The Poet’s Wife by Judith Allnatt

For someone who doesn’t like historical novels, I’m reading an awful lot of them lately. When Aislinn at Transworld emailed and said she was wondering whether I’d like to review a new book about the wife of the poet John Clare a while ago, I jumped at the chance, as John Clare is one of my favourite poets. However, after it arrived, I realised what I’d done and my heart sunk; I’d saddled myself with a dreaded historical novel, complete with ye olde English speech and a spunky heroine. Nevertheless I had made a commitment to read it, so read it I did, with great reluctance and eye rolling book snobbery as I opened the front cover for the first time. As I discovered with my new best friend Anita Shreve a couple of weeks ago, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once I had got over the use of early Victorian speech, which initially jarred with me, as Patty, Clare’s wife, comes across as such a modern, fresh character, I got sucked into this wonderful novel and I didn’t want to finish. It just goes to show; not all historical novels are equal!

Judith Allnatt has written an account, based on the facts of John and his wife Patty’s lives, of the period when John, in his mid forties, returns from four years in an asylum in Essex, and, still delusional and mentally ill, attempts to fit back into normal life. Patty, who has endured terrible hardship and loneliness during John’s absence, bringing up their six children alone and struggling to make ends meet, longs for John to get well and become the man she loved again. However, John is convinced that he has another wife, his childhood sweetheart Mary, and despite Patty’s repeated insistences that she is dead, John persists in fantasising about his ‘other’ wife and family, and it is clear that John has no love for Patty in his heart. It emerges that John has slept with other women while away at the asylum, and he keeps trying to escape across the fields to the nearby village that used to be Mary’s home.  Devastated by John’s faithlessness and desire for the perfect Mary, Patty throws herself into the work of the home, caring for their children, trying to earn money, seeking to make life as comfortable as possible, and help lead John back to health, and to her.

Their life, in a Northamptonshire village in the early 19th century, is hard. The Clares are relative newcomers to their village, and and are disliked by the villagers. Patty has few friends and little external support, which she desperately needs, especially as John can offer her nothing in the way of affection or advice. They have no money and John won’t ask his old aristocratic patrons for any out of pride, leaving it up to Patty, their elder sons and John’s elderly father Parker to do what they can to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. To make matters worse, the Clare’s elder daughter Anna has just been married to the local dandy Sefton, who their second daughter, Eliza, has had an affair with and still loves, leading to strife between the sisters and even more worry for Patty. As John’s mental state gets worse and Patty becomes increasingly short tempered with him, life becomes unbearable, and despite her desire to keep him at home, she is forced to admit that perhaps John needs to go back to the asylum.

This is such a wonderful book because Judith Allnatt manages to draw you completely into the world of the Clares. It is a small life, with few pleasures or events, but it is filled with all of the concerns, worries and small joys of family life. Patty is a terrific woman; strong, courageous, and feisty. She loves John and their children with a passion, and is determined to make the best of things for them, sacrificing her own needs for their good. John is a sad character, intelligent, dynamic, tortured; on rare occasions glimpses of his brilliant, fun and caring true self come through, and it is then that you feel Patty’s pain at all she has lost. It is so evocative of the period and beautifully written; I so enjoyed it and I know want to read more about John and Patty’s life together. Jonathan Bate’s biography is supposed to be excellent and is what Judith Allnatt based her book on.

I am now off to pack for my flight to Cape Town this afternoon; I like to do things last minute! I am feeling very nervous as I have never flown solo before and I have to change planes in Istanbul which I am worried I will manage to muck up somehow and do a Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2, ending up on a plane to somewhere else entirely! As such I am packing lots of comfort reading for my two 18 hour journeys, which I hope will help me to keep calm. I am taking my collections of Nancy Mitford novels, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, amongst others. Hopefully they will keep me entertained, and take my mind off the flight!

See you all in two weeks!

12 comments

  1. Seeing this book on your sidebar the other day, I checked with my library to see if we had a copy on order…we don’t, sigh. Reading the synopsis I knew that I would like it, reading your review I’m quite sure that I will love it! The cover art doesn’t seem to match the era though, small detail and perhaps it’s just me.

    Have the most wonderful time on your trip, Rachel!! Can’t wait to hear all about your travels. Perhaps you’ll have a very dashing male seat partner and won’t manage to get through your lovely books during your flights!

  2. The book sounds wonderful, but that cover makes it look like some “female empowerment” novel from the 1970s: Look, she wears macrame vests and maxi-skirts and runs through the fields with her child. Very odd juxtaposition.

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