The Quickening Maze

September 24, 2009 at 2:28 pm (General Victoriana, Uncategorized)

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze 2009

I’d like to reiterate the general greeting, and say hello to everybody: good to see you all at this afternoon’s meeting! And in the spirit of interdisciplinarity, I’d also to direct you to a review I’ve written of Adam Foulds’ new novel, The Quickening Maze (2009) … it has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and has accordingly been in the news a little bit.  This is not coursework, of course; but it’s an example of contemporary Victoriana that might be of interest to you nevertheless: John Clare, the poet, and Alfred Tennyson, also a poet, are both characters; and the mileu of the 1840s is well-captured.  I’ve reviewed it over at The Valve; the same review, but with different readers’ comments, is also at my own reviews blog.  I’d be interested to know your opinion, if you’ve read it.  Feel free, indeed feel actively encouraged, to put your thoughts in the comments to the post below.

This year’s Booker has a couple of Victorian-y titles on the shortlist, actually: I’m in the middle of A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book right now, and will blog about it when I’ve finished.  [Adam Roberts]

[7th October, update; I finished the Byatt, but didn’t think overmuch of it: you can read my thoughts here. But neither it nor the Foulds won the prize in the end … the 2009 Man Booker went, as I’m sure you know, to Hilary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall. I’ve a review of that too, here.]



  1. Selena Collins said,

    My initial reaction – based purely on the “cloud-breeding sky” line – was that this was going to be way too creative writingish and not much more. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find it had more substance to it than the first page suggests.
    The female characters are well realised and well placed – the comical, teenaged ’agony’ of Hannah’s burgeoning sexuality set alongside the true pain of Margaret’s life fading away as she loses her ‘self ‘ is very powerful. Clare, sensitively depicted, almost underplayed, was, as a result, in sharper focus and far more touching than he might have been had Foulds had gone cheaply for the drama of decline. Tennyson, muttering and muffled in a haze of smoke, is, I felt, realistically portrayed because of this very murkiness: he is known to the characters even before his arrival – a celebrity – yet none of the characters who try to, actually get to know the man beyond the (protective/defensive?) haze. The knowing of self, the knowing of others and the ephemeral nature of these ‘knowings’ are certainly placed right at the heart of this novel but they are not thrown at us – Foulds trusts us to discover these.
    All the possibilities for a ‘Victorian’ style were there – the domestic and the industrial, Hannah’s visit to Alfred, the ‘gypsy’ episodes, the horror of the asylum scenes, the mannered party – and Foulds could easily have written these at length pointing heavy-handedly towards the Victorian novel – instead, by avoiding this, he gives the reader (dare I say it? Yes, I do!) the ‘quickening’ of these scenes and allows us to make the full development of what is really going on in each one ourselves. We can do this quite comfortably because the characters are clearly delineated; the settings and events precise; the descriptions (apart from that sky on the opening page) are intricately worked but not overdone.
    I think Foulds gives his reader just enough of what we need to work through the maze but more, if we wish, to extend it.

  2. Adam Roberts said,

    Very interesting response to the novel, Selena. I like your emphasis on the mazy, and hazy (all that Tennysonian smoke, you’re right) aspects of the piece. Your perspective is closer to Dan Hartland’s.

    The prize winner is announced tonight: the bookies are going with Hilary Mantel, but I have a gut-feeling that Foulds might be in with a chance.

  3. Adam Roberts said,

    One more addendum, here: I wrote a piece for the OUP blog on Tennyson’s appearances in this novel, which you might find interesting.

    • Selena Collins said,

      The extracts from the letters make interesting reading. So much reading already (not a bad ‘problem’ to have, though) and now I want to find out more about Tennyson I know very little about him – is ‘The Unquiet’ biography you refer to a good place to begin?

      • Adam Roberts said,

        The Unquiet Heart book is detailed and in many ways a standard work; but a little stodgy. If you know very little Ricks’s book on Tennyson, or Sinfield’s critical study, are probably better places to begin.

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