Imogen Hermes Gowar on mermaids, mummies and writing this year's must-read historical novel

Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock Credit: Rii Schroer

Stories of big-money book advances are ten a penny. But there are few as peculiar as the one 30-year-old Londoner Imogen Hermes Gowar received for her debut novel.

A fierce 10-way bidding war had broken out for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – a deliciously salty slab of historical fiction, which follows a shy Georgian merchant into a strange and slippery world of gutter freak shows and upper-class brothels.

Despite feeling “really out of my depth” (the archaeology graduate was working as a barista in a London cafe at the time), Gowar played a canny hand for an ingenue. Her preferred publisher, Vintage, had offered £205,000: “considerably lower” than two other bidders. So she asked them instead for 205,000 guineas, in the style of her book’s period setting – a request that, when translated back to modern currency, upped the sum by 5 per cent. “It was a really cheeky move, but I think it was suitably Georgian, and luckily Vintage were sporting about it.”

That was 19 months ago, and now, Gowar is being touted as this year’s big literary discovery. Coming in the wake of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014) and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016), The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock crests a new wave of feminist fiction that brings the complex lives of historical women out of the shadows.

Reviewers have been delighted by Gowar’s zesty cast of female characters and rich period detail, gushing over this “sumptuous doorstopper” that takes its readers at a giddy gallop through the backstreets of a Georgian London populated by wisecracking courtesans, greedy madams and serious servants on the make.

Gowar's novel (right) is the latest historical fiction hit, following The Essex Serpent and The Miniaturist

The daughter of a brand manager and an interior designer – “lower middle class on one side, bohemian upper middle class on the other” – Gowar has found it “weird” adapting to the idea of herself as a professional writer, although her family have form in the arts. Her great-grandmother was Gertrude Hermes, a celebrated sculptor and woodcarver best remembered today for her illustration of Penguin Classics’ The Compleat Angler. “But”, she smiles, “my idea of an author was of somebody more together than I am”.

Despite her modesty, Gowar has been on a steady trajectory of success since winning the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA in 2013. There she began writing about the museum artefacts that had gripped her ever since she developed a childhood obsession with Otzi the iceman, Europe’s oldest human mummy, whose 3000-year old body was discovered on the Austrian/Italian border in 1991.

“I saw a documentary about him when I was about 7,” she says. “I would draw him over and over again, surrounded by his possessions which I would label carefully. His quiver and arrows, his cloak, his boots stuffed with straw against the cold. It was quite a spooky thing for a child to do, but this was the first time I had seen a human from thousands of years ago literally frozen in a moment: he had died with the stuff he really used, and I could begin to imagine what his life might have been like. He seemed reachable to me through those little details. If there was anything that got me interested in in archaeology, that was it.”

Gowar was inspired by a stuffed 'mermaid' she saw at the British Museum Credit: Rii Schroer

Her curious passion led, after a degree in archaeology, to a job in Visitor Services at the British Museum: there, she found herself “mostly telling people not to touch things”, and became “quite uncomfortable” with the idea of dead people as exhibits. She studied the visitors who stopped to look at a mummy called “Ginger” – so named because of his red hair – “stopping at his case purely to see if they could get a look at his genitals [which were obscured by his pose]. There is value in showing what an ordinary person’s tomb might have looked like, but on the whole people aren’t stopping for that reason: they want to see a corpse.”

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was inspired by the British Museum’s very own “mermaid”: a mummified Japanese concoction muddling the remains of a snaggle-toothed monkey and a fish into a ferocious-looking, infant-sized imp: nothing like the beautiful sirens of popular myth. An 18th century fraud, probably made by Japanese fishermen to trade to gullible Dutch sailors, Gowar says she was “not quite prepared for the fascination of it.”

Neither is her Kentish merchant, Jonah Hancock. When a captain he has entrusted to bring him a more conventional cargo places a mummified “mermaid” – just like the real one in the British Museum – into Hancock’s hands, he “has a peculiar urge to dash it to the ground”.

But instead he exhibits it in a freak show, then accepts 300 guineas from a celebrated Madam who wants to display the “dessicated and furious” looking creature to her wealthy and influential clients as part of a grand soiree which devolves into an orgy where young girls “sprigged with coral and laced with ropes of pearls” cavort before priapic old MPs beneath glittering chandeliers. Hancock notes that “the hair upon their mounds of pleasure has, by some cunningness, been turned as green as the moss that fringes a seaside rock-pool” and worries they’ll get arsenic poisoning.

Gowar revelled in the fruity language and humour of the Georgian period and admits to “treating characters like dollies to dress up in all my favourite costumes from the V&A”.

She threw herself into researching the world of the Georgian sex worker. “Some of it was just eye-popping,” she says, “I was pretty aghast by James Boswell [the Scottish diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson], who recorded his sexual encounters with alternating relish and self-loathing.”

She was also drawn in by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies: “a sort of Time Out of sex workers which was printed and sold throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Initially it contained quite candid reviews of the women’s services, but soon they were paying for entries, which typically laid out a woman’s name, address, price, physical description and any special skills, but often also included little peculiarities, or the story of how she became a ‘votary of Venus’.”

“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of sex workers in eighteenth-century London got there via coercion, desperation and abuse,” Gowar says. “But it’s patronising to assume that every single woman involved in sex work suffered terrible misery; many had struck a calculated compromise in tough circumstances, and achieved a comfort and security that was not possible as a single woman doing ‘honest’ jobs, which were ill-paid and precarious.”

Cataloguing the “brutal, bizarre and tedious” requests made by their clients, Gowar’s book does nothing to glamourise the lives of the courtesans she describes. But it gives them credit for the hard grit and intellect required for women of relatively low birth to learn to handle themselves in aristocratic circles, keeping themselves informed and entertaining on the culture of the period.

Gowar talks passionately about Emma Hamilton, who rose from poverty, through the whorehouse, to become the mistress of a succession of influential men including Lord Nelson.

A portrait of Emma Hamilton, at Sotheby's auction house in London

“At the age of fifteen she was hired to entertain an extended stag party for weeks in the countryside. There’s no question she was being exploited, but to be aghast at that is to assume that she had other, better options.” Hamilton eventually became fluent in many languages and developed a passion for classical mythology.

“So many women of the period deserve much more respect and recognition than we give them.”

Gowar attributes the current vogue for female-led historical fiction to the fact that readers are “more willing to accept that capable, interesting women did exist in the past, despite not enjoying the opportunities and status that their male contemporaries did, or being household names today.” She is relieved, she says, that she does not have to live as an eighteenth century woman. “I admire them immensely, but more I read about the Georgian period, the more grateful I am that I was only visiting it.”

She’s happy about the new repositioning of women in the West, including, as we discuss, the rise of “new mostly female sports [that] are about asserting a feminine strength and beauty without having to appeal to men. That’s amazing”.

One of these, incidentally, is “mermaiding” – an activity involving balletic underwater swimming in heavy but flexible tails which require extraordinary strength and skill to control.

Despite her book’s subject, though, Gowar’s not ready to join the twenty-first century “mermaids” just yet. “My agent sent me one of those trendy mermaid tail blankets for Christmas. But I worry”, she says, “that I’ll forget I’ve got it on, try to stand up, and fall over”.