Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is an enchanting tale about a merchant, a prostitute, and mythical creatures set in Georgian London. Her novel is among a new trend of mermaid novels, so we asked Gowar to examine why readers are suddenly hearing the siren call of these half-human protagonists.
One summer when I was eight or nine, my parents took me to a castle in Antibes, the Chateau Grimaldi. It sat high above the sea, sheer walls giving way to sheer cliffs. I leant over the battlements staring down at the roiling sea, and felt a vertiginous longing; a terrible fear of the muscular, pulverising waves below combined with an intense desire to leap into them. I understood that this was not the kind of thought I should have, but it revisited me every time I was by the sea (brown crags off the east coast of England, usually, on drizzly days with rattling pebbles rolling underfoot). I became interested in mermaids not as candy-colored waifs, but as agents of vastness, power, destruction.
I was excited by the idea of girls who could withstand the chill and the salt and the stone-crushing belligerence of the ocean; that the longing and terror I felt came not from the water but from the women within it.
This year has seen an extraordinary glut of mermaid novels by women writers, no two the same. We, the Splash generation, shared our bathtubs with red-haired Ariel dolls: Mermaids were presented to us early, and perhaps we spent our growing years disassembling them, and remodeling them as more faithful reflections of femaleness as we found it.
When we write about mermaids, we write about women: As we peel back the veneer of prettiness, dig through the strata of storytelling, we find a thousand shards of ourselves to reject or reclaim. Mermaids, being between states, have many states, which is sometimes dangerous— as Louise O’Neill points out in The Surface Breaks, her blistering take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, a woman out of place must be put back in it— but also presents a freedom to question convention, and to be frank about feelings we might otherwise suppress. To write about mermaids is also to write about escape.
“What would be the point of a mermaid who looked like any other girl?” asks Pearl, a professional mermaid performer with a screen-printed tail and a collection of wigs “the color of childhood” in Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming. Not for her punters a “sinister, shifting fish-girl”: They want escapism. The mundane tricks of the trade—the effort, the discomfort—are, like all beauty regimes, hidden away. “No amount of sequins or pink hair will help you” if you haven’t the strength to swim in a heavy tail, or to maintain the air in your lungs until you reach a discreet breathing tube. The Surface Breaks makes horrifyingly explicit the suffering a mermaid on land must undergo. Her hard-won legs “end in two open wounds, stringy flesh falling off exposed bone”; she starves herself to please first the Sea King, then her human paramour. Encountering a beautiful fat woman, she is shocked: “I did not know that such a body was even allowed to exist.”
Illusion, obfuscation, artifice are every mermaid’s stock-in-trade. Researching my own novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, I was struck by the cognitive dissonance of eighteenth-century collectors. Their “mermaid” specimens—grotesque mummified creatures, often made from monkeys’ torsos stitched to salmon tails—looked nothing like those in their imagination, and yet one served as evidence that the other might just exist. The high-class brothel where Hancock’s mermaid is displayed is decked in gorgeous pearls and corals—so are the prostitutes—and it’s a collective triumph of will to ignore the fact that the specimen at the centre of this masquerade is repellent. In the “amphibious” society of 1780s London, country girls hope to transform themselves into duchesses, and merchants to make their fortune in novelties. When my main character, Angelica Neal, swims naked in a fountain singing a sea-shanty, she is a purveyor of erotic wish-fulfillment, no more presenting a real mermaid than she is her real self.
These contemporary novels share a suspicion of mermaids’ fabled beauty, which rarely exists for their own benefit. The great deceit of the mermaid myth—and the woman myth—is that they owe their power to mere sexual allure: Whether the mermaid is real or fake, her looks are a skimming over of her physical or psychic strength.
Even Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei, from his 1824 poem, is “the fairest of maidens,” although it’s her voice that’s dangerous. The boatman lured to his death is not inflamed by passion but “seized with a savage woe.” It isn’t sex that hooks you; it’s sadness.
In The Surface Breaks there is another race of mermaid, the Rusalkas: “the jilted, the victims, the orphans, and the abused,” drowning and devouring men as retribution for their crimes. They are embodiments of every dreadful wrong women swallow, and therefore shunned by their gorgeous cousins until late in the book when their rage becomes a positive force.
This is the deepest escape of all. Sylvia Plath’s poem, also Lorelei, is a seduction to death or oblivion: Her mermaids “sing/ Of a world more full and clear /Than can be”—the ache of the sea’s vastness is a sensation that must be dulled and suppressed and forgotten: the void is sharp as a diamond, painful in its purity; it is indifferent to us, and we are drawn to it because we long to be lost.
Near the beginning of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, its main character Lucy is “scared of [the ocean’s] wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me.” Running from life’s disappointments (a break-up; pulled PhD funding; fading youth), Lucy is torn between feeling nothing, and losing herself in feeling. The death sirens offer seems, “the greatest love…to die intoxicated by love and lust,” and as it turns out Theo, the merman she meets on the beach, is a creature of sexual fantasy not so different from his traditional female counterparts.
On land, he is physically dependent on Lucy. Hiding from the rest of the world, his eye cannot wander; he offers her mindblowing sex and a relationship that is in effect her personal sandbox in which to work out how deeply she wishes to touch the void, and how devotedly she can bear to love and be loved. Men treat women this way all the time, but some mer-magic is required to subvert the roles.
A mermaid is a prism, which scatters a million visions of womanhood to pick and close from. When we write about mermaids, we have options. How many layers of artifice are there between ourselves and our feelings? What bonds would we like to slip, if we could?
We can choose vengefulness, sexual autonomy, beauty, delicacy, pounding grief. The gorgeous swirling-haired mermaid of fairytale is available to us, but so is the siren calling the exhausted to oblivion. There are many ways to be, and many ways to escape.