A Man of Genius by Janet Todd
|A Man of Genius by Janet Todd|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A tale of a 19th century abusive relationship which makes this meatier than a lot of historical fiction. An excellent sense of time and place mixes with inner dialogues and self-analysis before turning into full-blown adventure.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: March 2016|
|Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press|
Ann St Clair is determined not to follow the ways of her Georgian contemporaries into marriage. She earns enough as a writer of Gothic romances to keep the wolf from the door and believes that's how it will always be. Then she meets Robert James, writer, self-acclaimed genius and popular raconteur, becoming totally besotted. However Ann still thinks she can retain her independence, even when she goes to Venice with Robert to escape the boredom of English life. However there's a darker side to this man, the unforeseen consequences of which will unlock the mysteries of Ann's own childhood.
Welsh born Janet Todd OBE is an academic whose field of expertise is women writers and the depiction of women in literature. Over the years Janet has brought out 35 extremely well received critical books and essay collections about such women as Jane Austen, Aphra Behn and Mary Shelley. It's therefore fitting that, if there's a fictional tale to be written about an early 19th century gothic romance author, Janet writes it while mimicking the style of 19th century gothic romance.
A Man of Genius begins with Ann's first encounters with James alongside flashbacks from her unusual childhood. Ann's father died before she was born and she grows up feeling unloved, distanced and side-lined by her mother. Indeed this isn't a book we'd pick up if we fancied a giggle but the characters are so well observed we're drawn into their world.
Although Ann St Clair may have ideas beyond her century they're trapped within the accepted spectrum of the contemporary mores. For instance it's interesting that the marriage-abhorring Ann unilaterally feigns marriage to Robert James while they're abroad. Part of this may be a nod to her affection causing a rethink but part is due to it making life easier.
Janet also cleverly contrasts Ann's life and expectations with those of Ann's cousin Sarah. Sarah's expectations and morals are very much those of the contemporary establishment. Sarah's place is to support her husband and birth/raise children. This isn't her first choice of lifestyle nor one at which she feels particularly adept. Therefore the subtle hints are there that this could be seen as a form of socially legitimised abuse. It's easy to look at the past with modern knowledge and outlook but even if we discount Sarah's unchosen compliance, Ann seems to be having a rougher time of it.
When it comes to the story of Ann and her dark brooding man, we soon realise it's not going to be as romantic as Jane Eyre and Rochester. As the narration is intertwined with Ann's own inner monologue and analysis, we see there are times when she almost becomes Robert's stalker before the tables turn in Venice. What happens when the self-proclaimed genius falls short of his own standards? We and Ann find out, explosively.
We read through around 200 pages of story threaded with introspection. Then we realise it's a book of two halves, the introspection lessens, suddenly launching us into a twisting adventure. It may seem predictable as we may think we know the answers to the puzzles that Janet's laid before us but the answers aren't as simple as our guesses.
If you enjoy escapism historical fiction during which you can turn your brain off, this may not be for you. On the other hand if you fancy something a bit different with scenes to ponder set against a dark background, it definitely rates a place on your reading list.
(Thank you Bitter Lemon Press for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like to read more historical fiction incorporating Venice, we recommend Ascension by Gregory Dowling. If you'd prefer to stick with the Gothic theme, then we just as heartily recommend The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.
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