The Tablet


Clever is as clever does

05 May 2016 | by Selina Mills | Comments: 0

A Man of Genius

I  wondered if the first novel by a distinguished retired writer and the author of acclaimed studies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn and Jane Austen might be a daunting read. Would it be didactic, over-detailed and “superior”, as first-time novelists and over-eager academics can sometimes be? A Man of Genius is none of these; it is instead a clever and entertaining story of a Regency woman navigating her way through a Europe not only dominated by men with their Napoleonic plans of conquest, but by men who are constantly telling themselves, with few to challenge them, that they are geniuses.

Absorbing and psychologically astute, the novel follows the journey of Ann St Clair, who earns a precarious living by writing cheap Gothic novels. As all good heroines do, she falls in love with an apparent hero, Robert James, who lures her with his ideas and his talk. The couple decide to run away to Venice, where they pretend they are married. Robert is regarded by many as a man of genius, though as the novel progresses it’s clear that more than anything else he is a man of annoyance, and of violence. As Robert becomes increasingly obsessive and cruel, things deteriorate, and eventually our heroine must flee.

Like Ann, the reader is at the same time both lured and repulsed by Robert. Is he a genius, or just a hyperbolic egoist? Ann is forced to delve into her own past, and is jolted by a series of revelations – about her lover, but also about her own parentage, and about herself. Janet Todd is a great describer. The backdrop of Venice is described in fragments which stay with you: “The sky was the sort of light blue that cloaked the Virgin in faded Renaissance paintings.” And Ann’s inner struggle gently exposes the interior life of a woman in a world dominated by men and established by men for men. While men can be celebrated poets, she can only be a “hack writer of cheap Gothic novels”.

The novel grips. You want to know if Ann will have the gumption to leave the cod-Byronic Mr James. And you want to know if she will survive the society of secret codes and networks that created him in the first place. As Ann struggles with Robert and his reputation and with herself and her own gifts, you will find yourself questioning the basic premise of “genius”. Could it be all in the eye of the society which bestows the label?
Cleverly crafted, and making you wish you lived in Venice (as does the author herself for part of the year), A Man of Genius is a wonderful dive into nineteenth-century thinking without any of the effort of having to sit through a university lecture. I’m looking forward to further coursework from Janet Todd.

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