Victorian novelists loved coincidences. “What connexion can there have been,” asks Dickens disingenuously in Bleak House, “between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” In Dickens’ novels especially, unforeseen connections always reveal hidden unities, and the implication is inevitably moral – how differently we would act, after all, if we perceived ourselves as inextricably, if invisibly, linked to everyone else.
A connection between two people “very curiously brought together” is the starting point for Lesley Krueger’s fascinating and richly detailed neo-Victorian novel Mad Richard, in which Dickens himself plays a recurring part. One is Charlotte Brontë, small, repressed, but fierce, touring London just before the publication of what was to be her last completed novel, Villette; the other is the painter-turned-murderer Richard Dadd, inmate of the criminal ward at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital, better known as Bedlam. “I wonder,” Dadd says slyly to Charlotte, “if you’re here to admit the madwoman in your attic.”
In fact, Charlotte’s motivation is simple curiosity, though Dadd’s jab hits closer to home than he can know: since the loss of her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte is “sometimes so torn with longing for the dead she thought she was mad herself.” Charlotte’s real questions for Dadd (“whether he’d enjoyed murder, and when he’d first felt himself to be different from his friends”) are too provocative to ask, but her attention is caught by his rambling comments on “one’s own second self” as the mysterious source of art. “I believe that each artist is a divided soul,” says Charlotte; “the double nature of human beings was known to the ancient Greeks,” replies Dadd, pointing out that Charlotte’s own identity is split, through her pseudonym, into Currer Bell and “Miss Brontë.”
Charlotte and Dadd never meet again. From their brief, equivocal encounter, we go forward in time with Charlotte, who is struggling to shape a new life without her sisters. Pained by her unrequited love for her publisher, George Smith, she contemplates resigning herself to marriage with her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls. He is devoted to her, and married to him she could at least “live out my life in the only home I’ve ever known,” and root the future she fears in the past that haunts her. What would such a marriage mean for her writing, though? As the decision presses on her, Charlotte asks her friend Elizabeth Gaskell how she balances her career as a novelist with her family obligations. “There are nursemaids,” Gaskell replies dryly. In the end, however, the problem solves itself, as her first pregnancy destroys not just Currer Bell but Charlotte Brontë too.
With Richard, we go backwards from Bedlam to retrace the path that ended there. Richard is early singled out from his siblings for his talent at drawing, which his apothecary father encourages as his route to a gentleman’s life. As a student at the Royal Academy, Richard struggles to define his identity as an artist. He spends “hours at his easel hacking out a still life, a portrait, a scene from a play” – but “nothing added up, and he couldn’t begin to understand why.” His peculiar genius turns out to be painting literary subjects, giving form and colour to “the liminal, the intangible, the numinous.” It’s hard to make a living at it, though, and so he reluctantly agrees to accompany the wealthy Sir Thomas Phillips on a voyage through Egypt to the Holy Land, providing illustrations for a planned travel memoir. The new sights are exhilarating for Richard, but the experience proves overwhelming: the faint mental unease that has always unsettled him accelerates until, wandering the temples at Karnak, he has a vision of Osiris, god of the underworld, and, at last, “understands everything.” From this revelation unfolds the tragic violence that ultimately lands Richard in Bedlam.
Mad Richard is grippingly told and replete with evocative descriptions, from the back alleys of London, where Dadd walks with Dickens, “the cries of too many babies drifting down from the rookeries,” to the moorland beck where Charlotte meets Arthur among the “spearmint grass.” The novel is less successful, however, at combining its two stories into one convincing whole. Common preoccupations – the social purpose of art, the source and burden of artistic genius – create shared undercurrents of meaning, but Krueger leaves it to us to intuit the significance of her juxtaposition of these two very different lives: no unified pattern emerges from their strange connection. Perhaps this is deliberate. “I don’t write to a moral,” Charlotte tells Arthur when he questions the purpose of her fiction; “I don’t think the job of art is to answer questions, but to explore them, like botanists travelling to far places.” That describes the aesthetic effect of Mad Richard well enough, but the risk of such open-ended exploration is that the meaning, and not just the moral of the novel remains unresolved.
—From CNQ 99 (Spring 2017)