Imogen Hermes Gowar is polite, measured, scholarly and has total Impostor Syndrome about her debut novel, The Mermaid And Mrs. Hancock (on stands now), which was a literary hotcake long before it came out. Following a 10-way bidding war of publishers in June 2016, Harvill Secker (part of Penguin Random House) acquired the plump historical fiction, scoring Gowar a sensational £2,15,000 advance, according to The Sunday Times.
“It was weird and disorientating having publishers bid for it,” says the 30-year-old, even though it had presciently won The Curtis Brown Award in 2013, when it was just a 15,000-word dissertation for her creative writing MFA at the University Of East Anglia (UAE). “I couldn’t trust what was being said. I felt there was a catch. And I felt like I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it. I know so many writers, and how hard it is to get a book taken on. You don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, poor me. Everyone wants to give me loads of money.’”
Well, there was a catch, and it was that her audacious novel about the unlikely coupling of a mercurial courtesan and a bumbling merchant in 1785 London, after the latter acquires a mermaid is very, very good. Braiding the politics, racial anxieties, crushing patriarchy, blooming industry and folklore of the time, Gowar has rendered a red-blooded portrait of Georgian society through the prism of its flesh trade, with detail, control and style. What’s more, it goes down like a breezy beach read.
Gowar’s fascination with 18th-century England began at the age of 14, when she read Mrs Jordan’s Profession, Claire Tomalin’s affecting biography of Dora Jordan, the comic actress and mistress of King William IV, who, ruined by English mores, ultimately died penniless in France. “It was a politically radical time, with British expansion across the globe — and the concept of an empire was taking shape. I was also very interested in how women were treated,” she says.
Then, at her first job, at London’s British Museum — after she had completed her BA in art history, archaeology and anthropology at UAE — she encountered a mummified, fake mermaid, composed of a monkey’s upper body and a fish’s tail. “When I saw it, I started thinking: how can I write fiction about this? Who would it belong to? And it just made sense to me to place it in the 1700s.”
But this isn’t buttoned-up, oppressively respectable Jane Austenian English society. It’s a ratafia-soaked fantasy world of seduction and transaction, and operatic orgies that defy belief. The merchant Jonah Hancock, a portly widower, first meets and becomes besotted with the high-class prostitute Angelica Neal at a sea-themed VIP viewing party for his grotesque mermaid — inspired by the British Museum exhibit — that ends in a feverish smut-fest, replete with dancing girls with dyed-green pubes. “It did not feel credible that some of these things happened, but they did,” says Gowar, who, post her MFA, quit her museum career for a café job, and stopped writing for 10 months in order to immerse herself in research.
Of the novel’s many achievements — not the least of which is Gowar’s proficiency in Georgian vernacular — its greatest is its heroine, Angelica Neal. Women of the time had famously little going for them, denied financial and personal rights as they were, and left at the mercy of men. Which is why the petulant, canny, vulnerable, hedonistic, horny Neal is such a rush. She does whatever she needs to do — not just to survive these terrible circumstances, but also to have fun. Whether it is playing lovelorn damsel to stroke a suitor’s frail ego; settling into a convivial marriage with Hancock to keep from returning to the brothel after she bungles up freelance prostitution. Or in the climactic final act, renting the trance-like sorrow the novel’s real mermaid — a formless creature trapped in a saltwater vat — precipitates on their household, by releasing her on the eve of a great showing party that is to solidify Neal’s place in polite society.
For all these reasons, The Mermaid And Mrs. Hancock has more than measured up to its hype. Upon publication, it was immediately shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, longlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize, and its film and TV rights were bought last month by BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning producer Colin Callender’s company, Playground. “I’ve never really left that mindset that the next answer could be a no,” says Gowar. “So every single step has felt like, ‘Oh? Amazing!’”
The Mermaid And Mrs. Hancock’s runaway success can tend to eclipse Gowar’s years of diligence. “It was like going from really slow to really fast,” she admits. In fact, it very nearly didn’t begin at all. “I was writing a different novel during my MFA, right up to the point of my dissertation. But it didn’t feel fun. It just felt difficult. My supervisor could tell that it wasn’t working for me, and he asked if I had anything else. I had started writing The Mermaid… on the side, for fun, and showed it to him. I told him I thought it would be no more than a short story or a novella, but he persuaded me that it was a novel.”
Bless that supervisor, because life is now all different for Gowar, who is a full-time novelist (“I got to quit the café job”) whose schedule is packed with literary events all the way until September. “I am trying to create a routine again. There is quite a lot of admin work that nobody warned me about,” she says. And how did she splurge that six-figure advance? “It’s incredibly dull,” she warns. “On expensive candles. And my boyfriend can never find out just how much they cost because it’s really bad.” A debut like this one is a lot of baggage to set out on your second novel with. “You know, I thought that too. But now that I’m actually back in the process (Gowar has returned to her abandoned dissertation novel and is having fun this time around), it feels like writing a first book. And I’m just trying to write this one the best I can,” she says. “What I really want is to be able to have longevity that isn’t tied to my first book.”
Photograph: Ollie Grove (Imogen Hernmes Gowar)