Yes, I too have a TBR, although it’s a bookcase rather than a pile. I am working my way through it. Some of it goes back decades...
(William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742; National Gallery, London)
Which is why I recently came to read Ingenious Pain and The Giant, O’Brien. Embarrassingly, I purchased them when they first came out in the late 1990s, and have been part of that merry band of TBR ever since. It can take a long time for a book to have its moment. I used to buy books just because it was so exciting to do so, because I had money in my pocket, because they looked interesting and maybe I might enjoy them... True, this approach has led to the TBR bookcase, but it also meant I read more widely in those days than I do in these more careful times when I try to pick only what I want to read right now and have done away with my youthful fancy of Building a Library (what, did I imagine I’d end up living in a castle? Does every home really need a complete set of the works of the Roman philosophers in order to be considered civilised?).
Both of these two novels, first published in 1997 and 1998 respectively, are set in the eighteenth century, both contrast Enlightenment science with the transcendent, both involve freaks and freak shows, medical experiments and dissections. Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller’s first novel, is the story of James Dyer, who is born unable to feel pain. As a consequence of this – and it’s made clear it’s a consequence – he is also unable to feel compassion or experience pleasure. A lack of empathy for others turns out to be an advantage when practising medicine in an age without anaesthesia and when patients had a pretty high mortality rate, and Dyer trains as a surgeon. But while this lack steadies his hand with the knife and renders him an expert at his job, it makes him into something un-human, who regards his patients as little more than interesting problems clothed in meat for him to solve. For instance, on one occasion, when staying at an inn, he is propositioned by a maid:
‘Five shillings. In advance. Nothing fancy or unchristian.’
He looks at her. The neck of her dress is absurdly low. On her right breast the half-moon of a cicatrix peeps from her tucker.long
He touches it. ‘What was this?’
‘A hard bit, sir, that the surgeon cut out before Christmas.’
He presses her breast around the wound. The girl pulls his hand away. She looks rattled, as if his touch has disturbed an old nightmare.
‘In advance, I said.’
He has found two more lumps. She pushes him away and steps back into the passageway. In the grey rainlight of the passage she is already half ghost, and in a ghost’s voice she says, ‘Five shillings.’
James shakes his head. ‘I would not give sixpence for you. Have a fire made up.’
The novel takes the form of that eighteenth-century favourite, the picaresque, chronicling Dyer’s whole life and his career as a doctor, his service in the Navy, a dare that leads to a chase across Europe, a spell in Bedlam. It includes letters too, another favoured narrative trick of the time. But it begins with Dyer’s death, surprisingly young, and when he is living in quiet retirement on the charity of a vicar, mentally scarred and clearly no longer free from pain or compassion. What has changed him?
A problem for me with this novel was that it is stuffed full of ‘normal’ characters who do not seem overburdened by compassion for others either. His inability to feel physical pain apart, how different is Dyer really? Any distinction seems interior, and we only have glimpses of Dyer’s inner life via his speech. The question felt a little underexplored. However, Miller’s writing is terrific; I really noticed how it had texture to it after I’d been reading The Goldfinch, whose prose is smooth. (I don’t think these are proper lit. crit. terms.) I will definitely read more of his work.
(Charles Byrne in a 1784 etching by John Kay, alongside the Brothers Knipe and dwarves; National Portrait Gallery, London; found here)
The Giant, O’Brien also centres on a freak, an Irish giant, who leaves the poverty and oppression of his occupied home country to travel to London with a small entourage in the hope of fame and fortune exhibiting himself to the English aristocracy. His story is braided with that of John Hunter, a Scot, who has risen to fame if not great fortune as a doctor and surgeon, and who has a dirty secret – he pays resurrection men to bring him corpses to dissect. Gradually, the trajectories of the Giant and Hunter blend, as we know they must, as each falls prey to physical and mental dissolution.
The world Mantel vividly creates is a violent, filthy world of bodily needs, sicknesses, odours, where everyone is trying to scrape a living and most are either exploiting others or being exploited. Everything is decaying: even the sunlight is like ‘rancid’ butter. If James Dyer is untouched by empathy, so too is John Hunter, although he feels pain well enough. What, he wonders, differentiates people from animals? The ‘normal’ from the ‘freak’? He seeks the answers in the observable, in the bones he boils and the flesh he slices. He is driven by an horrific curiosity, which can only destroy. He believes that all the evidence he needs to understand life is in the material world:
And yet the dead defy him. Something in their nature. The principle of life has gone out of them – the principle that he knows exists, but he is not sure what it is. He tells his men, you can never be sure, with the hanged no more than the drowned – re-animation is possible – do not pick their pockets, for fear of future prosecution. But when the body is brought to him, and stretched on the slab, it is frequently the case that he finds tears in his eyes. He says to himself, Come now John Hunter, this is mere dissection-room nostalgia, mourning for the days when you used to cut shoulder-to-shoulder with Wullie [his brother], before you had your schism over the nature of the placenta [...]
But he will never find it there. The Giant, storyteller and poet and fantasist, sees this at once:
‘Hunter has no God. What is faith? He cannot anatomise it. What is hope? He cannot boil its bones. What is charity – aye, what is charity, to a bold experimentalist such as he?’
The Giant’s stories, bleak as they are, have sustained his friends through their miseries and deprivations and given them hope.
‘A year or two ago,’ said the Giant, ‘there was a young woman, pretty and light of foot, walking the road alone at night, coming to her cousin in Galway, with her babby of scarce six months laid to her breast. She had been walking for many a mile, walking through a dense wood, when –‘
‘A demon comes up and eats her,’ said Pybus, with confidence.
‘– she emerged at a crossroad,’ the Giant continued, ‘just as the moon rose above the bleak and lonely hills. [...]
Yet tales do not protect anyone from hunger, poverty, rape, murder, betrayal, and they leave the Giant to die in terror because he believes the story that if his body is dissected it will be rendered unfit to rise again on the Day of Judgement. Hunter’s belief that all flesh is meat serves him no better, leaving him sitting in the dark with his collection of bones, raddled with the syphilis which he has injected into himself.
Mantel might have taken as her epigraph Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’, although in this novel it would have to be inverted: ‘some of us are looking at the stars, but we are all in the gutter’. Instead, she has chosen some lines by George MacBeth:
... But then
All crib from skulls and bones who push the pen.
Readers crave bodies. We’re the resurrection men.
Mantel is here perhaps suggesting that she is as much Hunter, the seeker and dissector, as the poetical and whimsical Giant. She’s also implying that creative writing is some sort of Frankensteinian animation of corpses. In The Giant, O’Brien she has resurrected the poor Giant and Hunter, who were real people; she has dug up other’s ideas and questioned them and pressed them into her own use. Like Miller she captures the strangeness and difference of the eighteenth century in vivid prose. I’m very glad that I live now, not then.