Mad Richard Arrives – Boxed January 27, 2017

That exciting moment when the box of your new book arrives. Only a few weeks remain until Mad Richard is released on March 14 by ECW Press.

I love the cover image, a detail from a painting by Richard Dadd, the main character in my novel and a distant relation of my husband’s, which gives us a family perspective on Richard’s tragic life. His Portrait of a Young Man is thought by art historian Nicolas Tromans to be a portrait of Dr. Charles Hood, the superintending physician at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, where Dadd was held for twenty years after committing a famous murder.

My novel comes out in the centenary year of Richard’s birth. Born on August 1, 1817, he was the fourth child in a large family headed by the High Street chemist of Chatham, England. When his father moved the family to London, Richard studied at the Royal Academy Schools under J.M.W. Turner and other eminent painters, and was soon called the most promising young artist of the early Victorian age.

He novel is peopled with famous Victorian artists and writers, among whom Richard moved. Charlotte Brontë visited the Bethlem Hospital in 1853—“Tomorrow I shall visit Bedlam,” says one of her letters—and she becomes a main character in the book as we follow her through the publication of her novel, Villette, and her struggles over a marriage proposal.

Then there’s Charles Dickens. Richard grew up in Chatham when Dickens lived there as a boy, and the Dickens family later lived around the corner from Richard’s uncle Henry in London. Henry Martin was another of the family chemists, or pharmacists, and the great-grandfather of my husband’s grandfather. Richard kept no diaries that we know of and Dickens burned many of his papers, but scholars believe that Richard was the original of Dickens’s mad Mr. Dick in his novel David Copperfield.

During his early years, Richard lived a rich and gifted life. Yet when he was only twenty-six, at the end of a gruelling trip through Europe and the Middle East, something slipped. Arriving in Egypt with his patron, a rich lawyer, Richard began to feel he was receiving messages from the Egyptian god Osiris. While diagnosing people across the centuries is perilous, psychiatrists now believe Richard became ill with paranoid schizophrenia. He seems to have heard voices—suffered auditory hallucinations. Not good ones. Osiris told him to commit murder and ultimately Richard did.

Murderers were usually hanged in mid-Victorian England, but Richard was recognized as suffering from acute mental illness—madness, to use the blunt Victorian term—and was incarcerated in Bedlam, where the modernizing Dr. Hood permitted him to paint. In his Bedlam cell, Richard painted masterpieces.

Richard Dadd never lost his obsession with Osiris and Egypt. The tall lush vine behind the young man in the portrait is a Jack in the Beanstalk-sized sunflower, which is sacred to Osiris. The red fez just visible on the bench is thought to be the one Richard wore while in the Middle East.

Inside the lovely cover, I’ve used an epigraph taken from a letter written by Charlotte Brontë to one of her critics:

Imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?

Or paint to it.

Mad Richard will soon be available in bookstores throughout Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. in March. It will also be available online, and can be ordered either as a paper copy or as an e-book.