Review of The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Book Review of The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

From 1837 to 1841, John Clare, the peasant poet, was a patient in a private asylum in the Epping Forest.  Clare and his wife Patty had six children and life was proving increasingly burdensome to Clare, who began to suffer bouts of severe depression, leading to alarmingly erratic behaviour and serious delusions. 

In The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds has written an imaginative recreation of Clare’s years in the High Beech Asylum, and while the result is firmly fictional, the picture presented is realistic and consistent with the known history.

The book is sparsely written.  Foulds does not write lengthy descriptive or scene-setting passages, but each small vignette contributes to a rich picture of the cloistered life of a 19th century private asylum.

This is no mad-house.  The asylum is run on orderly lines by Dr Matthew Allen, a thoughtful man who likes to get to know his patients.  However, the finances of the asylum are precarious and Foulds describes Allen’s attempts to mix the cure of souls with mechanical invention and patents.  Poor Allen finds his time increasingly spent trying to “diversify his business”, but without success.

In the meantime, the patients are allowed a relative freedom, and for a while John Clare is allowed a day-pass from his confinement, a privilege he abuses by staying overnight with gypsies and returning much the worse for wear.  I found the section where Clare is with his gypsy friends particularly well-written, showing the considerable research Foulds has put into this book.  The detailed description of how to prepare a hedgehog for the pot is particularly enlightening! –

The body he gave to Judith to pack in still clay and went on to the next one.  Judith made a smooth ball around the animal and placed it in the fire.  An hour later, the baked spheres were rolled out of the fire with a stick, cracked open, and the cooked hedgehogs were lifted out naked and steaming.  Their prickles remained stuck in the clay and pulled easily from the flesh . . and the fine smelling meat was passed around.  John ate.  It tasted as well as he’d remembered: a sweet, earthen, secret flavour.  The meat was tender.  Warm grease coated his lips. 

Alas, despite his occasional forays beyond the asylum, John Clare’s mind is far from peace.  When not inhabiting his real persona as the gentle poet of hedgerow and field, he becomes a belligerent prize-fighter, Jack Randall, who picks fights wherever he goes (and the injuries to go with them – perhaps not surprising in view of Clare’s five-foot stature and his poor physical health).  At other times he becomes Lord Byron and in his more lucid moments actually re-writes some of Byron’s poems.

Among all this we read of Matthew Allen’s wife and daughters, who manage to maintain a warm family life among the definitely strange circumstances of the asylum.  The girls provide a domestic backdrop to this novel, particularly the childish exploits of little Abigail who’s spirited appearances in the book provide some humorous interludes.

Adam Foulds has cleverly inter-leaved the appearance of another poet into his narrative:  Alfred Tennyson, who accompanies his mentally-ill brother during his stay at High Beech. Tennyson lives in a nearby cottage and becomes the focus of attention of Hannah, Matthew Allen’s 17 year-old daughter. 

Hannah manages to inveigle Tennyson into conversations as at attempt at forcing his interest in her as a potential fiancée.  The two poets, Clare and Tennyson, do not really meet up in the novel other than “in passing”, and of course, Tennyson would not have been particularly impressed by Clare’s rustic verse, for it took many years after his death before Clare’s heritage was fully appreciated.

This is a fine book.  Adam Foulds captures atmosphere well and we also get a fine sense of the depths of 19th century Epping Forest – a place holding many secrets and where it was easy to become lost. Readers will gain a strong sense of the secluded little community on the edge of the forest. 

Foulds has researched the 19th century treatment of mental illness and we gain insight into how one of the more humane asylums operated.  Rather than the horrors of the Victorian Bedlam, we get glimpses of a far more compassionate and humane institution built around a domestic world created by a real family and their friends.

It is not to disparage this book in saying that I feel we are on Beryl Bainbridge territory here, to my mind the foremost author of fictional recreations.  As I read this book, I kept thinking back to titles like According to Queenie, Master Georgie and Every Man for Himself, for the style is in some ways similar, and anyone who enjoys Bainbridge’s accessible and amusing histories will be on familiar ground with The Quickening Maze.

I am not very familiar with the poems of John Clare but feel that the poem below sums up the mind of a man who spent so many years in mental torment and in places that he did not wish to be.  Having read The Quickening Maze I can now read it with much more insight into its deeply troubled author:

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,

My friends forsake me like a memory lost;

I am the self-consumer of my woes,

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–

Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;

A place where woman never smil’d or wept;

There to abide with my creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;

The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

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