". . . are of imagination all compact," continues Shakespeare, and Adam Foulds might well have taken this for the motto of this novel. The setting is High Beach, a mental asylum run by Dr. Matthew Allen, on the fringes of Epping Forest, East of London. The time is the late eighteen-thirties. The poets are John Clare, a laborer's son briefly celebrated for his rural verse, and Alfred Tennyson, near the beginning of his own career. All three were real figures. Clare was to be institutionalized for the rest of his life, and largely forgotten only to be rediscovered a century later. Tennyson, himself a melancholic, bought a property nearby to be close to his brother Septimus, who committed himself to the asylum. And Allen was an extraordinary figure: "chemical philosopher, phrenologist, pedagogue, and mad-doctor," in the words of his biographer; add to that inventor, entrepreneur, and bankrupt. Adam Foulds has woven these factual strands into a tapestry of the imagination, set equally in the minds of its many characters and the revolving seasons of the English countryside.
The human world of High Beach is an often confusing jumble of inmates, attendants, visitors, members of Allen's family including his lovesick daughter Hannah, together with other assorted children, neighbors, and visitors. It is difficult to keep straight, and made more difficult still when an inmate suddenly starts calling himself by a different name. But although Allen has some sadistic attendants under his unwitting command, he is an enlightened doctor who allows his patients much liberty -- so the world of nature interpenetrates everything. Foulds is at his best when closest to the countryside, as when John Clare wanders far from home as a boy in the prologue, or his several unauthorized excursions from High Beach to visit a nearby gypsy encampment. Or when one of the inmates, Margaret, has a religious vision in the woods: "The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. [...] It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched."
Like Maggie O'Farrell did in THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX and Faulkner knew before her, Foulds has discovered that the voices of madness permit a less literal approach to storytelling, in which desire and memory can play on an equal footing with fact. At its best, it is a highly evocative approach. But I am not convinced that he uses it to evoke anything very important -- not, for instance, as Pat Barker had done in REGENERATION when she placed the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in a mental hospital against the background of the Flanders trenches. Nor is there anything quite so compelling as Clare's own lines written from captivity: "And yet I am! and live with shadows, tost | Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, | Into the living sea of waking dreams, | Where there is neither sense of life nor joys, | But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems." Foulds can paint the seascape of those waking dreams, but he cannot experience the shipwreck.
But how does one really take a sane reader into the world of madness? Part of Foulds' strategy is to erase the boundaries berween sane and insane. Shakespeare would suggest that there is not much difference between the lunatic and the poet, and with the very soft borders separating the various categories in Dr. Allen's establishment (not to mention the crazy enthusiasms of Allen himself), the two do seem to merge. But an empathetic portrayal of individual torment is really only possible when balancing on the brink, but still retaining some contact with sanity. Foulds' description of John Clare losing himself in the countryside as a boy already has the seeds of all that will become of him, both good and ill. Margaret's vision of the angel is about as far as Foulds could go and still have the reader see through her eyes. But when Clare (as he did) declares himself to be Byron or Shakespeare, the reader can only shake his head and pull back. If this novel lacks focus, as I fear it does, it may simply be because its target is beyond the reach of any lens.