Sep 28 2019

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Entirely too much time has passed since I read Francis Spufford’s wonderful first novel (after five mostly non-fictional books, of which it has so far only been my pleasure to read Red Plenty) Golden Hill for me to be able to do it anything approaching justice. Nevertheless, a few words.

Golden Hill

The story is set in late 1746 in New-York, as it was styled then; a place, as Spufford notes in an afterword, that “had a population of about 7,000, while London, then the largest city in Europe, had one of 700,000: genuinely a hundred-fold difference.” (p. 343) To this place that is small by British standards but looms large in the American colonies comes Mr Smith, a man in such a hurry that he will not allow a late afternoon arrival in a November drizzle to persuade him to spend an extra night on board the ship on which he had crossed the Atlantic. Spurning the captain’s invitation to remain, he desired to be rowed ashore and, once there, dashed off as fast as his newly landed legs could carry him to “the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company on Golden Hill Street” just before closing time, whereupon, just as “the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, [he] demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr Lovell himself.” (p. 2)

That speech with Mr Lovell sets everything in motion:


“Good day,” said Mr Smith, “for I am certain it is a good day, never mind the rain and the wind. And the darkness. You’ll forgive the dizziness of the traveller, sir. I have the honour to present a bill drawn upon you by your London correspondents, Messrs Banyard and Hythe. And request the favour of its swift acceptance.”
“Could it not have waited for the morrow?” said Lovell. “Our hours for public business are over. Come back and replenish your purse at nine o’clock. Though for any amount over ten poind sterling I’ll ask you to wait out the week, cash money being scarce.”
“Ah,” said Mr Smith, “It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of long notice.”
And he handed across a portfolio …
“Lord love us,” [Lovell] said. “This is a bill for a thousand pound.”
“Yes sir,” said Mr Smith. “A thousand pounds sterling; or as it says there, one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money. May I sit down?” (pp. 4–5)

For New-York, it is an enormous sum, almost a whole season’s account, as Lovell puts it. He has done business with his London correspondents for twenty years and has never seen the like. Lovell knows nothing of Smith, and Smith is not forthcoming. Lovell asks what this thing is, and who he is. The reply: “What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pound. And a traveller who owns it.” Lovell is not satisfied, “I’ll ask again: who are you? What’s your business”

Smith answers, “Well: in general, Mr Lovell, buying and selling. Going up and down in the world. Seeing what may turn to advantage; for which my thousand pounds may be requisite. But more specifically, Mr Lovell: the kind I choose not to share. The confidential kind.” (p. 6)

The dilemma for Lovell is sharp. He knows nothing of Smith, and the sum he is asking for is huge by the standards of Lovell’s business and of New-York as a whole. If it is a true bill, he must put out a great deal of liquidity, which he will be hard-pressed to lay his hands on. If Smith is a rogue, and he accepts the bill, he will incur a great loss, probably enough to wreck his business. If he accepts it but does not lay out the cash immediately, Smith may go to other merchants and apply for immediate cash at a discount against his credit at Lovell’s. “Then there’ll be sixty-day paper with my name upon’t, going round and round the island, playing the devil with my credit just at the turn of the season, in no kind of confidence at all. All will know it; all will know I’m to be dunned for a thousand pound, and wonder should they try to mulct me first.” (pp. 8–9)

But then Smith, though he is in New-York for what Lovell, losing patience, calls “your secret business, your closed-mouth business, your smiling business, your confidential business” makes a concession and says he will not discount the bill with other merchants. That offer is the first opening of trust, the true currency of trans-oceanic business.

In due course, they reach an agreement. The bill that Smith has brought says that it is the second bill; Lovell counters that he has seen neither hide nor hair of the first and third. Smith names the ships they were sent on; they have not yet landed in New-York. Lovell says that if they do turn up, bearing matching bills from his London correspondents, then Lovell will say that he had accepted the bill when Smith presented it, and will pay it out sixty days hence. If the matching bills do not appear, “why then you’re the rascal you tease at being, and I’ll have you before the justices for personation. What do you say?”
“It’s irregular,” said Mr Smith, “but something should be allowed for teasing. Very well: done.” (p. 9)

Lovell thinks their business is done, but Smith has another request.

“Yes,” said Smith, bringing forth a purse. “I’m told I should break my guineas to smaller change. Could you furnish me with the value of these in pieces convenient for the city?”
Lovell looked at the four golden heads of the King glittering in Smith’s palm.
“Are they brass?” said one of the prentices, grinning.
“No, they’re not brass,” said Lovell. “Use your eyes and not your mouth. Why ever—?” he said to Smith. “Never mind. Never mind. Yes, I believe we can oblige you. Jem, get out the penny-weights and check these.”
“Full weight,” the clerk reported.
“Thought so,” said Lovell. “I am learning your humours, Mr Smith. Well, now, let’s see. We don’t get much London gold, the flow being, as you might say, all the other way … So I believe I could offer you a hundred and eighty per centum on face, in New-York money. Which, for four guineas, would come to—”
“One hundred and fifty one shillings, twopence-halfpenny.”
“You’re a calculator, are you? A sharp reckoner.” (p. 10)

Coin is indeed scarce in New-York. Lovell opens a box and begins to count. “A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.” (pp. 10–11) The equally diverse grouping of paper money drives home the small size of the colonial economy, the patchwork currencies in circulation, and the importance of trust in every transaction.

Smith follows Lovell upstairs for the remainder of his money, and falls into conversation with two young women, Lovell’s daughters: one fair and ingratiating, the other brunette and brusque. Business completed, and Mr Smith having completed a long journey, Mr Lovell invites him to join the family for dinner the following evening. More trust, and Smith’s first connections in the New World. After Smith has left to find lodgings, Lovell poses a question to his brusque daughter.

“Why do you suppose,” he said slowly, “that a young fellow who has money might pretend that he does not — or, at any rate, keep it doubtful?”
Does he have money,” Tabitha asked.
“I think so, yes. I think the rest is all palaver, confusion a-purpose. Sand thrown in our eyes. Why, though, is what I cannot tell. What do you make of him?”
The same question was asked that night by Isaiah of Jem [two of the Lovell’s servants], at the kitchen fire, and again by the master of the Henrietta [the ship Smith had crossed on] of the mate, as the ship rode at anchor, on the swelling black rain-pored skin of the East River.
By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket. (p. 20)

The rest of the novel concerns the repercussions of those facts, and those first encounters. Who is Smith? Is he rich? What does he propose to do with the money, if he has it? How should New-York react? Things go right, things go awry. Smith learns some about New-York society, including its dangers. It’s all as brilliant as the opening. And the ending! Oh the ending, in which much is revealed and many other things take on a new cast, when the beginning is echoed, loose ends tied up and others left forever unraveled. Golden Hill is a marvel; having picked it up again to put these notes together, I can barely set it aside.

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