Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel; drawing by David Levine

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 circle to see would the colour come off. Jankin stared at his grey-white, seamed palm, and clawed out his fingers, then rubbed and rubbed again at the fleshy, flattened nose.

“Get down, dog,” Joe Vance said. “The gentleman is as respectable as yourself.”

The black man reached out, and took Jankin’s forearm in his hand. Gently he removed it from himself, pressing it inexorably into Jankin’s chest, as if he would fuse it with the ribs. His mild eyes were quite dead. His mouth twitched, but it did not speak. He passed on, his tread firm, over the cobbles and towards the city he now called home.

The Giant said, “People are staring at me.”

Vance said, “Yes, they would. I should hope so. That is the general idea.” He rubbed his hands together. “Sooner we get you indoors and housed, the better for us all. We don’t want them gaping for free.”

The Giant saw the parakeets, green and gold, flit and swoop in a hot tangle of deeper green, and heard the alarm shrieks from their beating throats, and felt rope cut into skin and smelled the sweet, burned, branded flesh.

He called out after the black man, “Poor soul, you have a brand on your body.”

The man called back, “Shog off, freak.”

Things are not what they seem, or rather they do not appear as our conventional imagination of the past is accustomed to present them. This negro happens to be a sober citizen, a trusted overseer of bourgeois activities. The Irishman, enslaved as a freak, is a creature whose myth-stored mind, no less than his outlandish size, makes him far more exotic than the scornful black. The world at a given moment is how Swift sees it, as well as Sir Walter Scott, and Hilary Mantel has contrived to add her own unique and special slice of vision, one to arrest and delight any inquisitive reader.


Her method has relations with that of Peter Ackroyd in Hawksmoor, Chatterton, or Milton in America, where the past has been transformed into a scholarly fantasy of equal originality. But Mantel’s vision is the more oblique and economical, the precision of her language—a language appropriate to an Irish giant and his myrmidons—as sharp-pointed as poetical, leaving the reader to rejoice in a continual dance of subtle inference. The brave pathetic voyagers, drawn helplessly as by a magnet to the metropolis, are already adapting themselves on shipboard to a new set of myths, as well as to a new mirage of expectation.

London is like the sea and the gallows. It refuses none.

Sometimes on the journey, trapped in the ship’s stink and heave, they had talked about the premises they would have at journey’s end. They should be commodious, Vance said, and in a fashionable neighbourhood, central and well-lit, on a broad thoroughfare where the carriages of the gentry can turn without difficulty.

“My brother has a lodging in St. Clement’s Lane,” Claffey said. “I don’t know if it’s commodious.”

Vance blew out through his lips. “Nest of beggars,” he said. “As to your perquisites and your embellishments, Charlie, they say a pagoda is the last word in fashion.”

“A pagoda?” The Giant frowned. “I’d sooner a triumphal arch.”

“Let’s see when we get there,” Vance said. “I think we’ll call you Byrne, Charles Byrne. It’s more select.”

A lurch of the timbers, a fresh outswell of mould and fust; Jankin was sick—he had the knack and habit—on Claffey’s feet. Claffey kicked out. Her words flew in the stinking space.

“Will you have a story?” the Giant soothed them. For the time must be passed, must be passed.

“Go on,” Vance said.

The Giant did not stop to ask what kind of story they would like, for they were contentious, like fretful children, and were in no position to know what was good for them. “One day,” he began, “the son of the king of Ireland journeyed to the East to find a bride.”

“Where East?” Vance asked. “East London?”

“Albania,” the Giant said. “Or far Cathay.”

“The Land of Nod,” said Claffey, sneering. “The Kingdom of Cockaigne.”

“Wipe yourself, stench-foot,” O’Brien said, “then pin back your ears. Do you think I tell tales for the good of my soul?”

“Sorry,” Claffey said.

“One day the son of the king of Ireland journeyed to the East to find a bride, and he hadn’t gone far on his road when he met a short green man. The strange gentleman hailed him, saying—“

“I don’t like a tale with a short green man in it,” Jankin said.

The Giant turned to him, patient. “If you will wait a bit, Jankin, the short green man will grow as big as the side of a hill.”

“Oh,” Jankin said.

The wind moaned, the boards creaked and shifted beneath them. From the deck the world appeared no longer solid but a concatenated jumble of grey dots, sometimes defined and sometimes fusing at the margins, the waves white and rearing, the clouds blackening en masse, the horizon crowded with their blocky forms and their outlines unnatural, like the sides of unimaginable buildings, set storey on storey like the tower of Babel.

Conversing with the sailors—who cowered away from his bulk—the Giant found he had regained his command of the English language. One day, he thought, we will be making tales out of this. Our odyssey to the pith of London’s heart, to undying fame and a heavy purse. Rancour will be forgotten, and the reek of our fear in this ship’s dark hole. In those days Jankin will say, Do you remember, Claffey, when I was sick on your feet? And Claffey will clap him on the back, and say, Oh I do indeed.

Hilary Mantel and the Giant between them have begun to show us, as many an Irish writer has done before them, the truly marvelous powers—to adapt the old Roman proverb—of lingua inglese in bocca irlandese, the English tongue in the mouth of an Irishman.

As well as the Irish, London does not refuse the Scots. John Hunter, whose background was almost as humble as that of the Giant O’Brien, but whose reading had already been more worldly and more practical, once quoted Dr. Johnson’s dictum to a friend. “Sir, let me tell you that the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.” John Hunter had found it so, and so had his brother Wullie. The pair quarreled later over the structure of the placenta, but in early days they were friends as well as rivals. John forsook a safe post in St. George’s hospital, and a little house to go with it, in favor of a job as army surgeon. “A step retrograde, I’d have thought,” mocked the superior Wullie, who by now “had got his dainty fingers up to the wrist in the cunt of the Queen of England…puffing and squeezing out of her innards a Prince of Wales.”


But John had the last laugh, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, the greatest scientific honor London had to offer, a full three months before his brother. This was on account of his greatly respected treatise on gunshot wounds, after which he embarked on a treatise on the teeth, hundreds of which he had been able to extract for research purposes from the corpses that lay about a battlefield (many of which, incidentally, later found their way, suitably mounted, into the mouths of the rich and toothless). In the absence of battlefields Dr. Hunter later required a reliable supply of dead bodies, and so called in the services of the London grave robbers, or Resurrection Men. Mantel’s mordant style enjoys deploying the expertise on this topic which her historical investigations have produced. In a crowded cemetery—crowded not only with the dead but with the tenements of the living—it is essential to make no noise, and a wooden shovel should always be used.

The scene is set now for the meeting of the Irish Giant (his impresario Joe Vance has given him the more poetic name of Byrne) and the diminutive Scottish doctor. It is, symbolically, a confrontation of science with the old beliefs, of steely inductive progress with gentle magic and superstition. The Giant, alas, has only limited success as Giant, and most of what he earns as a nine-days wonder goes into the pocket of Vance and other hangers-on in the stews and hovels they find to live in.

His first audience, it is true, was full of an admiration not altogether edifying.

“Sir Giant,” said a second man, “are there any more at home like you?”

“Alas, my upbringing was solitary. There were some few paltry fellows—two in particular, the brothers Knife, conceived on top of a haystack in our parish—who had a conceit they were tall, and who used to extort money from the credulous; but I know nothing of their lineage, and look upon them rather as sports of nature than as what I am myself, a descendent of the ancient native lords. And there is a lad named Patrick, Patrick O’Brien, who has sometimes claimed kinship with me—who has indeed, I hear, sometimes claimed to be me—but he is no more high, sir, than you are a Chinaman.”

“So accept no substitutes,” Joe said brightly. “Charles Byrne, Tallest Man in the World.”

Claffey said to Pybus, under his breath, “I wondered when they’d mention Pat O’Brien….”

“Picture his snuff box,” one fellow said. “It would be like a soup-plate.”

“Picture his linen bill! It will be like the national debt.”

“Picture his…” And the speaker choked; the whole room fell back as one, and opened its eyes wide, and fanned itself with a hand….

The Giant leaned forward, causing the front row to sway back. “As you suspect, gents,” he said, “my organ is proportionate.”

A new sound filled the room: wistful, sibilant, yearning. The Giant sat back while it played itself out, melted sighing into the corners of the room. A young fellow spoke up, gathering his courage: “Yet women say, the women I know…they say size don’t count.”

“Do they?” The Giant held up his hand, scrutinised his fingernails. “And they say that to you, do they? Ah well. One can imagine why they would.”

A little laughter, edgy. “I see, gentlemen,” the Giant said, “that you wish me to enlarge. On the theme. On the subject. It is proportionate, as I say. Will I stand up again, so you can appraise my proportions? No; there is no need, I perceive; you can view my assets while I recline. A Tower of Ivory,” he explained, “at the base of which they fall, stunned. Not but what they do not recover themselves; the fainting, I think, is out of politeness largely. And then, gentlemen, their rhapsodical sighs and moans—but I see by your faces that you already know those sounds, albeit only in your imaginations. First they try to scale this tower—the ambition is natural to them—with their slick little tongues like the tongues of kittens. When I am satisfied in that way, I put out my little finger and flip two or three of them on their backs. When I say ‘two or three,’ when I say ‘them,’ I speak advisedly—for I have about me every night an eager set of the female sex. They fear…they fear indeed—but oh, it is their fear that delights them!… And when you, at some stale hour, are rolling from your mattresses, and roaring for your piss-pots, and grinding the yellow pills from your eyes—and when, I say, your foetid molls are trolling forth, booted from your couches, unwashed, fishy, chafed between the thighs, slowly dripping your lukewarm seed—my douce delights are receiving their bouquets, with pearls of pretty laughter. Each one carries within her a giant baby. How can she not conceive? My seed is propelled within her like a whirlwind. I do not spill forth, like little men—I come like the wrath of God. When the years have flown, and my dear delights are grandmas, they will need only to think of the business we transacted, and their dried parts will spin like windmills in a gale.”

The Giant is sufficiently famous for John Hunter to hear of and examine him, and when the rumor goes round that he has fallen sick Hunter lays his plans accordingly. An eight-foot skeleton (the giant has waxed even taller among the teeming refuse and ginshops of Cheapside) would be a real feather in the cap of the College of Surgeons.

But when offered money, which in London buys anything, the Giant proves unexpectedly adamant. He will not leave himself here: his bones belong to the misty land of song and story from which he comes. The surgeons’ pleas are in vain, but the giant’s health is fast failing. The giant begs Jankin and his other young followers to bury him at sea in a casket of lead if they cannot contrive to get him home to Ireland. In a last outburst of grieving he rocks himself to and fro, and thinks: “No person rocked me, I was a giant child. The cradle would have burst.” Such moments of pathos are unemphatic, beautifully done; Mantel’s prose is too exquisitely sure and confident to need the services of a Dickensian death scene. “As the evening cools, he rallies a little. He says ‘There was once a race of people called the Astomi. They had no mouths. They lived on the smell of apples.”‘ The others are “standing in the shadows, waiting for him…. But he dies to the sound of What Is It, dragging its chain in the next room.”

We see at once how “What Is It” got its no-name. The giant lives and dies in a houseful of hideous human curiosities, doomed while they live to be exposed to the public in booths and at fairs. A week later, “when the Giant’s bones, boiled brown, were already hanging in the workshop of the impoverished John Hunter” (for Vane and his following have driven a hard bargain), “Pybus and Jankin were crossing Drury Lane, on their way to becoming drunk at the Fox Tavern.” Science has won the battle: but is science in its elementary impulses so much more than these lowest instincts of human curiosity, the instinct to peer and to wonder at what is strange?

Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity. Although her novel is in one sense a brilliant pastiche, drawing on Swift and on Joyce, deploying all the tricks of understatement and of what the great Russian formalist Shklovsky called “making it strange,” it triumphantly justifies and reanimates these well-worn methods. It becomes her own style, as acute and arresting as is her vision of history. At the book’s end the dreams and tales that were natural to the Giant begin to mingle indistinguishably with the insatiable curiosity of the scientist, John Hunter himself. “I want knowledge. I want time,” he is heard saying. He cannot get a large porpoise for love or money, nor a bittern “to hear it boom, and to learn how it makes that noise.” To learn… But the Giant’s last dreams may have been of King Conaire and his singing sword. “He was the son of a bird-god. His head spoke after it was severed. Thank you, it said. Thank you for listening.”

Today the Giant’s bones are still to be viewed by any curious stranger who passes through London’s Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. For modern science there is nothing very remarkable about the poor Giant, whose size, and his death too, were probably due to a disordered pituitary gland. He was likely to have been mentally retarded or, as we should say, have had learning difficulties. His wonderful speech, even his dreams, are not his own but those of the author who fashioned and dreamed him, for as she says in her preliminary note, “this is not a true story, though it is based on one.” In 1937 an article in The Lancet pointed out that “Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of John Hunter…is gradually disappearing…. The whole picture is progressing towards extinction.” And so in a sense the Giant, and his bones and his dreams, have won in the end. A true story can fade into nothing, but an art like this retains its brightness. And as history says—it is all in the end that it can say—“Thank you for listening.”

This Issue

October 8, 1998