Bethlem Royal Hospital,
LondonJanuary 20, 1853
They were bringing the final inmate to the superintendent’s office. Mad Richard Dadd the murderxer, escorted from the criminal ward.
Charlotte was already rattled by her visit to the ward for female lunatics. The shouts and cackles. The sour schoolroom smell of potatoes, damp woollens, small sins and greater fears. Many of the inmates were former governesses like herself, familiar-looking women dressed in uniforms who stood or sat or paced in a long gallery furnished with workaday tables. She knew none of them but recognized the type. One freckled girl pursed her lips and swanned her neck, satirizing an old mistress the way Charlotte and her sisters had often done at home. A wire-haired woman shouted loud rhythmic opinions about the Queen, the Queen. No one paid attention to anyone else, and the uncurated noise was discordant.
“Do the mending,” one scolded Charlotte as she walked by.
“I don’t think I shall,” she replied.
“She doesn’t think she shall! She doesn’t think she shall!”
Screams of over-loud laughter. Sly gazes pecking at her.
Now the door to the superintendent’s office opened with a shush, making Charlotte scramble to her feet. Superintendent Hood and her friend Dr. Forbes leapt up just as quickly. An attendant came in, and behind him a man her age, or perhaps a little younger, thirty-five or six.
The famous murderer wore his Bethlem flannels and brown hair down to his collar. When he got closer, she saw pale blue eyes. They said Richard Dadd had been remarkably handsome when he was young, the most promising of his friends, affectionate and modest, an artist of rare talent. Now he considered himself to be a follower of the Egyptian god Osiris, who had ordered him to kill the Devil or devils, which unfortunately had embodied themselves in mortal men.
Dadd’s pale eyes frightened her. Charlotte hadn’t stopped being frightened since she’d arrived, almost bolting at the gates when she’d realized that she would indeed be entering Bedlam. Yet she was capable of doing what she intended, even though she often knew, as she watched herself do it, that she was making a hash.
“Here you are, Dadd,” said Dr. Hood. The superintendent was young for his position, about thirty. Vigorous—evangelical—a reformer of asylums. “You’ve met Dr. Forbes,” he went on, nodding at his fellow physician. “Now he’s brought a friend, an author who wished to pay us a visit. Currer Bell, shall we say? Perhaps you’ll end up famous, Dadd, if she writes you up in a book.”
“It was felt that Currer Bell was a pen name,” Dadd said. His words came slowly, but he spoke like a gentleman. “Some indeed speculated that the author was female.”
“As you see,” she replied, surprised he would recognize the name.
“We bring in magazines,” Dr. Hood said, in some pride. He had done that. He had unchained the inmates and decorated the common wards with plants, sculptures, cages full of songbirds. She wouldn’t have chosen caged birds herself.
“Shall we sit?” Dr. Forbes asked, and the doctors took their seats. Dadd continued to stand and met her eye.
“The author of Jane Eyre,” he said. “I wonder if you’re here to admit the madwoman in your attic.”
He chuckled gently and sat down.
These were the positions Charlotte put herself in. Feeling flustered, graceless and belligerent, she took her seat too long after the others. Her feet didn’t quite reach the ground, an absurdly tiny woman in a room used by men. The air smelled of cigars and power. She had no idea how to proceed.
“So you’ve read the novel then, Dadd?” Dr. Forbes asked.
Both doctors spoke to the madman as if he were a child, although a precocious one. They had placed Dadd’s art around the room, paintings he’d done in Bedlam that were based on a tour he’d made of the Holy Land a dozen years before. Shown alongside them were several recent watercolours. King Richard the Second. Robin Hood.
Dr. Forbes had told her that Dadd had been a prize pupil at the Royal Academy, where her brother had aspired to study. But Branwell had never shown anything approaching Dadd’s talent. He hadn’t even been as accomplished a madman, only threatening murder, and dying of opiates, self-pity and lungs.
Charlotte felt herself vibrate like a trapped sparrow. Governesses in the lunatic ward—madwomen in the attic—her brother’s failure before her once again. At night, she was sometimes so torn with longing for the dead she thought that she was mad herself.
She wasn’t. She could see that here. Nor was she callous enough for the public life of a writer, forced to tour the enervating sights of the capital by her friends and her own unsettling ambition. Her latest novel was about to be published and she had to start planning the next one. She also had to think about a proposal of marriage she’d received. She loved another man, but her love was beginning to look unrequited. The outside world was a chilly and confusing place. She should probably stop trying and stay home.
Charlotte became aware that Dadd was stuttering as if embarrassed. “D-d-don’t read novels,” he said.
“A copy of the classics always in hand, eh Dadd?” the superintendent joked.
Without any sign of humour, Dadd pulled a small volume from his jacket pocket and held it up. Juvenal, she saw. The satirist.
Dr. Hood looked even more jolly. “Right you are, Dadd. Juvenal and Shakespeare.” He was so supercilious she could scarcely bear it.
“Does being here help you concentrate on your painting?” she asked.
Dadd laughed, a sudden loud burst. “No distractions. Only the distracted,” he said, and gave her a slyly intelligent glance.
“This is very awkward, isn’t it?” Charlotte asked. “I’m awkward with strangers. I wish I wasn’t.”
“What do you want to know?” he asked. “How I did it?”
“No,” she answered, and struggled a little. She wanted to know whether he’d enjoyed murder, and when he’d first felt himself to be different from his friends. But Charlotte could see that the superintendent wished her to step away from the subject and couldn’t muster the bravery to disappoint him.
“More,” she said, “your philosophy of art.”
Dadd brightened. He walked over to one of his watercolours, the Robin Hood. When he stood beside it, Charlotte could see that his Robin was a self-portrait in doublet and hose.
“I am of the opinion that there is a great deal that is secret in the matter of art,” he said, “and that it is explained by one’s own second self—which is perhaps as obstinate and vicious a devil as we could desire to oppose. Few can overcome it, hence the dissatisfaction one feels with one’s work. There is confirmation of this in the church ritual which says, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.’ I believe a strong genius is most likely antagonised by a strong beast or devil.” He leaned toward her confidentially. “That is a secret worth knowing.”
The two doctors exchanged a glance, but Charlotte said, “I’ve often wondered where talent comes from. I believe what you say. I believe that each artist is a divided soul. We poor sinners carry whatever talent we have like a burden. But where on earth does it come from?”
“On earth?” he asked sceptically, and touched the painting. She had already noticed that the Robin Hood was a double portrait. The second figure in the composition, perhaps meant to be Friar Tuck, had Dadd’s face as well. When she’d looked at it earlier, she’d thought he must have lacked for models and been forced to use the same man twice. Now she was intrigued. Forgetting herself, Charlotte kicked down from her chair and joined him.
“The double nature of human beings was known to the ancient Greeks,” Dadd said, touching first one figure and then the other. “The genius was as familiar to them as Christ is with us. The two intrinsic natures, you see, were supposed to be always contending for mastery, and after death they were weighed, although art was usually tried in the balance and found wanting. I have somewhere seen reference to this doctrine being well understood also by the Egyptians, as one sees in their paintings.”
Mentioning the Egyptians seemed to excite him, and he bounced on the balls of his feet.
Dr. Hood said cheerfully, “No Egyptians, Dadd. Miss Brontë has no interest in Egyptians.”
A slip, as Dadd understood instantly.
“Mr. Bell and Miss Brontë. Misses Brontë and Bell.” He grew so excited, the attendant loomed up behind him.
“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said, touching Dadd’s hand, which was broad and fleshy. He looked down as if he considered her touch polluted and pulled away fastidiously. But he was calmer now and went to stand behind his chair.
“My views and those of society are at variance.” He spoke with dignity. “My convictions differ from those of other men, and they don’t care to make allowances for my views as I do for theirs.”
“I’m not sure authors would have anything to write about if everyone agreed,” Charlotte said. “Or painters to paint, I suppose.”
Dadd took her point and gave a shy, confiding smile.
“Once, I was interested in layers,” he said. “The layered personality. Layers. Of layers. But that is a, it is a mistake. Doubling. Duality. That’s the ticket to, to . . .”
He lost the thread and began humming oddly. When he started to rock backward and forward, Dr. Forbes stood up.
“Perhaps our interview is over,” he said. “Thank you, Hood, for your time.”
Dadd gave her a look of disappointment. More than that. There was something like agony behind his pale eyes. He’s lonely, she thought, and wondered why that surprised her.
“I have heard your paintings were once exhibited,” she said. “Perhaps they shall be again.”
“And perhaps not,” Dr. Hood said quickly. “Perhaps they won’t leave the asylum, to be pawed over and gawked at.”
Dadd ignored the doctor and shambled to his canvases, trying to gather himself.
“Some painters,” he said, “the few, perhaps, achieve renown and substantial rewards in their time. Others lag behind. It is with them as with the poets.” He gave her a quick, keen glance. “You have read of the poets’ feast in Juvenal?”
“I have,” Charlotte said, and he fumbled out his tattered volume.
“The rich dishes went to the top of the table,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Those at the bottom had to be contented with dry bread. Much of what Juvenal wrote has its counterfeit presentment with us in the nineteenth century. As well as poets, he talks of windows ‘barred.’ Could it be that there were also madhouses then?”
“I should imagine,” Charlotte replied. “Yes, I think you must be right.”
“It is not what I intended,” he told her.
“What was not?” Charlotte asked. Now she was entirely the clergyman’s daughter, hoping to hear the remorse they told her Dadd had never expressed for his crimes.
“What was not?” Charlotte urged. “Please tell me.”
But Dadd didn’t answer, and the doctor led Charlotte out the door.
“In this remarkable piece of historical fiction, Krueger (Drink the Sky) imaginatively delves into the life of Richard Dadd . . . The two story lines . . . effectively juxtapose Dadd and Brontë, two very different people who travelled in similar circles during the same era and, more importantly, who were both entirely invested in what it means to be an artist. This question anchors the novel, adding depth and dimension to a terrific read.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review>
“Krueger’s portrait of artists as young men and women is alive with wit and rebellion — an aesthetic vivisection of the young Victorian age.” — Globe and Mail
Screenwriter and novelist Krueger (The Corner Garden, 2003, etc.) uses her visual artistry to good effect in vividly portraying a squalid London in which talent doesn’t always lead to fame or fortune. Exploring the vibrant cultural awakenings of the Victorian age, Krueger intriguingly populates her scenes with the artistic glitterati of the day . . . An entrancing portrait of artistic minds confounded by the Victorian Age.” — Kirkus Reviews
“There is much to ponder in this elegant novel about the potentially catastrophic emotional toll of art, the irrational nature of love, the solitude of heartache and what happens when one life touches another, however briefly.” — Toronto Star
“By portraying artists before and after their most significant achievements, Krueger is able to tease out a moving narrative of fame, beauty and what an artist owes his or her craft.” — Shelf Awareness for Readers
“A wonderfully elegant novel that led me back to rereading Jane Eyre and a first time go-around with her other two noted novels, Shirley and Villette, this one enthralled me.” — Owen Sound Sun Times
“Krueger’s research is evident in every paragraph: from the use of authentic slang to richly sketched portraits of the lives of the era’s rich and poor, the book confidently transports the reader to another time.” — Quill & Quire
“The knitting together of Charlotte Brontë’s and Richard Dadd’s different trajectories worked like a dream. I was enthralled.” — Terry Gilliam
“Characters from all sections of society are well drawn, believable and paint a colourful picture of the diversity in Victorian Britain . . . Historical Fiction at its best.” — Book Literati
“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.” — Susan Coventry’s Blog
“A wonderful read that allows readers to savor moments, thoughts and questions long after the last page is turned.” — I Am, Indeed
“Smart and satisfying.” — Fine Books Magazine
“She really does have a sophisticated writing style. It’s remarkable how through some research and oral history Lesley Krueger was able to piece together this story.” — Lost in the Rain blog
“Fascinating and richly detailed . . . Mad Richard is grippingly told and replete with evocative descriptions.” — CNQ
“Lesley Krueger—a distant relative of the Victorian era painter Richard Dadd—creates a generous and thoughtful portrait of the once-promising artist’s descent into madness, murder, and imprisonment in London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital’s psychiatric facility, infamously known as Bedlam.” – Prairie Fire