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Virtual Book Club VI

Adam Foulds’s prose in this fictionalised account of the lives of the inmates at the private High Beach asylum and its proprietor Matthew Allen is hauntingly beautiful, almost hypnotic at times. This is most evident when he is describing the natural world surrounding the asylum. The delicate balance of the countryside is already under threat from industrialisation and enclosure.

The novel mixes the real and the fictional in much the same way as reality is often blurred for some of the key characters; in his sympathetic portrayal, Foulds makes us care about both. We observe the flawed proprietor of the asylum, Matthew Allen and his family, the poet John Clare and Septimus Tennyson, brother of the poet Alfred Tennyson but the fictional inmates and staff are no less effectively drawn.

The real life Matthew Allen was the proprietor of licensed houses at High Beech in Essex from 1825 -45. He had previously worked at The Retreat in York, a Quaker run asylum which pioneered the idea of moral management. This was a form of social therapy involving routine, occupation and a calming environment which represented a new approach to the care of the mentally unwell. Such changes, coinciding with the work of Dr John Conolly and the non-restraint movement, did impact the way asylums were run but only over time and Allen thought of himself as being something of a pioneer at High Beech. He claimed to be amongst the first to promote a mild system of management and outdoor occupation; our first glimpse of him in the book is at the manual task of chopping wood and he recommended similar open air tasks for the inmates.

In his Essay on the Classification of the Insane 1837, Allen advocated the use of voluntary confinement in order to facilitate the early treatment of mental illness, together with the use of parole and voluntary boarding by convalescent patients. Tennyson, who in the novel stays nearby to support his brother Septimus who has been admitted to High Beach, did in reality himself voluntarily stay for two weeks suffering from depression. Allen allowed many patients their own keys to enable some freedom of movement and exploration of Epping Forest within which the asylum was set. It is this freedom which allowed John Clare to stay connected to the natural world he loved and the withdrawal of which, in the novel, was so damaging.

Clare was an actual patient at High Beech from 1837, when he was taken there by his publisher John Taylor, until 1841 when he escaped. Initially his health appeared to improve in the sheltered atmosphere; the journalist Cyrus Redding described him ‘busily engaged with the hoe, and smoking.’ Clare was encouraged to walk in the woods and continue to write. In a letter to his wife he commented that ‘the country is the finest I have ever seen.’ As the novel progresses the reader sees Clare’s mental state unravel into delusions about his dead childhood sweetheart, obsession with prize fighters such as Jack Randall and disintegration into complex multiple identities including that of Randall and Lord Byron. Reality and its shifting boundaries is an ever present theme. Although it is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through the figure of Clare, it is seen also in Allen’s attempts to construct a more favourable reality out of the disaster of his money making schemes and his daughter Hannah’s desire to see Alfred Tennyson as a suitor.

The real life asylum was made up of a number of houses for different groups of patients with conditions of varying severity. In the novel, the genteel, more relaxed conditions of Fairmead House under the day to day supervision of Allen contrast starkly with the more restricted and often brutal regime supervised by his deputy at Leopards Lodge. We only actually see Allen once at Leopard’s Lodge and the extent to which he knows the extent of the abuses that take place there is left ambiguous.

The book is not just concerned with physical confines; the limitations imposed by social convention, wealth and class are all subtly raised. The theme of the outsider and those on the margins of society runs through the novel: the asylum inmates sheltered or removed from a society which might prefer to pretend they are not there; the gypsies Clare meets on his rambles driven out by prejudice and enclosure; Allen himself when discussing his religious upbringing. Many of the characters seem to long for escape from the confines of their own situation: Allen from his money worries and fears of being unfulfilled; his daughter Hannah from her stultifying environment; Tennyson from his grief at Arthur Hallam’s death and his own melancholy; Clare from the restrictions of the asylum which thwart his desire to go home. In the end it is perhaps only Clare who feels he has left the asylum behind.

Next month our Community Engagement Officer will be reviewing the award-winning 'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer. This will be published in the week commencing 11 August.