In Lesley Krueger's fractured künstlerroman, Mad Richard, two apparently disparate creative careers intersect: that of the painter Richard Dadd and the novelist Charlotte Bronte, who briefly intersect in person during Bronte's visit to the Royal Bethlem Hospital in 1853. (Their social networks overlap in other ways as well, especially in their contacts with the Gaskells.) This imagined meeting acts as a temporal fulcrum of sorts for the novel, as it moves backwards in time to trace Dadd's development and eventual breakdown, on the one hand, and forwards in time to Bronte's eventual marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, on the other. The two "geniuses" (a key word in the narrative) both come to exemplify careers wrenched awry or broken altogether--Dadd's by his mental illness and institutionalization, Bronte's by her happy marriage and early death. But Krueger's Dadd and Bronte also suggest the limits to authorial self-fashioning. Dadd yearns to be perceived as a genius, but is acutely aware both of the competition (especially from William Powell Frith) and of his ambiguous class status; Bronte, insufficiently "callous enough for the public life of a writer" (4), has the success but, glumly conscious of herself as the "plain little authoress" (44), longs for a romantic fulfillment repeatedly denied her. The novel is darkly ironic, then, in suggesting that each finally gets what they want--Dadd the fame (by murdering his father), Bronte the romance (by marrying the not entirely prepossessing Arthur Bell Nicholls)--but only by torpedoing at least part of their development in the process. Dadd may get to execute some of his best work while hospitalized, but that's not exactly counterbalanced by his situation, in which he's mostly stripped of all agency; Bronte truly falls in love with Nicholls, but eventually understands just how ambivalent he is about her writing.
Of the two characters, Dadd is most intensely focused on the relationship between an artist's work and their public persona. Like Bronte and, even more explicitly, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dadd understands his career in terms of both artistic integrity and commercial viability (Gaskell tilts more explicitly toward the "commercial viability" angle): participating in an exhibition near the beginning of his professional career, Dadd is acutely self-conscious that "gamesmanship" is required (59), and when he imagines "fame," he thinks solely in terms of its material aspects (87). At the same time, he tries to ferret out the secret of artistic power, the unquantifiable something in the artist's nature that inspires great work. By contrast, the narrative captures Bronte at the height of her success, when "her fame was confirmed; she was entrenched as a literary lioness" (114). If the conjunction of Dadd's yearning for fame and Bronte's possession of it turns out to be ironic, inasmuch as Bronte does not enjoy the wealth and comfort about which Dadd fantasizes, it also points to the problematic execution of their respective artistic projects: Bronte's plots are autobiographical accounts of her thwarted romantic desires, while Dadd similarly realizes that "an artist's best work was disguised autobiography" (176). But what is implied by the act of commercializing autobiography, marketing the self to eager consumers? Thus, Dadd feels driven to paint his fairies, but not initially "for the market"; as it turns out, however, "he'd begun to paint what was starting to sell. It was as if the age were speaking through him" (164). By the time Dadd sets out on what turns to be his fateful Egyptian tour, he has "found my subject," and he has no desire to be a "pale imitation" of fellow artist David Roberts (205-6). Dadd's work succeeds insofar, in part, as it translates the historical moment back to itself--in fairies, the industrialized world discovers, oddly enough, its own strange inner desires. In that sense, Dadd's own autobiography turns out to exceed the boundaries of his own body, as it were; he is both himself and the "age." Bronte's own thwarted romantic plots in Villette are, by the same token, very specifically hers, and yet every woman's: "Yet who to marry--whether or not to marry--was the most important choice a woman could make, sometimes her only real choice, if she were permitted to make it" (115). Yet the risks Bronte runs in fictionalizing her unrequited passion for her publisher are far greater than any danger that might face Dadd, who seems to be painting concepts ("[t]he liminal" ) rather than working through possible actions. Bronte, who has no real interest in the social aspects of mid-Victorian authorship, publicizes her secret (and, by the standards of the period, possibly shameful) longings; Dadd, eager for publicity, works in a genre that keeps the self safely "disguised."
This is not a novel with a villain, precisely, but it does have a kind of evil genius in the form of Charles Dickens, with whom Dadd is deeply obsessed. Dickens is the ultimate self-fashioned author, passionately invested in performing a controlled version of himself for the public. His every act of apparent self-revelation is, in fact, an attempt to displace a past that keeps returning to haunt him, ghost-like. "What the dickens, what the devil," Dadd thinks, seeing Dickens as an adult for the first time; "[h]e seemed a source of light" (57). Dadd's word-play reveals more than he knows: while Dickens is hardly Satan, the "light" of celebrity he exudes turns out to be a dangerous model for Dadd to follow, and prefigures the "brilliant, coruscating, lambent light" (275) in which Dadd experiences his mental breakdown in Egypt. Dickens is a kind of bad angel, of whom Dadd feels "[f]ear, perhaps," because Dickens embodies "what one could become if successful, what the famous became" (63). There are Dadd's fantasies of fame, which have to do with conveniences and comforts, and then there is Dickens, whose behavior suggests just how far fame can warp a person's subjectivity. Dickens, Dadd scoffs, is a kind of "performing monkey" (71), but Dadd's brother Bob, who has dealings with Dickens over John Dickens' debts, remarks that "[t]here's an angry man" (79). Part of the anxiety Dickens inspires, in fact, lies precisely in this anger, which Dadd realizes that he lacks (89); Dickens' unique power as a novelist derives from transmuted rage. Significantly, Dadd concludes that Dickens is "the first truly modern author, filling a void no one had realized was there, the apotheosis of the age" (90)--anticipating his analysis of his own success, discussed above. When Dadd comes into his own, he comes into his own not entirely originally, but like Dickens. Is it possible for Dadd to be only Dadd, or must he become a pale shadow of the novelist? When Dadd point-blank asks Dickens "[s]hould I want to be [...] [l]ike you?" (133), Dickens sharply warns him off, and yet Dadd does, in fact, slot himself into Dickens' model of artistry, even as he unhappily rejects the representation of the downtrodden that becomes part of Dickens' stock-in-trade.
What ultimately separates Dadd and Bronte from Dickens is that Dickens claims to remain in full control of his artistic practice and his persona, even as he leaves his wife for Ellen Ternan. Whereas Dadd ends up subjected to his doctors and Bronte to her husband, Dickens endlessly asserts his power to perform. In fact, the final chapter, which shifts to Dickens' point-of-view, begins with Dickens performing Dadd's murder of his father, translating the brutal act into high "drama" (308) for entertainment. Dickens consumes the lives of others for his art, but he, too, is consumed; trying to get Augustus Egg to cough up some details about Dadd, Dickens acknowledges to himself that he is "bullying," but nevertheless "this was the way he secured his particulars, which the public devoured, as it devoured him" (310). Bronte, as we saw, inserts George Smith into Villette, but the novel distinguishes her tortured (and rejected) self-exposure via "Dr. John" to Dickens' much colder strategy, which relies on exploiting others for profit. Yet Dickens seesaws between seeing himself as entirely in control of his narratives and what they reveal, on the one hand, and being victimized by his adoring public, on the other. His sharply-honed performances are, in that light, an ongoing attempt to rescue himself from his audience's equally ongoing attempt to take him entirely into themselves. Significantly, Dickens returns to the question of autobiographical inspiration, but in a different light: characters like the Micawbers "were his parents bent to his needs as characters, which contradicted one of the most salient features of his parents' true character: that they had never once bent themselves to satisfy his childish needs, but thought entirely of themselves" (313). Unlike Bronte, who thinks of Dr. John as, by and large, recognizably George Smith (in fact, she wants George Smith to understand that Dr. John is George Smith), Dickens sees the autobiographical work of novel writing as an act of dissolving other people into the novelist's own nature, taking them over, making them behave as he wants them to behave, so that they become inseparable from the novelist's self. Hence David Copperfield's Mr. Dick is Richard Dadd, but he is also Charles Dickens (313). Yet, as the institutionalized Dadd himself finally points out, this sign of Dickens' power--the Godlike ability to manipulate others at his will--is also, ultimately, his chief weakness. Abruptly reminding Dickens that Dadd once saw him singing, at his father's behest, in a tavern (the Dickens who was controlled, in other words, not Dickens the controller), Dadd observes, "[y]ou're afraid of anyone knowing these things, but you write them in your book. You don't wish to be known, but you move back to the Medway where everyone knows all about you" (323). The ground of Dickens' success, the novel implies, is in part his artistic cruelty, his need to subjugate the world to his imagination; he is not the sort of person to let marriage get in the way (like Bronte) or allow himself to be too preoccupied by his competitors (like Dadd). Yet his fiction, in this interpretation, forever confesses to that childhood rage which it can do nothing to heal.