Within the first few pages of The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, I sighed with pleasure because I could tell that I was in the hands of a writer who knew what he was doing. I could feel the competence, the control of language, structure and story from the start and it never flagged.
This is a novel about the people associated with a private insane asylum in 1840’s England: Dr. Matthew Allen, the director of the asylum, Hannah, his teenage daughter, the famous nature poet John Clare, who is an inmate, and Alfred Tennyson before he became Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate, whose brother is being treated there, too, as well as Margaret who fled domestic violence and found her escape in ecstatic religion.
Based on historical events, the novel begins in a peaceful setting, Epping Forest, where the doctor’s progressive ideas about the treatment of the mentally ill are helping John Clare, a depressed poet who came from a peasant background. Belonging nowhere, he was briefly lauded and then out of fashion. When allowed to leave the grounds, he likes to hang out with Roma (Gypsies) in the forest.
But the doctor’s intelligence and unflagging energy find a new target, fueled by the Victorian dreams of industry. Investing in a new invention with visions of getting rich, he abandons the asylum to abusive underlings, inveigling the Tennysons into his scheme.
The story kept me rapt, the writing was evocative:
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 paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, teaching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.” (p 126, paperback edition)
The terror of risk was that while it charged Matthew Allen, had him skimming into the future with a harsh exhilaration that felt like delight, while it filled him at every moment with the sense of his own possibility and power, if it failed, if it failed all that rushing energy simply crashed like a carriage into a ditch and there was nothing, there was humiliation, debt, imprisonment, and all that he had defied would be all that there was. That was the risk. (p 184)
The forest was darkening. Winter was not far off. The black fallen leaves, plastered down by heavy rain, were silvered here and there with frost. The tree trunks were wet. They passed the hooked, blustery shine of a holly Good snail weather. (p 207)
After I finished the book, I headed straight for my computer to check out the closeness to historical fact. The story of John Clare is completely accurate. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Clare, who greatly influenced later poets, is not in The Norton Anthology. I wonder if that has to do with stigma about class or mental illness.)
For a different and fascinating view of Dr. Matthew Allen and his relationship with his brother, have a look at this article.
This is a novel about the extraordinary and the ordinary, infused with beauty.