A Man of Genius by Janet Todd


Q&A with Janet Todd coming soon!

A dark and mysterious tale, with undercurrents of trepidation running throughout; A Man of Genius, will astonish, horrify and beguile you!

Centred around Ann, a surprisingly independent woman for the century she lives in, ironically writes gothic literature to support herself. When she meets her soon-to-be-lover, Robert, at a dinner party and is inexplicably drawn to him, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery as their relationship begins to break down.

We see early on, the arguments in which she conveniently brushes off as ‘unimportant’, in addition to Robert’s overly stuffed ego as he rabbits on to his friends, full of his own self-importance, with his eyes darting ‘on and off his listeners, while sweat bubbles from just above his eyebrows’. We notice Ann shouldering the full weight of every fight they have as she cannot ‘fault’ his ‘logic’, yet we are never privy to the full details. A sense of obscurity is expertly created by Todd in contrast to the clarity of Ann’s first impressions of Robert that we see in the beginning.

At first, Ann perceives Robert as somewhat of an actor and is incredulous as to why he is listened to so attentively. Soon though she is swept up in the act as much as the rest of them. It is as though Ann has become manipulated into thinking that Robert’s erratic behaviour is entirely her fault.  From that point onward, it’s as if she has succumbed to Robert’s ‘glamour’ and like everyone else has fallen prey to the facade.

Ann develops a strange sense of excitement from Robert’s violent behaviour where her ‘desire intensifie(s) with each rejection.’ It seems the more volatile he is towards her, the more she feels attracted to him. It is without a doubt that Ann has issues. Even though Robert’s cruel nature distresses her, she cannot find it in herself to escape, deriving a sense of enthralment from his aggressive displays, ‘this rage was masculine, wonderful and appalling.’ Her ‘love’ seems more like an infatuation that is spurred on by Roberts ‘genius’ status which of course, makes him highly attractive in the current period of the novel.

Later on, Ann’s attraction to Robert seems to transcend mere obsession and conveys the idea of loneliness when Ann wonders, ‘where would she be without the habit of him?’ Ann seems a little lost herself, and somehow this deranged and unpredictable man keeps her grounded. She seems to go through a flurry of differing emotions in regards to Robert, sometimes he ‘evokes pity’ in her, ‘like a difficult disturbed child. She’d intended to be its nurse and comforter; instead, in her darkest moment, she felt she’d become its dependent, a kind of parasite or tumour growing out of it.’ Other times, she feels as if she is ‘travelling with the uncaged tiger’ and we are reminded again of how dangerous Robert truly is.

Ann does show some awareness of being mistreated, although never admitted publicly in her own likeness of a ‘babe clinging to a horrible lover’. A desperate act on her part to feel loved, the affection she never received as a child seems to manifest into her adulthood. When she reflects back to her early days, nestled in the arms of a nursemaid, she remembers thinking, ‘this is what a mama should be. A warm body with few words.’  To me, it seems as though Ann is searching for the love and affection lost to her as a child; a harsh and uncompassionate mother, a non-existent father with no-one else to fill the gap. That is until she finds Robert, and it is in her desperate quest for love that she stays with him.

Throughout her experience, Ann seems to go through a number of ways of trying to comfort herself. At first, she congratulates herself on ‘living this purely miserable life’ as ‘not everyone could do this,’ obtaining a strange sense of accomplishment and pride from staying with such an unholy man. This soon progresses into self-convincing  statements, such as, ‘you knew where you were with someone like this’, suggesting her lack of courage to move forwards by herself and ties in with my earlier point of Ann’s fear of loneliness. Finally, after Robert’s erratic behaviour becomes unbearable, the enticing and enigmatic Mr. Robert James begins to wear thin, even on Ann, who becomes ‘tired, tired out, tired to death.’ The hyperbole displayed here conveys the deep exhaustion Ann feels, her strength gone and her will deflated. We notice that her tolerance is beginning to fray quite rapidly.

As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that the lost clarity of Ann’s thoughts slowly becomes clearer.  It’s as though the picture painted through Ann’s eyes became murky and vague when she fell for Robert, however, as time goes on, she sees things with more clarity which is symbolic of Ann’s growing wisdom and the opening up of her own eyes. She makes discoveries about her past and herself, suggesting the evolution of youth to adulthood, a journey of struggle and hardship to reach enlightenment. I think in the end, although not purposely devised, Ann truly becomes independent whereas she was only playing at it in the beginning; ‘she knew better now’.

Always ambiguous, never too revealing at any one point, Todd’s eloquent writing will tantalise the senses, gently drawing you into a bleak and arcane nineteenth century world. Much like a jigsaw puzzle, you won’t see the full genius behind Todd’s tale, until you’ve reached the very end and all the pieces have come together.

Q&A with Janet Todd coming soon!

A Man of Genius is published by Bitter Lemon Press on 9th March 2017

(£8.99, p/b, 352pp, 9781908524829)

Post by Sarah