A riveting story of talent and the price it exacts, set in a richly imagined Victorian England
Called the most promising artist of his generation, handsome, modest, and affectionate, Richard Dadd rubbed shoulders with the great luminaries of the Victorian Age. He grew up along the Medway with Charles Dickens and studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the brilliant and eccentric J.M.W. Turner.
Based on Dadd’s tragic true story, Mad Richard follows the young artist as he develops his craft, contemplates the nature of art and fame — as he watches Dickens navigate those tricky waters — and ultimately finds himself imprisoned in Bedlam for murder, committed as criminally insane.
In 1853, Charlotte Brontë — about to publish her third novel, suffering from unrequited love, and herself wrestling with questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance — visits Richard at Bedlam and finds an unexpected kinship in his feverish mind and his haunting work.
Masterfully slipping through time and memory, Mad Richard maps the artistic temperaments of Charlotte and Richard, weaving their divergent lives together with their shared fears and follies, dreams, and crushing illusions.
COMING IN MARCH 2017. PRE-ORDER NOW
Of all the things to find in the family boxes this weekend, as my novel Mad Richard launches: this pooch, whose photo was taken in the 1870s or 80s.
Turns out it was the dog of someone mentioned in the novel: Henry Verrall. Uncle Henry Verrall, it says on the back of the photo, the handwriting scrawled under an elaborate logo:
FROM: WALKER’S Artistic Palace of PHOTOGRAPHY, King Street, CHATHAM, ONT.
I might have made this point: Mad Richard is based on the life of Richard Dadd, the 19th century English painter who was called the most promising artist of his generation. Richard started hearing voices while in Egypt, voices that would order him to commit a murder. After a famous trial, Richard spent the rest of his life locked up in the Bethlem Royal Hospital—Bedlam—where he painted masterpieces.
Richard Dadd was a family connection of my husband’s, the nephew of an English chemist named Henry Martin, who is very much a character in the novel. Henry Martin was my husband’s great-great-great-grandfather (if I’ve counted right) and he immigrated to Canada with his family in 1840—a long-ago decision that in an intricately winding way led me to write the novel.
Henry knew Richard well. In his early years, Henry was apprenticed to Richard’s father in his chemist’s shop in Chatham, Kent. Or as we would say on this side of the pond, his pharmacy. Later, Richard’s brother, Bob, was an apprentice in Henry’s chemist’s shop in London. The families were close.
It gets more complicated here. The dog’s owner, Henry Verrall, was Henry Martin’s brother-in-law: his wife’s brother. Henry Verrall and two of his brothers moved to Canada during the 1830s, and their immigration would prompt Henry Martin to leave England a few years later. Oddly, Henry Martin ended up going from the town of Chatham in the county of Kent, England, to the town of Chatham in the county of Kent, Ontario, living out his life in the pioneer village of Wallaceburg.
I’m interested in all these pings: the Verrall immigration, the Henry Martin immigration, the effect of Henry’s immigration on Richard’s brother Bob Dadd, Henry’s apprentice, and the effect of Bob’s decisions on the murder Richard committed. One thing didn’t lead to another, but the whole web of family life contributed to what happened, just as a whole web of family research helped me write the novel.
My mother-in-law, Mary Martin Knox, spent more than thirty years investigating the family history. I’ve got an entire bookcase of her research in my office, and more unsorted papers in yes, the family boxes that crowd our attic. And since her memory remains amazing at the age of 95, she can guide me through the boxes and binders.
This meticulous research was the great gift that got me started on the novel. Here’s an example: during several trips to the British archives, Mary photocopied maps of early Chatham, England, showing the exact location of Robert Dadd’s pharmacy on the High Street from the time it opened early in the 19th century.
Richard grew up over the store—and her maps show that the store was located a few doors from the High Street pub, the Mitre Tavern. While doing my research on Chatham, I read that as a child, Charles Dickens was regularly lifted onto a table at the Mitre Tavern by his father, John Dickens, to sing and dance for patrons.
Charles Dickens was five years older than Richard Dadd. Richard would have been only five or six when Charles was turned into a performing monkey by his father. But Richard had two older brothers and his father, no abstainer, would likely have made the Mitre Tavern his local.
A historian would take this information and say, It’s possible that at least some members of the Dadd family saw the young Charles Dickens dance on a table at the Mitre Tavern. It’s also probable that Richard’s father, Robert, knew John Dickens. Robert was the Chatham town chemist. John Dickens—by all reports a sociable and talkative man—would almost certainly have patronized his pharmacy, not least because Charles was a sickly child.
No one in the Dadd or Martin family left a diary, at least that we know of, although there are family letters. In later life, Charles Dickens burned many of his own letters and papers. No one can definitively prove that the Dickens and Dadd families knew each other in Chatham, so a historian would have to hedge her bets.
But a novelist can write a scene of the Dadd family watching Charles Dickens singing on a table in the Mitre Tavern. Might have happened. Why not? (And the name is delicious.)
What certainly happened was Henry Verrall’s dog. No family stories tell us why he or she was photographed at a time when people usually didn’t photograph their pets. It was expensive to darken the door of places like WALKER’S Artistic Palace of PHOTOGRAPHY. Maybe this was a heroic dog. Saved a child from drowning. Pulled Henry out of a house fire. But that’s another story, and one I won’t write. Feel free.
Meanwhile, I still dither about what to do with the racist book, The Clansman, that I found in other family boxes. It might prove useful for research one day, although I currently have no plans to write about the early years of the 20th century, at least nothing set in the U.S. More likely, it will go in the garbage, deserving no better fate.
Unlike the dog, who will be framed.
Speaking of Patti Smith.
I read her book M Train mainly on planes to and from Minneapolis, where I attended the American Booksellers Association convention. Also in the airport, since the plane home was hours late. Also when I got home to backed-up work and needed some quiet in the evenings.
In my usual vandalizing fashion, I turned down corners of pages when I found a provocative sentence or paragraph, and I liked this one the best:
“I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself—tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part—the unclear or partially articulated. I wondered if I would have been a good detective. It kills me to say it, but I don’t think so. I’m not the observant type. My eyes seem to roll within.”
M Train strikes me as a book of eyes rolling within. The M Train can be taken as the mind train, Patti Smith’s mind, since it’s a discursive memoir that dips in and out of her experiences with other artists, many of them dead before she met them.
You can pull several threads out of the book, but I was most intrigued when she talked about immersing herself for whole years in given books and authors.
“I had spent the past two years reading and deconstructing (Roberto) Bolaño’s 2666,” she writes, “swept back to front and from every angle. Before 2666, The Master and Margarita (by Mikhail Bulgakov) had eclipsed all else, and before reading all of Bulgakov there was an exhausting romance with everything Wittgenstein.”
Which begs the question: how would Patti Smith like to be read?
I once heard Alice Munro say during an onstage interview—or maybe I read it in a print interview—that she likes to read books and stories out of order, sometimes reading the ending first, not always reading the beginning at the start, and often starting in the middle.
Afterward, I read one of Munro’s stories out of order and it still resonated masterfully. I don’t know if it resonated more than it would have if I’d read it from beginning to end, but I liked doing it, putting the different sections of the story together like pieces of a puzzle. And of course that’s what it’s like to try and read people in the real world: putting a puzzle together.
It also taught me that Munro doesn’t rely on linear narration, although there’s always a coherent timeframe to her stories. Instead she accrues a story through scenes that mysteriously add up to more than the parts, and they don’t do it all at once. I often glimpse what I think she’s doing a while after finishing the story, sometimes quite a while after. Standing at the sink doing the dishes and suddenly: Oh. I see.
But since Patti Smith seems to read obsessively, I wondered if she would like readers to immerse ourselves as thoroughly in her work. Whether she wants me to run out to buy her first memoir, Just Kids, and her several books of poetry. Maybe she’d like readers to go back and listen to her music, which personally I’ve followed only sporadically over the years.
No doubt that’s part of her point in writing a memoir, to send people back to her earlier work. But if I were to immerse myself in Smith’s writing for years the way she did with Bolaño’s, I wonder if it would strike her as creepy and stalker-ish. As a celebrity she might have had some experience with stalkers and it can’t have been good, although maybe it was interesting on a clinical level.
At one point, she offers a hint about her expectations.
“Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with (all the books she mentions), but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions. As one held by the stuffed bear in Tolstoy’s house, an oval platter that was once overflowing with the names of callers, infamous and obscure, small cartes de visite, many among the many.”
The one time I saw Patti Smith was not in concert but in person, when she was browsing the gift shop at the Art Gallery of Ontario a day or so after a show of her Polaroid photographs opened. This was almost exactly four years ago. She was dressed as she describes in M Train, pretty randomly, her grey-streaked hair long and a little stringy. She kept her head down, not inviting eye contact, or maybe just immersed in the books she was examining.
And having seen that gives another clue about reading her, especially in conjunction with Paul McCartney.
When we were living in Brazil, I went to a McCartney press conference before his band Wings did a mega-concert in Maracanã stadium. This would have been in the late 1980s, early 90s, and I was there to take photographs. I happened to turn and see McCartney as he walked in at the back of the room. He looked ordinary until the rest of the media saw him, when he turned on like a bank of floodlights.
He started posing as he walked, contorting his face and shoulders outlandishly, lifting a knee, half swivelling, pouting out his lips, looking as if his strings were being worked by a puppetmaster, although he was both master and puppet. The quick impression I got was of someone who sold at least a part of himself so shamelessly to his public that he’d grown cheapened with use. That’s harsh, but it’s the feeling I got.
In the gallery, Patti Smith seemed habitually withheld, and because of that, more tantalizing. There’s something tantalizing about her book, the way she pares down her writing, making you pause very often to try to understand what she’s getting at, what’s she’s looking at—there, in the distance.
This makes me think she might want people to read her not obsessively, but more than once, and I’m going to read M Train again. That’s demanding of me, because the question becomes, Is the book worth reading over? Some books aren’t, and I find that if I get bored a second time, stopping partway through, any charm the book had on first reading is lost.
I don’t know how I’d like to be read myself, for however many people read my books, or will read my next one. I think I would like readers to have a conversation with the book. Enjoyment would be good. But I like conversation, so I’ll make that the hypothesis for now.
So there I was following a Tibetan monk around the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Nosy of me, but I was wondering what would interest a Tibetan monk in a Midwestern art museum. He was an older man in a saffron robe with a mustard-yellow toque and fetching mustard-and-crimson striped socks emerging from big sneakers. Huge sneakers, basketball-player-sized sneakers. He strolled down the corridor in an amiably splay-footed manner, talking in a language I didn’t understand to a younger man and woman wearing American clothes.
This was last Sunday, two days after the immigration order from the Trump administration barred people from six countries from entering the U.S., a shout of xenophobia leading to worldwide protests and some folks cancelling travel to the U.S., although I was locked in.
Of course, the people being barred were from Muslim-majority countries and the monk was Buddhist, and for all I knew, an American citizen or resident. That would make him a happy embodiment of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. A mongrel nation, a conglomerate. Consider the scene: a Tibetan monk bends down to examine a six-inch tall German Meissen figurine in a Minnesota art museum, solemn for a moment, then breaking into a smile of delight.
He was either a happy embodiment or the next person to be excluded. It was a beautiful sight but it felt unstable, as if disaster could wail in at any moment: the concrete walls beginning to shake, irreplaceable canvases torn and tossed, figurines smashed, another blast of malignantly hot air from Trump and his advisors ruining a beautiful thing that more or less works.
I was in Minneapolis for the American Booksellers Association convention, their Winter Institute, a gathering of U.S. independent booksellers who meet each year to offer mutual support in our disrupted, resilient industry, networking and taking seminars. Late Sunday afternoon, after leaving the museum, I was scheduled to join about 150 other writers at a massive promotional event in the ballroom of the hotel where the convention was being held. Tables would be set up around the stadium-sized perimeter, each with signs showing author photos and enlarged covers of books. My publisher, ECW Press, had reserved a place for me and Mad Richard, offering complimentary books as an introduction and hoping to open a dialogue with sellers and readers.
But I still had a couple of hours, time to inspect the Meissen figurine that had so entranced the monk. A china boy and his china dog. My mother had liked figurines but I’d always found them too sweet. When I turned away, the monk had disappeared. No sign anywhere. It was hard not to wonder whether he’d been there in the first place, so incongruous were his striped socks and big shoes beside the 18th century china.
There was also the fact I had started reading Patti Smith’s M Train that morning on my flight from Toronto, a memoir in which she reports seeing all sorts of things that aren’t there, at least not in conventional terms: symbols and augurs and gnomic cowboys who speak in her dreams. Why not the ghost of a monk in a museum?
But my world is more concrete, and the monk ambled back in when I reached the display of furniture built by the famous Prairie School architects Frank Lloyd Wright and George Grant Elmslie. He continued his splay-footed stroll among the intensely-crafted tables and chairs that the curator’s signs admitted were uncomfortable. After a quick circle, he peered over a walkway to look at quilts hung like flags from the walls and ceilings. And what was more American about this scene? The quilts, the furniture or the monk? The famous American architect George Grant Elmslie having been born in Scotland, after all.
“People who voted for Trump,” the cabbie told me on the way back to the hotel, perhaps meaning himself, “people wanted jobs. They didn’t want this.” There were anti-Trump demonstrations at the Minneapolis airport, he told me, having just dropped off a traveller. “People doing their thing in the terminal,” he said, turning ironical. “Making America great again.”
When we reached the hotel, I joined ECW publisher David Caron and publicist Susannah Ames in the ballroom for a very American pursuit: marketing. After we made a quick circle of the room, I found I’d be sharing a table with Ed Brubaker, the multi-award-winning American graphic novelist, comic book writer and cartoonist who had drawn both Captain America and Wonder Woman and now writes for the TV series Westworld.
We chatted for half a second, then the clock hit 5 pm and the ballroom doors opened. An extraordinary sight, very welcome to a writer. Booksellers surged in, a flood of booksellers, a tsunami of booksellers crashing across the carpet like a wave and breaking toward their favorite authors. Elizabeth Strout was engulfed. Emma Donoghue’s scarlet hair bobbed above her fans like a buoy, while beside me, Ed was quickly surrounded by enough tattoos and piercings to fill a waterfront bar.
Out there somewhere, David and Susannah worked the room with ECW sales reps, sending a stream of booksellers to my side of the table. A mixing began as young women in Ed’s line heard that Charlotte Brontë is a character in my novel and began lapping toward me. At the same time, people sent over by ECW recognized Ed and washed over to him. Strange tablefellows: Ed’s new graphic novel, Kill or Be Killed (“Brubaker’s next ‘Kill’ oozes with modern pulp”—USA Today) and my historical novel. But people seemed to find common ground.
A couple of hours later, my hand sore from signing, I watched booksellers stream out of the ballroom almost as quickly as they’d streamed in. Two of them chatted as they passed me. “I keep thinking Trump is just a bad dream,” one said. “I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be back to normal.”
Two more passed by. “I keep hoping I’ll wake up and he’s just gone. It never happened.”
Wake up. Wake up. I kept hearing it.
Late that night, after dinner, I did a quick search on my phone for “Tibetans + Minneapolis” and learned there are enough Tibetans in Minnesota that the reincarnation of a lama has been identified in the capital, one of the few lamas ever discovered in the west. According to the Star Tribune, the Dalai Lama has agreed that Jalue Dorjee is a reincarnation and sent his parents two letters confirming it and offering advice.
Jalue is now ten years old. “He wakes just before 6 a.m. and heads to the family prayer room,” the story says. “There, he sits with his father and reads aloud from Buddhist scriptures. Boxes of the sacred texts line the walls in the room, and Jalue has learned many of them by heart.
“His father, Dorje Tsegyal, listens as he reads, gently correcting him as needed. The two have a deal: For every book the young lama memorizes, he receives one Pokemon card. He’s up to 258 cards.”
After reading the article, I opened Patti Smith’s book. Her dream cowboy drawled, “The writer is a conductor.” I wondered if he meant a symphony conductor, given of the way we try to pull disparate elements together instead of breaking them apart. But the book is called M Train, so Smith seems to feel the cowboy meant conductors of a different stripe (although maybe not mustard and crimson).
Finding my place in her memoir, I jumped on board.
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.