My novel A Man of Genius is set in the early years of the nineteenth century, with characters looking back to their youth in the turbulent and radical 1790s. This historical location in the Regency period gives a particular cast and intensity to my central subject: the problem of fatal attraction or romantic addiction. For these are the years when the Genius as a cult figure and focus of female obsession was invented and gained cultural traction. To see evidence of this, it's necessary only to look at the women in the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
That the 'genius' is predominantly male is clear from the example of Byron's contemporary, Jane Austen. She well knew her worth and in many ways she was a professional writer. But she never claimed the status of 'genius' or was regarded as such by her family or contemporary readers, however much they admired her skill.
I am a huge fan (as well as editor and critic) of Jane Austen, who is to me the supreme novelist of this era. But my own creative bent is towards the Gothic, towards the splendid Mrs Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the legion of hack writers, very often women, writing in her mode and in her shadow.
I have made my main character, Ann, one of these jobbing writers who churned out variations on the Gothic motifs for the circulating libraries and popular presses such as the Minerva Press. It gave her a reasonable living and an independence. From childhood onward, Ann is entranced by Gothic fictions and the stories of entrapment, coercion and pursuit.
However, she never expects to live them in real life.
The male anti- hero of my novel is admired as a Romantic genius both by himself and by his male followers--and certainly in the beginning by Ann, whose distorted childhood memories fit her for her adult obsession. The book investigates what happens when the man's self-belief begins to falter and he looks outside to apportion blame, and when the loving woman starts to see the object of her adoration as unworthy, yet still feels as trapped as ever by her obsession.
The background of A Man of Genius is Regency England, ruled over by the debauched Prince Regent, whose persecution of his unwanted and rather louche wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, entertains all of Europe. With the end of the long Napoleonic Wars (1815) that grew out of the French Revolution (1789), the old order of kings and aristocrat was re-established throughout the Continent and people of liberal and radical persuasion in England found themselves profoundly at odds with the times, with their government and with the new conservative culture.
Two glamorous cities form the geographical locations of my story. London in victorious Britain, and Venice, defeated and annexed by Austria. London is bustling, the capital now of the most powerful European state, with a vast overseas empire. But it has many disgruntled citizens whose hopes of political and social reform have been dashed during the long French and Napoleonic wars. The government keeps a firm eye on such people, including likely agitators from a crushed Ireland. So it is reasonable that my disaffected characters, several of whom are Irish, suspect surveillance.
My protagonists travel to Venice, where for a time Princess Caroline also (scandalously) stayed. and of course Lord Byron. Venice had a long independent history of 1000 years as an oligarchic republic. It provided popes and grandees for much if Italy and was home to celebrated artists such as Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. Over the years it had become a rich naval and commercial state with an empire around the Adriatic sea. By the late eighteenth century, however, its power and influence had much diminished and in 1797 the city fell to Napoleon, the conqueror, without much of a fight. The following year Napoleon gave it to his then allies, the Austrians. In 1805 it was back with Napoleon and in 1814 returned to Austria as part of the spoils of the long war. In 1819 when my characters arrive in Venice, the city, so famed for elegance and art, is dilapidated, though its irrepressible inhabitants are still exuberant and stylish. Some accept Austrian 'improvements' to their city, others plot in the shadows.
Although Byron is mentioned in the book, this is not at all about historical characters. My central male figure is not Byron or Shelley--but I have taken some faint hints from the biography I wrote of Mary Shelley and her sister Fanny (Death and the Maidens) and their difficult relationship to Percy Bysshe.
About the Author
Janet Todd has taught literature in Ghana, the US and Britain. She is now Professor Emerita of the University of Aberdeen, a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College. She is the author of many biographies, critical works, and editions, her most recent books being the Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen and Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels. A Man of Genius is her first original novel.
Written content of this post copyright © Janet Todd, 2016.