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Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze

John Clare is renowned as one of England’s great nature poets and his poetry on the countryside and the loss of the countryside is still very much read today. This is not the first novel to feature Clare. Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire and John McKenna‘s Clare both do so and there is also Simon Rae‘s play, Grass. Septimus Tennyson was a budding poet, like his brother Alfred, but mental health problems prevented him from realising his gifts and he is now known only because of his brother. Both John Clare and Septimus Tennyson were inmates at a private asylum in Essex and Septimus’ brother Alfred lived nearby, to keep an eye on his brother. Did the two poets meet? The answer is that we do not know, though Tennyson is reported to have said that he was delighted with the mad people…the most agreeable and the most reasonable persons he has met with. Whatever the truth of the matter, Foulds has written a novel about the stay of the poets at High Beach Asylum.

The asylum is run by Dr Matthew Allen who runs the asylum on liberal lines (at least for Victorian times). The inmates are given a certain leeway. John Clare wanders around his beloved countryside, meeting and enjoying the company of gypsies, and often sleeping outdoors. He loves waking up outside and contemplating the beauties of nature, which he then uses for his poetry. However, his long absences are contrary to the rules and Allen, when he catches him for the second time, locks him up for two days in a darkened room. Foulds superbly describes Clare’s love of the natural life. Allen has a large family and we meet them. It is his daughter Hannah who welcomes the arrival of the Tennyson brothers and clearly looks on Alfred as a possible suitor. It is not all sunshine and joy, however. Clare is deluded and thinks he has two wives, his actual wife and mother of his many children as well as a girl he knew many years ago, Mary, who is now dead (though he does not know this). He later rapes one of the inmates, mistaking her for Mary. Other rapes as well as brutality and a detailed description of a patient being given an enema as he refuses to defecate, fearing he will poison the water, destroy the forest, and that it will permeate down and everyone in London will be killed add to the grim description of life in the asylum.

The main focus is on Clare as he wanders in and out of madness, looking in vain for Mary, eagerly trying to get into the country, trying to escape the guards and Allen and even imagining that he is Byron. (He rewrote several of Byron’s poems.) As we know Clare escaped from the asylum and managed to return home and stayed there awhile before his madness again returned. Meanwhile, Hannah is trying to attract Tennyson and Allen is trying to develop his wood-carving machine. He has bought a wood-carving machine with which he hopes to produce mass production, high quality wood carvings for churches and stately homes. He gets Tennyson and his brothers to invest but things do not quite go to plan. Moreover, he neglects the asylum to develop his business.

John Clare is an interesting character and a wonderful poet. His descent into madness was a great tragedy. Did he meet Tennyson? Foulds keeps us guessing on that question but clearly shows that Allen’s asylum was not the liberal paradise it is sometimes painted as and that Allen himself had his flaws. But, overall, Foulds’ approach is that of the poet, showing the poetical concerns of Clare, namely his great love of nature, the people of England and, of course, like most people, the need to be free and the need to love and be loved.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Jonathan Cape