HERE we have a historical novel that revolves around Matthew Allen, John Clare and Alfred Tennyson, who are both imaginary as well as actual figures. It is set in an asylum where patients religiously, with varying degrees of existence in fantasy, seem genuinely disturbed and pathetic. We read about Matthew Allen who is a person of unusually liberal sympathy – someone who puts in his best to cure his patients in this asylum in Essex for the mentally ill by talking to them and setting them therapeutic physical tasks and incarcerates them only as a last resort. Although John Clare calls it ‘Bastille’, Mathew Allen claims to run the rural asylum on relatively liberal and caring principles.
Alfred Tennyson invests his own and his family’s fortune into wood-carving inventions for which Allen claims the UK patent. Clare considers Allen a dodgy quack who imprisons him in a hellish ‘bugger-shop’. Tennyson finds himself in a relationship with Allen that is far from constructive.
In November 1841, Allen is shown piling on the motivational charm in writing to Tennyson: “We shall have an immense business. All is hope, fear is gone and I feel happy. We are all safe. Orders are flowing in from all the great ones.” A few months later, he urges Tennyson into action, “Get this melted into money immediately”, but by early 1843, the scheme collapses. Tennyson says, “Every stick and stave is to be sold to pay A.T. this day – and yet people boast! I ail! And I suffer! And I die!” Tennyson is financially struck by this investment, with only a minor portion coming back to him on Allen’s death in the midst of legal action and penury in 1845.
The story has also Allen’s 17-year old daughter Hannah, who is free thinking except that where her father’s mind is able to lead him into the wide world of care, hers is bent on men, marriage and her future. When she finally clears her mind of Tennyson and finds a more likely suitor, the author says, “After so much nothing al all, life was finally happening, but not at all as she’d imagined.” What has happened is that when the two Tennyson brothers, Septimus and Alfred, arrive in High Beach, the poet manages to catch her fancy. Rest of the book is confined to Hannah’s doomed courtship.
John Clare is initially an inmate of the asylum and gives vent to his poetic urges while mourning the changes in his home landscape. He slips into the character of Jack Randall the Boxer and into the persona of Lord Byron before walking out of Essex back to his native Helpston.
This is a novel essentially about identity which is explored through Allen and his family; through the inmates of the asylum; through the two great but different individual writers; and through the gypsies living in the hinterland.
(Jonathan Cape, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1 V 2SA, www.rbooks.co.uk)