Home / Arts & Life / Review: Francis Spufford’s First Novel Is a Swashbuckling Tale

Review: Francis Spufford’s First Novel Is a Swashbuckling Tale

His new book is another pivot. “Golden Hill” is his first novel, and not a typical first novel (mumbled quasi-memoir) but an ebullient, freewheeling historical fiction set in 18th-century New York City three decades before the Revolutionary War.

I am not a terrific fan of historical novels. The weight of the bolts involved in set construction sinks nearly all of them to the lake bottom. “Golden Hill” did not make me rethink that position.

But I read it in what felt like 10 minutes, and it left my mind feeling like it had been kissed by some sunburn. Its action is so vivid that you seem to be consuming (imagine Wolf Blitzer’s voice here) breaking news. Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight.

The plot of “Golden Hill,” its fulcrum, at any rate, is as follows: A handsome young stranger named Richard Smith arrives in New York City from London with a promissory note for 1,000 pounds (a fortune, at that time) that he hopes to cash.

Local gossip goes into overdrive. Is he an agitator? A spy? A thief on the lam? He refuses to say what he plans to do with his money, should he get it, or whether he intends to remain in the New World. He maintains a pleasant if sphinxlike mien.

“When a man creeps into a city in time of danger with a bag of gold,” Richard is warned, misadventure may follow. Misadventure occurs. Richard does not escape entirely unharmed.

Richard is clearly something of a gentleman. He’s well read, speaks many languages and is up-to-date on British theater. He is slowly drawn into New York society. The depiction of this society is where Spufford especially shines.


Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Everyone knows dinner parties are a form of warfare. Spufford makes this explicit in a scene in which Richard attends a meal put on by a prominent New York family.

He is seated at the table so that “Captain Prettyman and Van Loon senior could rake him from opposite, and Mr. Lovell could contribute enfilading fire from his left, while Hendrick remained just in range should reinforcements be required.”

Nearby is a complicated young woman named Tabitha, “an armament in herself,” whose role in this story keeps unfolding. A thorny love story proposes to take wing.

About her, Richard says at a crucial moment, as if he were Hugh Grant finally confronting Andie MacDowell in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”: “I like all of you. I like the bird and I like the cage. I like the polished mind and the rough tongue. I like the tearing claws and the warm hands. I like the monster and I like the girl.”

Buried beneath all this are plot facets about which I am loath to do more than hint. Suffice it to say that Richard observes, upon his arrival in New York, how that city has vastly more slaves than London. In the practice of slavery he has taken a special interest.

It’s a cliché to remark, about a book like this one, that the city itself becomes a character. But Spufford conveys a teeming sense of Manhattan, “where every alley may yet contain an adventure, every door be back’d by danger, or by pleasure, or by bliss.”

Spufford has written this book, he notes in an afterword, as a kind of homage to rambling and often comic novels like Sarah Fielding’s “The Adventures of David Simple” (1744) and her sibling Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” (1742).

As such, he’s written a high-level entertainment, filled with so much brio that it’s as if each sentence had been dusted with Bolivian marching powder and cornstarch and gently fried. Some of this swashbuckling action goes over the top, but you will probably be turning the pages too quickly to register a complaint.

I grew up reading (why? I often ask myself) John Jakes’s leaden historical novels about the American Revolution. What kept me going, I suspect, were the sex scenes — all those heaving bosoms — that appeared every 25 pages or so, as reliable as mail delivery.

The sex scenes in “Golden Hill” exist solely to advance this novel’s sophisticated meanings. One involves gay men, caught in flagrante, who fear for their lives if exposed.

Another involves Richard and a much-older actress, and is related by this novel’s charming narrator, whose identity comes as a fundamental surprise.

That moment is a commentary on the very difficulty of writing sex scenes without reaching for the standard metaphoric language: “How hard it is to describe a desirable woman without running into geography! Or the barnyard. Or the resources of the fruit-bowl.”

Spufford’s resources are implausibly deep. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of Shakespeare, the fellow is myriad-minded.

Continue reading the main story

About admin

Check Also

Hear the Best Albums and Songs of 2023

Dear listeners, In the spirit of holiday excess and end-of-the-year summation, we’re about to make …