Beginning in the late 1830s, and set over seven seasons, Adam Foulds’ Booker shortlisted novel, “The Quickening Maze” tells the intertwined stories of the “Northamptonshire poet,” John Clare, the son of a farmer; Alfred Tennyson, the man who would go on to become Britain’s Poet Laureate; and the Reverend Matthew Allen, MD, the man who owned High Beach Private Asylum in Essex’s Epping Forest, where both Clare and Tennyson’s brother, Septimus, were patients.
Although Clare’s nature poetry was acclaimed in his young adulthood, as time went on, his literary style fell out of favor, and what money he did make went to feed his alcoholism. When “The Quickening Maze” opens, Tennyson has just arrived at High Beach. High Beach was, in the mid-19th century, quite a progressive and humane institution. When first institutionalized, Clare, now rejected by both his rural friends and London high society, and feeling his psyche fractured by this split, often imagines himself to be Shakespeare, Lord Byron or on his more rambunctious days, Jack Randall the Boxer, and he still retains some clarity of thought as he remembers the days when he and his poetry were more in favor.
Tennyson lived close by High Beach in order to make frequent visits to his brother, who isn’t “mad” like Clare, but suffers from intense melancholia, which today, we would call depression. (In this book, however “melancholia” seems exactly the right word to use.) In fact, Tennyson’s entire family is rather melancholic in nature, and Tennyson, himself is portrayed as rather brooding, underappreciated, and in constant need of money.
The need for money is a subplot that runs through this novel. Dr. Allen, who has a history of incarceration for debt, becomes convinced that the new industrial age will produce a high demand for domestic furniture and church fittings, and he’s devised a steam engine-driven device he calls the Pyroglyph that will mass-produce decorative woodcarvings. He prevails upon Tennyson to invest 8,000 pounds in the device, a vast amount of money in that day and age, especially considering the fact that Tennyson had yet to become popular and was, in fact, at the time worried about the bad reviews his work was receiving. Allen was more of a charismatic optimist, and in 1841 wrote to Tennyson that the orders would soon be flooding in. By early 1843, however, the story was far different.
While Allen wasn’t very good with his moneymaking schemes, he fared better as a humane and genuinely caring doctor. He tried to help, if not cure, his patients by talking to them and by assigning them therapeutic physical tasks. At High Beach, patients were only locked up if absolutely necessary. In fact, the asylum was divided into two sections, one for the dangerous patients who would cause harm to themselves and to others and the other for less severe cases.
Much of the story centers around Allen’s efforts to combine his professional and private life, his efforts to escape his debt-ridden past (through the Pyroglyph), and his difficult relationship with his own brother, Oswald. Much of the tragedy of “The Quickening Maze” lies in Allen’s sheer determination to change his bad luck and his utter failure to do so.
All is not utter misery in this novel, however. A subplot involving Dr. Allen’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah and Tennyson is rather lighthearted and often comedic, though at its core, it, too, is sad. Hannah, dreading “the life with linens, the dreary, comfortable, tepid life,” longs to be noticed in her own right, as any girl her age would. “It can be a little difficult to command attention when surrounded by lunatics,” she says. She dreams of romance and weddings, and sets her sights on the unlikely Tennyson, imagining a life with him to be “books and animals and invented games.” He’s an unlikely would-be suitor for a girl Hannah’s age, though. Unlikely because at the time of his visit to High Beach he’s “sinking into the grief that will make him famous” and also mourning the death of his young friend, Arthur Hallam and his (Tennyson’s) inability to commemorate that death as he wishes to. (He will return home to write “In Memoriam.”) As a result, Tennyson scarcely notices Hannah, who manages to convince herself that she’s desperately in love with the nearsighted, balding, and sometimes-unwashed poet.
Perhaps Hannah’s best friend, Annabella, is part of the reason Hannah is ready to “settle” on Tennyson. Annabella’s beauty eclipsed Hannah’s like the sun eclipses the moon, or at least outshines it. As Hannah says, “It aligned men, stiffened their backs, knocked their hats up from their heads.” Poor Hannah. Foulds really makes us feel for her having to compete with someone as gorgeous as that. And though she might be only a peripheral character, it’s Hannah who embodies this book’s principle theme. When she finally moves on (it’s not a spoiler, we all know Tennyson did not marry a “Hannah Allen”) she thinks “after so much nothing at all, life was finally happening, but not at all as she’d imagined.” It’s just one simple sentence, but in it is embodied the thrust of the entire book – the nature of self, and the fact that life moves on for all of us, but almost never as we expected, and seldom as we’d hoped it would, and that our sanity depends on our acceptance of this fact.
Writing about people who actually lived is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can give himself. “Real” people, people who actually lived, can seem forced and wooden when compared to entirely fictional people the writer can manipulate in any way he chooses. Obviously, the success of “The Quickening Maze” depends on Foulds’ voice, on his success in capturing the historical as well as the invented, and Foulds does a wonderful job in bringing Allen, Clare, and Tennyson to life and in making the reader care. We get the idea that he’s truly captured the essence of each man. He writes lyrically, and he writes meticulously. His writing is precise and dense and never vague, and he has the poet’s keen eye for detail.
Though Foulds does a wonderful job writing about those who really lived and recreating their lives, it’s when writing about the “mad” that Foulds is at his best. Clare, himself is drawn with particular sensitivity, but there’s also Margaret, another inmate at High Beach, an anorexic, who imagines herself to be holy and even has a vision of an angel in the forest:
“The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.”
If that isn’t gorgeous writing, nothing is.
“The Quickening Maze” is impressionistic, and so is Foulds’ beautiful prose. He can say in one sentence what it takes other, lesser writers paragraphs to tell us.
We get the best of both worlds with Foulds. “The Quickening Maze” is a shimmering, stylish, poetic book, but it’s not a book that sacrifices plot and substance to style. There’s plenty to anticipate in this novel, and we become totally involved with its characters – real and invented – and we feel what they feel, as much as we are able to do so.
I think this is either going to your “type” of book or isn’t. I don’t think there will be a lot of middle ground. Needless to say, it’s definitely my kind of book. It’s intense, intelligent, sophisticated, and beautifully strange. To Foulds’ enormous credit, he never portrays madness as an exalted state of literary enlightenment, as so many other writers have done. Although this book is lofty and lyrical and poetic, it never backs away from the truth about madness, and it never allows its reader to do so, either.
Near the book’s end, Clare is sitting among the band of Gypsies, with whom he so identifies. Sitting there:
“...he saw a tree lying on its side, barkless, stripped white, ghost-glimmering through the others…He pitied it, felt suddenly that he was it, lying there undefended, its grain tightening in the breeze.”
Though Clare pities the tree, to Foulds’ enormous credit, we don’t pity Clare. Instead, we understand him. We understand how each life is lived at the edge of madness, how one traumatic event could plunge any one of us into never ending darkness.
“The Quickening Maze” is a gorgeous book, a rare gem, polished to perfection. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.