*THE COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED*
I’m so thrilled and honoured to have Janet Todd on the blog today to delight us with an excerpt from her new novel, A Man of Genius. I’ve long been an admirer of Janet’s non-fiction books on Jane Austen, though she’s also known for her feminist works on Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Benn.
Janet is very kindly giving away a copy of her new book A Man of Genius, which has been described by Sarah Dunant as ‘A quirky, darkly mischievous novel about love, obsession and the burden of charisma, played out against the backdrop of Venice’s watery, decadent glory’, and by Philippa Gregory as ‘Strange and haunting, a gothic novel with a modern consciousness.’
All you have to do to for a chance to win is answer the question, “Would you rather meet Jane Austen or Lord Byron?”
Please leave your answer in a comment at the bottom of the post. The book is very generously being offered internationally, and the competition will be open for a week. The winner’s name will be drawn from the hat on Wednesday 16th March and announced on the blog.
Here’s a little blurb to whet your appetite, and I’m sure you’ll love the excerpt that follows! You all know how I love descriptive writing, and in the scene below the passage conjures up sparkling visions of Venice that are exquisitely drawn.
Ann, a successful writer of cheap Gothic novels, becomes obsessed with Robert James, regarded by many, including himself, as a genius, with his ideas, his talk, and his band of male followers. However, their relationship becomes tortuous, as Robert descends into violence and madness.
The pair leaves London for occupied Venice, where Ann tries to cope with the monstrous ego of her lover. Forced to flee with a stranger, she delves into her past, to be jolted by a series of revelations–about her lover, her parentage, the stranger, and herself.
FROM CHAPTER 14
She’d come to the Palazzo Savelli without Giancarlo Scrittori: he had some business to do, he said, but she suspected he wanted her to go alone. He wished both sides to be impressed.
The palazzo didn’t disappoint. It was full of glass, the chandeliers intricate, elaborate Murano, mainly white with touches of pink in the mantels. They hung, huge fossilised sea anemones from a waving sea of dark wood rafters. On the wall were ornate mirrors in panes, some flecked with rust spots, all distorting, exaggerating or decanting the scenes before them. It was hard for Ann to know where she was.
Impossible not to see oneself in different postures: made now picturesque, now grotesque, always obscure.
Her ungloved hands had coarsened from too much washing in cold water, but here in these tarnished mirrors the roughest hands were smooth and indistinct. Ann was not displeased to look down at hers when she’d removed her gloves.
She’d been shown in by a diminutive manservant, followed at once by the old woman they’d seen before – well, not so old, she now noted, someone very unlike her mother with her rouge and false hair. This woman had embraced ageing in her black garb, voice and stance. She was helped by an absence of all front teeth.
Then a footman, slightly shabby despite magnificent powdered wig setting off his brown face, ushered her up a wide flight of marble stairs with walls of fading frescoes. He left her in a large gloomy room after muttering what she supposed was a version of her name in too many syllables. Heavy curtains shaded the windows; the paintings in their ornate gilt frames were hardly visible in the dim light, darkened further by poor placing and layers of dust.
A woman in shades of elaborate black was seated on a sofa of faded crimson velvet embroidered in dark silk swirls. Her face was pale and lined, framed by black lace.
Not unkind but not prepossessing, a little haughty.
‘I am the Contessa Savelli,’ she said in heavily accented English. ‘You are Signora Jamis. Please to sit. I speak not much English.’
Ann sat on a lower facing chair upholstered in the same faded velvet. A young twinkling voice interrupted the silence. ‘Signora, we are most content you are here.’
It was the girl she and Giancarlo Scrittori had met the last time they visited the house. Now she was ready for courtesies. Again, as with Signor Scrittori, no mention was made of the first strange meeting.
‘Signorina,’ she replied. ‘I too am content.’
There followed more Italian pleasantries, which Ann was unsure how to answer, the girl speaking in her light musical way, the mother in lower tones from a smiling mouth beneath remote eyes.
Then the Contessa left the room. Ann rose as she went. She glanced at a ceiling fresco of pink and white cherubs displaying undulating stains on plump flesh.
‘Let us go to another smaller place. There is good light,’ said the girl. ‘We will sit near a window. There you hear the sound of water.’
‘I would like, Signorina, to do exactly what you have in mind. We have an hour for conversing or reading, what you will.’
‘Beatrice, please.’ The voice fell like a warm spray over them both. ‘And I am Ann S–’ She stopped, realising she’d almost used her maiden name. How absurd.
Frederick Curran said it was always best to be more than one person. She presumed he meant on paper.
‘But that is not so correct,’ laughed Beatrice. ‘You are the Signora.’
‘Yes, I suppose so. I am old.’
‘Not old Signora, no, just older than I am and you are married and will teach.’
The girl was all sunshine, all smiles and shifting music. It was impossible not to respond.
So they chatted and nodded and chuckled and Beatrice wrote down phrases in a small notebook exquisitely covered in an intricate geometric pattern of muted red and cream. The hour passed in a flash.
At moments the wintry sunlight on the canal beneath was reflected through the arched window on to the carved ceiling and from there to a tarnished mirror: then all was moving, dazzling on the patched and shredded green damask walls.
‘You make more of the sunlight here,’ said Ann.
‘Possibly,’ replied Beatrice.
When at the end of the session the Contessa, with her mingling of stateliness, anxiety and polite hospitality, came in to check that everything had proceeded well, she must have seen the success of the lesson. Perhaps she was glad the new teacher had amused her daughter, who, Ann knew now, was quick and might become easily bored.
She’d passed some test. The Contessa would be honoured if she and her husband – a famous English author, she understood – would attend for a social evening. Not in the next weeks, for the Marchese would be in town and would want her company. The Contessa gave a smile both proud and deprecating. ‘And my son, you will have chance to meet the Conte if he will be seen.’
An odd phrase, perhaps it came from inadequate English. It chimed with Beatrice’s mention of this young man who was and was not in residence. Ann supposed he lived elsewhere for part of the time.
She saw that the girl gave her mother a quick glance as she spoke of him. There might be sibling jealousy.
She hoped no invitation would ever come, that its suggestion was just polite formality.
Thank you so much for joining me on the blog today, Janet, and for sharing such an intriguing excerpt.
Readers, please don’t forget to check back on the 16th to find out if you are the lucky winner. In the meantime, if you’d like to hear (and see) the wonderful actress Miriam Margolyes reading an excerpt from the audiobook, you can watch it here.