The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

Demons and dark desires of the Victorian poets
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The Independent Culture

That one of the least successful poets of the Victorian period probably did not meet the most celebrated poet of the age does not sound like the most promising springboard for a historical novel. But Adam Foulds is entranced by the coincidence that a largely forgotten John Clare was a patient in an asylum in Essex from 1837 to 1841, at the same time that Alfred Tennyson was a regular visitor to his brother Septimus, also a resident. At the centre of this novel is the charming paterfamilias and ambitious scoundrel who ran the place, the Reverend Matthew Allen MD. In Allen, we are given an intoxicating study of Victorian venality.

This doctor ran a small institution in Essex for the mentally ill. Although Clare called it his "Bastille", Allen claimed to run the rural asylum on relatively liberal and caring principles. It is also a fact that Tennyson invested his own and his family's fortunes into a wood-carving invention for which Allen claimed the UK patent. Clare thought Allen a dodgy quack who had imprisoned him in a hellish "bugger-shop"; Tennyson was to find himself chained in a relationship with Allen that was equally damaging.

In November 1841, Allen was piling on the motivational charm in writing to Tennyson "we shall have an immense business. All is hope, fear is gone and I feel happy. We are all safe. Orders are flowing in from all the great ones." A few months later, he urged Tennyson into action: "Get this melted into money immediately." But by early 1843, the scheme had utterly collapsed: "Every stick and stave is to be sold to pay A. T. this day – and yet people boast! I ail! and I suffer! and I die!". Alfred Tennyson was financially debilitated by this investment, with only a trickle of money coming back to him on Allen's death in the midst of legal action and penury in 1845.

Foulds marries these facts to the well-worn story of Clare's escape from the Essex asylum, a re-writing of which closes the novel. The Quickening Maze joins recent works by Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and Simon Rae in re-telling Clare's life at this time. In this glittering company Foulds holds his own. With poetic licence permitting him to squeeze awkward history into a tight, clipped narrative, he takes us on a vertiginous imaginative arc, weaving a thick, muscular fabric from faltering Victorian social mores. In the mix we have edgy class relations, the heady aspirations of raw capitalism, the corrupting power of the asylum, and a dark, bloody desire suffusing everything.

Foulds has a thoroughly masculine eye for the thrill, stink and dirt of sensual Victoriana. We are given Allen applying an excoriating enema to a bunged-up inmate, Clare raping a fellow patient in deluded nostalgia for an early love, an unwashed Tennyson pursued by a hormonal teenage girl, and patients mauled, beaten and gang-raped by sociopathic asylum attendants.

Foulds stumps his way through the literary-historical forest, and back-story to the major characters is delivered distractingly at times. As with Pat Barker's First World War trilogy, Foulds seems desperate to convince us that he knows his chosen setting very well. Like Barker he packs in as many references as possible – to facts and figures, movements and developments, anachronistically stumbling over enclosure.

Yet when loosened from the chains of history, this poetic novel soars in a voice almost as euphonic and confident as Tennyson's, in images of nature almost as plaintive and visceral as Clare's. All is raised in pitch and definition by the prurient excitement of Foulds's very 21st-century lust for life. So the novel has a heady mix of delicacy and grotesquery, intimacy and misanthropy. Tennyson is tree-trunk tall and smelly, gravid, broody, distant, stolid and naively kind. Clare is tree-stump short but feral, elemental, enraged, pre-historic, and doomed by modernity. Both are deeply believable.

Allen is neither corrupt nor deluded, but by the end of the novel, seems a victim of the great disenchantment. He is a concentrated product of the times – a paradox of mysticism, enlightened rationality, self-belief and untrammelled enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of Foulds is equally alluring.

Simon Kövesi is editor of the John Clare Society Journal