One of this summer’s surprise best novels is Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill”, subtitled ” A Novel of Old New York”. My main book -reading friend, Kevin Ott, recommended it to me and it’s sheer delight, brilliantly researched, both funny and astute, and ultimately deadly serious. New York in l746 was a very small town of seven thousand people, representing both the best and the worst of a small town. Our protagonist, Mr. Smith, arrives mysteriously from London, then a city of 700,000 people, with business about which he won’t state its purpose or why he’s in New York. The novel begins with Smith presenting a bill for 2000 lbs. to a New York shipping company, the Lovell/Van Loon family business (many of the names in the novel will be familiar to readers with some knowledge of New York: DeLancy; Phillips; Cadwallader, amongst others). And New York in those days was wildly anti-Papist, or anti-Catholic, a strain that still resides in certain parts of America now.
Mr. Smith lodges in a boarding house and walks around the city to get a feel of it, and, of course, people are curious about him, gossip about him (he’ll be called everything from a fabulously rich new arrival, to a Turkish conjurer, and more, typical of any small town and its gossips). Smith has plenty of professional and personal dealings with the Lovells, whose two daughters are of marriageable age, and daughter Tabitha, who’s spiteful yet clever, begins a kind of dance around Smith, hoping to catch him as a knave and a fool. Spufford’s descriptions of the old Fort in New York, the violent excesses of Guy Fawkes Day, where Smith is almost murdered, and his interactions with people he meets in what’s we’d now call a coffee shop are fascinating; Spufford’s terrific at delineating character, and he doesn’t annoy us with too much early American language. Smith constantly gets himself into trouble, by accident mostly; finds himself in debtor’s prison because the bill from London hasn’t arrived by ship to prove his claim, and he’s robbed early on by spies of the Governor’s. Challenged to a duel, after sleeping with an officer’s wife, he accidentally wins the duel and is promptly charged with murder. The preposterous excesses of the very new jury system in New York are hilarious; allowing lawyers to plead the case for the defense was brand new, and witnesses are bribed to lie, and the like. (That all sounds horrifingly contemporary).
Smith’s real purpose in coming to New York–where he only plans to stay for sixty days, until he can get his money and do his business and leave, is left vague, tho the very astute reader may well figure it out; the author leaves just enough clues to do so, but I won’t be a spoiler here. “Golden Hill” is rollicking good fun, a great read, and it makes early American, pre-Revolutionary War New York come very much to light, and that’s a delight for the reader. It’s a novel with very serious intentions that also manages to be very funny, highly and accurately descriptive, and it’s so readable that it’s very difficult to put down.