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The Quickening Maze

After The Truth About These Strange Times, a novel set in contemporary Britain, and The Broken Word, a long narrative poem set mostly in Kenya in the 1950s, Adam Foulds’s third book is a novel about the poets John Clare and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It is set in Epping Forest in the late 1830s and compresses, the author explains, “events that happened over several years into the space of seven seasons”.

The novel begins with the arrival of Tennyson at the High Beach Private Asylum, which is owned and run by Dr Matthew Allen, who lives there with his family. Tennyson is to live nearby while his brother Septimus is treated for “melancholy”, but he himself is “deficient in animal spirits”, as he mourns the death of his friend Arthur Hallam.

John Clare is an asylum inmate who wanders about Epping Forest talking to the local gypsies and benefitting from their poaching hauls – that is when he is not pretending to be Byron or a famous prize fighter.

Tennyson is not much interested in Clare, the “peasant poet”, and in this book the men never meet. While Tennyson goes for sullen walks and solitary skating excursions, poems pour out of the otherwise overlooked Clare.

The representation of Clare’s impulse to turn his responses to nature into poems, almost at the point of contact, is the most daring aspect of The Quickening Maze, and Foulds expends considerable energy in creating a mind that thinks in poetry.

The inwardness of both poets is counter­balanced by the public energies of Dr Allen, who provides the novel with most of its narrative momentum and thoroughly enjoys his role as the impresario of the asylum: “He felt splendidly paternal and sincere when he gave his sermons . . .”

Allen is a charismatic name-dropper (he frequents “literary evenings in Bedford Square” and offers to introduce Tennyson to the Carlyles) with a shady past and a new enthusiasm. Convinced of the demand for domestic furniture and church fittings in the age of industrialisation, he has invented a mechanical wood-carving machine called the Pyroglyph, which will replace the need for expensive, skilled craftsmen. Amazingly, he convinces members of Tennyson’s family to invest £8,000 in developing the doomed machine. (Perhaps more amazingly, Tennyson actually did so.)

Although Allen is an engaging figure in his own right, his interactions with Tennyson are some of the most awkward parts of the novel, which suffers at such moments from the problems all historical novels have to fight against: the conveying of information through dialogue and the provision of period detail. For example: “Alfred Tennyson screwed in his monocle, stooped and peered closely at the phrenological bust on top of Matthew Allen’s writing desk.”

The novel’s most involving strand is the story of Hannah Allen, the doctor’s 17-year-old daughter. Hannah reads and observes – and is eclipsed by – her beautiful friend Annabella. She is, in other words, a literary heroine, and The Quickening Maze reads most convincingly as a novel when Hannah is present.

She struggles to be noticed (“It can be a little difficult to command attention when surrounded by lunatics”) and dreads “the life with linens, the dreary, comfortable, tepid life”, and tries to get Tennyson to notice her, imagining a better home of “books and animals and invented games” whenever he does.

Hannah gives Foulds the chance to invent things and he seems to enjoy the freedom. Her reflections on Annabella’s beauty are among the most unforced and lyrical in the novel: “It aligned men, stiffened their backs, knocked their hats up from their heads.”

The book ends with Tennyson about to return to his family home and begin serious work on what will become “In Memoriam”.

After the failure of Allen’s mechanical invention, the ­inmates are released from the asylum and Clare starts to walk home to Northampton where he will remain in an asylum for the rest of his life.

Tennyson’s transformation of private grief into public success is nicely contrasted with Clare’s public displays of delusional behaviour (the loss of his asylum poetry for the next hundred years makes the relationship even more unequal); but, for all that, The Quickening Maze is ultimately too schematic in structure to be entirely ­successful

The Quickening Maze
Adam Foulds
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom