The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan review – gripping tale of an unequal friendship

The film-maker and author’s latest novel, about the bond between an aristocrat and a freed slave, is thrillingly written and laden with social and sexual ambiguity

“This is a ballad of fools and heroes and maybe you can work out which is which.” The real-life relationship between the Irish aristocrat turned republican revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his servant-cum-saviour, the freed slave Tony Small, is one that has been largely ignored by history. Small is remembered, if he is at all, as a minor character in Fitzgerald’s more celebrated story. But the association between the two men forms the backbone of the author and film-maker Neil Jordan’s latest novel, which explores their tentative, highly unequal friendship from Small’s perspective, and is typically laden with social and sexual ambiguity.

The narrative begins on the battlefields of the American war of independence, as Small almost accidentally saves Fitzgerald’s life. It continues as Small, granted his freedom papers in gratitude, accompanies “my lieutenant” as his servant on his travels to the West Indies, Britain, Ireland and across Europe, as Fitzgerald takes an increasing, and eventually fatal, interest in revolutionary politics. There is a vividly depicted – if brief – account of the horrors of slavery and “the passage”, as well as a charmingly evoked vignette of theatre-going in 18th-century London. But Jordan is most interested in the ethical and racial tensions that exist between the two men – Rousseau is evoked repeatedly – even as something akin to a love affair develops between them.

The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan is published by Head of Zeus (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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