5 June 2011
To Winter, just over one-third of the way through
This book ought to be pressing all the right buttons for me: evocations of beautiful countryside, poetry, mental health issues, class issues…. So why isn’t it? I’ve been trying to work it out almost from the first page, when I started thinking, it feels so bloody written. I thought it was to do with the number of adjectives and adverbs – too many – but I don’t think that’s it. Later I started wondering about the frankly poetic, sometimes provocative, ways of describing what reality might look like or feel like. Near the end of Winter, a swollen eye is like a vulva, which illustrates the problem precisely. Adam Foulds and his 21st Century readers know exactly what he’s talking about, can picture the shape and colour. We even know that John Clare knows about vulvas, fantasises about nuzzling his face down into the nest between a woman’s thighs.
But that’s just it: John Clare’s word is ‘nest’; ‘vulva’ is Adam Foulds’ word – and it gets in the way. We’re not in the 19th Century poet’s language-set – a problem also encountered when Clare’s ‘penis’ is referred to a couple of times earlier, a word no countryman would ever use – so it doesn’t feel as if we’re inside his mindset either. I don’t know whether it’s just a coincidence but, despite Foulds taking us inside the thoughts of around half-a-dozen of his characters, I haven’t felt yet that I’m really in there. The romantic fantasies of the doctor’s daughter, the delusions of the woman who thinks she’s called Margaret, the confusion of John Clare, believing he’s Jack Randall after his second visit to the gypsies and being punished with solitary confinement in the dark…. For the uber-sensitive observer of nature with a hard-wired connection to the outside world, this would be torture. So, at the end of the chapter, why doesn’t it feel like it?
I need to come clean here. I know about serious mental health issues from the experiences of several close family members. And I’ve just finished reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which there are the most terrifying evocations of what we now call psychotic incidents described – unquestionably – from the inside. Dostoevsky clearly knew what he was talking about, and is able to use his knowledge to do almost heartbreaking things in his novel. I don’t know whether Adam Foulds knows anything about it, but whether he does or not, his evocations of madness feel like box-ticking. Delusions of religious power? Check. Delusions of strength and/or fame? Check. Industrial-strength OCD…? You get the idea, and I’ll shut up about it.
One last language complaint about this novel about poets written by a poet, and it’s to do with what we – the liberal-minded readers of this sort of novel – are likely to know about gypsies. There’s that pejorative word we find ourselves using in the 21st Century, however guiltily, chav: it comes from chavvies, the gypsy word for children. And what gypsies call hotchy-witchies are what we call hedgehogs – although this time Foulds is scrupulous in his avoidance of the Standard English term – and what we know about gypsies and hedgehogs is what we see them doing near the end of Winter. It all feels so safe, somehow, in the way that common knowledge always does. (I’m hoping that the beating John brings upon himself through his bravado is a sign that Foulds is going to go for a harder edge to the sentimentalised picture we’ve had of the gypsies so far.)
But what about the plot? Following a short prologue in which we see just how immersed the young John Clare is in nature – not that we know who he is yet – we’re fast-forwarded 30-odd years to the asylum where he spent time in adulthood. There are two separate buildings, one housing people with distressing but manageable compulsions or delusions, and the other containing what the 19th Century called lunatics. The latter gives Foulds the chance to do history with the nasty bits left in, as we witness in graphic detail the enema administered to a nutter who is refusing to void his bowels. The former lets him illustrate how even Matthew Allen, who considers himself enlightened, thinks that solitary confinement in the sensory deprivation of a dark cell is appropriate treatment for delusional behaviour.
At the time the novel is set, John Clare seems to be out of fashion following his success earlier in the century, and he can only fantasise about a return to the company of the sophisticated metropolitans who touted his poems then. He can also fantasise about sex with his ‘wives’ – a real wife and a childhood sweetheart, in Allen’s words – and Foulds is as explicit about this as he is about the enema. These people live in a carefully evoked physical world of pissing into chamber-pots, waking up outside with frost or drizzle on one side of the face, of standing stock-still under a tree in the cold for Messianic spiritual enlightenment.
But the novel is as much about the people who would be regarded as well but who, in what is obviously part of Foulds’ scheme, sometimes seem to be as unruly as the inmates. We have the other poet, Alfred (not yet Lord) Tennyson, living in the neighbourhood in order to be near his brother Septimus. The poet’s self-absorption, his continuing obsession with the death of his friend Arthur Hallam six years previously, his inability to understand why a young woman might want to spend an afternoon alone in his company – all are somehow symbolised by the cloud of smoke he immerses himself in as poor Hannah, the doctor’s daughter, fails to make an impression.
We get tours around the insides of the heads of the members of the Allen family. There’s the young sister Abigail, her senses turned up to 11 on the dial as she luxuriates in the heat from the fire before her mother scares her into moving away; Fulton, the brother, wanting to make a good impression; Matthew himself, pleased to be master of all he surveys as he gives his nightly sermon to the microcosm of society he has created. And then there’s the unspeakable Oswald, Matthew’s brother, unexpectedly inviting himself to stay and reawakening all Matthew’s doubts about himself – which is exactly what Oswald wants. This brother is that old standby of Victorian fiction, the judgmental purveyor of religiosity. I rather like him, but he’s gone soon after Matthew is almost provoked into hitting him.
Finally: poetry. Not since Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy do I remember having been in the company of characters so immersed in the poetic process. John Clare dashes off a few couplets, almost in real time – or rejects the too-easy metaphor of the bird in its cage as he passes it on his way from the gypsy camp. And, later, we get Tennyson’s musing on the ebb and flow of his thoughts about Hallam, in the same (or similar) slow rhythm we recognise from In Memoriam. I can’t be certain, but I suspect that Foulds put the birdcage metaphor into our heads so we could contemplate it: how many of these characters, the mad and the nominally sane, feel trapped inside worlds they can’t escape?
Spring, Summer, Autumn
All the characters in this novel, mad or sane, have projects. It would be putting it too strongly to suggest that it makes them all monomaniacs, but at the point I’ve reached – about three quarters of the way through – all the key players seem so focused on one thing they entirely lose sight of the wider picture. Tennyson’s sense of bereavement gets in the way of any thoughts of personal hygiene – he ‘reeks’, and his ears are filthy – or thoughts of even the basics of social interaction. Matthew Allen is so focused on his automated wood-carving machine that he’s neglecting his patients. Hannah Allen, her judgment skewed by – what? – not getting out enough, can’t see that her campaign to catch Tennyson is doomed and the alternative she comes up with – the errant son of a local toff being held out of harm’s way – is just silly. (At the end of Autumn it’s just dawned on her that Rawnsley might be in trade, but he does offer security. And nice things. I’m expecting him to be Mr Martin, the one Jane Austen’s Emma steers Harriet away from for most of that novel. Hannah does her own steering in this one.)
These are the sane ones – and I haven’t even mentioned the serial fantasist Abigail: Foulds has her ascribing fully-formed personalities and motivations to her dolls, presumably with the aim of showing how we all start our lives immersed in the richness of our own delusions, and only convention forces us to keep them under control as we grow up.
Does it feel as schematic as I’ve made it sound? It does with the two men: we have the incredible buzz that Allen gets from risking everything on his project – we’ve known for a long time, because his brother likes to talk about it, that he’s been jailed for bankruptcy before now – and Tennyson’s introversion makes him at least as strange as his brother in the asylum. I worry about it being a bit too obvious: if you set a story in any kind of mental institution, the question always seems to hang in the air: who are the sane ones, who is mad? Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island – the last of these appearing in the same year as The Quickening Maze – all have this as their central question. (For me, McGrath’s novel and Scorsese’s film work best, and it’s to do with the disorientating games the writers play with a single point of view whose reliability we can never be sure of. In Foulds’ novel, so far anyway, we always know where we are, even if the characters don’t.)
What about the mad ones? Earlier, I was satirical about Foulds giving us history with the nasty bits left in and, well, it’s just got worse. For the two mad characters whose points of view we follow in these sections – Margaret, now definitely Mary, and John, not definitely anyone – the asylum is becoming a hellish place, quite literally in Mary’s eyes. Her religious mania has led to a hyper-real vision of an angel telling her that she really is Mary, the Mary. He also tells her to spread the word of God’s love for all mankind – and I’m back in Brothers Karamazov territory, in which the line between madness and religious fervour is often either blurred or non-existent.
Her vision is glorious, and the angel convinces her to bring some muscular Christianity to the benighted souls all around her. Unfortunately, she isn’t as muscular as some of the men around her: Stockdale, given almost a free rein to run the asylum as he pleases – more of him later – and John, troubled by his own visions. His release from solitary is as glorious as Mary’s vision, is almost a re-birth. He has the experience, described as though it’s completely real, of his two wives sitting next to him on his bed. But he’s having problems with his identity, and his two favourite pursuits seem to have merged into the grandiose incarnation of Boxer Byron. But… he is tolerated as long as he keeps more or less to himself. When he finds a woman calling herself Mary, he is able to convince himself that this is the wife he’s been waiting for, older, sure, as she would be. To him, sex with her is the most natural thing in the world. She isn’t so sure, but she succumbs, as she always did to her abusive husband.
Soon, Stockdale starts to find them both a bit of a nuisance. He restrains each of them violently, and has them transferred to ‘Leopard’s Hill Lodge’, the wing for the most disorderly. (The gentler wing is ‘Fairlea’: names have as much power in the land of the sane as they do in John’s mind.) Foulds offers a vision of the circle of hell that this represents in a single episode, involving the worst kinds of abuse. One night, John is looking for some peace and quiet, away from the riotous bare-knuckle fights and drinking sessions that Stockwell encourages. He stumbles on a scene that Foulds makes as murky and shadow-filled as he can: Mary being raped by Stockdale and his crony. John doesn’t know that this happens almost every night, but he knows something is definitely wrong.
Foulds doesn’t make a big thing of it, because he doesn’t need to, but all this is happening through the actions of two supposedly sane men. Allen, following his own fixation on his (presumably doomed) venture, has given Stockwell the chance to indulge his own fantasies of power. And if there’s one thing the 21st Century knows about, it’s what happens if you give too much power to ordinary men.
Winter etc… to the end
There’s a nod in the direction of ordinary power in a little aside in these last sections. Abigail, described as wanting to be helpful as a child, will grow up to have a husband who will not treat her as well as he should because he won’t need to. There are three more anticipatory asides like this concerning, in no particular order, Tennyson, struggling with the critics now but having the ear of Queen Victoria in the not too distant future, Matthew Allen, whose illness will lead to his early death, and John Clare, who will succeed in getting back to Northamptonshire – which is how the novel ends – but, we know, will spend the last 23 years of his life behind the walls of the asylum there, a forgotten man. I still haven’t worked out why Foulds adds these little titbits, always in the past conditional tense – he would, she would – unless it’s to provide the necessary historical veracity to an otherwise distinctly fictional-sounding narrative. (As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t important. E L Doctorow doesn’t care at all in his masterly Homer and Langley¸ another fictionalised account of the lives of real people written in 2009.)
Otherwise, the sane become no saner than before. Allen’s project really is a failure, and early on Foulds gives us a tiny picture of this in the doctor’s visit to a bishop in the north of England. On the way up to a meeting in which he’ll be told the deal is off following the continued failure of the machinery he’s designed, he can’t look at any bit of wood-turning or carving in the railway carriage without wondering who it is that’s making a profit, and how you might go about getting the contract. We see him fiddling the books, pretending to himself that these are ‘virtuous lies’ that will eventually lead to great profits for all. He’s in that strange land of the failed gambler in which wishing makes it so.
Except it doesn’t, and later Tennyson, in a rage that would put an inmate into Leopard’s Hill Lodge, refers to Allen’s ‘delusions’. He isn’t wrong. At the beginning of another of the short episodes that make up the whole of the novel, we can’t work out whether the ‘he’ the narrator refers to is Clare or Tennyson. Only the endlessly familiar obsessing about Hallam reveals which one it is. This is one of the few times when Foulds has a go at getting inside the creative mind at work. (I think I might have already mentioned the others.) Considering the subject matter and the author, this is a bit surprising: this novel is far less about poetry than you think it’s going to be.
Do the insane do any better? At least Foulds doesn’t keep John and Mary in the hell-hole of Stockdale’s making. In a conversation a few days after John stumbles on the double rape, still in Leopard’s Hill, he tells Stockwell he’ll let everybody know what he’s seen if he and Mary aren’t released. Stockwell makes the highly plausible response is that nobody would believe him – we’re in Karamazov-land again – but, miraculously, the next time we see either of them they’re free to roam again. Well, that’s nice – except that Foulds makes the point often enough, for instance through that mention of John’s miserable last years, that the nominally sane will be too wrapped up in their own petty concerns ever to take any interest in the rich inner lives of the mad.
Concerns like, for instance, marriage. Foulds wraps up the Hannah thread by having her visit her newly married sister’s house and seeing how, well, comfortable it is. He doesn’t make the point, because it stares you in the face, that the ultimate desires of the sane are no different from the dreams of domesticity we’ve seen in John’s mind all along. Near the end, Hannah says yes to Rawnsley, as we knew she must. (The young toff, misunderstanding her overtures, thought she’d been encouraging him to elope. It’s another of her accidental influences, to go with the information about Elizabeth I in their bit of the forest that sends Tennyson off on a new poetic trail. It also offers Foulds the pretext for a comic episode when the toff’s father arrives so enraged that Allen takes him for a lunatic.)
In the end, this turns into a novel about the joy of the ordinary: the poetic ordinary, like the sound of birds or the feel of frost underfoot; and the domestic ordinary. Does that make it an ordinary book? Not quite – but, somehow, it’s not as extraordinary as it might have been.