Harriet Devine, Shiny New Books
Anyone who’s studied, or taken an interest in, women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries will have encountered the work of Janet Todd. She has written biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, and edited and written on the works of Jane Austen, Aphra Behn and many others. A Man of Genius is her first foray into fiction, and a terrific debut it is.
The year is 1819. Ann St Clair, a single woman but not an inexperienced one (she once lived with a man on a sort of commune in the country), lives on her own in London and is a professional writer of Gothic novels. Much to her regret she never knew her father Gilbert, though according to her mother he was a remarkable man. The only family member she keeps in touch with is her kindly, conventional, married cousin Sarah, but her social life revolves around a group of young, radical writers and artists who meet once a week for dinner. It’s here one evening that she meets Robert Hughes, who is reputed to be a genius on the basis of the only thing he has written, a fragment called Attilla. Robert’s intense philosophical conversation keeps the rest of the guests spellbound, and Ann is completely swept away. It’s not long before she and Robert become a couple, though the relationship is not without its problems. However, when he expresses the intention of moving to Venice, Ann naturally goes with him.
Life in Venice may sound romantic, but it proves to be the very opposite:
They followed the padrona up sloping steps of damp uneven stone, leaving a ragged boy scarcely in his teens to carry up the trunks. At length they entered a large, piercingly cold room with a high ceiling crossed by dark, crudely cut wooden beams. She’d thought Italy would be warm. Another lie of poetry and novels, the warm south that wasn’t warm. It was only November. It must get worse.
There is not enough money for good lodgings, the climate is either cold or unpleasantly hot, and Robert, who thought a change of scene might give him the inspiration he lacked in London, finds it impossible to write. He sits at his desk day after day with piles of paper and pens, but when Ann manages to read what he has written, it is incomprehensible banalities. His moods, which have always been dark, intensify, and he frequently subjects Ann to verbal and physical abuse. Ann’s time is spent trying to keep the household from complete deterioration, earning a litte money by teaching English to a young girl who lives in a grand palazzo, and encountering some mysterious and rather suspect Venetians and expatriates. As Robert starts to become more and more obviously mentally unstable, so Ann’s state of mind edges closer and closer to total despair. Even when circumstances make it necessary for her to journey back to England, she is in no shape for the hardships of the circuitous route she is forced to take, and it is questionable at times whether she will survive.
There’s so much to enjoy here. The story is an exciting one, with plenty of mysteries and revelations, including the vital question of Ann’s parentage and the true identity of her absent, unknown father. The period detail is faultless and the pictures of London, Paris, Venice and places in between wholly convincing. But above all, the novel depicts something which exists as much today as it did in Ann’s own time – a clever woman’s obsession with a man who mistreats and abuses her, and the effect this has on her increasingly fragile psychology. Ann has always suffered from a sense of inferiority, and has never felt loved or valued by her difficult, uncommunicative mother, so her self-worth is low to start with and it’s only too easy for her to sink into a despairing dependence on her abuser. Even her eventual rescue by a mysterious stranger is fraught with problems and uncertainties, and when she finally gets some answers to her abiding questions, they are hardly comforting.
I’ve made this sound as if it might be rather dark and depressing – well, dark it may be at times, but depressing it certainly is not. I galloped through it, anxious for Ann and wishing her well, and uncertain until the very end how things would turn out for her.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books