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Exuberant tale that conceals searching questions

03 March 2017

Prudence Fay relishes the pace of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

KT Bruce

Energetic: the author (and General Synod member) Francis Spufford

Energetic: the author (and General Synod member) Francis Spufford

YOU don’t so much read as tumble into Francis Spufford’s exuberant novel Golden Hill. Imagine being an extra on the film-set of, say, Oliver, swept along in an energetic song-and-dance number on the cobbled streets. Spufford’s writing is all move­­ment, sounds, and smells: irresistibly cinematic, drawing you in.

The setting is mid-18th-century New-York (still with its hyphen). It is a small town, the Broad Way a mere track leading north along Manna­hatta. King George II is its ruler, but its Nieuw-Amsterdam antecedents of a century earlier still show in its habits, festivities, and its bewigged merchants’ thick accents. Out of town, upstate, the British are fighting the French, in a war known locally as King George’s War — “But perhaps you have another name for it in England.”

Into this town comes our engag­ing hero, Richard Smith, introduced to us in a dizzying couple of pages during which he leaps from the ship that has brought him from London, and hurtles through the streets — galloping on, “skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails . . . asking for directions here, asking again there”, and, finally, getting his foot into the just-closing door of Lovell’s Counting House at one minute to five.

He has brought a bill drawn on a bank in London for the unheard-of sum of £1000; his bankers there expect their colleagues to cash it in New-York.

Lovell, not surprisingly demurs: “What is this thing? And who are you?” Smith will say only that the bill is good, that letters vouching for him are following in the next ship. He will not say why he is in New-York, or what he wants the £1000 for. Lovell is suspicious, annoyed. Smith, we feel, is enjoying himself.

And so the story starts. Smith’s task for the time being is to keep secret his purpose. It is the thread on which the whole book is strung. He agrees to wait 60 days after confirmation of the bill arrives, to give Lovell time to amass the money for him (New-York in these early days is short of coin). But the town makes up its mind about him al­­most at once: the stranger with a fortune coming to him is a Turkish sorcerer, and possibly an agent of the French.

Smith, like Tom Jones and other rol­licking 18th-century literary heroes, is resourceful, curious, and sharp-eyed. New-Yorkers, he notes, are not scarred by smallpox, like Londoners; the town is not foul-smelling; there are no beggars; there are slaves.

Amid all the interesting novelty, there is unpleasantness, too. On an early stroll, he finds 40 or 50 rotting human scalps nailed to a board; and muggers soon have his purse, leav­ing him with only a pittance to live on until the bill can be cashed. Nevertheless, he brushes aside a warn­­ing from the Governor’s aide, Septimus (later a steadfast friend), that he has landed in a place of whose dark undercurrents he under­stands nothing, and where help may be hard to come by.

Meanwhile, Smith confidently dines with the Lovells and their friends, candlelight gleaming on polished tables. He is entranced by, and often spars with, Tabitha Lovell, dark-haired, clever, and waspish. He gossips in the coffee houses; he goes to church on Sundays at Trinity, the Governor’s church.

In an 18th-century aside, the author comments here: “What, if anything, Mr Smith confessed, this history must not tell; and what answer he received, if any, it cannot. The operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist.”

Partly because of his prospective riches, and partly because the Governor and the judiciary want to keep an eye on him, Smith finds himself at the King’s birthday feast and ball, with the diners roaring out “The roast-beef of old England”. He is trapped into playing piquet (a game whose rules he barely under­stands) for more money than he has.

He acts in an amateur staging of Joseph Addison’s play Cato, with Septimus and a large, ageing thespian (Mrs Euterpe Tomlinson), trembling “like a plum already fermenting, and about to burst in a mess of juices”.

It is a roller-coaster ride of jollity, surprises, love-making, and terror. Boozers around the bonfire on Pope’s Day become an instant lynch-mob, and Smith, bloodied and surrounded, is saved only by Septimus and his black servant Achilles, in a glorious, hair-raising escapade that ends in safety on the dark rooftops of New-York.

A ship arrives without the pro­mised explanatory letter — Smith is thrown into prison. A second ship arrives — he is freed. Lust undoes him — New-York is vengeful. And through it all, as the pace quickens and the political undercurrents swirl faster and more threateningly, Smith guards his secret, even from Tabitha.

The exuberance of the story conceals searching questions about morality and the unlooked-for con­sequences of actions, for which others sometimes must pay the price.

It is not until the very end, when tragedies of two different kinds have shaken Smith to his core, that all is made clear; and the secret is a serious and unexpected one.


Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-571-22520-0 (Books, 5 August 2016).





”I don’t cotton to your cant”: what did you think of the book’s narrative voice, and its use of 18th-century language?


Would you say that the moral of Golden Hill is that “at root the civilised virtues were matters of the will and soul, and not of blood”?


How significant is it that the novel’s events take place at Christmastide?


”I remember how good it was to scream.” How much did you sympathise with Tabitha Lovell over the course of the novel?


Which of the book’s many plot twists did you find the most surprising?


”Lies are better than nothing”: what part does trust, or “credit”, play in Golden Hill?


To what extent is this a book about masks?


”Could he live as he had planned? No, he would live as he must.” What can we learn from Richard Smith’s reaction to the events that the novel throws at him?


What does Golden Hill teach us about the menace lurking beneath the surface of a close-knit community? Does it have any applications for church life?


Is this an optimistic book?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 April, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. It is published in various editions, including one from Vintage Classics, Death in Venice and Other Stories, in a translation by David Luke, at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-099-42865-7.


Book notes
Death in Venice (1912) was intended to explore “passion as confusion and degradation”. Thomas Mann’s novella is a meditation on beauty and humiliation, telling the story of a renowned and ageing author whose glimpse of a beautiful adolescent boy grows into an infatuation, then obsession. Torn between intellect and desire, he is forced to confront the failure of his life to match his artistic ideals. Mann’s novella has become central to the mythology of Venice as a decaying, diseased city; its portrayal of longing and forbidden passion has inspired a film starring Dirk Bogarde (1971) and an opera by Benjamin Britten (1973).


Author notes
Thomas Mann has been hailed as one of the great modern German novelists. He won widespread critical acclaim for works such as Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924), and in 1929 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mann was born in Lübeck in 1875, and lived in Germany until 1933, when the rise of the Nazis forced him to emigrate; eventually he settled in the United States, where he continued to be an outspoken critic of the Third Reich. He returned to Europe in the 1950s, and died in Zurich in 1955.


Books for the next two months:
May: The Virgin Eye: Towards a contemplative view of life by Robin Daniels
June: The Case for Working with your Hands by Matthew Crawford

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