“She knew her love was flecked with revulsion, both from him and from herself – for what she was becoming under the influence, not of his personality exactly, but of her dependence on it. She wouldn’t look too closely: for she couldn’t combat the deadly longing, the sweet need for him.”
Ann St Clair, writer of gothic horrors “created for yearning women,” is an independent and self-sufficient woman until she meets Irishman Robert James, the successful author of Attila. He is “another kind of being” compared to other men. “He loved an audience, a discipleship. Men were drawn to him.” A scholarly force of nature, he makes sweeping intellectual statements at Mr Hughes’ dinner, and also proves to be a great entertainer as a mimic and a ventriloquist. “Politics didn’t matter. Only poetry of philosophy, philosophy of poetry – purity of language which is its beauty.” Ann is mesmerised. They meet again, and soon they are living together in her lodgings.
His gang of five male admirers who meet regularly in their favourite tavern accept Ann as “an appendage” to his genius. “Robert never said he was a genius – he didn’t have to. Wasn’t a genius a master of antithesis, and wasn’t everything he said antithetical? So there you were then.”
Some see through “this odd vain man,” but Ann is snared. He has similarities to her mother, a selfish uncaring widow who gloats with maudlin rapture over the memory of her dead husband, and treats her daughter with contempt – “I never wanted you . . .” Ann had left home in Putney aged eighteen to join a religious community in the village of Fen Ditton near Cambridge where – disappointingly but not unsurprisingly – the housework and cooking ended up being done by the women.
Arrogant, angry and grandiose, Robert James begins to criticise and belittle her, venting all his frustration and inability to follow up his great work. He drinks more wine and brandy than ever, frequently “towers with rage,” and “put venom in the word ‘Woman’ as he inflated the word ‘Man’.” The verbal abuse soon turns physical.
Yet the more he attacks Ann, the “server of Gothic pap,” the more she clings, and there are often tears. She is becoming a victim-carer, yet, “her desire, the craving, continued. Out in the world, in the street or in a shop or market, Ann had that thrill in the pit of her belly when a figure with Robert’s outline came closer, turned to a surge of joy if it was indeed he.” The atmosphere is increasingly oppressive, obsessive and depressive, as in the gothic novels she writes.
The decision is made to leave England, in the hope that he will become calmer, less agitated and taut. He has a small allowance and she will continue to write, sending finished drafts back to her publisher, Dean & Munday.
The warm south is not as warm, or as romantic, as expected. The couple’s spartan lodgings on La Giudecca are musty; the canals and gondolas shabby. Robert James is like a difficult disturbed child endlessly grumbling, “It’s all vegetable patches. We’re among peasants with hoes and chickens, clam fishers who crawl in the mud and scarcely bother with shoes and stockings.” He despises the British expats, the adulation of Lord Byron, the Church, normalcy and the need for money.
Ann gets a job teaching English to the daughter of Contessa Savelli at Palazzo Savelli on the Grand Canal, while he takes more and more laudanum. His world is one where women are rendered powerless. “Don’t you dared try to muzzle me . . . I am not other people. I do not live by their rules. You know that. Why did you want someone like me? You try to reduce me to the commonness you admire.”
At this point the dark gothic romance morphs into a traveller’s tale when Ann has to leave Venice to visit her dying mother in Paris, precipitated by a shocking event. She becomes a fugitive, fleeing for her life, guided by a monosyllabic Nordic gentleman, Aksel Stamer, encountered at various locations in Venice. Who is he? Unknown family, or someone from Robert James’ past? Ann sees her dying mother and returns to London, where she discovers the truth about her accidental origins.
The literati sneering at more popular forms of writing are a classic (and entertaining) feature of publishing life. Janet Todd’s portrayal of Mr Literary Bigshot, imbued with love of himself, holding forth at literary soirées around town before an admiring audience is spot on. She succeeds at writing extreme emotional scenes without being turgid, and combines exhaustive research with imagination to produce a vivid narrative and a plausible cast of characters.
The dissection of a passionate, obsessive relationship which becomes abusive makes for painful reading at times. However A Man of Genius is strangely seductive and unputdownable. Writers’ relationships, past and present, exert a powerful fascination. Turbulent and dramatic, they invariably create a ripple effect of chaos among family and friends. Some have become the stuff of legend: George Eliot and Henry Lewes, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley Robert Browning, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine in the Victorian era; and Henry Miller and Anais Nin, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre in more recent times.
The intellectual male ego is a fragile thing; to be with an attractive companion who holds her own out in the world may satisfy a tendency toward narcissism – but if there is a risk of being overshadowed, woe betide her! Robert James’s acerbic put downs of Ann St Clair reminded me of how novelist Romain Gary – who suffered from bouts of depression – complained that his historian wife, Lesley Blanch, only wrote “women’s stories.” He had a nervous breakdown after the runaway success of her first book The Wilder Shores of Love. Blanch referred to her husband as the “Japanese Overlord” and herself as “poor little faded paper fan”. Submissive yet strong, she was a paradox.
From Grand Tour to Gap Year
Travelling abroad has been a rite of passage for Brits for centuries; and Venice a popular destination. Reading Janet Todd’s descriptions of dank canals and touristy hang outs reminded me of how it was when I first went there in 1981. (The Fondamenta S Giuseppe was run down and our lumpy beds in a pensione run by two sisters had bed bugs, but I loved it.) She brings alive the real Venice, neither romanticising it, nor making it a sinkhole of Casanova-style corruption. Well-written fiction enhances history. Janet Todd’s first work of fiction is elegant and compelling, I look forward to reading her next one . . .
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A Man of Genius by Janet Todd | Bitter Lemon Press | Pub date £16.99 352pp HB| ISBN: 9781908524591