Janet Todd, A Man of Genius (2016)
What happens when an eminent scholar and biographer turns her hand to fiction? In the case of Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, we get a highly distinctive, engrossing tale of mystery and madness, centering on a woman writer of one of those “horrid books” that were so popular around Jane Austen’s time. In Todd’s novel, Ann St. Clair has no respect for her own writing, seeing it only as a profitable and not too unpleasant way to make a living. She’s also glad to be independent of her uncaring, distant mother, who is entirely wrapped up in the memory of her dead husband.
The gothic elements of Ann’s fiction start to intrude into her own life, though, when she tumbles into a bizarre relationship with a male writer whose friends think him a genius-in-waiting, based on his one fragmentary work. Haunted by the bitter ghosts of her childhood, tying herself to an increasingly unstable man who neither needs nor wants her, Ann trails him across the post-Napoleonic landscape of Europe to a strange, shadowy existence in the underworld of Venice. The conclusion is shattering, surprising, and for me, unforgettable.
Ann’s story is not a comfortable or easy one to read, and this is not an amusing historical pastiche. Todd takes us into the dark heart of nineteenth century London and Venice, following her protagonist into a horrible form of emotional and physical subjugation. Her journey is harrowing, violent, and sad, and readers must have a strong stomach to follow her through to the teasingly hopeful end. But for those who do, the journey into the depths becomes a confirmation of the power of the self, which sometimes only lights up when threatened by utter eclipse.
Todd doesn’t attempt an imitation of the writing of the time — we are looking over the characters’ shoulders from a modern perspective, as it were — and yet her highly mannered style chimes well with the historical period. One can tell that she has immersed herself in it to such an extent that she can play freely with its language and people and ideas, so that her creation is relevant to both the “then” of the story and the “now” in which we experience it.
I usually avoid books that are gleefully advertised as “dark” and “harrowing,” as I dislike the kind of prurient pleasure-in-others’-pain that they often seem to trade on, but Ann’s story offers something more complex and far more interesting than that. As we move with Ann from the fragmentary to the whole, from blind folly to a hard-won wisdom, we are touched by some of the deepest mysteries of the human heart. Janet Todd has beautifully translated her passion for and knowledge of the era and its literature into a compelling fictional creation. I hope she will give us many more.