Kevin Saving on
The Quickening Maze
by Adam Foulds
Jonathan Cape (2009)
Damned silly title. Quite whatever constitutes the 'maze' in question, or how precisely this entity can 'quicken', are never satisfactorily explained. The author - whose previous work includes the much-lauded, but for me virtually unreadable, The Broken Word - conjures a series of tableaux based around the historical convergence of three fascinating figures within an Epping Forest Asylum in the early 1840s.
The first, Dr Mathew Allen, is the proprietor/Superintendant of 'High Beech': a man of strong convictions, humane tendencies and remarkable (though not always sure-footed) ingenuity. The second, an inmate, is the 'peasant poet' John Clare. The final member of this unlikely trio is the (at that time virtually unknown) future laureate and Baron, Alfred Tennyson - himself cursed with a rather morbid disposition, 'staying over' on an extended visit arranged -at least ostensibly - to allow him to spend time with his even more melancholic younger brother, Septimus. Though there is no documented proof that the two famous poets ever met - and nor, indeed, does Foulds envisage them doing so - the compulsion to have had them interact must have been both strong and (in the context of an historical novel) justifiable. If we are to be asked to work our way through impressionistic tableaux then why not add one more, enticing, extra one? The two mad-house prophets might converse: Clare, short-ish, plump, well-passed his worldly meridian; Tennyson, taller, slimmer, 'posh-er', sixteen years younger, and yet to reach his; both writers immersed in noxious tobacco fumes of their own making; Clare swearing coarsely, haranguing his interlocutor as to the iniquities of Literary London.
There are a number of pleasant surprises and imagined treats to be found in this slim volume -t hough also a few too many of the languorous descriptions which seem, presently, to be espoused as 'poetic' or 'evocative'. There are some good passages on Romany lore (and language). There is a (well-realised) account of an involuntary, manually-assisted rectal evacuation -in the days before suppositories. There is some non-consensual sex. The Quickening Maze can be darkly comic. Foulds occasionally displays an oddly prurient whimsy: his Clare is caused to speculate about how Dr Allen's daughter, Hannah, might taste 'in the nest between her legs', and the novelist pontificates unnecessarily upon the state of Allen's sixteen year old son's bed sheets. One particular defamation has been foisted upon 'High Beech' - an institution which the available evidence indicates was beneficent for its time.
Foulds' grammar is occasionally careless. Page 155 of this edition includes a paragraph which commences:
Stockdale looked down at the addled peasant who attempted to fix him with his pale eyes. He explained who he was - Shakespeare - and that he spoke seven languages.
Yet it is John Clare (aka 'the addled peasant') who believes himself to be Shakespeare and multi-lingual - not Stockdale, a (rather naughty) attendant. Such clumsiness ought not, surely, to be expected from a Master of Arts in 'creative writing', courtesy of the university of East Anglia.
John Clare is depicted here as part 'private Svejk', part enfant terrible. Foulds has obviously consulted the relevant literature and it is difficult not to have some sympathy for his modern, 'enlightened', portrayal. There are, however, independent, dark intimations that Clare could be violent with his wife, Patty. Allen's own notes state that the poet arrived at High Beech 'exceeding miserable, every instant bemoaning his poverty...his mind did not appear so much lost and deranged as suspended in its movements...[and in a]...permanent state of anxiety or fear, and vexation, produced by the excitement of excessive flattery at one time, and neglect of another'. This, plausible, interpretation is not really examined in the novella, in which the action is intentionally concertinaed. The man who wrote Clare's poems was, demonstrably, 'insightful', had contact with 'reality' and was able to 'reason' from cause to effect. Whether it is the action of a sane man to write poetry is, of course, another question. One example taken from this period of incarceration in Allen's establishment (which Clare, it is true, described as 'a slave ship from Africa') follows:
Poets are born - and so are whores - the trade is
Grown universal - in these canting days
Women of fashion must, of course, be ladies,
And whoreing is the business that still pays.
Dr Allen - who would, undoubtedly, have found these lines exasperating- observed of his patient: 'It is most singular that ever since he came, and even now at almost all times, the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write the most beautiful poetic effusions. Yet he has never been able to maintain in conversation, not even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together'. All of this leads into the vexed, and vexing, question of reliable versus unreliable narratives: splendid grist for the fashionable 'creative writer's mill. Still, Foulds' 'take' is, at least, a tenable one.
Another 'sub-plot' (and one which can be more fully validated) is the financial entrapment of the Tennysons in Allen's scheme for a kind of patent wood-press. In 1843 Allen was declared bankrupt. Tennyson lost most of his family's inheritance and found his engagement to Emily Sellwood, the future lady Tennyson - who doesn't figure here - temporarily suspended. His degree of privation was, it should be noted, an entirely relative one, soon ended by the acquisition of a 1845 Civil-list pension and the (1850) publication of Queen Victoria's beloved In Memoriam. It is a strange omission that the potentially fertile soil of Tennyson's own (chronic) hypochondria, and copious consumption of alcohol, does not warrant a single prod from Foulds' writerly digit. Tennyson is known to have taken a more than passing interest in mental aberration, probably due to a belief in his own inheritance of 'black blood'. He found those of Allen's patients whom he met (probably a carefully selected quorum) to be 'the most agreeable and most reasonable persons'. This Tennysonian generosity of spirit did not extend indefinitely to Dr Allen himself. Alfred was to versify, somewhat bathetically, of his erstwhile friend (and financial nemesis):
He is fled - I wish him dead -
He that wrought my ruin -
O the flattery and the craft
Which were my undoing.
Foulds husbands the bulk of his material well enough. We eventually encounter John Taylor - publisher of John Keats, John Clare and, incidentally, Mathew Allen. Some of the phrasing is well-turned, some refreshingly tart. I ended-up liking The Quickening Maze more, if I'm completely honest, than I'd expected to. For all its missed opportunities, it is a perfectly acceptable 'B-Plus' of a novella: certainly adequate enough to grace the Honours Board of the 'Man Booker' (for which it was nominated). Not that this constitutes any ringing endorsement. Damned silly title, though.
Kevin Saving © 2009