By Ron Charles
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; C04
THE QUICKENING MAZE
By Adam Foulds
259 pp. $15
While a quartet of literary gladiators battled for the Booker Prize last year, a young poet sat on the far edge of the shortlist looking on. Nobody thought Adam Foulds had a chance against Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters or J.M. Coetzee for England's most prestigious literary award. The bookies called "The Quickening Maze" a "rank outsider," and almost everyone bet correctly on Mantel's spectacular story about Thomas Cromwell. But while all the other books on the shortlist were published in the United States months ago -- several climbed up our bestseller list in 2009 -- Americans have had to wait more than a year to see the underdog for themselves.
That tardiness seems wholly appropriate for this curious historical novel about a collection of oddballs who stepped to the music of a different drummer. Foulds draws us into Epping Forest in Essex around 1840. In those ancient woods, a progressive doctor named Matthew Allen set up a mental asylum called High Beach. By treating his patients with respect and allowing them a measure of freedom and useful work, he hoped to calm their nerves and return them to the rhythms of normal life.
Early in the novel, for instance, we see Dr. Allen teaching a "lunatic" how to chop wood with an ax. (Don't try this at home.) Violently deranged people were still kept restrained in a separate building -- you'll never forget the emergency enema scene -- but as much as possible, his patients ate and interacted with the doctor's family on a daily basis. Indeed, after a visit to High Beach in 1831, Thomas Carlyle's wife described the asylum as "all overhung with roses and grapes and surrounded by gardens, ponds and shrubberies without the smallest appearance of constraint." It was, she claimed, "a place where any sane person might be delighted to get admission."
Okay, that's just crazy talk, but Dr. Allen's asylum serves as the darkly enchanted setting for "The Quickening Maze." In this graceful blend of history and fiction, Foulds moves through a year-and-a-half when two important poets fell under the influence of the magnetic doctor. The first poet you know, Alfred Tennyson, but it's unlikely you know this weird chapter of his life: Around 1840, depressed by the death of a close friend, Tennyson visited High Beach and formed a disastrous partnership with Dr. Allen.
The other poet is not nearly so famous, but he plays the larger role in this impressionistic novel. John Clare was the son of a farm worker who managed to get a book of his verse published in 1820 when he was 27 years old. He wrote voluminously, and his poetry attracted good reviews, but by the mid-1830s he was desperately poor and schizophrenic, claiming to be Lord Byron and Shakespeare. Friends eventually directed him to High Beach, where he lived for four years of further decline, before making a grueling 80-mile walk with no food back to his home in Northborough.
"The Norton Anthology of English Literature" that I used in college dedicated a scant four pages to Clare's joy-filled peasant poems. But his reputation has risen considerably since then, particularly with the publication in 2003 of Jonathan Bate's celebrated biography and a new collection of his verse. Bate makes the case that "Clare achieved a technical accomplishment, a range of styles and subject, a distinctiveness of voice and visionary power unmatched by anyone of his class before or since." Foulds's novel can't provide the historical depth or breadth of Bate's biography, but its finely tuned sympathy will bring you close to the soul of an exuberant poet.
"The Quickening Maze" covers seven consecutive seasons, a structure that reflects Clare's close attention to the natural world. Disparate lines of the plot run through strange, loosely connected moments. We see the patients consumed with their own manias, such as Margaret, an anorexic preserving her body for Christ, or George, who believes he's solely responsible for the ever-growing national debt. (Where is George when we need him?) These are difficult characters because they're so easy to play for laughs or sentimentality, but Foulds conveys the profound loneliness of mental illness, the anxiety of being at least partially aware of one's own peculiarity.
That's particularly true with poor John Clare, who craves literary respect in London and wild freedom in the woods, but neither is possible as he's increasingly ignored by publishers and restrained by doctors. The novel's most moving scenes show him wandering around Epping Forest, falling in with a band of Gypsies whose nomadic life is equally endangered by the industrial forces transforming England. "It was common land a few months back," a Gypsy woman tells him, "and what grew and bred on it was common as God's air. Now it's the railway's and the boys are gaoled. And you could only tell it from signs they couldn't read, not having the art." His only real happiness comes during boisterous episodes of madness when his stomach is full of roasted hedgehog and he challenges men to boxing matches he can't win.
The success of this story rests entirely on Foulds's voice, which perfectly captures Clare's mind. Listen as he describes the poet spending a night with his Gypsy friends: "He loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on. To please himself, to decorate his path into sleep, he passed through his mind an inventory of its creatures."
Another story line, far lighter and more comic, follows Dr. Allen's teenage daughter as she tries to woo Tennyson while he's "sinking into the grief that will make him famous." Nearsighted, smelly, deeply depressed, he's a bizarre object of affection for a romantic young woman, but the pickings are pretty slim in an asylum, and teenage crushes are a kind of insanity anyhow. In fact, by the end, everybody seems to be staking out a spot on the spectrum of mental illness. What species of madness leads Dr. Allen to imagine he could make a killing with a wood-carving machine? And why does Tennyson sink his entire savings into the doctor's ridiculous scheme? These are not questions the novel can answer, but like the mystery of John Clare's wondering spirit, they're all portrayed here with arresting beauty.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.