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Me and My Mother and The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

“Dickens lite,” my mom said dismissively after I demanded (as only a firstborn can) that she read Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Read it! READ IT, MOMMY!

I about cried when she told me she was not charmed by it. “But, Mom,” I said, “Mermaids are charming! It is an indisputable fact!” “Sure,” she replied, “But not that one.”

I stuck out my lip like a sulky toddler. Was it happening? Mommy and me…were finally parting reading pathways? We were past time, I guess, since I am in my middle…okay, fine, late 40s and she is in her 70s. However, for decades we have loved the same smells-of-Jane-Austen sci-fi and fantasy books like Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton and the series Dragonriders of Pern

“Set in 1785, Jonah Hancock, a merchant, sells his ship for a mermaid.” I had been enchanted and ensorcelled by The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, reading it in three days over my kids’ winter vacation, indeed wrapped a blue-green mermaid blanket.

Mermaids In Literature

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock failed to charm my mom—who, if anyone is stuck in the 18th-century, it is her, with her interest in fabrics of that period. The cover art for the book “was created by layering two eighteenth-century silks,” I told her. To no avail!

“That mermaid is scary,” she said. “It made me terribly sad.” “YAAAS, qweeen,” I said. That’s why I loved the book, and she disliked it. She wanted a mermaid Baby Boomer style, all good hair, singing, “roll up, roll up a great wonder is on display.”

I’m Gen X, man. I’m like, Give me melancholy! More gruel, sir. Give me, as Gowar describes her mermaid, a “great voluptuous sorrow rolling over…” “so vast and glinting was she.”