Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 13 - "The Giant O'Brien," by Hilary Mantel

London's seasonal fairs, of which Bartholomew Fair was the best known, had, since Medieval times, been a focus for public entertainment, as well as social interaction and commercial transactions. Storytellers and performing bears, jugglers, musicians, and fortune tellers, all vied for the attentions of stall-holders and revelers. Later, as "London" became more than just "The City," and as burgeoning theatres and shopping arcades attracted increasing numbers of people to "The West End," entrepreneurs from across the British Isles, and from further afield, began to think in terms of "curiosities" that they could "exhibit" for the entertainment of an eager (and sometimes gullible) public.

Throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there were "sapient pigs," trained to perform calculations, spell out words, and even tell fortunes, by picking up cards with their mouths; "mermaids," created by stitching together the desiccated torsos of monkeys with the tails of fish; and a whole host of bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and "freaks of nature."

Advertisement for "Toby the Sapient Pig," 1817 (image is in the Public Domain).

Often suffering from disabilities or serious illnesses, the living "exhibits" were mercilessly exploited for the profit of others. Some "exhibitions" were overtly racist, as in the case of Sara Baartmans ("the Hottentot Venus"), a woman from southern Africa, who was exhibited in London and Paris between 1810 and 1815.

Caricature by William Heath (1810), of Sara Baartman, with the politicians, Richard Sheridan (in green), and Lord Grenville (image is in the Public Domain).

Charles Byrne (1761-83), the "Irish Giant," was born in County Tyrone, and arrived in London in 1782. He was 7'7" (2.31 metres) tall, the result (we now know) of the pituitary tumour that would take his life just a year later. He was exhibited at Spring Garden-gate, Piccadilly, and Charing Cross, and, on his death, his body was acquired, contrary to his own wishes (he had asked to be buried at sea), by the surgeon, John Hunter. Despite recent attempts to secure a burial for his remains in accordance with his wishes, his skeleton is still on display in the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields (the remains of Sara Baartman, by contrast, were returned to South Africa for burial).

Charles Byrne (centre), flanked by the Knipe brothers (twin giants), by John Kay, National Portrait Gallery D14755 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Hunterian Museum, with Charles Byrne's skeleton at the end. Photo: Paul Dean (StoneColdCrazy) - licensed under GNU.

John Hunter, portrait by John Jackson (1815), after a lost original (1786) by Sir Joshua Reynolds: National Portrait Gallery 77 (image is in the Public Domain).

Hilary Mantel's novel, The Giant O'Brien is based on Byrne's life story, but, by changing the name, she gives herself free license to invent the many details that history has not remembered about the real man (we know almost nothing of Byrne's background, character, or life in London beyond his public appearances).

In the novel, the life-stories of the giant, Charles O'Brien, and that of the surgeon, John Hunter, are juxtaposed. Both are outsiders in London, but, whilst the dour Scot is a calculating man of science; the Irish giant is a man steeped in traditional story-telling and folklore, a generous and engaging character with an original perspective on London life. Whether this reflects the personality of the real Charles Byrne is open to question (he is unlikely to have had much learning of any kind, and may have suffered from mental impairment as a result of his condition), but what is certain is that London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was a meeting place for people from many different backgrounds, and with sharply contrasting outlooks on the world.

"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 journeys 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 embellishments, Charlie, they say a pagoda is the last word in fashion'  ... 'Will you have a story?' the Giant soothed them. For the time must be passed, must be passed" ... 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.'" 

"Seventeen forty-eight saw John Hunter, a set-jawed red-head astride a sway-backed plodder, heading south towards the stench of tanneries and soap-boilers. He came to London across Finchley Common, with the gibbeted corpses of villains groaning into the wind ... At the top of Highgate Hill he came to the Gatehouse Tavern, and observed London laid out before him. The evening was fine and the air mild." 

"London is ringed by fire, by ooze. Men with ladders carry pitch-soaked ropes in the street, and branched globes of light sprout fro the houses. Pybus thinks they have come to a country where they do not have a moon, but Vance is sure they will see it presently, and so they do, drowned in a muddy puddle in Chandos Street." 

"That summer the Giant grew rich. He washed in Castille soap, and made the purchase of some decanters. His followers ate green peas and strawberries. Joe Vance played with the writing set, and Pybus, Claffey, and Jankin haunted the skittle-alleys, the cock-fighting, the prize-fighting, the dog-fighting, and the bull-baiting. 'If we go on so,' said Claffey, grinning, 'we will have tamboured waistcoats like the quality, and silver buckles to our shoes.' 'What do you mean, if we go on so/ I am not likely to shrink.'

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating review. Hard to believe that museums in this century can be so callous - or maybe not.