Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847 or 1852) was an Englishman, a historical figure and, approximately, a Man of Letters who tried, in the best Regency mode, to invent himself — and did a damned poor job of it. He was trained as an artist and had genuine talent, but he fell into art forgery (and a bit of pornography, the ultimate fakery). He never became good enough at fakery of any kind to become truly notorious not even to make an indecent living. Abetted by his ice-cold wife, Eliza, he tried insurance fraud, and probably poisoned his inoffensive but moderately wealthy uncle and mother-in-law — but he was taken up and convicted not for murder but for forgery and was transported to Australia, where eventually he died. This is the unprepossessing tale James King tells, using as a fictional device the dubious skills of a modern clairvoyant, a female “editor” who channels and narrates the word of the principals in the Wainewright saga.
King, a Canadian, is himself a professional biographer with an established track record, and Wainewright’s unsavory life is laid out using a fair number of the reconstructive skills a good biographer would naturally employ. King should know the period, having done a life of William Blake, and this knowledge is usually apparent. The reader may wonder why a biographer would leave his ordinary (and difficult enough) scholarly track to venture into the strange terrain of a vaguely supernaturally charged fiction. The book is, in any event, in the main a skillfully written but odd, often coldly repellent story — one of little people, perpetually short of cash and increasingly bereft of status, offhandedly doing awful things to one another. The ‘feel’ of the book is so perverse that it almost becomes amusing, a chilly jeu d’esprit of falseness and fakery of every kind, from artistic to social to sexual. Faking is a faintly rebarbative antidote to so-called ‘Regency’ fiction of the ordinary kind and, as such, has a certain grim and quirky attraction. Those looking for the other sort of Regency novel should be prepared, in the words of the Pythons: “And now for something completely different…”