Inveterate novel-readers, not a common tribe today, can still be both fascinated and comforted by a vision of history, and by a novel confident enough to supply one. Sir Walter Scott’s is still a potent spirit, although his novels, once in the background of every literate mind that loved the past, may nowadays hardly be read. He handed on the torch to unlikely runners: Virginia Woolf for instance, who in Orlando and Between the Acts strove to visualize history in feminine terms, in records not researched but imagined, in moments that once collapsed into nothing, as our own are doing now from day to day, in mute lives in the shadow of fame, like those of Shakespeare’s sister or King James’s drowned apple-woman.
Hilary Mantel’s historical imagination has the same sort of bizarre sharpness. In her earlier brilliant novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), she glimpsed the events of the French Revolution not as an orderly procession of riots, meetings, guillotinings, the fall of one faction and the rise of another, but as a state of mind that stirred the blood, as it stirred the blood and produced that delirium of restlessness so graphically noted by the young Wordsworth in a line that later went into The Prelude. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” with a sense of life that would not let one keep still, but was like “an uneasy place” in one’s own body.
The Giant, O’Brien offers a different and more bizarre glimpse of unquiet history. More like Swift than Scott, its dazzling technique has Swift’s way of taking the extraordinary for granted, while demurely drawing our attention to some silly spectacle that attracted the crowds. To London in 1782 came the Irish Giant, a freak well over seven feet tall, spied out in the bogs by an unscrupulous agent who lures him to the rich center of the civilized world, a place where poverty can be even direr than it was among the Irish cabins, and injustice still more commonplace. With the Giant O’Brien and his minder, Joe Vance, come young Jankin and Pybus, children from the same village, whom the giant has entertained with countless tales from Celtic myth, and the deeds of Irish kings and fairies. When they arrive at the quayside of an English port, their first unexpected view is of a lordly negro.
On the quayside, Jankin leapt in the air, pointing. He was swelling with excitement, bubbling at the mouth. The black man he had seen strolled calmly towards them. He wore a good broadcloth coat and clean cravat, being, as he was, employed at the docks as a respectable and senior kind of clerk. He was young, his plum-bloom cheeks faintly scarred, his eyes mild.
Jankin danced in front of him. He gave a shriek, like one of the parakeets the Giant had heard of. His grubby hand shot up, massaging the man’s face, rubbing in a …