It tells the story of Dr Matthew Allen and his family who run High Beach Private Asylum, in the woods outside of London. The time is around 1840 and two poets happen to be there simultaneously, though never crossing paths: John Clare, the nature and rural poet, and Alfred Tennyson, a man whose poetry will later be known to represent the Victorian age. Tennyson is there with his brother, accompanying him at first under the guise that he doesn’t want to leave him alone. Later he admits that he wants to be admitted for cure of melancholia. (One of his great friends, Arthur Hallam, just died abroad and he has yet to recover. Arthur Hallam is later the subject of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, which is begun to be penned in the confines of this asylum and this novel.)
Clare is there because he has a genuine multiple personalities disorder, one day thinking he’s a boxer, the next thinking he’s Lord Byron – although I’m sure boxing and Byron go hand in hand. Clare is already feeling that the public has no interest in his poetry any more, which is later quasi confirmed when his submissions to magazines come out fruitless. The spectre that seems to surround him and the novel though is the Romantic critic and great essayist William Hazlitt, wherein Clare uses a tavern from ‘The Fight’ as a stage name for his boxing career. Hazlitt’s clarity of description may be what Foulds himself is trying to summon in his own pages.
The novel has been pitched as a representation of these two great poets; but rather it is truly about the Allen family and how one daughter tries to seduce Tennyson to no avail, how the son is learning the ways of the asylum so that one day he can take it over, and – at its core – how Dr Allen himself is trying to develop a machine that will reproduce master technician’s furniture so that he may not need to work ever again. It’s an interesting comment on the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the mind – both creatively and in business.
However, the prose felt limp and the ideas behind this novel seemed weak. It’s almost summed up when Allen’s daughter Hannah enters Tennyson’s room for the first time: ‘She entered looking hungrily at everything for signs of the remarkable life that was lived there, but found an ordinary vestibule – wallpaper, a table, a mirror. There on the antlers of the coatstand, however, hung his coats and that wide black hat. He twirled the cape from his shoulders and added it. With proper care, with gentle fingers that seem unafraid as he touched her shoulders, he took her coat from her and drape it beside his own.’
Foulds, who is also an award-winning poet, seems to be interested in the flatness of language in this novel. Although every now and again you get a gem like this: ‘Possibly it was a though he could understand, but what she could not begin to try and explain to him was that in Heaven to see and to eat are the same thing. Looking is absorption, is union, without destruction. There is nothing broken. Light flows into light endlessly, in harmony, and is perfectly still.’