No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 12, 2006

#18: The Giant, O'Brien -- Hilary Mantel

It's funny how one's reading organises itself into unexpected patterns. A while back, I was enthusing over The Italian Boy, about grave-robbing and body-snatching in 19th-century London. And a while before that, I was impressed by Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black. Mantel's The Giant, O'Brien is set in the late 18th century, and deals, amongst other things (the Irish oral tradition; the circuses and freakshows of Enlightenment London; anti-Irish prejudice; symptoms of syphilis; the going rate for medical experimentation upon paupers; child prostitution) with the Giant, and with a medical gent who wants his bones.

This was a slow read for me, in the way that tourists walk slowly down certain streets: I kept pausing to admire sentences. "In the day the city's noise swamps it, but in the watches of the night you may hear the crack as my bones break free of their moorings, and the slap of the tide beaches against my liver."

Mantel has taken the true story of the 'Irish Giant', Charles Byrne, who came to London in 1782 to exhibit himself as a curiosity, and died there a year later, and woven other stories, literally and figuratively, around it. (The historical Byrne -- the surname is an anglicised form of O'Brien -- "may," says Mantel, "have been mentally retarded.") Her Giant is a gentleman, a bard in the Irish tradition, always ready to cheer his friends with a tale drawn from the inexhaustable wealth within his head; a wealth half-inherited from the poets at Mahoney's, half-invented. He goes to London to seek his fortune, for there's none to be found in Ireland. With him go Jankin, Pybus and Claffey, his friends; in charge of the party is Joe Vance, who becomes the Giant's agent, and finds them all lodgings, a maid-servant, a printer of hand-bills.

London's thronged with curiosities: a pig that can count, a Tartar horseman (his father's from Dublin), fire-eaters, black men, painted men. London's full of the poor: the pauper who charges eightpence for anatomist John Hunter to take a sample of his syphilitic chancre, the young girl who, when asked her name, says, "Bitch. We are all Bitch, to the English." To this seething rackety mix come the four Irishmen -- Pybus frightened of stairs, which he's never seen before -- and soon enough they find places for themselves.

The Giant tells his tales, and the tales (a grotesque version of Snow White, a multitude of variations on the tale of an honest man, an honest woman, duped by the Fair Folk) pale before reality. At first, the gentry had paid half a crown to see him, to hear him spin new stories about himself, but gradually trade dies off.

John Hunter broods in his dissecting-room, sending out resurrection men with the same instructions I've read about in The Italian Boy: hooks and crowbars, wooden shovels, don't steal their clothes. "Avoid those with noxious, offensive tumours, for they sting the students' fingers ... Be advised that for the corpses of young children I pay by the inch. For the first foot, one shilling. Thereafter, ninepence an inch."

It's a melancholy tale, of loneliness (Hunter as much as the Giant), of the loss of innocence, of the ugly underbelly of the scientific, clear-sighted, realistic Enlightenment.

"Your memory fails?"

"Everything fails, sir: reason, and harvests, and the human heart."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:25 am

    Excellent review, Tamaranth. I have just finished reading this as well and thought it a wonderful read.