Historical Novel Society

May 2016, by Lucinda Byatt

Drawn to Fiction: Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius

Janet Todd is a distinguished academic and literary historian.1 Now retired, she lives for part of the year in Venice. What, I wondered, had prompted her to embark on a new journey by writing her first novel? Surprisingly, Todd admits that she has always been drawn to fiction.

When I was a student in the ‘60s a tutor told me to go and be a novelist when I half-heartedly suggested I should apply to become a solicitor. I became an academic in the US for financial reasons and because the American feminist movement inspired me to do excavating work on early women writers. I think my biographies have had a tendency towards fiction and I’ve certainly had to rein in speculation! As soon as I escaped from full-time work, I’ve turned to the form I’ve always loved best.

The result is A Man of Genius, a book described by Todd’s publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, as “a work of psychological fiction.” The historical setting of the two cities where the novel is mainly set, London and Venice in 1816–21, is evocatively described. Caroline of Brunswick, then the Princess of Wales, is a favourite subject for gossips, such as the protagonist’s mother and her widowed friends. Ann St Clair is a complex figure: she craves the affection of Robert James, a “man of so much promise,” a magnetic (but strangely repulsive) character, the author of a single fragment, an unfinished work on Attila the Hun. Todd certainly captures Ann’s complete infatuation as the ill-assorted pair set off on a reckless journey to Venice, ostensibly motivated by Robert’s search for creative inspiration. Ann’s inspiration has far more mundane origins: she writes cheap gothic novels, modelled on the likes of Mrs Radcliffe, whose heroine in The Mysteries of Udolpho sees Venice through an improbable “saffron glow.” Todd confirmed that the character of Ann was not inspired by a single woman writer.

For many years I’ve worked on early women writers and been fascinated by the increase in numbers at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. They fed the taste for gothic and sensational fiction while modestly avoiding claims to being artists – usually they said they wrote for money because they lacked a male breadwinner. My character Ann is like one of the hack writers of the horrid novels that so entranced Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.

Two of my latest biographies, of the 1790s feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Fanny (along with her sister, later Mary Shelley), have dealt with a fatal passion of women for men they invested with imaginary qualities.2 I’ve not followed the trajectory of the biographies towards suicide, but my reading of these lives helped inform my creation of Ann St Clair.

The Venice where Ann and Robert arrive in 1819 is not the resplendent city of, say, the sixteenth or the seventeenth century, but altogether a sadly diminished place, its proud independence first despoiled by Napoleon and now suffocated under Austrian rule. Todd’s intimate knowledge of Venice reveals an absorbing picture. Ann gets to know the city and its inhabitants through her tutee, Beatrice Savelli, and the mysterious Giancarlo Scrittori and his friends. She grows fond of the “tawdry glamour” of the city, “its gaiety, its insouciance about its failure of nerve.” Even the freezing cold and later the oppressive heat, the rotten wood and the broken stone cannot detract from the beauty of the lagoon birds whose names Scrittori teaches her.

In A Man of Genius Todd explores the idea of the downfall of the divinely inspired, “almost invariably male” poet, a figure that “became a cultural cliché in the Regency.” Robert is so all-consumed by his art that he despises the fame and adulation received by another contemporary, Byron, who also spent some months in Venice. As fear of failure grows, violent abuse and hatred fill the void of Robert’s creativity. Ultimately, perhaps, Todd is exploring the nature of genius that borders on madness, “aspects of our present cult of celebrity with its acceptance of destructive behaviour in cultural icons.”

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