Foulds, who won England’s 2008 Costa Poetry Prize for The Broken Word, has written a dreamy fictional account of the year and a half when young, not-yet-famous Alfred Tennyson lived in close proximity to the mental hospital near Sherwood Forest where his brother was incarcerated along with “peasant poet” John Clare.
In the 1830s, High Beach is run by Dr. Matthew Allen, a pre-Freudian who prophetically uses what he calls “unbosoming” about the past to cure patients, particularly those suffering from melancholy. Allen, whose early life had its share of darkness, is educated and erudite. He is thrilled to have a distinguished if out-of-style poet like John Clare among his patients. Unbalanced Clare still finds moments of peace in nature and while visiting a nearby gypsy camp. But he is also increasingly delusional. Clare is moved to the lodge for more severe cases after he violently crashes the wedding of Allen’s oldest daughter, a wedding where Alfred and Septimus Tennyson are invited guests. Since Tennyson has taken a house near the asylum to be near his almost catatonic brother, Allen’s 17-year-old daughter Hannah soon develops a romantic crush on the young poet. Whether this infatuation is fiction or fact, Foulds captures Hannah’s inner life—and all the characters’ inner lives for that matter. Although polite, Tennyson barely notices Hannah, too deeply mourning the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, who will become his muse. Without personal savings and desperate for money, Allen invests and loses a great deal of Tennyson’s money on an invention that doesn’t work. Tennyson writes and mopes. John Clare sinks deeper into distress until he finally leaves the institution and walks home to northern England, where he will spend the rest of his life in a state-run asylum. Although Hannah shifts her romantic fantasies to an aristocratic patient before she accepts that happiness can be found with a realistic suitor, plot matters less here than individual moments, each fully realized and deeply felt.
Prose at its poetic best.