Friday, October 24, 2014

James Wilson’s “The Dark Clue”

It is 1850s Victorian Britain. The great British painter J.M.W. Turner has been dead since 1851, and a rather unscrupulous writer is researching a biography of him. Turner’s friends and supporters are alarmed, so they commission a biography as well. Artist Walter Hartright is convinced by his sister Marian Halcombe to undertake the assignment, and she will assist him in his research.

As Walter and Marian undertake their project, they soon learn that nothing about Turner is what it seems. The artist appears to have been a bundle of contradictions. As the brother and sister are pulled deeper into the story of Turner’s life, they begin to sense dark forces at work. What starts out as a biographical project becomes a descent into darkness – and possible madness.

Published in 2002, The Dark Clue is author James Wilson’s recreation of the Victorian suspense novel. In fact, the characters of Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are borrowed directly from what may be the classic Victorian suspense novel – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Wilson goes beyond a simple recreation of the times of the Victorian 1850s, however. He transports the reader and almost seductively places you there, so that you experience, see, and even smell what is happening in the story, as it envelops and happens around you.

Turner (1775-1851) was an artist who transformed landscape painting. He made his name when he was quite young, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art on a regular basis for the rest of his life. But he wasn’t without controversy – one can see the rather large collection of his paintings at the Tate Britain (he bequeathed them to the nation at his death) and see the forerunner of Impressionism and even abstract art. As he grew older, Turner became increasingly absorbed with painting light; while his paintings seem familiar to us in the 21st century, many of them seemed odd and puzzling to his own contemporaries.

He painted light – but his own life contained elements of darkness. And it those elements, along with the darkness of Victorian Britain, that Wilson mines in The Dark Clue. He structures the novel in three parts. The first is Walter’s perspective; the second is Marian’s; and the third is a combination of both. The Turner biography leads both characters, and especially Walter, to the brink of madness, as they journey deeper and deeper into his life – and art.

Turner as a young man, self-portrait (1799)
Wilson takes the story where a writer like Wilkie Collins might have wanted to take it but could not, given the sensibilities of the day. And it is at the point that the story becomes too dark, the main characters too personally entangled, for this to be only an impressive, perhaps even brilliant, recreation of the suspense novels of the period. It’s at that point the story becomes disappointing; it does not need the titillation that it includes. The author could have restrained himself, and his characters, but he does not. And at that point the story becomes something else, something less Victorian and more contemporary. To have remained true to Victorian sentiment he would have had to only suggest and perhaps hide.

That may have been the point; Wilson may have been attempting to do with The Dark Clue what Turner did with his paintings. Had he stopped short, he might have achieved it.

The Tate Britain currently has an exhibition of Turner paintings, Late Turner: Painting Set Free. The exhibition runs to Jan. 25, and we were fortunate enough to see it during a recent trip to London.

Painting: The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, watercolor by J.M.W.Turner, 1842, The Tate Britain.

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