'A Hero Of Our Time!': The Smallest Man By Frances Quinn
Mikhail Lermontov exploited the fractured prism of his anti-hero Grigory Pechorin to eviscerate his society from the perspective of a disillusioned 19th century aristocrat. Tall, debonair and privileged Pechorin has it all and yet his ennui and soul-sick malevolence is all he can offer the world. A callous disregard for the feelings and fate of others characterises Pechorin’s every cruel action. He is quite simply monstrous, the freakish by-product of a diseased society and cold heart. Step forth Nat Davy, the antidote to pensive moroseness, unkind spleen and therefore a shining exemplar of humanistic authenticity, compassion, courage and altruistic tenacity.
Captain James Cook, a once bold adventurer upon life’s seas said, ‘Do just what others say you can’t do and you will never pay attention to their limitations again’. Cook would have admired Nat Davy, the pint-sized protagonist of Frances Quinn’s debut. One suspects that any reader who meets Nat will echo that sentiment and garland it with glad-hearted affection. Quinn has written an uplifting gem of a novel and she owes that triumph to her brilliantly rendered diminutive hero.
Set in 1625, we find Charles I about to be crowned king of England, his Queen Henrietta Maria, a fifteen-year-old devoutly Catholic French princess by his side, though noticeably absent from his Protestant coronation. Charles’s father, James I had fought bitter wars against France and Spain and the Catholic-led Gunpowder plot had caused widespread contempt for all Catholics. Charles, believing in his divine right to rule, increasingly eschewed the voice of his Protestant parliament, and steadily became the fulcrum upon which a divided nation precariously balanced sovereignty and popularism.
The English Civil War grew out of the division between State and People, fought not because of disagreements about who should rule, but how the people themselves should be governed. As we all know, Charles would spectacularly lose both his cause and his head outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in 1649. Convicted of High Treason, his grisly fate to become the first English monarch to be executed. Oliver Cromwell would establish the Commonwealth of England as a republic and the monarchy would not be restored until the accession of Charles II in 1660.
A tumultuous epoch of English history characterised by religious and political intolerance, vengeful retribution, ruthless monomania and the callous disregard for human kindness that tragically leads to war. Rich pickings for an author of historical fiction to say the least !
Quinn’s Cervantes-like episodic plot takes its substance from charting the vacillating fortunes of one Nat Davey of Oakham, England. Loosely modelled upon Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1619-c.1682 ), the real life ‘Queen’s Dwarf’ and known as ‘Lord Minimus’, Quinn’s protagonist is similarly diminutive. Though perfectly proportioned, Nat at age ten is no bigger than a toddler. Though he would age, he would never grow taller. In possession of all his faculties, Nat had been born ‘different’ and his size threatened to determine both his fate and his character.
The entire novel is told through the fictionalised psychological prism of its first person narrator, Nat. First encountered as a child, he is to be sold by his impoverished peasant butcher father as a useless ‘freak’ for ten shillings to a travelling fair; his fate to join another such soul in a cage and be displayed as a curiosity to all and sundry. Capricious fortune intercedes when the Duke of Buckingham, a close advisor to Charles I purchases Nat for one shilling more than that offered by the iniquitous fair owner. Protestant Buckingham, keen to publicly appease a Catholic Queen who rightly despises him, presents Nat to young Henrietta as ‘a present’ to bolster her exotic royal menagerie which already includes an unruly monkey. Nat is to be little more than a curious toy…or so it seems.
From this uniquely intimate vantage point, we confront the machinations of a monarchy in crisis, a nation in civil unrest, a woman both persecuted and vilified, and witness first hand the trial and tribulations of an age infamous for its political intrigue, barbarity and unmoored sense of national self.
With flare, legerdemain, sensitivity and gusto Quinn transports her reader to the troubled epicentre of Queen Henrietta’s court. Nat’s spirited escapades, chivalric adventures and courageous endeavours to find purpose, meaning and love become the narrative impetus of the novel. We witness Nat becoming the trusted confidant of a divisive queen, skilled horseman, valiant spy and loyal supporter of those who show him kindness, respect and consideration.
The plot itself is best summarised as a Dumas-like romp through two decades of court intrigue, political unrest and the vacillations dogging an incompetent king and his recalcitrant subjects. Pages turn with hotly anticipated zeal, short chapters ending on hooks the writers of The Archers
might envy. The pace of the action is relentless, rallentando
only employed when Nat becomes introspective, his soliloquies contextualising the action and giving it both emotional veracity and poignant force. Structurally our action is broken into three distinct parts, each self-contained vignettes, deepening our understanding of both the novel’s events and its vibrant panoply of characters.
Quinn’s use of historical fact is seamlessly woven into a fictionalised world with consummate, deftly-crafted skill. The macrocosmic events of the main plot intertwine with the fittingly microcosmic unfolding of Nat’s own personal longings together with a romantic subplot, nearly worthy of Marlowe. This dual narrative thrust gives Quinn’s novel a multi-layered texture which is both diverting and deliciously absorbing. Dusty historical facts become coruscating baubles, illuminated from within by being peopled with characters as vivid as they are meticulously drawn. I suspect the construction of the novel’s plot may well account for why the book itself took four years to write!
To give her effervescent narrative tangible potency, Quinn has dipped her quill into ink of renowned literary provenance. For me, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
has cast its influence over Quinn’s authorial nib. Both works gives us a zestful character on a bold quest told in episodic form, both see dwarfs play an essential role in events and both explore personal growth, heroism and share the motif of war. A childlike fairy tale quality leads to darker thematic waters and puts me in mind of Thumbelina
by Hans Christian Andersen.
Tom Thumb was first mentioned in Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft
(1854) and later the titular protagonist of Henry Fielding’s play, and subsequently seen again in his The History of Tom Thumb
. These works gently scent Quinn’s work with folkloric antiquity and animated charm. Even Swift can be detected in satirical notes, size as motif and a gripping yarn containing within its ostensibly playful narrative, profoundly serious questions. More contemporaneously, the words of Philip Pullman fragrance Quinn’s own story…’You cannot change what you are, only what you do’.
Quinn’s prose is gently bridled, never allowed to trample over the book’s richly-sown thematic ground. The first-person narrative voice of Nat is an utter joy to read. Right up to his being portrayed by none other than Van Dyck, Nat talks to us with the callow innocence of a child. As he matures, so too does his lexicon and tone. Dialogue is paired back to the bone, silences as eloquent as spoken words. Quinn’s ability to modulate her prose rather than suffuse it with grandiloquent description or clunky sentimentality, is the semi-permeable membrane through which reader and story meld.
Quinn allows her characters and their well-chosen words to take centre stage rather than conspicuously grabbing our attention with artificed lyrical hyperbole. This is a sign of an author at ease with her pen, her faith in her story and its actors well placed and immutable.
Quinn’s book pays its reader the ultimate compliment - it leaves room for interpretation. On one level, Nat’s tale can be read simply for its magnetically-charged verve, joy and innocent charm. A novel to lift even the darkest spirits, accessible to all and savoured for its marvellous storytelling, tenderness and scintillating historical verisimilitude. However, beneath this captivating surface, Quinn explores a veritable smorgasbord of themes ranging from the poignant to the profound.
The novel explores prejudice, intolerance, the malaise of l’autre
, personal transformation and self-actualisation, and existential angst. We confront power and its abuse, fidelity and betrayal, the ineluctable force of compassion and the magnificence of self-belief and courage. Empathy and acceptance jostle for consideration alongside unacknowledged love, personal insecurity and its odious consequences. Money and wealth are examined with a granular focus upon the repercussions of both possession and absence of means. Political, religious and societal fundamentalism are scrutinised, as are theocracy, monarchy and autocracy.
Chief amongst Quinn’s themes, though, is self-limiting doubt reinforced by ignorant societal bias and the vile evil of labelling those we do not accept, or do not conform to approved stereotypes as ‘freaks’. Counterpointing this important issue, Quinn flips prejudice upon its metaphorical head. She gently illustrates the destructive agency of unkind judgement and proceeds to illustrate the most profound of humanistic truths. We are all special, gifted and infinitely blessed with the capacity to be the best possible version of our authentic self. Perhaps best said by Ralph Waldo Emerson – ‘to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment’.
Nat Davey is the fictional embodiment of this inalienable truth, a character who is as flawed as any human being, yet by dint of courage and sensitivity becomes a giant amongst men.
Yet another layer of Quinn’s exuberant and entertaining tale is the subtle way in which by illuming a society bubbling towards melting point four hundred years ago, she casts much needed light upon our own. Malversation, popularism, self-aggrandisement and hateful intolerance could be seen as common to both Nat’s epoch and our own. Just as Nat transcends both his and society’s limitations, perhaps he offers the modern reader a minatory, but simultaneously uplifting note. History has a habit of repeating itself and only human courage, virtue and compassion stand between us and calamity.
So, I found Quinn’s debut to be an utter delight. My inner child every bit as satisfied as the jaded adult he grew up to become. If you are seeking a book offering both whimsy and solace whilst also affording moments of genuine emotional power, The Smallest Man
is one for you. Nat is a character you will cherish long after you close this magical book and one who will keep Oscar Wilde’s words reverberating around your mind – ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’ !
The Smallest Man
is published by Simon & Schuster