The idea that great art exacts a great price is common. Perhaps we like the idea of the tortured artist because it makes it easier for us to be content with our lesser talents. We may not be geniuses, but at least we aren’t Van Gogh, or Sylvia Plath, or in the story of Mad Richard , Richard Dadd and Charlotte Brontē.
Author Lesley Krueger begins her book with a meeting between Dadd and Brontē after Dadd is institutionalized a criminally insane after committing a murder. This meeting is the rationale for weaving their narratives together. Most of Dadd’s story is told retrospectively, the story of how he came to be in Bedlam while Brontē’s story continues from that meeting.
Brontē’s story is interesting and compelling. She is the last surviving child, Branwell, Emily, and Anne having died just a few years earlier. Her father is old and frail. She is past what people consider “marriageable” and her only suitor is someone her father thinks beneath her, his former curate. She wants marriage though maybe not to the curate. Brontē was one of Sady Doyle’s trainwrecks in her magnificent book on how we judge women. In Krueger’s book, Brontē has an inner core of strength that challenges her father and seeks what just might be happiness, but can she write and be happy?
Dadd’s story is that of a favorite son whose artistic talent is fostered by a doting and truly interesting father. His father is far more interesting than Richard, but Richard achieved some fame, not just for being a murderer, but for his art. With his father’s support and his real skill, he is beginning to make a name for himself as an artist. He founded The Clique, a group of artists who focused on genre painting and were known for rejecting Academic Art and hating the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He knew and was known by most of the artistic elite and knew Charles Dickens since childhood. Life would have gone well for him, but he went on this nine month tour of Europe, the Levant, and Egypt and returned mentally ill. He believes he had a revelation, his family thinks he had sunstroke. Probably modern science would say he had schizophrenia.
Lesley Krueger is a skilled writer and creates a good sense of time and place. I enjoyed her Brontē narrative quite a bit. I was bored, though, by the Dadd narrative. I considered quitting the book altogether but when I considered how far I had already read, I kept going, but with a “why am I reading this?” refrain in the back of my head. The Brontē story was disciplined and focused on what took the story forward. The Dadd narrative was expansive and included everything, even the kitchen sink. The contrast could not be more stark. With Dadd we were given excruciating family details and goings-on while with Brontē, even the famed siblings were incidental, though in her thoughts. When I finished the book, I discovered that Krueger’s husband is a descendant of Dadd’s uncle which explained the impulse to indulge in the family stories. It makes for good family history, but not compelling fiction.
The question of what price art is not answered by this book. Dadd did not fall ill because he was an artist. His unartistic younger brother became mentally ill as well, though thankfully was institutionalized before killing someone. His sister, possibly suffering from postpartum depression tried to kill her baby. She was not an artist either. Brontē did not die because she was an artist. It is implied that she did not write more books because she was happy, but that is speculating far beyond the evidence.
My dislike of Mad Richard does not mean I think Krueger is a poor writer. I think she effectively created multi-dimensional characters. The time and place felt authentic and fully realized. She excelled at describing the setting, the rush and clamor of the souk and the expansive light of the desert, for example.If she had edited the Dadd narrative with the kind of scalpel she edited Brontē, this might have been an excellent book.
I was provided a e-galley of Mad Richard by the publisher.