Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Life keeps happening and it’s really cutting into my reading and blogging. Still, I did squeeze in this gem, Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger.

This literary historical novel introduces us to Richard Dadd, a talented nineteenth century British artist who was mentally ill, grew increasingly violent, and was eventually admitted to Bedlam. The novel begins with a visitor to the insane asylum who comes specifically to speak with Richard: Charlotte Bronte. The encounter did happen, though the details here are fictional.

The story branches out to follow the lives of both these characters. Although they don’t come in contact again, they know some of the same people so the links between them hold the separate narratives together. One person who looms large is Charles Dickens. A boyhood acquaintance of Dadd’s, his path keeps crossing Dadd’s and they keep tabs on each other’s professional careers. Bronte and Dickens are not friends but are literary contemporaries.

Charlotte’s sections are somewhat dreamy, as the author is at a later stage in her career, her siblings are dead, and she is contemplating living out her life as a spinster caring for her father in the parsonage. It’s not the life she particularly wants. She has fallen in love with her editor, a handsome younger man, who supports her as an author and friend, but who shies away when her deeper feelings become more obvious. Charlotte is wooed in turn by her father’s curate, a sober, quiet man. Charlotte’s father sent him away, appalled that he dared approach his social superior, the famous author. However, Charlotte keeps him on a string while she decides what course to take. She fears life alone but also fears a life without writing and worries marrying the curate will cut short her career.

Dadd’s life is more tumultuous. One of nine children, Richard is his father’s favorite. His father is a successful chemist who has pinned all hopes for the family’s rise in the world on Richard. This exceptional son is given a first class education and, when he decides he wants to be a painter, tutors are hired and connections are tapped. Richard also finds his own group of up-and-coming artists, and it seems he is on his way.

But Richard is slowly losing his mind. He immerses himself in his art and his interpretation of art, but his thoughts drift farther and farther from reality. Part of the time he frightens himself, but other times he is inspired by his own intellect. Pushed by his father to accept a position accompanying a gentleman on a tour of Egypt, Richard falls off the cliff of madness in the exotic climes. By the time he returns, he is hearing the voices of Egyptian gods telling him to commit murder.

This is a beautifully written book that succeeds in weaving together the stories of these two very different people, who have in common ambition, a love of art, and an ambivalent feeling about fame. Charlotte’s story is bittersweet and grounded in reality. Richard’s is horrifyingly tragic and surreal. The author does a wonderful job of presenting his descent into madness in a vivid, realistic, and sympathetic way.