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Nottingham Castle

Judith Allnatt

23 June 11 words: James Walker
John Clare 'poet, philosopher and madman' is the subject of the EMBA shortlisted The Poet's Wife
"I was interested in the experience of a woman who wants to save her husband from his demons and return him to his real self, the man she married."

John Clare ‘poet, philosopher and madman’ was institutionalised for ‘too much poetical prosing.’ Yet his tender eulogies for the landscape and our gradual dislocation from the natural world are as relevant now as ever. Although much has been said of his poetry and his eccentricities – he believed he was the boxer Jack Randall and Lord Byron, nothing has been written about the impact his deteriorating mental health had on his wife Patty, the impoverished mother of his nine children. Until now. In The Poet’s Wife, Judith Allnatt has written a different eulogy, that of the long suffering wife whom history has chosen to forget. We caught up with her at the East Midlands Book Award to find out more about the celebrity or perhaps legacy of John Clare.

How important is support for the arts to writers?
I have a particular reason to be grateful for support for the arts in the region: the spark that set me off on the research trail for The Poet’s Wife came from being involved in an arts project.  Through delving into library resources on Northamptonshire literary figures, I came across John Clare’s letters written to his family from the asylum where he was a patient. Tracing his heartbreaking mental decline through his own words was very moving.  I had to know more and from the research that followed, the novel was born. Arts organisations support writers in all kinds of ways: professional development, bringing artists together, promoting and celebrating their work and lobbying on behalf of the arts. All of these things are invaluable; I was just extremely fortunate to benefit in this extra, serendipitous way!

The book starts literally, where Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze finishes. Was this deliberate?
Actually, this was a happy coincidence. Adam Foulds’ book ends with John Clare absconding from an asylum in Essex and setting off to walk eighty miles home; The Poet’s Wife starts at the point when Patty, his wife, finds him at the other end of his journey, footsore and weary at the side of the road. Neither of us knew that the other was writing on John Clare and later, when I met Adam Foulds, we rather marvelled at how exactly it had worked out.

"When John Clare was admitted to ‘Northampton General Lunatic Asylum’ in 1842 the cause of his madness was stated as ‘too much poetical prosing,’ as if self expression had inflamed his condition."

Why do you think he is such a popular subject matter?
John Clare is often described as ‘poet, genius and madman’ and probably part of the appeal is the drama of his life story but I think there is something far deeper than that.  John Clare, amongst all the19th Century English poets, seems the one most frequently to fire the imagination of other creative artists. Songs, monologues, novels and plays have been written and visual artists have created paintings, woodcuts and photography inspired by his vision of the countryside. It’s as though his fond and protective feelings for his environment and his awareness of the natural world and the place that Man has within it, have struck a chord in our time. As connections are made between the depredations of enclosure and modern despoilment on a grander scale, John Clare’s words find new resonance.  

This gradual disconnection of Man from the environment is clearly just as relevant today...
I think it’s highly relevant in an age of increasing urbanisation and current moves to decrease access to the countryside and to allow building on green field sites. Access to the countryside for all is something I feel strongly about. I’ve campaigned locally against such building and was involved in the recent national campaign to stop the sale of ancient woodland.

Organisations like Michael Morpurgo’s Farms for City Kids are a brilliant idea. All primary schools teach kids about growing things, farming, the water cycle, global warming – we recognise that these things  are important, but our kids deserve more experience of the land that’s their heritage than growing the odd sunflower.

Given his principles and fame are we talking about celebrity or legacy?
John Clare’s celebrity in his lifetime was so short-lived, yet he has left such a mark and inspired so many people.  I think about all the academics, artists, naturalists, readers and poetry-lovers of all ages who feel connection to his life and work, about the legacy that John Clare has left us. I think about ‘celebrity’ but the word ‘legacy’ carries so much more weight.

Although your book is about John Clare, really this is the story of his wife. The people who history chooses to forget...
From John Clare’s journal, I learnt that he had walked all that way home, not to return to Patty and his family but to find his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. Worse than this, he believed himself to be married to both women. This struck me as a fascinating premise for a novel. What would it be like to be married to a man, have nine children and go through the pain together of two infant deaths, only to find that you are losing him to his delusion that he has another wife and family? I just had to explore this strange and tragic situation. I was interested in the experience of a woman who wants to save her husband from his demons and return him to his real self, the man she married.

Marriage is meant to be ‘in sickness and in health’ yet when the person you married changes so dramatically it makes it harder to keep the vow. Do you think a 21st century Patty would have walked away from her husband?
This question always sparks a good, lively debate in reading groups. Whatever one decides, I think the important thing is that a 21st century Patty would have had the choice. In the nineteenth century, women like Patty had no economic independence. The life of a countrywoman at that time was very hard. Everything about the process of running a home was lengthy. To have clothes on your back you first sewed them, mended them or altered hand-me-downs. To eat: you dug, planted, hoed and picked first. To bake your bread you gathered the gleanings form the wheat fields and walked to and from the mill before you even had the flour to start with. All this just to keep a household going, never mind looking after young children the sick and the elderly or working outside the home at the haymaking or the harvest. John Clare’s illness was little understood, leaving her dealing with its bewildering effects without advice or support. I felt that Patty must have been a strong woman to manage all of this, and,  that although her experience of John’s delusion about his former sweetheart shows that the boundary line between love and madness can become blurred, her own story perhaps speaks of the way that love is also ultimately our greatest strength.

Poverty and illness had a big impact on the Clare family. What would you say to governments planning to close down day centres and similar social services that offer help to families with similar problems?
I’d say ‘Don’t!’ I’ve worked with mums and kids at a Surestart centre and I’ve seen firsthand that such schemes are a lifeline for vulnerable families. More than a century on from the time in which the novel is set, surely we shouldn’t be taking retrograde steps but moving forward to a more compassionate and constructive society.
I guess this is a kind of chicken and egg question: Did poetry save John Clare from madness or was it the cause? Is creativity a form of madness?
When John Clare was admitted to ‘Northampton General Lunatic Asylum’ in 1842 the cause of his madness was stated as ‘too much poetical prosing,’ as if self expression had inflamed his condition. He himself sometimes wished that he could return to the simplicity of a ploughman’s life. On the other hand, one could argue that an active imagination will produce a multitude of thoughts, whether you write them down or not and that expressing them is a way of exorcising them and sometimes ordering or controlling them. As a writer, I think I can only see creativity as a good. I think it’s far more damaging for a person to suppress their creative side and feel that a part of them is unfulfilled.

Writing is generally a form of dislocation as it’s such a solitary process. How do you cope with creativity?
It’s good to have a balance. I enjoy the process of being alone to write and often become so engrossed that I forget about mealtimes. Nothing else really takes me over like this (she gives out a big mmm… and confesses perhaps it is a bit obsessive…) A surprising proportion of the job involves working with people though: doing readings, interviews, being on panels, attending festivals and conferences.  I also teach creative writing so I mix with every age group from kids, through undergraduates, to Lifelong Learning students. Love it.

I don’t really have a strict routine. For me, it can be more productive to go for a walk and think about some aspect of a novel than to meet a self-imposed word count target.

 "I have a particular reason to be grateful for support for the arts in the region: the spark that set me off on the research trail for The Poet’s Wife came from being involved in an arts project." 

What did you learn as a writer from the writing of this book?
I learnt something useful about my own creative process. As I researched, I found that very small nuggets of information would strike me as significant although I might not initially know why. I would just know that they had a place in the book and that there was a connection there to be worked out. It was almost as if the central idea of the book was a magnet and small pieces of research material were iron filings drawn towards it.

For instance, a book on social history mentioned that the rural poor were often too impoverished to afford even a rope strung between two trees as a washing line and would dry their washing by spreading it on trees and hedges. Immediately I had a vivid mental picture of Victorian frocks and carters’ smocks spread out against the green, and as a result of this I wrote the chapter ‘Ghosts in the hedges’ in which Patty is spreading the washing in just such a manner and is drawn back  to  memories of  John’s courtship of her. She remembers running, at his approach, to put on a dress that was still damp, because it suited her better than the one she was wearing. It‘s John’s first visit to her home, and her father, who disapproves of the match, makes it very awkward for John. Patty sits uncomfortably through the tea party until she and John are finally alone and walk to the woods. Seeing her shivering in the damp dress, he puts his arm around her and this leads to their first lovemaking. It’s a very strange thing: the way a small detail can inspire a long chain of ideas and associations when you’re writing, so I keep a notebook for all the tiny details that I’m drawn to, even though I might not yet know why.  It’s enormously rewarding when they bear fruit in this way and it always seems a little magical to me.

Judith Allnatt’s website

James Walker’s website

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