A not-so-fine madness

Reimagining a poet’s confinement in a Victorian asylum

This historical novel takes place in an asylum while poet John Clare (left) was an inmate and poet Alfred Tennyson was a guest. This historical novel takes place in an asylum while poet John Clare (left) was an inmate and poet Alfred Tennyson was a guest.
By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2010

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The recent spate of books denying the existence of God has spurred a robust response from believers, who have mined thinkers from Aquinas to Darwin to make their argument. As far as I know, however, no one has put forth the most compelling evidence for the presence of a divine spark: John Clare, the hero of a compelling new novel by Adam Foulds.

Clare, the great “peasant poet’’ of the 19th century whose surprising early success was followed by struggle, loss, and madness, is a phenomenon difficult to ascribe to natural causes. Born in the eastern flatlands of the English countryside in 1793, the son of a subsistence laborer in a community of illiterates, Clare was a boy bursting with feeling and possessed by rhyme. His work is characterized by a facility for versification, a naturalist’s eye for detail, bold use of colloquialisms, heartbreaking candor, and a visionary’s rapture.

Many of his poems begin with the words “I love,’’ from the somewhat stilted “I love at eventide to walk alone’’ to the easy and musical “I love to hear the evening crows go by.’’ As deep as his affection for nature’s humbler creatures — “the badger grunting,’’ “a blossom in its witchery of bloom’’ — is his love for humankind: “And man, that noble insect, restless man/Whose thoughts scale heaven in its mighty span.’’ Clare writes about his fellow mortals with a depth of feeling and a breadth of sympathy that seems touched from above.

If the life and work of Clare might pass as evidence of a divine presence, “The Quickening Maze,’’ Foulds’s fictional account of Clare’s four-year stay at the High Beach asylum for the insane, is equally persuasive about the existence of evil. This masterfully contrived novel hauls the reader, heels dragging, from the poetic sublime into depravity.

Told in the third person, “The Quickening Maze,’’ creates plausible portraits of Matthew Allen, the charismatic con man who runs the asylum; his romance-steeped 17-year-old daughter, Hannah; the then little-known poet Alfred Tennyson, who has brought his brother Septimus to the asylum; Clare himself; Margaret, a holy anorexic; and several other mad, half-mad, and sane individuals, real and imagined.

Foulds manipulates this large cast adroitly, juggling a half-dozen stories with impressive historical accuracy. The almost limitless optimism of the Victorian era is palpable in Matthew Allen, phrenologist, “mad doctor,’’ and nascent inventor. Playing Allen’s Romantic foil is the inward, depressed Tennyson, wandering in a haze of tobacco smoke and melancholy. Occasionally Foulds’s zeal to show his mastery of the period clogs his mostly smoothly running machine. And sometimes his excellent ear falters, resulting in dialogue reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes: “My lectures on chemistry. I gave them in Scotland some years ago. Carlyle — do you know Carlyle? — Thomas Carlyle, he attended, as I recall.’’

Overall, though, this work is a small triumph. Foulds’s descriptive prose is dense and impressionistic. “Hannah turned and saw her sister’s face in the window. . . . She retreated out of sight like a fish from the surface of a pond, leaving the glass dark.’’ A meticulous writer, Foulds is at his best in the minds of the mad, particularly the terrifying Margaret, an ecstatic whose stark ramifying visions galvanize this episodic work. “Margaret stood in the dead of the world. . . . In the black forks of the trees hard snow was pock-marked by later rain. Crows, folded tightly into themselves, clasped branches that plunged in the wind.’’

The relatively sane characters are drawn with more humor and less sympathy. Allen’s characteristically Victorian vanity and industry are easy targets of Foulds’s sharp pen. Occasionally, however, Foulds falls into anachronistic cliché. His industrialists are “cheerful, ambitious and duplicitous men,’’ while a group of gypsies Clare visits lives a “brisk, free, tumbled life.’’ The poet himself had written about his friends with a clearer eye: “A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.’’

As Allen becomes preoccupied with a get-rich scheme, the horrors lurking in his “enlightened’’ institution begin to reveal themselves. Margaret and Clare fall deeper into delusion and are dispatched to the building for serious cases. Foulds’s gaze is unflinching as the two lost souls enter a chaotic and dark world of “shrieks and barks and pleadings.’’ At one point, Clare accidentally walks in on the caretakers forcing themselves on Margaret. He, in turn, is discovered by Stockdale, the chief attendant, who moves toward him:

“ ‘How mad are you?’ Stockdale asked . . . [w]hat do you know?’

‘I know when I smell sulphur. I know when people have forgotten shame.’ . . .

‘You didn’t see anything and you won’t remember anything.’ Stockdale drew back his right hand and threw his fist into John’s face. He saw the attendant’s knuckles suddenly huge . . . as his eye was struck, a vivid visual arrest he was still pondering when the second shadowy blow swum like a pike towards him and knocked him cold.”

Foulds’s depiction of this small hell and the larger purgatorial world is balanced by the heroic actions of Clare, whose kindness and courage never waver even in his own madness.

To be sure, there are inherent drawbacks to historical fiction. To guess at the words and thoughts of long gone people risks inaccuracy at best and disservice at worst. Foulds’s Clare is a less sophisticated version of the real poet. But the essence of the man, his sweet, courageous, fine spirit, is real enough in this deeply rewarding fiction.

Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at

By Adam Foulds
Penguin, 259 pp., paperback, $15