`He'd been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm'.
The novel opens with John Clare, the peasant poet, as a village boy exploring the world and finding his way home to his loving mother. It ends with his long walk home to Northampton from Essex and being found by his wife Patty. John Clare has been an inmate of Mathew Allen's asylum - a man enlightened for his day but obsessed with business success and not a good businessman, as we find out in one of the narrative strands of this novel.
Foulds is a poet and imagines himself into John Clare's world very well - his day out from the asylum in the wood, and at one with nature and with the gypsies, is beautifully written and lingers in the mind. It is in sharp contrast to the confusion in the asylum itself.
Allen's daughter Hannah has her own narrative thread - finding a suitable husband - and it is gripping partly because her options are so limited. The Tennyson brothers, from a melancholy family, are staying whilst Septimus receives treatment. Alfred, later Lord Tennyson is the object of Hannah's romantic interest and she takes the initiative, visiting him:
`She thought of a question that might startle him into a renewed appreciation of her. He would know at least how advanced, how daring she was.
`May I ask you, what is your opinion of Lord Byron's poetry?'
Byron is still a daring poet for a young girl to read. She hopes to dazzle him with her intellectual and sensual abilities if not with her beauty.
Clare, in his madness, thinks that he is Byron at times, at times he thinks himself a boxer.
I am never sure about novels based on real characters and this book is certainly not fully successful from a structural perspective - insufficient narrative pull. For me, in this case Foulds' imagination wins the day; atmosphere and language triumph over the narrative issues.