Q&A: Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

Today, we conclude our week-long round table on Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York with an interview with Spufford himself. If you missed our earlier posts on the novel, you can find them here.

JUNTO: You have previously written several works of (mostly) non-fiction. What led you to write a historical novel? 

FRANCIS SPUFFORD: Multiple reasons, some completely internal to my erratic progress as a writer. But I did in fact have one solidly historical motive for my desire to skip over the boundary between incipiently narrative non-fiction and into the kind of writing which dealt explicitly with invented stories. I was frustrated by the imaginative inaccessibility of the the pre-Revolutionary world of the colonies. I mean in terms of public memory and popular narrative, not in terms of scholarly history.

To me, the War of Independence looks pretty clearly like a civil conflict within an Anglo-American polity, with the London Parliament’s post-1688 demand for exclusive authority playing out in unforeseen ways in relation to the colonial assemblies, and radical Whig rhetoric about enslavement and creeping royal power likewise playing out to unexpected effect in a population with no aristocracy and a dissenting/Anglican demographic balance the reverse of the one in England. (You can probably tell what I’ve been reading from that sentence.) Yet within a generation or two of the Revolution, thanks to the young Republic’s need for a simple myth of origin, the conflict had been recast retrospectively as a national one. Paul Revere’s “The regulars are out!” becomes “The British are coming!” in folk memory, while the busily projective conscience of Thomas Jefferson attempts to blame George III for everything from slavery to original sin. Lost in the new mythography of freedom versus tyranny, democracy versus monarchy, is the memory of the colonists having rebelled against, not the divine right of kings, but the corruptions and compromises and unpurged hierarchical elements of an existing constitutional order. The Revolution is remembered as pure novelty, not as muddy continuity. The design of the republic’s institutions is referred endlessly to classical models, hardly ever to British ones, despite the monarchic presidency (for example) being so much a rationalisation of the role of the House of Hanover in the British set-up—or at least, of what Whig theorists had reported that role to be. Every four years since 1789, American electors have been choosing a new temporary George III while denying that they are doing any such thing. (I can’t say I think much of the present one.)

And so foundational, and in fact politically serviceable has this piece of forgetting been that it continues to the present day, and becomes a given even of popular interpretations of the Revolutionary past that think of themselves as radical. Hamilton questions the narrative of the Revolution only by re-imagining it more inclusively, in contemporary ethnic terms: the figures remain the same, played by different actors. This has drastic effects on what happens when the decades before the Revolution are remembered, too. It is extraordinarily rare for fiction to represent the colonial experience(s) without teleological signposting, without moralised indicators that the Revolution is the destination towards which all events are righteously heading. You can’t banish the contemporary reader’s knowledge of what is going to happen, of course; it has to be reckoned with, and put into action somehow as a source of dramatic irony. But it seems to me to distort the difference of the past, its contingency, its plurality, the criss-cross grain of its mentalités—to flatten it out into a mere anticipation of the splendours to come.

So I wanted to write a historical novel about mid-eighteenth-century America as a way of taking colonial life on something more like its own terms: or rather, of course, on what I could guess its terms to have been. With lots of irony still, but if I got it right with the kinds of irony that didn’t just buttress the deterministic narrative. I was fascinated, for example, to find out how neatly colonists’ paranoid fears about evil King Louis before the Seven Years’ War mapped onto the paranoid fears their children were going to develop in the 1770s about evil King George—and that (some of) their descendants were going to entertain in turn about tyrannical Abraham Lincoln, dictatorial FDR and Muslim-socialist Obama. As if, with a hat-tip to Richard Hofstadter, one of the long continuities of American history, prior to each actual mobilisation of emotions, were a readiness for suspicion as such, a political immune system endlessly prepped for allergens.

JUNTO: Why mid-eighteenth century New York City?

SPUFFORD: There were technical reasons, plot reasons, why it was helpful to have my protagonist Mr. Smith try to draw his bill of exchange on a Manhattan merchant in 1746, even though I knew was straying into anachronism here, Philadelphia at that point being much more the financial centre of the colonies. And again, I had a bunch of literary reasons to do with New York City’s cultural resonance and centrality: it was lovely to be able to wind back the great cosmopolis into its village-sized starting point, while still playing with all the things it had meant/was going to mean in the centuries to come. It let me have Melville and Wharton and Fitzgerald and so on as ghostly presences.

But also because the city in 1746 was being shaped by events that seemed to me to complicate, helpfully, New York’s later mythology of itself. It was still in the stunned aftermath of a white panic over a rumoured slave rebellion, which had resulted in a series of grotesquely brutal public executions. And it was presently locked in a stand-off between local élites, as represented by Chief Justice James De Lancey and his allies in the assembly, and the royal governor George Clinton. A proto-revolutionary conflict, on the face of it, and certainly a situation in which the themes of the Revolution were beginning to crystallise; yet at the same time, one in which the actors understood themselves and aligned themselves in ways that refused to collapse cleanly into later categories. De Lancey took positions based on local rights, yet had as one of his chief strategic assets a family connection to the Prime Minister in London that was closer than the governor’s own family connection with him. The governor, far from being an effective tyrant, had been hoodwinked into sacrificing his salary and budget to the assembly. The stand-off ended when De Lancey became royal governor himself. Everyone was shrilly loyalist throughout. I thought this combination of slave-society panic and élite intrigue along non-obvious battle lines gave me a background which might perform difference for the reader beautifully, without me having to explain too much.

JUNTO: Tell us about your research process. What kinds of sources were the most (or least) useful as you went about trying to understand and reconstruct this world? 

SPUFFORD: I started off with the early chapters of Burrows and Wallace’s Gotham to give me an outline. Then I headed into general economic history of the colonies, to give me some sense of how New York’s trade had worked in context, and I followed up some specific reading suggestions given me by my father Peter Spufford (a monetary historian) about the intricacies of eighteenth-century money transmission and colonial finance. In terms of contemporary sources, I got most from the descriptions of the 1744 visit to New York by Alexander Hamilton (the Maryland doctor, not the Founding Father and hip-hop artiste) and from the 1733–48 letters of Abigail Franks, which let me into the interlocking mercantile family life of the city. (Though I then made the decision not to write about the Jewish community in the novel, on the grounds that emphasis on the city’s early Jewishness and glorious multicultural diversity, Island at the Centre of the World-style, tended to work against the shock of difference, by homogenising away the truth that 1740s New York was overwhelmingly pious-Protestant.) Material culture and maps were vital. I looked at contemporary furniture and paintings and household objects as much as I could, I studied the few contemporary images of New York buildings—around the edge of the David Grimm map, for example—and I repeatedly walked around lower Manhattan with photocopies of the 1730 and 1754 streetmaps. There was a kind of freedom in the complete physical absence of what I was trying to imagine (except for gravestones in Trinity churchyard and the railings round the Bowling Green) but also a challenging blankness to be contended with. I’m sure a lot of what I supplied to fill the blank was helplessly, unwittingly European in its assumptions, and helplessly, unwittingly twenty-first century too.

JUNTO: Did you use any other historical novels as a model that you’d recommend?

SPUFFORD: We’re in a golden age for historical fiction (as well as a period generating a vast amount of historical crud, but maybe you can’t have the one without the other). Touchstones for me are Hilary Mantel’s elegantly complicity-inducing Thomas Cromwell novels and, twenty years earlier, Penelope Fitzgerald’s exquisite, stoic visitations of Moscow in 1913 (The Beginning of Spring), Edwardian Cambridge (The Gate of Angels) and late-18th-century Prussia (The Blue Flower). These are books that seem to me to put on the past not as a costume but as a whole, living body.

JUNTO: Your prose in Golden Hill lingers in absences, silences, and the limitations of narrative. Without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t read it, the book ends on a rather equivocal note. Historians love to think and write about that kind of thing. What led you to explore these themes? 

SPUFFORD: Perversity! No, all right. Probably, shaping the gaps and jumps and deliberate withholdings of Golden Hill is my sense that time is like that: that even when you’ve got fiction giving you its illusion that the world is story-shaped, and proceeds through coherent narrative rather than the enormous, simultaneous, polysemous babble of the actual, the truth that unrolls along the chronological axis of human experience is going to be necessarily frayed and incomplete. And probably there’s some influence here from my having proper, primary-research-doing historians as parents. (Margaret Spufford, early-modern social history; Peter Spufford, medieval economic history.) I grew up with people who spent their days teasing fragmentary conclusions and small implications out of mountains of archival data. I didn’t inherit the vocation but I may have inherited the sensibility.

JUNTO: What are you working on next?

SPUFFORD: A novel about London since 1944. It starts with a V2 missile falling on a branch of Woolworths. The trick is not to sound like a bad imitation of Thomas Pynchon.

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