by Niall McArdle
Who gets to tell the story of a person’s life? Who has the authority to say what happened and what is invented, especially when the biographical details intersect with a nation’s history? These questions are at the heart of two recent novels which deal with the same story: the relationship between Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his servant, the former slave Tony Small.
Sometimes culture throws up more than one response to the same idea at the same time. Such is the case with Neil Jordan‘s The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small (Lilliput), and Laura McKenna‘s Words to Shape My Name (New Island).
Both novels cover well-known historical facts in Fitzgerald’s life: how he almost died in the American War of Independence but was saved by a slave; his many love affairs; his dealings with his friends and foes in the Irish parliament; his political awakening in revolutionary France and the failed rebellion of 1798, and his eventual execution. What is striking in both is that although Fitzgerald is central to the plot he is the least interesting part of it: each book is intent on reclaiming a narrative that belongs to Tony Small.
In Jordan’s novel, Small is the narrator, a man who never knew his father but believes him to be an Irishman from Mayo (this turns out to be a fiction). More aptly, Tony is a balladeer. Jordan has taken his cue from “The Croppy Boy” and other street ballads that sprung up in 18th century London and Dublin. The novel is structured in ‘verses’; songs and snatches of doggerel are scattered here and there.
Jordan’s prose is lyrical and his recreation of the period is rich in atmosphere: a cockle-picking woman ‘knee-deep in the brine, pulling seaweed from the rocks’; prostitutes in Temple Bar ‘in their petticoats in the evening light’; the crowd at a hanging in Stephen’s Green that includes ‘cake-sellers and thimble-pushers and three-card trick men and ballad singers’; the whole’ gorgeous pantomime’.
It is not difficult to see Jordan’s cinematic eye at work.
Small has an incredible life-story. A former slave who sided with the British against American revolutinaries in return for his freedom, saves the life of the badly-wounded Edward Fitzgerald in the Carolinas and then becomes his servant and confidante, witnessing unfolding Irish, British and French history. “I saw the Shears brothers beat Grimstone to a pulp in the cobbled square beneath his hotel window. I drove my Lord Citizen and Tom Paine out to the convention, where he delivered his solution to the problem of the King. I saw the spiked heads in the Tuileries gardens.”
Often, though, much of his telling is second-hand. He is always an outsider, often literally (he sleeps in the stables, waits in the carriage while Fitzerald carouses in whorehouses, and is not admitted to the Parliament to see Fitzgerald be excoriated by the House for declaring Irish liberty). “What is Ireland?” he asks, and is told, “It’s a rathole, a slave ship, it’s a Tower of Babel where no inhabitant understands the other, it’s an island drowned in rain and porter and whiskey, it’s a traitor’s heaven and a blight upon the Kingdom.”
To be a Black African in 18th century Dublin and London is to stand out, and requires one to be something of an actor, and Jordan’s conceit is to have his hero enamoured of the stage, especially Shakespeare’s Caliban: “Was my Lieutenant to be my Prospero and I his Caliban? I would far rather be his Ariel and help him reclaim his lost dukedom”, and the work of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who shows up often and whose wife has a love-child with Fitzgerald. The ‘comedy’ of Small often acts as intermediary between Fitzgerald and his lovers, ferrying love letters back and forth.
“The comedy, if that’s what it was … involved hidey-holes and secret gardens, curtains, cupboards and sculleries, and the interior of many a hansom carriage, ferrying the principals from one to the other. Kissesm blushes, petticoats raised and lowered, promises of undying love and enmity, assurances of friendship that would outlast both. It involved me ferrying letters between all of the principals and in the end me ferrying a newborn infant in swaddling clothes down a snow-swept avenue, by which time nobody was laughing.”
Small and Sheridan meet often, and at one point Small is a stagehand and briefly an actor at the Theatre Royal. Small learns to read English by reading Robinson Crusoe, seeing himself as Friday to Edward’s Crusoe. That this probably did not occur in real life is neither here nor there; it is Jordan’s imaginative triumph that the novel moves effortlessly from place to place with a large cast of real and fictional characters and never loses sight of its core relationship between the two men.
McKenna’s debut novel appears at first glance to be a more conventional piece of historical fiction, but aims for something arguably more ambitious. For one, it is more detailed than Jordan’s, more rooted in historical facts and McKenna is more interested in replicating the speech and manners of the time. Where Jordan is content with a few lines to give an impression of an event, McKenna will devote pages.
For another, rather than one narrative, we are presented with four. There is ‘the true narrative’: Small’s memoirs, which in tone and language mirror many authentic slave narratives of the nineteenth century. There is a close third-person account of much of this journal, which gives life to Small’s recollections.
Both of these stories are framed by the third: the story of Small’s daughter Harriet in London in 1857, reading her father’s account of Fitzgerald. These three accounts intersect and overlap; there are contradictions and amendments.
McKenna’s novel is an examination of what it is to fashion fiction out of history.
This is made plain by the fourth narrative, which emerges from the marginalia of Tony’s memoir. It was Edward’s sister Lucy who commissioned Tony to write an account of her late brother, but Lucy adds footnotes, comments and corrections, for she is less interested in the life of a former African slave who became a loyal family friend, and more interested in restoring the reputation of the once Lord Edward, later Citizen Fitzgerald, the Anglo-Irish loyalist who renounced his title and became a rebel.
She recoils at Tony’s inclusion of the word ‘damned’, reminding him that “many who will read this are of a pious inclination, Quakers and such.” She says “It’s best not to include family disagremeents”; when Tony mentions that Edward vomited from sea-sickness, she comments that “Readers do not wish to hear of common illnesses or bodily functions”; and when Tony writes that Edward’s love for his cousin Georgiana – thwarted by the family – made him ‘like a bull trapped in a shed’, the entire passage is literally struck-through by Lucy’s pencil, and her shocked, stern footnote asks, “My dear Tony, whatever were you thinking of? This cannot be included. Besides it was just a mere flirtation – over as soon as it began.”
Both novels are concerned with language, as the title of McKenna’s makes clear. Tony’s name, after all, is given to him after Fitzgerald mishears him say he is of the Andoni tribe. As Tony’s daughter says, “names just give a quick inkling of a person, but still they matter.”
In Jordan’s telling, Tony Small learns English by reading Robinson Crusoe; in McKenna’s, Edward takes it upon himself to teach his servant. In both novels, the power and beauty of words is a touchstone: Jordan and McKenna have each reclaimed a little-known story from Irish history, and given it new life.
Words to Shape My Name (New Island) is available here
Join guest interviewer Diarmaid Ferriter for a special event to launch Neil Jordan’s The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small, this Thursday, 18th March, tickets here.