Savoring Adam Fould’s 2009 novel about John Clare, rural poet, sort of a 19th century outsider artist, who spent time in at High Beach, an asylum near London run by Matthew Allen. A young Alfred Tennyson is there to care for his ailing brother, as is a cast of other family members and inmates, drawn sensitively but with sharp lines.
Such fictional filling out of literary lives can be a rocky path for a contemporary novel: if it succeeds, you may just want to put down the new novel and read the protagonists’ own work instead. Fould’s book certainly does make me want to return to Clare and Tennyson, but the quiet smiles in Fould’s writing keep you hooked, as does the rest of the production–narrative drive, character, and gorgeous descriptive writing.
A taste from early on: Matthew Allen is speaking about his therapeutic method with the newly arrived Alfred Tennyson.
‘Yes, the disclosure of personal fears and unhappinesses. Often I find encouraging patients through a conversational, what shall we call it, memoir is terribly useful.’
Tennyson huffed out a big mouthful of uninhaled smoke. ‘So you’ll be hearing all about my family.’
‘Probably. But I make no certain inferences from the testimony of unhappy individuals. That really isn’t the point. At any rate, families, well…’ He smiled. ‘Nowhere more productive of mental difficulty. I attach no shame to coming from one. It is not a matter in which we generally have a choice.’
‘You’ll see. You’ll be mired in it. The black blood of the Tennysons.’
‘So there is a predisposition – to melancholy, or other disturbances? Very often …’
‘There are quieter barnyards. Somehow we don’t take life easily.’