Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill introduces us to mid-eighteenth century New York City through the eyes of a London visitor named Richard Smith. For Smith, it’s a strange place. In the book’s first scene, as Tom discussed yesterday, he exchanges some of his own currency for local money. But he is baffled to receive an irregular stack of paper from around the continent divided into various denominations.
I immediately empathized. Only a few days before I began the novel, I had been trying to untangle what I had initially thought would be a fairly straightforward problem for an article manuscript involving colonial wage rates and commodity prices. But I had quickly found myself waist-deep in conversion charts, glossaries, and historical data about the foreign, colonial, and metropolitan currencies that circulated in eighteenth-century Anglo-America. Old tenor, new tenor, pounds, shillings, pence, halfjoes, Spanish dollars—it was a world of currency only slightly less confusing than blockchain.
My twinge of recognition at Smith’s confusion was my first clue that Golden Hill is an unusually historical work of historical fiction. Most novels that market themselves as “historical fiction” do so based on the fact that they tell a story set in the past. But while Spufford’s novel easily meets this criterion, it also engages the reader as a work of historical investigation and study. Over the course of the narrative, Spufford repeatedly places the reader and his protagonist in the same position, attempting to understand a distant and confusing culture. If the past is a foreign country, then the historian, like Smith, is its tourist or visitor, trying (often in vain) to understand the locals and their culture.
Spufford’s playful narrative voice sometimes conspires to reinforce the historical distance between the reader and the past. In one crucial scene, when Smith sits down for a card game called Piquet with the colony’s Chief Justice James De Lancey, the narrator begins to explain the game’s rules for the reader’s benefit. The narrator stumbles through a description of the game’s tricks and its bidding, “But wait, before that again comes the announcing of points,” and even before that a range of roles and rules. Eventually, the narrator admits, “alas the explanation is bungled.” But the reader’s ignorance may actually be a “kind of gain in understanding” because Smith himself barely knew the game’s byzantine rules, and so the “reader may now find himself in as bemused a position as Mr. Smith” (p. 123).
This narrative voice also sharply alerts us to the limitations of the protagonist’s perspective. At one moment, Spufford nods to George Eliot’s famous intrusion into the narrative of Middlemarch (“—but why always Dorothea?”) with the query, “But why always Smith?” (220). The narrator self-consciously invites us to consider a scene through the eyes of a different character. Perhaps most intriguingly, Spufford’s narrative voice explores the relationship between narrative and archival silences. Early on, the book’s narrator appears to speak from a position of omniscience. But as the story continues, gaps and limitations appear. Most notably, Smith’s intentions, and the source of his wealth, are withheld from the reader until the end. At several points, Spufford uses letters to glimpse into a few characters’ interior lives. Yet as Spufford shows, even epistolarity has its limitations.
If Smith himself is the novel’s major mystery, a second concerns the identity of the narrator. Without giving too much away, the book’s conclusion reveals that its narrator was one of its supporting characters, writing many years later. As a result, the story concludes abruptly, when this character leaves the central story line. Without any further recollections or sources, the narrator is left to speculate about the story’s conclusion, just like the reader. We are left with the sense that another fascinating story is unfolding after the book’s conclusion. In some ways, Spufford has written this novel as a skillful historian writes a monograph, attentive to a multiplicity of perspectives and the limitations of available sources, but always hungry for more. More sources might allow us to enrich our stories, resolve ambiguity, and follow our narrative a bit longer. As the narrator admits near the novel’s conclusion, “I do not want to stop” (p. 296).