Francis Spufford - a homage to the action-packed works of 18th-century masters like Sterne, Smollett and Fielding but with Spufford’s nimble fingers on fast forward, speeding along character — such characters! — and plot at a delirious pace.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New YorkScribner, 2017.

The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution.
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill is a story “taut with twists and turns” that “keeps you gripped until its tour-de-force conclusion” (The Times, London). Spufford paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble.

"Like a newly discovered novel by Henry Fielding with extra material by Martin Scorsese. Why it works so well is largely down to Spufford's superb re-creation of New York ... his writing is thick with the town's sounds and smells and is rippled with subtle reminders that everyone shares the same dream of growing rich ... His writing crackles with energy and glee, and when Smith's secret is finally revealed it is hugely satisfying on every level. For its payoff alone Golden Hill deserves a big shiny star.' - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times

This sparkling first novel sends a young man through a gantlet of troubles and amusements in 18th-century Manhattan.
Within minutes of deboarding from the brig Henrietta in New York harbor, anno Domini 1746, Richard Smith seems to attract trouble. First the 24-year-old Londoner presents a local merchant named Lovell with a bill demanding 1,000 pounds sterling. It’s a huge sum for the time, and Smith’s sharp tongue does little to smooth the transaction. Next day, his purse is stolen, and that night, invited to dine with the merchant, Smith is rude to his hosts and nettles the merchant’s daughter Tabitha. Among other things, he abets her sister’s taste in novels (“pabulum for the easily pleased”). Before the week is out he is mistaken for a papist and pursued by a drunken mob in a marvelous chase scene through Manhattan’s much fewer mean streets. His rescuer that night, Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, will unwittingly embroil Smith in the city’s chief political dispute. Spufford (Unapologetic, 2013, etc.), who writes in the Fielding-esque style of the period and displays a sure hand thereto, packs so many surprises into this sprightly picaresque that an extended precis would be full of spoiling answers to such queries as: why does Tabitha limp? Why do Smith and Septimus duel? Is it because of their dark secrets? Why is Smith really in New York? And who is the narrative’s “true” author? Spufford suggests in an afterword that he was aiming for "a colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews,” but there’s a touch here also of the Ian Fleming books that he warmly recalls in his autobiographical The Child That Books Built (2002).
A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists. - Kirkus Reviews

Spufford’s first novel is set in colonial New York City, where—as new arrival from London Richard Smith discovers—things can get out of hand quickly, and often do. As soon as his ship docks on Allhallows 1746, Smith heads to merchant Gregory Lovell’s Golden Hill home to cash a large bill of credit. Despite Smith’s refusal to divulge exactly who he is or how he intends to use the money, Lovell gives him a variety of currency and coin and introduces the young man to his daughters, lovely Flora and sharp-tongued Tabitha. For two months rumors fly, as Smith exchanges flirtatious jibes with Tabitha, cautiously converses with the slave Zephyra, drinks coffee with the governor’s secretary, is rescued from a Guy Fawkes Day brawl by the secretary and the slave Achilles, dines with the governor, plays whist with the chief justice, languishes in debtor’s prison, performs in a stage play, gets caught trysting with the play’s full-figured star, fights a duel, and stands trial for murder. On Christmas Day, Smith finally reveals his high-minded purpose for coming to America. Recounting this picaresque tale with serious undertones, Spufford adeptly captures 18th-century commercial practices and linguistic peculiarities as well as pre-Revolutionary Manhattan’s cultural hodgepodge. His New York bursts with energy, danger, and potential. His ironic, sometimes bawdy sense of humor and coy storytelling may frustrate those who do not “cotton” to the “cant,” but patient readers are rewarded with a feast of language, character, local color, and historical detail.
- Publishers Weekly

There is a tricky and perhaps dubious kind of suspense in fiction that depends on withholding information from the reader even though it is known to the protagonist. It can be a simple device to keep the pages turning in an action thriller – the hero puts some objects in his car boot, but you’ll have to read the next chapter to find out how he plans to use them to defeat the bad guys. Or it can be the mystery behind a whole book, which may depict all sorts of thoughts in the central character’s consciousness – except his secret purpose, withheld until the end.
Such is the epistemological structure of Francis Spufford’s splendidly entertaining and ingenious first novel, and it certainly helps to propel the reader forward. A young man from London, Mr Smith, arrives in New York in 1746 with a bill of exchange to the enormous value of £1,000. It is to be honoured within 60 days by a trader, Lovell, who owes this amount to the London company that wrote the bill. But who exactly is Smith? And what does he intend to do with his fortune? The novel won’t tell us until the very final pages. Opinions will differ about whether this is acceptable manipulation or just cheating. But then fiction is cheating to begin with – a fact often remarked upon by the novels of the 18th century that invented the modern form. In Spufford’s acknowledgments he describes the book as “a colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews or David Simple”, the novels by Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in Golden Hill’s picaresque tale of the travails of an ingenu he has produced a loving tribute to the literature of that era.
Through Smith’s eyes we are introduced to a colourfully mistrustful Manhattan social elite, through which our hero stumbles with lovable clumsiness. It is a small world, 18th-century New York being 10 times less populous than London (and, as the narrator memorably describes, considerably less smelly), though happily Smith can still indulge his admirably serious coffee habit. Through the coffeehouses and other talking shops the scuttlebutt soon spreads that Smith is “a Saracen conjuror, and quite possibly an agent of the French”. To say too much about what happens while he is waiting for his bill to be honoured would be invidious, but suffice to say that Mr Smith develops a healthy interest in one of Lovell’s daughters, Tabitha, and she in him: they compare their own flirtatious sparring with that of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. (Tabitha does not think much of novels: “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased.”) Smith also finds a key ally in the marvellous character of Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor and secretly the lover of his boss’s slave, Achilles. (The governor himself “had a massive and statuesque Roman head [...] like a slightly depraved but very intelligent emperor”.) The frolicsome story takes in, too, a feast, a performance of a play (Addison’s Cato), and a visit to the town jail.
But enough of mere incident. The third-person narrative voice, in era-appropriate style, is the book’s great comic triumph. Lovell is introduced early on as a man “to whom few things retain’d the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did”. The novelist is also an 18th-century character, who remarks upon the work of contemporaries such as Sterne, and who on three increasingly funny occasions despairs of being able to describe a particular scene when its understanding depends on a clear idea of the rules and technical vocabulary of a particular activity. When Smith sits down to an obscure species of card game, the exposition becomes more and more amusingly unfollowable until the narrator gives up: “alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun [...] Still, the reader may now find himself in as bemused a position as Mr Smith; which is, to be sure, a kind of gain in understanding.”
Later on, the same thing happens during a duel: “The truth is, that I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader’s mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.” This “their” is an excellent pedants’ trap with relevance to today’s arguments over gender-neutral pronouns: we are accustomed to think it was overwhelmingly the rule in past ages to use “his” to mean “his or her”, but in fact singular “they” was quite common in literary usage until the late 18th century. The whole line, of course, is also a joke about the historical novelist’s method of finding things out from books. Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. (One may contrast, for example, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, for all its intermittent brilliance.) Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly. Sense is never harmed by a fanatical disdain for linguistic anachronism, and the odd piece of period punctuation practice (a colon followed by a dash), or the restrained use of the Capitalization of Nouns (only in letters sent by one character to another), sketch verbal atmosphere without undue alienation.
The whole thing, then, is a first-class period entertainment, until at length it becomes something more serious. The comedy gives way to darker tones, and Smith’s secret is at last revealed – but the novel, most pleasingly, still has one more trick up its sleeve. -

he eighteenth-century British novel appeals to an apparently dwindling taste. With intrusive narrators, slatternly plots, odd punctuation, and long, ambling digressions, books like “Tristram Shandy” and “Joseph Andrews” try the patience of many contemporary readers, and modern efforts to emulate them—Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle spring to mind—are frequently greeted with exasperation. Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding couldn’t help writing like that, but what, some people wonder, is Pynchon’s excuse? The appealing qualities of the period’s literature—its humor, its frankness about sex and power, its omnivorous curiosity about humanity and the world—can be squandered, by present-day revivalists, amid defunct slang, semicolon dashes, and promiscuous capitalization.
Francis Spufford’s first novel, “Golden Hill,” which is set in New York in 1746, doesn’t make that mistake. It is trim rather than bulky, refrains from indulging in too many antique spellings, and tells its story with crafty precision. The novel begins with the arrival of Richard Smith, a young man from England, in a city that is still more small town than metropolis. Smith comes bearing a bill of exchange, drawn upon the debt of a local merchant, for the staggering sum of one thousand pounds sterling. (Or “one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money,” as the newcomer specifies; the baffling complexities of pre-Revolutionary currency and finance become one of the novel’s running jokes.) Smith refuses to state the nature of his business, but agrees to postpone collecting on the bill until the arrival of further documentary confirmation. “You don’t know me,” he concedes, “and suspicion must be your wisest course, when I may be equally a gilded sprig of the bon ton, or a flash cully working the inkhorn lay.” Rumors circulate that the amiable Smith is rich or a charlatan or a Turkish conjurer or—worst of all—a Catholic.
Spufford is the author of five previous books, all nonfiction, on subjects as varied as polar exploration (the splendidly titled “I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination”), his boyhood reading (“The Child That Books Built”), and the mid-twentieth-century optimism of the U.S.S.R. (“Red Plenty”). That last book, although substantially factual, spliced fiction into the mix, and served as a stage in what Spufford has described as his “creeping up gradually on writing novels.” With “Golden Hill,” he arrives at last, bearing the reputation of an author capable of making any topic, however unlikely, at once fascinating and amusing. “Golden Hill” is both. It is also a sort of mocking reversal of the “innocents abroad” motif of such Henry James novels as “Daisy Miller” and “The Portrait of a Lady,” in which fresh-faced, straightforward Yanks are confounded by the perilous subtleties of Europeans. Smith has travelled the world, and he knows intimately the high and low life of his beloved London, a city with a population a hundred times that of New York. His first American encounters, particularly with the merchant’s daughters, Flora and Tabitha, leave him with an overwhelming impression of wholesomeness. The two girls’ faces are miraculously (to his mind) unpitted by smallpox. Even the busiest New York streets don’t stink like the ones back home; they have “no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes.” There are also no beggars underfoot, and everybody is healthy and tall. He is the cosmopolitan; they are the strapping provincials. Surely, whether he is a wealthy man or an adventurer, he must be superior to these rubes in the arts of corruption. “Plain men for the plain daylight, that’s our preference,” a testy American sea captain informs him.
This, of course, turns out to be anything but the truth. A thief steals Smith’s wallet on his first morning, vanishing into a maze of alleyways. The city is split into two factions, led by opposing grandees: Governor George Clinton and Chief Justice James De Lancey. When they’re not grilling Smith to find out if he’s some kind of spy, each man tries to maneuver him to his own side. Smith offends the governor’s secretary. He begins a thorny flirtation with Tabitha, a young lady renowned for her shrewishness and her devious sense of humor. The Guy Fawkes Day bonfire celebration he attends culminates in the burning in effigy not just of Fawkes but of the Pope and Bonnie Prince Charlie to boot. Smith is alarmed by the ferocity of this patriotic display, by the crowd’s wearing “a common mask, of eager, reverent anger.” The conflagration gives Spufford an occasion to offer a nightmare vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “transitory enchanted moment” in “The Great Gatsby,” when Nick Carraway imagines man recognizing North America as “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” What Smith grasps is “the immense darkness of the continent at whose edge the little city perched—from this one pinpoint of defiant flame, the thousands upon thousands of miles of night unrolling westwards.” Then:
The awe and the fear of the New World broke in upon him. As if, till then, he had been inhabiting a little doll’s house, and misled by its neat veneers had mistaken it for the world, until with a splintering crunch its sides and front were broken off, and it proved to be standing all alone in the forests of the night; inches high, among silent, huge, glimmering trees.
After that, a drunken mob, mistaking Smith for a Papist, nearly kills him. Yet even these terrors do not constitute the city’s true heart of darkness. Smith grimly observes that, while Manhattan’s residents talk incessantly of “liberty and virtue, virtue and liberty,” black men and women are led in shackles through its streets.
Smith dines out, plays cards, and wins over the governor’s secretary (who has a secret of his own). He takes a role in an amateur production of Joseph Addison’s play “Cato,” a tragedy about the Roman orator’s doomed resistance to Julius Caesar’s takeover of the ancient republic. (So deeply did the colonists identify with the drama that George Washington is reputed to have had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge. Golden Hill, not incidentally, is both Tabitha’s neighborhood and the site, in 1770, of the first significant battle between the colonists and British soldiers.) This performance is far from the first time Smith has trod the boards, but nearly every character in the novel is performing in some way. Tabitha says that she detests novels for turning life as she knows it into “smirking sentiment and unlikelihood,” but she loves the grandeur and the pretenses of the theatre, and especially Shakespeare, “because he does not tell me lies about things close to hand.” And, while she and Smith assure each other that they are not Beatrice and Benedick, there’s plenty of “Much Ado About Nothing” in these sparring lovers.
The true reason for Smith’s visit to New York is only one of the mysteries in “Golden Hill.” Another is the identity of the narrator, who apologizes for not delivering a competent description of either the game of piquet or a duel. “The truth is, that I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon,” this personage confesses. “I throw myself upon the reader’s mercy.” More striking, the narrator interrupts an account of a tryst in a public bathhouse to switch perspectives:
Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him to be the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room?
In the twentieth century, asides like these would be labelled metafiction, but in the eighteenth century, when the novel was coming into being, they served as the form’s commentary on its own evolution. “Tristram Shandy,” which was published in installments, features both an anxious review of its own undisciplined structure and fictional quarrels between Sterne and readers who objected to earlier volumes.
Back then, the novel was young, much like New York in 1746. Now it is old, and it has learned a trick or two along the way. “Golden Hill” is neither a shaggy-dog yarn, like “Tristram Shandy,” nor a bloated doorstop, like Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” for readers with scads of time on their hands. It keeps its theme—the moral conundrum of America—ever in its sights, through breakneck chase scenes and dark nights of the soul. It has the high spirits of an eighteenth-century novel, but not the ramshackle mechanics. Spufford makes a sport of withholding the truth about Smith and about the novel’s narrator, the sort of gambit that can become wearisome if overdone. Executing it takes a skill not unlike seduction, and, when Smith makes his bid for Tabitha’s heart, we are told, “It seemed to Smith that he had her on the frailest, slenderest hook imaginable, made only of curiosity; like a fish-hook of ice, ready to shatter at too much force, or to melt at too much warmth; but that he might play her back all the way to safety on this hook, to the safe shore of her happiness and his own, if only he were subtle enough.” Such is the hook “Golden Hill” lodges, but it’s enough to play its readers all the way home. -

The English writer Francis Spufford has long been a bit of a cult figure. It’s an ardent cult. Once you’ve read his intelligent and ingenious books, many other nonfiction writers seem merely to be issuing, to steal a phrase from a Charles Portis novel, “foul grunting.”
Spufford refuses to occupy a fixed position. His first book was “I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination,” which appeared in the United States in 1998 after winning several major awards in England.
He’s since written volumes about children’s books and the rise and fall of technology in Britain, as well as a defense of Christianity (he is married to a vicar) and an altogether remarkable book called “Red Plenty” (2012), about the once-limitless promise of the Soviet Union’s planned economy.
Intellectually he resembles a many-armed Hindu deity, able to pluck fruit and butterflies from anywhere on earth’s most robust tall trees.
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.
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. - Dwight Garner

It’s New York in 1746, the lights of Breukelen twinkle over the water and a young Mr Smith arrives with a 1000-dollar bill. In the American tradition, but with a wholly original and inimitable English voice, Smith is an Adam in the New World, announcing himself boldly as a "new man… new-made". Across the city, among merchants, daughters, slaves, actors, rogues, runs the general murmuring: "Who is he?" Smith has no past he’s willing to talk about and, ahead of him, everything a man might do with a promissory note and four shining guineas in his pocket.
Golden Hill is a novel of gloriously capacious humanity, thick-woven with life in all its oddness and familiarity, a novel of such joy it leaves you beaming, and such seriousness that it asks to be read again and again. Life does not, of course, run smoothly for a picaresque hero: Smith’s guineas are stolen at once, leaving him to walk, "with what sadder steps and slower", like Milton’s Adam and Eve venturing out from Eden with "wandering steps and slow".
Not that anything goes slowly in Golden Hill: the novel, Francis Spufford’s first, is a riot of action, as busy with talk, troubles, passions and large breakfasts as the Merchants’ coffee-house when a brig is just in. Gentlemen leap from sash windows at midnight and escape across rooftops; card games are played for fortunes and reputations; sex is steamy because it’s in a sauna. Since Smith finds himself arraigned for capital offences with remarkable frequency, he lives with the intensity of a man both "new-made" and about to die – his energy matched only by the abrasive Tabitha Lovell, thwarted and explosive, determined to take command of the plot.
Spufford’s people are usually on the move: gobbling, coddling, puzzling, worrying. They disappear down the wooden stairs of those tall, narrow, Dutch-gabled houses "like ink down a drain", or swing up them like monkeys in a tree. Even when snoozing in elbow-chairs, they are vividly alive.
Colonial New York was a city with palpable edges: cows on the common could be seen at the end of the street. It was small enough that everyone knew that a wealthy stranger had just arrived, but large enough to contain every kind of person and possibility. We feel the dolls’ house closeness of rooms that smell of waxed wood and tea-leaves, and then, as dusk falls, a dim apprehension that beyond the familiar streets lie all the "forests of the night", a continent barely known.
In the stillness, Spufford’s characters feel ‘as if a piece of folded white paper had abruptly opened up’ to reveal them ‘standing tiny at its middle point’. Stepping into Trinity Church on a Sunday morning we see powdered heads bobbing above white box-pews, but can a novel record what happens, invisibly, in people’s souls when, "lidless before the lord", they kneel down out of sight? "Certainly, all the heads reappeared again looking none the worse".
Spufford is fascinated by what novels can do. Can they contain life’s "mess of accident" while also sorting out the muddle? Is the energetic narration of incident a "conjuror’s distracting busywork", holding our attention with arabesque flourishes, so that some tragedy can be smuggled away, as one would a playing card?
Golden Hill is a celebration of the 18th-century novel as it was shaped by Smollett, Sterne, Henry and Sarah Fielding. Plenty of dubious currencies change hands in old New York, but this novel is verifiable gold. - Alexandra Harris

New York in 1746, three decades before “Hamilton” and all that, was a small but industrious town of 7,000, an inkling of the Gotham it would become. “This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do,” the exquisitely named and clearly clairvoyant Septimus Oakeshott warns in Francis Spufford’s exhilarating first novel, “Golden Hill.” Residents, he declares, are “wild, suspicious, combustible — and the devil to govern.”
Our young, handsome hero is an international man of mystery, fresh off the boat from London with no introduction but a note for a thousand pounds sterling, a fortune worthy of Croesus and enough to break a trading house. His name is Smith, project onto him what you will, for he reveals little.
The man in the green coat — green to the new world, not so much to performing a part — quickly becomes known as “the very rich boy who won’t answer questions. ”
And whoosh — we are off!
Spufford, a prize-gilded author of five works of nonfiction, including “I May Be Some Time ,” has finally delivered a novel, and it’s a wonder. It has racked up a mantel of English literary awards and was crowned the British Sunday Times’s novel of the year.
“Golden Hill” is a homage to the action-packed works of 18th-century masters like Sterne, Smollett and Fielding but with Spufford’s nimble fingers on fast forward, speeding along character — such characters! — and plot at a delirious pace.
“Golden Hill” offers sparring lovers, hidden identities, theater, “spectacular debauchery,” a duel (take that, “Hamilton”!), sedition, a prison stint, insidious small-town politics, a voluptuous thespian named Terpie Tomlinson (“Every time she misremembers a line, she’ll give a flash of thigh”) and multiple reversals of fortune (naturally). A feast! Also, multiple secrets and masked identities, including that of the novel’s wry narrator. Almost everyone is an actor on the stage of nascent New York.
Upon arrival, Smith immediately goes to cash his note with the prosperous trader Lovell, resident of Golden Hill, the highest spot in all of tiny New York (home now to the Financial District) and future site of a 1770 battle that provided tinder for the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, all Lovell can deliver is a small offering until Smith’s legitimacy is confirmed: stacks of coins and wads of paper from multiple countries and several colonies, the uselessness of Rhode Island currency a running gag.
Ah, but Lovell has two daughters: fair, honorable and — wouldn’t you know it? — dull Flora; and stern, dark-tressed Tabitha, a woman of pronounced intelligence and bite. A fan of Shakespeare, Tabitha says, “I am not a great one for novels, ” even while becoming the fetching heroine of this one.
Smith and Tabitha spar exquisitely, claiming not to be at all like Benedick and Beatrice but fooling no one. “You make everything else in a room look dull,” a smitten Smith informs Tabitha. “Your face is more alive than anyone else’s, to me. All the other faces are dirty windows, to me, smeared with chalk and street-spatter; yours is clear though, to the soul behind.”
In 1756, London was the largest city in Europe with a population of 700,000, a hundred times that of striving New York. Smith is a man of the world, well-traveled, a master of languages, a master at fitting in almost anywhere, yet he’s completely at sea on land that is not yet a nation or even an idea of one.
Spufford has immersed himself in the 18th-century quotidian world on either side of the ocean. “Golden Hill” possesses a fluency and immediacy, a feast of the senses, without ever being pedantic. It is a historical novel for people who might not like them.
In a year already ripe with tremendous fiction, did I mention that I love this book? I love this book.
- Karen Heller

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 Not long after arriving in New York, fresh off the London boat, our hero Robert Smith goes to church. In 1746, the town is still in miniature, populated by a mere “six thousand souls”, many of whom are also saying their prayers. The scene allows author Francis Spufford to lay out his wares, presenting a dissection of New York society taking their places in the pews, from the Governor and his two African footmen “with wigs powdered to the colour of icing sugar”, to “a choir of blue-coated orphans”. As the faithful sink to their knees, Spufford takes flight: “From all the separate souls, in all their separate boxes, lidless before the Lord, arose the grumbling, lisping, rumbling, droning, hoarse, melodious, piping, muttering, murmuring, whispering, bellowing voice of the congregation together . . . ”These diverse voices, the beginnings of a city, are as much the concern of Golden Hill, Spufford’s first novel, as is his protagonist. New York — in unrecognisable form, mostly fields and thick with Dutch — is in its hyperactive infancy. It’s a town where everybody knows everybody, where the politics is factional and vicious, where they still toast the British monarch, and where a newcomer, such as Smith, can transform the landscape.From the off, Smith is a tantalising mystery. He arrives from London with a bill for £1,000 in his pocket — a large enough sum to make him the subject of frenzied speculation. He takes it to be cashed by Lovell, a local banker, and so encounters Lovell’s daughters Flora and Tabitha, the latter a sharp-tongued firebrand, for whom he falls. Smith’s purpose in New York remains obscure until the closing pages of the novel. The narrative gamble pays off — you read to find out. But it wouldn’t have worked without Smith’s seductive, near-superheroic charisma. He’s a leading man blessed with wit, sympathy and an unending capacity for trouble.Smith’s derring-do is in keeping with a book alive with risk. In that early church scene, Spufford nods to his forebears with the first of several leaps out of the contained world of his fiction: “The operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist,” he writes. “Mrs Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr Fielding, nor Mrs Lennox, nor Mr Richardson, nor Mr Smollett, nor even Mr Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” This list of fictional innovators sets out Spufford’s literary interest. But the intoxicating effect of Golden Hill is much more than an experiment in form. Spufford — previously a writer of non-fiction books, including a memoir of childhood reading and a dramatic history of the Soviet Union — has created a complete world, employing his archivist skills to the great advantage of his novel. His 18th-century New York breathes, down to its minutiae — from the smell of the coffee and bread rolls in the morning, to the surprising absence of pox marks on the faces of its inhabitants.His style is reminiscent of the way Hilary Mantel dispatches her history as if she’d made it up herself. Spufford’s intricate knowledge of currency and costume, and everything in between, is offered up for tasting rather than forced down your throat. The overwhelming impression is one of glee, a sheer delight in detail — like the rector whose wig is bunched on both sides “like ear muffs”. He writes with unashamed abundance, rich in archaic and often incomprehensible words. Sentences go on for paragraphs, sometimes sweating a little under the weight of complex punctuation schemes, but always enlivened by sleek humour and delicate observation. At a dinner, Tabitha wears a dress of red silk: “she stood there inside it as if it were no part of her, like a tall pole which in the wind happens to have become entangled in a cloth”. This is wonderful stuff.Much will probably be made of this virtuosic work being Spufford’s first novel. If anything, it’s an advertisement for postponement, for starting late. This is a book born of patience, of knowledge accrued and distilled over decades, a style honed by practice. There are single scenes here more illuminating, more lovingly wrought, than entire books. -

Good historical fiction takes more than research. Henry James once said that writers needed to shed everything that made them modern to feel their way into a completely alien world view — a near impossibility. But this ideal historical novel, bristling with ancient prejudice, would be rather heavy going for a general readership, and successful ones often come populated by dismaying modern stand-ins. Noted non-fiction writer Francis Spufford’s debut novel Golden Hill — an update of 18th-century adventure romps by the likes of Henry Fielding — is successful because it makes us feel entertained and uneasy with the past.
In 1746, Englishman Richard Smith arrives at the office of a New York merchant with a bill for £1,000. While waiting for his money he attempts to hide the true nature of his visit without overtly lying, striking up a friendship with a gay civil servant and falling for Tabitha Lovell, his creditor’s sadistic and brilliant daughter.
Smith is a cipher even to us, the intrusive 18th-century narrator fortifying his mystery with interjections: ‘I do not want to write this part of the story, and am quibbling to hesitate’; ‘What, if anything, Mr Smith confessed, this history must not tell.’ These blind spots were conventional, primitive drawbacks to the early novel. Spufford turns them into modern devices to intrigue and tease the reader as Smith runs the customary gauntlet of debtor’s prison, angry mobs and wasteful duels.
Golden Hill isn’t a pastiche, though its characters are regularly ‘confus’d’ and ‘mazed’ and write bravura letters packed with capitalised nouns. The book takes what it needs from the old to furnish a new yarn and a freshly imagined look at America before revolution. New York smells cleaner than London but is strangely lawless and barbaric. Never mind the French scalps displayed in the market, sent as tribute from cooperative Natives. The townsfolk’s insidious attitudes are more unnerving.
Walking in rural New York, Smith is struck by its idyllic beauty before realising the land is kept at the cost of slavery. Playing an African role in some amateur dramatics, the novel’s nifty play-within-a-play, Smith is given racist reason not to black up: American slave-owners won’t want to countenance a dark-skinned romantic lead opposite their daughters. Strange place, where blackface implies progress.
This is Spufford’s first novel, but since the early 1990s he has won awards for liberty-taking non-fiction that feels its way into distant places or times, such as Antarctica or Soviet Russia in the 1950s. His early New York feels no less real. -

“Well, I still hate novels,” says one character toward the end of Francis Spufford's debut novel Golden Hill. “They still seem to me to be tissues of exaggeration, simplification, a sweetness that falsifies; and now I know this truth from, as it were, the inside, having written one myself, and marked all the sleights and tricks required to tease out a very partial understanding, a perished cloth more holes than thread, into what seems a smooth continuous fabric.”
It's an occupational hazard, particularly in historical fiction: the exaggeration, the simplification, the sweetness that falsifies. Readers steeped in the history part of a historical novel will inevitably find the neatening anachronisms the writer thought necessary to tell the story; readers seeking the release and wonder of the fiction part of a historical novel will often find themselves bumping into blocks of exposition.
Francis Spufford is familiar with such issues, although he comes at them from the other side of the fence; he's the author of a number of well-received works of history and nonfiction, books like "I May Be Some Time" and "Unapologetic," his recent and very rewarding book on contemporary Christianity. He knows the challenge of working historical fiction into just the right balance of period detail and dramaturgy, and in "Golden Hill" he compounds that challenge of balance with that of pastiche: his fiction debut is a merry homage to the great novels of the 18th century, a carefully-tuned echo of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding.
The story begins along the most familiar axes of all fiction: a stranger comes to town. The stranger in question is a handsome young man named Mr. Smith, freshly arrived from England in the small muddy 1746 town of New York at the shank end of the island of Manhattan. He presents himself at the counting house of Lovell & Company bearing a bill drawn by their London colleagues – a bill for the staggering sum of a thousand pounds. He expects the money, but he's in no hurry, and he's not inclined to explain himself, despite Mr. Lovell's wails of protest: “Do you know what will happen if I accept your bill, for your secret business, your closed-mouth business, your smiling business, your confidential business?”
Naturally, such a mystery so freshly stepped off the boat excites the interest of the entire town, and Spufford unfolds his subsequent adventures with a fine ear for the arch language of the day, and with a very satisfying feel for sly comedy. At the center of everything is wry, charismatic Smith who's as observant as he is enigmatic and who immediately draws to himself all the attention and suspicion of the townsfolk. Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the Governor and the book's most interesting character, warns Smith that although the officials of the place don't know exactly what he is, they very much know what they'd rather he weren't: “We would rather you were not a spy. We would rather you were not a hireling of the ministry,” Oakeshott tells him. “We would rather you were not a scoundrel, come to spoil the credit of London paper in the city.” (In one of our first tastes of Spufford's knowing humor, Smith quickly replies, “I am not a spy or a hireling.”)
The book's multiple plots all extend outward from the one fixed point of Smith's arrival, which makes it a welcoming reading experience as well as an interesting one. Smith encounters the whole gamut of characters in the frontier world: slaves, mobs, molls, thieves, insurgents, and of course a love interest, Lovell's strong-willed daughter Tabitha. The American Revolution is still 30 years away at the time of the novel, but Spufford's many characters thrum and bristle with the kind of cantankerousness that bodes poorly for smooth colonial rule. “This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do,” Smith is warned at one point. “Take 'em as they take themselves, and [the colonists] are the innocent shopkeepers, placid and earnest, plucked by a lucky fortune out from corruption. But the truth is that they are wild, suspicious, combustible – and the very devil to govern.”
As faithful, even sometimes slavish, as "Golden Hill" is to its great template novels of centuries ago, the book has a one-two combination of twists at the very end that would have been all but unthinkable to the likes of Sterne or Smollett. These twists are pure products of cinema, not literature – but even readers who tend to fume at such gimmicks will have built up such a store of affection for this terrific novel that they'll be inclined to forgive all. With "Golden Hill" Spufford adds another genre to an already impressive résumé. - Steve Donoghue

Ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Native Americans, New York City's character has been defined by money and con artistry. So it is that classic New York stories are always populated by a grifter or two.
Francis Spufford is a Brit, but he knows this cardinal rule of writing New York. His ingenious historical novel, Golden Hill (published in the U.K. last year), is set in 1746, a time when spies, thieves, card sharks and crooked bankers jostled the innocent in the teeming streets of what's now Lower Manhattan. It's a place of dark alleys and twisted virtue where Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls characters Nicely-Nicely and Angie the Ox would've felt right at home.
The opening scene of Golden Hill is also ripped out of the classic New York story handbook: On a gloomy November evening, a ship sails into the harbor and a stranger disembarks. He's a handsome young Englishman named Mr. Smith, and he quickly makes his way to a counting house on Golden Hill Street. There, he presents a bill from London investors demanding payment of 1,000 pounds.
The chief merchant of the counting house is suspicious: Is Smith legit or is he a con artist presenting a forged document? In any case, the counting house doesn't have enough money at hand — this is early New York, where a hectic variety of colonial notes, along with wampum, tobacco tickets, rum by the gallon and, of course, slaves serve as money substitutes. As Smith says to himself, "It was all money, in a world without money."
Stranded in the city until matters can be sorted out, Smith becomes the object of fierce interest, both romantic and political. Rumors swirl that Smith may be funding an opposition movement to the crown. On his first morning in the city, while he's eating in a coffee house, Smith is warned, as many an out-of-towner since has been, that New York isn't the city for him. A new acquaintance tells him:
"This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do. You would think, talking to the habitants, that all the vices and crimes of humanity had been left behind on the other shore. ... But the truth is that [the people here] are wild, suspicious, combustible — and the devil to govern. ... In all their relations they are prompt to peer and gaze for the hidden motive, the worm in the apple, the serpent in the garden they insist their New World to be."
Before his adventures end, Smith will get a personal tour of the city's taverns, theaters and debtor's prison; he'll be pressured to take part in society dinners, dances and a duel. Ultimately, the mystery of Smith's identity will turn out to be as multi-layered as that of old New York itself.
Traditional historical novels are out of fashion these days; most contemporary writers who tell stories about the past prefer to tell them "slant"; that is, riddled with intrusions of skepticism and fantasy as, say, Colson Whitehead and George Saunders both do in their latest superb novels.
Even Spufford himself has fiddled around with trickier techniques of writing about the past: His book Red Plenty falls in that gray zone between novel and nonfiction. But Golden Hill is so gorgeously crafted, so intelligent and entertaining, it makes a case for the enduring vitality of the more straightforward historical novel.
Spufford says he was inspired to write Golden Hill by the 18th-century picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. Spufford's sprawling recreation here is pitch perfect, down to single sentences that can stretch exuberantly to a page, as well as a comic narrator who directly apologizes to readers when events get too bawdy or bloody.
Midway through the novel, Mr. Smith writes a letter to his father back in England; I want to end by quoting a line from that letter, because it also so aptly describes the way Golden Hill draws readers into another world. Smith writes to his father:
"[I]f it were in my Power, I would take this Paper on whose other Side You seem to sit now, whatever the Months and Miles between, and tear a Hole in It so cunningly, that I might fold It out into a Door in the Air, through which I could step, and at once be at Home with You."
Golden Hill itself is that "Door in the Air." Give yourself a treat and step through. - Maureen Corrigan

Francis Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys, Red Plenty (which was translated into nine languages), and most recently, Unapologetic. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge, England. Golden Hill is his first novel.