The Quickening Maze is the first book I read purposefully because it’s one of the finalists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. By coincidence, I had already read half a dozen finalists and winners, and when I learned that Helen of She Reads Novels was trying to read them all, I decided to join her.
This novel is based on events in the life of the poet John Clare, known as the “peasant poet,” a man of rural background who was steeped in his natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Clare is having some mental problems and is staying in an asylum in Epping Forest. Nearby is Alfred Tennyson, whose brother Septimus also resides there.
John Clare seems to be doing well under the treatment of Dr. Matthew Allen. When we first meet him, his movements are relatively unrestrained and except for some confusion about a girl he knew named Mary, he seems sane enough. He is soon given a key to the gate so that he can walk in the forest.
Another patient important to the novel is Margaret, who is regularly transfixed by visions of angels and messages from god. At one point as Clare’s mental state deteriorates, he mistakes Margaret for his Mary.
Dr. Allen seems to have a gift for dealing with his patients during a time when mental health practices were deplorable. However, he also has a fascination with risk, and soon he is trying to talk his friends and the Tennysons into investing in his new invention, a machine for following the shape of furniture and carving additional pieces.
Hannah Allen at 17 has decided that Alfred Tennyson is the man she’d like to marry. She boldly begins seeking him out, not realizing that he is preoccupied with his brother and with grief over the death of a good friend.
Although this novel is more about the internal workings of some of the characters’ minds than its historical setting, it is beautifully written and atmospheric. I was interested in this narrow slice of history and curious to look at some of Clare’s poetry.