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Spoiler alert

In James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001), Walter Hartright and his sister-in-law, Marian Halcombe, set out to investigate the life of the British painter J. M. W. Turner a couple of decades after his death. Walter has been informally commissioned by Lady Eastlake, supposedly to provide a more acceptable account of Turner’s life than a muck-raking biographer named Thornbury, who we never actually meet. With its subject and setting in London at the height of Victorianism, as well as borrowing its protagonists from a Wilkie Collins’ novel, it is a deeply Victorian novel concerned with respectability and repression. Walter sets about interviewing people who remember Turner, and learns contradictory things about the painter. Marian tries to unearth Turner’s early life through letters and journals. They are led toward dark secrets in Turner’s life, only to begin to suspect they are actually being used for other people’s agenda. The mania Walter finds in Turner’s life infects his own, as he unleashes his repressed sexuality and becomes, a little unconvincingly, something of a sex fiend.

It is an intriguing premise, and seems well-researched. However, its epistolary narration works against it, and the whole novel feels as if it is relating events at too far a remove as characters diarise or correspond about things which have happened to them. The most engaging scenes are those which shake off the pretence of being letters or diaries and just directly narrate.

I was drawn to it as an example of the biographical quest novel made famous by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). Many bioquest novels are set in the present with biographers unearthing the secrets of past ages, particularly the Victorian or Edwardian ages. Yet The Dark Clue has an intra-Victorian setting – the mid-Victorian era interrogating the early-Victorian era. The passages most typical of the bioquest are the ones in which Marian uncovers archival secrets. The novel has the quest structure, yet resists the romance conventions of the genre – it has a darker heart, with the quest leading not to personal redemption for Walter and Marian but near-destruction and misery.

The biographical project itself is left quite unresolved, abandoned because of the effect on the biographers. Walter and Marian end up fearing they are being tricked into producing a biography which condemns Turner as a paedophile and murderer in order to get around a stipulation in his will requiring that a gallery dedicated to his work be built if the nation wished to retain ownership of the paintings. This central premise seems slippery to me. Firstly, isn’t the rival biographer, Thornbury, supposed to be the muck-raker? Secondly, and more importantly, Victorian biography avoided scandal. Would there have even been muck-rakers like Thornbury, let alone a gentleman like Walter publishing shocking allegations about a well-known painter? The biographer Froude was heavily criticised in the period for merely suggesting Thomas Carlyle was impotent. The abandonment of the project, at least, is realistic for the period if such discoveries were made. Interestingly, it echoes another bioquest from the same year, Barbara Vine’s The Blood Doctor, in which the secret is too shocking for the present-day biographer (the subject’s descendant) to continue.

I haven’t yet seen the recent film, Mr Turner, so I can’t make the obvious comparison to it, but I do half intend to watch it.