Adam Foulds’ second novel is well named. The Quickening Maze is set mostly in an early Victorian English asylum, a place whose residents’ lives are mazelike in their complexity, even those who are free to leave.
John Clare, a poet destined for a fair-to-middling place in the English canon, has been committed to the asylum, a rural facility run by one Matthew Allen. Clare, whose literary career has stalled, is fixated on a lost childhood sweetheart whom he thinks is his wife. Sometimes he’s lucid; sometimes he thinks himself a famous prizefighter, Lord Byron or Robinson Crusoe. Young Alfred Tennyson is also on the scene, there to be near his brother, an inmate. The two poets’ paths intersect with those of Allen, several of Allen’s daughters and sundry other characters. Clare is eventually freed from the asylum, but not from his illness; Allen is brought low by ill-advised business dealings; Tennyson loses money in said dealings, but ends up, of course, on his way to becoming Lord Tennyson and poet laureate.
The book is divided into seasonal sections, which, along with its rural setting, suggests cyclical time and pastoral life. Some of the characters—certainly Clare—may prefer such a life. But Foulds’ England is becoming an urban and mechanized place. Life there may look like a road to be traveled, but it’s becoming a one-way street, and chances lost do not come again. Allen tries to become an industrialist, which is his ruin. His daughter Hannah fails to win over Tennyson, and ends up with an uninteresting but successful businessman, who, unlike Allen, has grasped such matters as mass production.
Clare is a man and poet of the common lands, where people travel and forage as they please. Unfortunately for Clare and his gypsy friends, the commons are disappearing. Early on, from inside young Clare’s mind, Foulds speaks of nature in language rivaling Clare’s own poetry; Clare’s relation to nature here is intuitive, even magical. But as the commons give way to such things as railroads, intuition gives way to madness. Mad Clare may be, but Foulds allows him his sensibility and an odd intelligence. Foulds writes from inside the minds of his characters, sane and otherwise, with as much empathy and respect as anyone this side of Dostoyevsky.
Clare ends up on the road, lost then found. His road is mazelike. His journey is amazing.