pressure against his knee during a card game, and looked down in fond expectation of a stout little child hauling itself to its feet beside his chair. Why was he so appalled to discover instead the left hand of Moll Rennie creeping along his thigh? on another occasion, a brightly painted toy drum caught his eye at a fair, and he had carried it nearly halfway home before he remembered that no small boy was there to receive it. Fifteen years have now passed, but in rare unguarded moments Mr Hancock might hear a voice carried in from the street, or feel some tugging at his clothes, and his immediate thought is Henry, as if he had had a son all along.

He is never visited by his wife Mary in this way, although she was a great blessing to him. She was thirty-three when she died, a placid woman who had seen much of this world and was amply prepared for the next: Mr Hancock does not doubt where she has gone, or the possibility that he might one day join her there, and for him this is enough. He only mourns their child, who passed so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.

From upstairs comes the voice of his sister Hester Lippard, who visits every first Thursday to fossick through his larder and laundry and linen press, and exclaim at what she discovers there. A wifeless brother is a troublesome inheritance, but one by which her children may one day profit: if Mrs Lippard does him the charity of removing her youngest from school to serve as his housekeeper, it is in reasonable expectation of reward.

‘Now you see the sheets have taken mildew,’ she is saying. ‘If you had stored them as I advised you . . . did you note it all in your pocketbook?’

The faintest of mumbles in response.

‘Well, did you? This is not for my benefit, Susanna, but for your own.’

A silence, in which he pictures poor Sukie with her head hanging, her cheeks livid.

‘I declare, you make more trouble than you save me! So where is your red thread? Where? Is’t lost again? And who will pay for more, do you think?’

He sighs and scratches. Where is the fruitful family to fill the rooms of this house, which his grandfather built and his father made fine? The dead are here, without a doubt. He feels their touch every- where in its pitched floorboards and staircase spine, and in the voices of the church bells, St Paul’s at the front door, St Nicholas’s at the back. The hands of the shipwrights are alive here in the long curves of its beams, which recall the bellies of great ships; its lintels carved with birds and flowers, angels and swords, testament for ever to the labour and visions of men long dead.

There are no children here to marvel in their turn at the skill of Deptford woodcarvers, unmatched in all the world; nor to grow up to the rhythm of ships leaving the docks gleaming and laden, returning battered and ragged. Jonah Hancock’s children would know, as Jonah Hancock knows, what it is to load one’s faith and fortune on board a ship and push it off into the unknown. They would know how a man who awaits a ship, as Mr Hancock now does, is distracted by day and wakeful by night, prone to fidgeting, with a bitter taste rising in the back of his throat. He is snappish with his family or else overly sentimental; he hunches over his desk scratching out the same calculations over and over again. He bites his nails.

What knowledge is all this if it dies with Jonah Hancock? What good his joys and sorrows if there is nobody to share in them; what purpose to his face and voice if they are only to be assigned to dust; what value to his fortune if it withers on the vine with no sons to pluck it down?

Excerpted from the book The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Copyright © 2018 by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Published on September 11, 2018 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

This segment aired on October 3, 2018.