The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds
(London: Jonathan Cape), ISBN 978-0-224-08746-9, hbk, 264pp £12.99
I do hope Adam Foulds’s book wins the Man Booker Prize tonight. The Quickening Maze is a beautifully written, highly engaging, innovative book. It’s also thoroughly researched. Foulds brings to life a period of history surrounding events at High Beech Asylum in the early 1840s. Written with close attention to historical accuracy but told with creative license, Foulds weaves a magical tale of madness, the creative imagination, duplicity and love.
In The Quickening Maze we follow the interconnected lives of John Clare, Alfred Tennyson and his ‘mad’ brother, Septimus, Matthew Allen also known as the ‘mad doctor’, the asylum inmates, Romany gipsies, Allen’s family and cynical brother Oswald, and Stockdale, the brutal warder. We follow Allen’s daughter Hannah, first in her adolescent ‘crush’ on Tennyson and as she develops a mature understanding of the responsibilities of adult life. Told through multiple narrative viewpoints, Foulds is adept at switching between ‘voices’; one moment we hear Hannah’s petty jealousies and acknowledgement of the harsh truth of beauty, the next we hear John Clare’s psychotic imagining that he is Boxer Jack Randall or Lord Byron.
With her hope blasted and withered and unexpected tears not impossible, Hannah had intended not to like the Tennysons – she wouldn’t have been there at all if Father hadn’t insisted – but she hadn’t succeeded. The ladies were clever and distinct, sharply characterful and expressive, particularly the older sister, Matilda, who might have put Annabella in the shade. (p. 179)
John Byron looked away. This was not the proper thing, not the sport he loved. As the men tumbled he heard a knock against the floorboards, clear and sharp as a stonemason’s hammer, and there was laughter. A full moon, he noticed, looking away. He saw that one of the small, high windows was crammed with its cold white. A doctor acquaintance of his had once told him that a full moon vexed the mad. They certainly seemed vexed. (p. 202)
Above all, it’s Foulds’s poetic imagery that impresses most. The natural world surrounding High Beech impinges on the lives of the inmates and guests, drawing them out and away from its oppressive confines yet into the hypnotic maziness of the forest. The Quickening Maze paints a heartbreaking portrait of Clare fighting creeping psychosis and an equally sympathetic portrayal of Tennyson’s poetic melancholia. It is, though, a difficult book to read. I twice put it down before finally, with the Man Booker deadline approaching, put everything aside to finish it. I’m glad I did. Foulds forces the reader to listen to the cadences of his writing, to engage with the poetic force of his syntax, to slow down and pay attention to each word.
John rambled back into the woods, the musky spring odour and wheeling light. He saw a tree lying on its side, barkless, stripped white, ghost-glimmering through the others. Strange for it to have been felled at this time of year, with the sap rising, making the trees strong and wilful and difficult. Perhaps it was diseased. And every shred of bark taken for the tanning trade. He pitied it, felt suddenly that he was it, lying there undefended, its grain tightening in the breeze. (p. 234)
I grew to love this book. Foulds forced me to retrace his steps, dragging out Bate’s biography of John Clare, Ann Thwaite’s book on Tennyson’s wife and every undergraduate book on nineteenth-century poetry I possessed. I found he’d stuck closely to his sources and paints a pretty accurate depiction of life at High Beech – though in calling it High Beach, he uses its later name. I re-read Clare’s poems and raked around for Tennyson’s Arthurian poems and read into the poetic sensibilities that Foulds’s book recreates. What is so brilliant about Foulds is how he manages to convey so much without reverting to or relying on endnotes to guide the reader. He creates a fully formed and informed world, peoples them with believable characters, some of whom we think we know, others are of a type with which we are familiar. He tells us nothing new yet completely remakes our view of Clare, Tennyson and Allen. It is quite an achievement.
The Quickening Maze is one of six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize so it’s garnered high praise since its publication earlier this year. Here’s a link to Neel Mukherjee’s review in The Telegraph of 10 May 2009
Foulds discusses the ‘audacity’ of the scope of his book on the Man Booker websiteand talks about his connection to Epping Forest and the poetic landscape on The Guardian’s podcast where he is particularly well informed on the contemporary relevance of historical writing – looking at the predicament of enclosures in relation to Clare’s poetry as well as entrepreneurial schemes such as Allen’s. He also explains his approach to Clare’s madness through Adam Smith and how his source material informed his writing. Adam Roberts has written a superb review of Foulds’s treatment of Tennyson on the OUP blog.