Out-Takes from a Novel November 23, 2017

Researching a novel means reading and travelling, amassing material and then cutting, cutting, cutting for focus and flow. This leaves outtakes, like the cloth left over after you’ve cut out the pieces of a garment. Not that I’ve done any sewing for years.

One piece of cloth left over after writing Mad Richard is the story of William Price of Llantrisant, a Victorian proto-hippie I first saw pictured in the Wellcome Trust collection in London wearing self-designed Druidic robes and surrounded by goats.

The main character in my novel is based on a real person, a distant family connection. Artist Richard Dadd toured the Mid-East in 1842 with a wealthy patron, Sir Thomas Phillips, who had hired him to draw the sights. Basically, Richard was Sir Thomas’s camera in the days before cameras. At least, he was supposed to be, and the novel turns on the fact that he couldn’t.

The historical Sir Thomas had been knighted in 1840 while mayor of Newport, Wales, after ordering the army to fire on a march of Chartists, the working class progressives who were calling for electoral reform. The Chartists were among the first to push for a secret ballot, salaries for MPs, and the extension of the vote to everyone over twenty-one years of age (later modified, under pressure, to all men). We take these things for granted now, but they were radical proposals at the time.

William Price of Llantrisant was a Welsh physician, Druid, vegetarian free-love advocate and Chartist who, as it happens, wasn’t at the march. He seems to have known Sir Thomas Phillips though, making me wonder if he wasn’t at the march because he had an idea what the mayor would do.

At any rate, before the dust had settled in Newport, Price fled England for France, aware that the government would crack down on Chartists in the wake of the violence. This despite the fact that the Chartists had been the victims, with seventeen marchers killed and thirty injured under the Ready, Aim, Fire orders of Sir Thomas.

A small matter of historical detail: William Price fled England dressed as a woman.

A larger matter for the novelist: in life, Price glanced off the real-life Sir Thomas and caromed around Richard Dadd. It was tempting to slip in a paragraph about him, especially since his story underlines the modernity of ancestors. We tend to condescend to people in the past, thinking of them as backward innocents, when society has always roiled with idealists and ideals so far ahead of their time we’re still playing catch-up 175 years later. History being written by the victors, the past can end up sounding blander than it was.

William Price was born the son of a Welsh clergyman. His family didn’t have much money, possibly because the elder Price was a local eccentric, if not mentally ill. He carried snakes in his pockets for days on end, and was known to swim in local ponds either fully clothed or entirely naked, not showing much of an interest in anything in between. Periodically, the Reverend Price would fire off his gun in the direction of people he didn’t like. Fortunately, there’s no record of him ever hitting anyone.

Despite his family’s lack of money, William Price managed to educate himself as a surgeon in London, eventually returning to Wales to work as a general practitioner among poor Chartist families and rich Welsh nationalists.

Price soon became a neo-Druid, a member of the Society of the Rocking Stone in Pontypridd. He tried and failed to raise money to build a Druidical Museum, planning to use the entrance fees to educate poor children. After fleeing England following the Chartist uprising, he settled for a while in France, becoming entrenched in dissident politics and—by reinterpreting the markings on a Greek stone in the Louvre—growing convinced that he was destined to lead Wales out of Britain.

Returning home, Price founded his own neo-Druidic religion and adopted his proto-hippie dress, including a fox-fur hat and a shamrock green robe, growing out his beard and hair to impressive lengths and carrying a staff carved with arcane symbols. Believing that marriage enslaved women, he refused to regularize his common-law relationship with a fellow Druid, Ann Morgan. Together they had a daughter they named Gwenhiolan Iarlles Morganwg, meaning Gwenhiolan, Countess of Glamorgan.

As a vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and anti-vaccination advocate (his brother had died after being vaccinated), Price opposed most societal norms, including organized religion. When he was eighty-one, having begun a new relationship with an twenty-one-year-old woman, Price became the father of a baby he named Iesu Grist—Jesus Christ—whom he predicted would prove to be a great Welsh leader.

Unfortunately, the baby died when only five months old, and Price tried to cremate the body on a funeral pyre. Stopped by authorities, Price successfully argued in court that nowhere in English law was cremation prohibited. The door opened, and cremation slowly became an accepted practice throughout England.

Later, Price and his partner had a second son whom they also named Iesu Grist. Price died not long afterwards, aged ninety-three. His last words were said to be, “Bring me a glass of champagne.” Someone did, he drank it and died.

Following Price’s cremation, the second Iesu Grist was renamed Nicholas by his mother, who married a local roads inspector. The family then disappears from history.

Reading about Price, I kept hearing echoes. Not just vegetarianism and cremation and goats, but David Bowie naming his son Zowie Bowie. The son renaming himself Duncan Jones. Anti-vaxxers and lumberjack beards still walk the streets, and old men have never stopped letching after twenty-one-year-old women.

I couldn’t find space for William Price in Mad Richard. Too big a life; too big a story.

But there are always more books to write.


This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence this summer. You can check out all the month’s blogs here.