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Authors: Janet Todd

A Man of Genius

BOOK: A Man of Genius
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was born in Wales and grew up in Britain, Bermuda and Sri Lanka. She has worked in Ghana, Puerto Rico, India, Scotland and England. In the US, at the University of Florida and Douglass College, Rutgers, she became active in the feminist movement and began the first journal devoted to women's writing. She has published on memoir and biography, as well as on authors including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, Byron and members of the Shelley circle. Her lifelong passion has been for female novelists, both the little known and the famous.

A Professor Emerita at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Janet Todd is a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she inaugurated a festival of women writers and established the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She lives in Cambridge and Venice.


‘A darkly mischievous novel about love, obsession and the burden of charisma, played out against the backdrop of Venice's watery, decadent glory' – Sarah Dunant

‘Strange and haunting, a gothic novel with a modern consciousness' – Philippa Gregory

‘Revealing, surprising, compelling, gripping' – Miriam Margolyes

‘A mesmerizing story of love and obsession in nineteenth-century Venice: dark and utterly compelling' – Natasha Solomons

‘Intriguing and entertaining; a clever, beguiling, debut. Todd knows her Venice backwards' – Salley Vickers

‘A real knack for language with some jaw-droppingly luscious dialogue. I can see the author's pedigree in the story, style, and substance of the book' – Geoffrey Jennings, Rainy Day Books


‘Todd has a good ear for tone and a deep understanding. An astonishingly thorough book'– Emma Donoghue

‘A rip-roaring read' – Michèle Roberts,
The Sunday Times

‘Genuinely original' – Antonia Fraser,
The Times

‘Todd is one of the foremost feminist literary historians writing in this country. She has devoted her literary career to recovering the lives and works of women writers overlooked and disparaged by generations of male literary scholars' – Lisa Jardine,
Times Literary Supplement

‘Todd guides us with unfailing buoyancy and a wit all her own through the intricacies of Restoration theatre and politics . . . [Behn's] epitaph seems to suggest her wit is buried with her. Not at all; it is now wondrously resurrected' – Michael Foot,
Evening Standard

‘Thorough and stimulating . . . clear readable prose . . . a fascinating study of the public face of Behn, of its shifting masks and modes' – Maureen Duffy,
Literary Review

‘Janet Todd's brilliant biography weaves a story together with precision, verve and confidence' – Melanie McGrath,

‘A juicy portrait, reconstructed . . . with insight and wit' –
Entertainment Weekly

‘Pacily plotted, sheds fascinating light even on a relatively well-known story. This is a book which, while accessible enough for the general reader, will also be welcomed by specialists for a wealth of insights' – Caroline Franklin,
Times Literary Supplement

‘Terrific insight . . . Todd's sound and generous reimagining of women's lives is a splendid work' –
Publishers Weekly

‘A meticulously researched retelling of the tumult of the early 19th century through the most tumultuous family of them all. An engaging account of the pain of anonymity in the presence of selfish genius' –

‘Clearly argued biography, which offers many acute psychological insights' –
Financial Times

‘Janet Todd's new biography brilliantly captures Wollstonecraft as both important and revolutionary. Like Virginia Woolf, Todd interprets this life as a daring experiment. Wollstonecraft is all but resurrected in Janet Todd's distinguished book' – Ruth Scurr,
The Times

‘Todd is an extraordinary researcher and sophisticated critic. This biography conjures a vivid sense of Wollstonecraft as a revolutionary and as a woman, and offers precise insights into the progress of one writer's life' –

‘Janet Todd, a feminist scholar, has done groundbreaking scholarship on women writers of the “long eighteenth century”. Even Todd's throwaway lines are steeped in learning and observation. Todd has documented so ably the daring attempt of a woman to write, both for her daily bread and for immortal fame' – Ruth Perry,
Women's Review of Books

‘The excellent Cambridge edition looks certain to be the standard critical edition of all Austen's works' – Simon Jarvis,
Times Literary Supplement

‘Essential for libraries, and anyone with a serious interest in Austen . . . Here are the complete works of Austen, rendered with razor-sharp clarity for a modern audience. Exceptionally useful' – Duncan Wu,


Women's Friendship in Literature

Sensibility: An Introduction

Feminist Literary History

The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction 1660–1800

Gender, Art and Death

The Secret Life of Aphra Behn

The Revolutionary Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

Rebel Daughters: Ireland in Conflict

The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen

Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (General Editor)

Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels


A co-publication with Fentum Press

First published in 2016 by

Bitter Lemon Press

47 Wilmington Square

London WC1X 0ET

Copyright © 2016 Janet Todd

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher

The moral rights of the author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-908524-60-7 (eB)

Designed and typeset by Jane Havell Associates

For Anita Desai

‘Great men are meteors designed to burn so that the earth may be lighted' Napoleon

‘even as we idolise the object of our affections, do we idolise ourselves . . . we walk as if a mist or some more potent charm divided us from all but him' Mary Shelley,









‘Annabella 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.

The Pursuit


he met Robert James in St Paul's Churchyard. The bookseller J. F. Hughes held a dinner once a week for his distinguished writers and a few hacks. She was invited to leaven the party with what a prized pornographer called ‘femality'. Mary Davies, who wrote children's primers for numbers and letters, was absent. Hers was a more respectable trade than Ann's gothic horrors but Mr Hughes judged Ann less prissily genteel in men's company.

An Italian was there. He said little except when talk veered towards argument. Then he remarked there was a sundial near Venice that claimed to count serene hours alone. How good, he added, to take notice of time only as it gives pleasure.

‘That sundial had not the English art of self-tormenting,' said Richard Perry, an intense, gentle man introduced by Mr Hughes as a reviewer and former bookseller.

‘It's surely not so easy to efface cares by refusing to name them,' said Ann.

Nobody pursued the point. Signor Luigi Orlando felt no need to facilitate further.

Later, much later, she wondered why Robert James had been invited. He'd published nothing of consequence beyond that amazing fragment of
. Did Mr Hughes believe in his promise as fervently as his friends did? As he did?

At first he'd been silent and she hadn't much remarked him. During the introduction she'd failed to note his name, being too engrossed in her own. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, and wine and conversation flowed, he'd started to dominate the talk, to
catch and keep attention. He spoke animatedly. She knew who he was then.

‘Why don't we make our language anew? It would transform life as Napoleon transformed Europe.'

He drank to the bottom of his glass, then waited while Mr Hughes's man refilled it and wiped the bottle's neck with a white napkin. It was already streaked with red but the formality compensated for carelessness. Nobody spoke during the little ceremony. They waited, as an audience waits during the interval for the actor to begin again.

‘There's one matchless original of language. True?' Robert James looked about the company. Richard Perry sought his friend's eye and nodded. ‘So scholars argue that purity lies in the past, at its inception. Then it proceeds to corruption. I say, No. Language moves towards purity. Use it, try it out in all its forms, even its interjections and conjunctions – slowly it will emerge in splendour. It is all to come.'

What was he saying? That wasn't the point: it was the glint, the glamour.

‘Politicians speak only in debased words. They talk of the past, they're retrospective. They know nothing of futurity. They impose on language, kill its iridescence.'

His voice rose, then he paused as his body continued expressing itself in little movements, wriggles, of hands and torso.

Was Mr Hughes happy just to listen? Probably, for he must have known he'd invited an entertainer to dinner.

‘The cause of reason and truth is menaced not by the democratical spirit – there's no collective, it cannot exist – but by the stupidity of those who think to inflict on others their stale ideas.'

He was darting his eyes on and off his listeners, while sweat bubbled from just above his eyebrows. ‘The legal robbery of government is not its taxation but its opinions. Every man must resist.

‘And every woman too,' he added looking at Ann, ‘for she brings to man's courage her fortitude, her tact to his intellect.'

She hardly registered what he'd said of woman – tact wasn't her strong point – for his eyes had been on her. But she heard the rest well enough and was surprised.

Politics excited nobody, not now in 1816. So old-fashioned, so very much the last century. Revolutions and wars were over. People were weary.

Even the French had given up thinking.

Yet here, on this night, the company listened and some of them, she was convinced, had been truly engaged. That was genius – to go against all expectations. It was doing what this man had already done in
when, with strength of his own will, he'd flouted common knowledge and made an ogre of the popular mind into a force of miraculous nature; Attila the Hun had become the destroyer not of numberless victims but of a diseased old order.

She'd read that work and admired its almost repellent force.

Unusual for her to seek out this sort of writing. But she'd been invited in by a stray remark overheard in Mr Dean's office, that there was something gothic in the brutal conception; it sparked her interest.

As he spoke and day waned, Robert assumed other voices, making points through mockery and caricature, more and more exaggerated as his audience grew increasingly responsive. He did the orators, the parliamentarians, the German royals; then, for entertainment, just types: ham actors, lawyers, money lenders, women of fashion, Irish seducers. People put on silly voices when nervous. It wasn't so with him. He became the voice he spoke. He exposed and skewered his victims. Did he also make them lovable in their comedy? Or himself?

A sudden desire swept Ann that he would do her dead father Gilbert in the accent only this man could assume. For something here, now, caused that unknown, unheard parent, all recounted words to her – but what words! – to surge up into her mind. As never before in all his absent years. It was a mad wish. She remained silent.

Perhaps she was so enthralled because she'd drunk more than usual. Mr Hughes declared the wine a present from Cadell, a publishing name to impress his guests. It might well have been
stronger, though to her taste it was as coarse as any from a Cheapside inn. But it couldn't be the wine for, when not caught up in the listening and the laughter, she was just a little repulsed. Possibly Mr Hughes was too – his response was difficult to gauge. In company Robert James might be, at base, a show-off.

Suspicion faltered. Her eyes stayed on him, his balding head with its rim of fair, slightly reddish hair cut in Caesar style, his pale grey eyes, much paler than hers. It was not a colouring to admire. Never anyone's favourite in abstract. Her heroes never had it. Yet his face, the fleshy lips and thinner pronounced nose, arrested her as no other had done. It was becoming The Face. Even then.

She'd been introduced by Mr Hughes, who'd made the usual jest about her name, St Clair, so apt for a writer of gothic novels. The name was an embarrassment, she said and smiled. Mademoiselle St Clair or spinster Ann from Putney.

He listened attentively and laughed. That afternoon she looked well. As time passed, he seemed to notice her especially, noticed something about her. Gilbert had been all eyes for Caroline from the start, so her mother's story went – and who, even if only half-aware of a drama beginning, could escape such deep-laid wordy memories?

She'd once yearned to be loved by these lover-parents whose look turned only on themselves, but that was long long ago. Now, at this moment, she was pleased just to be noticed: those pale grey eyes brightened everything like the coming of a shiny morning. Its light sank through her brain to her depths.

Next day she was back at her writing. She'd furnished her small lodgings comfortably and was not dissatisfied with her mode of life. Her novels were short, repetitive, requiring no deep thought, just a lot of plotting and knotting of loose ends. She had to remember what she'd said in pages already delivered, that was all. For, unlike the great
, her works could never be fragments. And nobody read them twice.

She made no claims, nor wanted to.

She earned enough money to pay her rent and keep happy the
butcher and the baker and the laundress and the paper seller. Clothes were no special love, but for the winter she would have saved sufficient for a decent new pelisse.

Better than being a governess or companion. How could she ever have been one? Oily emollience, infinite agreeableness a prerequisite.

‘You haven't pleased me,' said her mother when she'd once mentioned that plan. ‘How would you please anyone else?'

Caroline had a point there.

Now Robert James. He changed everything.

She spied him next at the Temple of the Muses. He was ahead of her over on the other side of the broad room in a crowd of men including Richard Perry from Mr Hughes's dinner. Even from there she could sense he was the centre of the group, the Author, the cynosure.

She was hurrying to reach where they stood when she was stayed by Mary Davies, who was seeking a picture of a robin for her children's reading book. She asked Ann's business. Mary and she didn't greatly care for each other, yet they met often; they had their work in common, and companions in labour have sometimes merit over chosen friends. In fact Ann too had come to the Temple to find inspiration; caricature gave her ideas for what might be done with the human body in her monkish torture chambers. She was disinclined to tell Mary this. By the time she'd answered vaguely, she could no longer see Robert James.

But now she knew where he visited. So she happened to pass that way the next day, and the next. But she didn't see him at the Temple of the Muses again, outside or inside. The boy at the counter was driven to ask if she was looking for anything in particular for she'd been there so often. How many days was it that she'd gone out of her way like this? Memory delivered the number but she needn't dwell on it.

Two weeks later,
The Horrors of the Mountain Abbey
was finished and she was walking past St Paul's with the completed manuscript in her bag towards Dean & Munday in Paternoster-Row when she did
really see him. It was he. She knew she was often too forward, but now she hung back. This was strange. And after so many detours to encounter him. Perhaps it was because the cathedral bell clanged in her ears.

Then by coincidence she was at tea with Mary Davies and in he walked, along with Richard Perry.

‘We have met,' he said smiling as Mary Davies came forward to make an introduction.

‘We have,' she said. ‘I think you had recently returned to London, Mr James.'

He must often have been absent or she'd have seen him. How could he not be noticed?

‘Yes,' he replied. With only a trace of the lilt she'd discerned at Mr Hughes's dinner. ‘I travel a little, on the Continent and Dublin.'

He'd said Dublin, she remembered, but he'd not mentioned other cities.

‘You are Irish?'

He nodded gravely as if she'd offered a deserved rebuke and looked her straight in the eye. ‘But do not hold it against me, Miss St Clair.'

When the first cups of tea had been drunk and Mary Davies's small hard cakes crunched and the general talk on new plays, books and music had subsided, Robert was back on the dullness of the present post-war moment, adding this time the failure of England to have a proper revolution. It had, he said, peaked too early. If it had waited, it might have gone beyond France, shown the world a real ending of thrones and domination, of regurgitated thought. Napoleon was a great man, yet he could not avoid his French heritage.

Mary Davies pulled her scarlet Indian shawl tight round her shoulders to express discomfort. Her young brother had died fighting this bad man in the wars he caused, but she was too polite openly to protest. ‘Would you care for more tea?' she asked, raising the pink china pot.

Robert was undeterred. For whom was he speaking? For his friend Richard Perry – or for her? It must be for her: she had quickly surmised that Richard Perry was a frequent, captive and captivated auditor.

The French had ruined it all, sullied the noble ideas of liberty and equality in government and art. England had colluded. No one had now the stomach to change anything. He'd once thought to go to America. But it was all money there, it was money they'd fought their masters for. Money! What was money? So now, so long after all this chaos and error, this was the place for real change, for complete revolution. He thumped his broad chest, then struck his forehead. ‘Here.'

Richard Perry smiled and nodded, his intense eyes sweeping his friend's features. He knew enough not to interrupt Robert James in full utopian flow.

What did he really think of the ideas rather than the man? What did she?

Surely she thought nothing at all. Just watched and listened, enthralled by the sound of his speaking.

So many years of hearing Gilbert's impenetrable words repeated by her mother like psalms and litanies to a Sunday congregation. They swept over and through her infant, childish, then adolescent head as Caroline fell into an almost religious reverie.

It irritated her daughter as physically as any eczema with its pustules on her neck and ears.

This talk was quite different, of course.

Mary Davies was thoroughly annoyed. It was not conversation for the tea-table and mixed company. Thoughts pinged and twanged over the pink, gold-rimmed cups in only one direction and in a most ungenteel manner.

The guests left all in a rush. Mary Davies was further offended that her friend didn't stay behind to chat woman to woman and exclaim on this odd vain man. But, though Ann professed independence, Mary always thought her too concerned with men and their talk.
Richard Perry, a widower, was in a hurry to visit an only sister who'd just borne a son in Clerkenwell. So Ann and Robert were left walking off together in whatever direction he pleased.

Ann and Robert, she thought, not bad in a romance.

So it began.

BOOK: A Man of Genius
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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