I know that in many, many ways I am very lucky. I love my job, my family and friends are brilliant (a bit odd sometimes but wonderful nevertheless) and I was one of the last generation to get a full grant to go to University. In fact in anyone asks what I did at University I tend to say ‘I got paid to read books’. Although it would be more accurate to say I did my degree in English & Related Literature at York University my flippant description tends to cover the facts. Of course grants weren’t perfect – no-one would lend you money if you were a student and I had trouble moving my bank branch after graduation because I had a £40 overdraft – but they certainly helped. My university years were fabulous and full of friends, laughter, slightly drunken nights out, theatrical performances, geese and late-night card schools. And, of course, some great books! I have my degree to thank for my introduction to Dante, the italian language, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wallace Stevens and Gawain & the Green Knight (and I was able to do the whole course while avoiding Dickens!) These are all things I have gone back to over the years but one module which I had largely forgotten was on 18th Century literature – in which I read Defoe (Moll Flanders), Swift (A Modest Proposal), the poetry of Pope and Fielding’s novels. And it is Fielding that came to mind when I read Spufford’s Golden Hill.
In this novel a young man, mysteriously named Mr Richard Smith, arrives in a New York which is not yet the power it is today. Yet it is still a centre of trade and finance and Smith presents a note from a London bank to be exchanged for the vast sum of £1000. As he waits for this process to happen he becomes involved with New York society from fancy dinners (with high stakes card games) to amateur dramatics and with life on the streets of the city too. We get to see New York from top to bottom – with the lower levels featuring everything from near riots to bath-houses and, eventually, the jailhouse too. The whole tone is, generally, amusing (and amused) with the odd moment of pathos. There is, however, also a more serious view of how the white settlers, the British and the Dutch, deal with the black slaves they rely on to build their country.
This is, in the end, a novel with a broad streak of eighteenth century picaresque humour – balanced by our own twenty-first century sensibilities. Don’t let the fact that it reminds me (and others) so strongly of books which show up on undergraduate syllabuses put you off either – those funny, sentimental and often bawdy novels were some of the highlights of my studies!