Golden Hill

by Henry Farrell on June 1, 2017


Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is finally being released in the US in a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pretend for a moment to be unbiased (I read an early version, and loved it). I don’t want to talk too much about its plot, for fear of spoilers, but this, by Abigail Nussbaum is very useful in how it talks about what Spufford is up to without giving it away:

There’s another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel’s big secret. And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be. Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard’s narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con. This turns out to be both true and not true. What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him. It is also–and to modern readers in particular–something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York’s economy runs. The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement. Running through the novel is Richard’s awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean. It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we’ve spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.

Building on this, Golden Hill is a very important book about America, in ways that may not be obvious to those who read it merely for the picaresque. Spufford’s America is the America of the mid-eighteenth (and, in a postscript, the early nineteenth) century. New York is a town with several thousand inhabitants, frightened and suspicious of cosmopolitan visitors from London (although in one wonderful set piece of writing, the sparks from a bonfire preconfigure the New York that is to be). Spufford’s American provincials are Tories to a man, rousting out Papists and toasting the King (the book’s strong implication is that ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ patriotism arose half-by-accident, from maneuverings over taxes and who got what – see also on this Peter Andreas’ wonderful history, Smuggler Nation).

The most striking continuity between the old pre-Revolutionary America and the new is racism, which the book suggests (if I read it right) is more fundamental to American identity than independence. It may seem odd to compare an apparently light-hearted historical novel to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tradition he represents, but, when read through carefully and read again, Golden Hill isn’t particularly light – it’s looking to make a very serious point.