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Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Poet's Wife by Judith Allnatt

John Clare is often referred to as peasant poet, genius and madman and it is true that mental illness dogged his later life, his identity fragmenting so that sometimes he would think himself to be Admiral Nelson, Lord Byron or a boxer of the day called Jack Randall.
Although I had enjoyed John Clare’s poetry for years, I had no knowledge of his madness until I came to live in his home county of Northamptonshire and started researching his prose writing at my local library. On that day, I was only intending to spend an hour researching but three hours later I was still scrolling through the microfiche, interpreting the elegant but curlicued handwriting of his letters. The letters that had caught my attention so thoroughly were those written to his family from the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Through his own words you could trace his heartbreaking mental decline.
Despite being kindly treated and given every comfort at the asylum, at times he is clearly distressed and afraid; he refers to it as a ‘Hell’ and a ‘Bastille’. He speaks of his ‘captivity among the Babylonians’ and warns his sons not to visit him in case they are ‘trapped as prisoners’. Most touching of all is his continuing desire to return home; he longs to ‘hunt in the woods for yellow hyacinths, Polyanthuses and blue Primroses as usual and go in the Meadows a-fishing.’
His final letter, written in 1860 in reply to a well-wisher, Mr. James. Hipkins, reads:
Dear Sir
I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I don’t know I have nothing to say so I conclude
Yours respectfully

Reading a man’s actual words as he becomes more and more lost and bewildered is a moving experience and I felt that I had made an emotional connection with the person and not just the poet. I decided to find out more about his family, and how his illness had affected them: in particular his wife, Patty Clare.
It was while reading his journal, ‘Journey out of Essex,’ that it became apparent that John had absconded from his place at a previous asylum and walked the eighty miles home, not to return to his wife and family but to find his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. I discovered that he had remained obsessed with his early love and believed himself twice married, to both Patty and Mary. What must it be like to be married to a man, have nine children with him, two of whom die in infancy, and then find that you are losing him to his illness and to his delusions about another woman? This was something I just had to write to find out. I felt sure that there was a powerful story to be told: of love and loss, broken identity, poems and passion.
My journey took me along field margins and through brambled ways, from the mansion of Burghley House, where John once worked as a gardener, to tiny cottages dwarfed by the vastness of a fenland sky. The contrast between the splendour of a building where even the hallway is as big as a barn, and the cramped accommodation of the cottages with their dirt floors and low eaves, was sharp. At one point, eleven of the Clare family were sharing a cottage with only two rooms. Such proximity wasn’t only an inconvenience in terms of privacy; when illness struck it ran rampant through a family forced to share their sleeping quarters. As I stood in the hall at Burghley with its marble and richly painted ceilings, the huge polarity between rich and poor was starkly evident. Another theme began to develop, the greed of the powerful at the time of enclosure of the common land, and its impact on the rural poor who no longer had grazing for their beasts or were even allowed to collect firewood on land owned by the huge estates.
I visited most of the settings used in the book, not only to collect the small details and sense impressions that help a writer to bring a place to life for the reader, but because I needed to get as close as possible to my characters. There’s nothing quite like standing where you imagine a character to have stood for allowing you to fully inhabit them and to see with their eyes. Standing at the foot of Mary Joyce’s grave in the churchyard at Glinton, I remember pondering a while upon Patty’s ambivalent feelings about her rival. Placing yourself in the character’s setting and just being quiet and still is one of the best ways I know to listen in, as it were, to their thoughts.
This novel evolved to include many things. It’s about a woman’s attempt to restore her husband to his true self, as his identity begins to fragment. It’s about the struggle to hold a family together and about memory and its power to sustain us through the trials of a difficult present. But most of all it’s a story about married love, widely experienced but written about less often than romantic courtship, a love that is inevitably more difficult when rooted in the reality of everyday life and assailed by losses and misfortunes over time but also deep, knowing and forgiving. In writing the novel I hoped that readers of ‘The Poet’s Wife’ would become as fond of Patty as I was and that her story would move them, just as I was moved when I first read John Clare’s letters home.
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Eliza Graham said...

I always wondered about what was going on in John Clare's private life, not knowing much about him but liking his poetry.

Alis said...

How wonderful to be able to read John Clare's own words - and how tragic to see a creative, supple mind devastated by mental illness. Your book sounds wonderful, Judith and I fear my to-be-read pile is about to become one book higher...

Ann Weisgarber said...

I have to admit that I've never heard of John Clare but now I'm curious and look forward to reading The Poet's Wife. This seems to be the way I learn about most historical figures and events. Historical novels come first and then I want to know more.

Debbie Brown said...

What a wretching story. I would love to win a copy of this book. Thanks for the opportunity!

Anonymous said...

Signing in anonymus due to Google blog .This is a great blog. I had heard that he had gone mad from one of my teachers, but being a teen you really don't pay to much attention to the detail. What his wife Patty must have gone through. Thank you for sharing.
Sharon Sullivan-Craver

Margaret said...

I have not heard of this book or author but this sounds really good.


BrittanyGale said...

This one sounds great. I'd love to read it.