Mon, 07/18/2016 – 1:58am — RT Book Reviews

‘Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate.

Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of the distorted features. The open eyes were stained so that they glared through their own darkness. A smell of rotting meat.

‘By itself the face was unrecognisable, yet she knew it was her father’s. What was a father? A man begot a body but not a mind. She prodded the head with her foot. The blood must have congealed for her boot remained clean.

‘Had she killed him? It wasn’t clear. She rather thought she had. She was sure she’d not cut him up. She hadn’t the strength. She would order the bits thrown in the Arno to mix with filth from the city. She turned away.

‘How many people do you have to murder before it becomes habitual? Before you cannot remember which corpse is which and who is its dispatcher?

‘She wiped old blood off her hands with her handkerchief. Her maid would wash it clean.’

He’d come silently into the room and read from behind her. He smiled.

Ann felt the smile. ‘I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,’ she said without looking up.

I started my novel A Man of Genius with this scene, in part because my friend P.D. James  advised me to get a body into the first pages.  Also because I intended to write a Gothic novel—and the Gothic deals heavily in broken and mutilated bodies.

A man is looking over the shoulder of my heroine, the writer Ann St Clair. The Gothic is about relationships, about gruesome, painful, obsessive and occasionally joyful romance. (I don’t say in this opening chapter who this man is or how my heroine feels about him–but his shadow falls across her and her writing from the start.)

It’s strange to be telling a Gothic romantic tale in 2016 (albeit set 200 years before). Original Goths were just a Germanic tribe. In the 18th century they were recast as a cultural concept, perpetual outsiders, representing the dark side in the individual and society, opposing all that was classical, rational and enlightened.  ‘Gothic’ denoted horror, excess, unruliness and mutability.

In A Man of Genius sexual longing is acute and destructive. My emphasis is on the experience and suffering of my heroine Ann. Yet, in the end, it’s her desire that comes close to destroying both her and the beloved man; the relationship is mutually tormenting. Both are writers, she of Gothic fiction, he of Romantic poetry. His tortured efforts to capture a fading vision are rebuked by her fluency. The ‘love’ between them is disorderly, seductive and painful.

Jane Austen, a thoroughly enlightened author, allows her characters to mock the Gothic. She has a point since her contemporary, Ann Radcliffe, the queen of the Gothic genre, was copied and exploited by a swarm of sensational hacks churning out variations on her romantic and Gothic themes. They did so because the Gothic was popular and lucrative and because they could investigate something more respectable writers shied away from: anguished domestic relationships,  demented romantic passion, and  psychological breakdown, a muddling of real and imaginary. (Austen fans: think Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey expecting to find in a modernised abbey the hidden messages and family murders so prevalent in the Gothic.)

Gothic is about entrapment, of any one by anyone else. Gender is often unfixed, the lover may be androgynous while the villain is exaggeratedly masculine. Imprisonment, physical or mental, may be reciprocal, so that sometimes attributes of the abuser and primary victim are found in both. If the victim doesn’t strike the blow, there remains much murder committed in imagination.

Obviously the Gothic is about sex. About lust and rape and incest, about unseemly longings. Even in the respectable Ann Radcliffe’s most famous novel an odd desire creeps into the heroine: for a powerful aggressive and brutal man, her ‘uncle’.  His effect goes beyond that of the less troubling hero she marries to make the happy ending.  Mostly in the Gothic, sexual longing doesn’t end happily. See Dracula, Rebecca; see Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights.

England and America were at the time of my novel profoundly Protestant. England in particular defined itself  against the baroque Catholicism of France and Italy. The long French and Napoleonic war between 1793 and 1815 marks the period when the Gothic novel flourished and readers revelled in pictures of wicked Continental nuns and monks imprisoning and menacing virginal girls in convent dungeons, of priestly celibacy covering ‘brutal appetite’. The portraits fitted well with the patriotic ethos of an England at war.  The ‘lovers’ in my novel are caught in their opposing faiths.

The cultural idiom of Gothic attracts in various ways at different moments. To some it appears childish. My teenaged daughter had a Goth phase. I remember hanging on the clothesline tangled masses of torn black garments and stockings.  For her it was an exciting image, a way of belonging elsewhere, of associating first romance with something a little uncanny. Decades later I have sought the Gothic in Venice, where most of my book is set. In his Stones of Venice  (1853) John Ruskin associated the Gothic with the savage, changeable, grotesque and excessive. He saw the flawed and often unfinished and unpolished expressing human fears and desires, where the symmetrical and restrained  contained them.  My Venice in A Man of Genius is far from the city of Palladian churches, closer to Gothic films, Don’t Look Now and The Comfort of Strangers, which caught the threatening maze of small dark streets in Venice, a sense of romance doused in fear.

These are the paths my heroine treads while clutching her tormented heart.


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