Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Tear Drops on the Book I Read:" John Clare's Reading in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, 1841-1864

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Tear Drops on the Book I Read:" John Clare's Reading in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, 1841-1864

Article excerpt

Evidence of John Clare's reading in his early life is recorded in autobiographical accounts, correspondence from the 1820s and 30s, and the journal he kept from September, 1824, to September, 1825. Evidence is scarce, however, from December, 1841, until his death in May, 1864, the period when he was confined at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Little correspondence survives; Clare's notebooks are confused; and most information is second-hand.

Although Clare produced a significant amount of poetry during this Asylum period, his mental state, physical isolation, and his own complaints convey the impression that he was cut off from books and the literary world. In July, 1850, for example, he complained, "I am without Books or Amusements of any kind" (Storey 680). His personal library of over 400 volumes, consisting mainly of donations from friends and admirers, were at the family cottage in Northborough. However, J.N., who visited Clare in the 1840s observed in John Clare, the Peasant Poet (1844), "he has an unlimited supply of books, and is never without one in his pocket," and William Jerom, a fellow patient, recorded that his coat was usually bulging with books and newspapers. According to P. R. Nesbitt, Superintendent of the Asylum from 1845-1860, Clare "was never more at home and at his ease than when the productions of one of the time-honoured bards was placed in his hands" (qtd. in Blunden 41). The early standard biographies such as Martin's Life (1865) Cherry's Life and Remains (1873), and the Tibbles' Life (1932) gloss over the Northampton period, Clare's life in the Asylum relegated to a short chapter. Grigson in Poems of John Clare's Madness (1949), and Chilcott, however, consider the period around 1844 as Clare's "annus mirabilis" (177). Clare's correspondence and the archives of the Asylum and other local institutions reveal Clare's true literary life in Northampton.

The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum opened in 1838. In the inaugural Annual Report (1839), the Medical Superintendent, Thomas Pilchard, proudly announced his "gentle and considerate system," a policy of non-restraint which he adopted from the beginning. As part of a general liberalization of asylum regimes from the late 1830s onwards, many managers attempted to relieve the monotony of institutional life and provide stimulation for their patients. They promoted leisure and recreational pursuits as alternatives or supplements to work, and in several asylums established libraries. Dr. George Button, Superintendent at Dorset Asylum in the 1840s, explained: "An amusing volume often arrests the attention, and withdraws the mind from its morbid train of ideas, to others of a more healthful character, and thus proves a powerful auxiliary in tranquilizing the feelings" (qtd. in Smith 240-3). At Northampton, provision for reading was made early on John Plummer, recalling a visit to Clare in the Asylum in the early 1840s, noted that he was "reading a bulky volume which he had obtained from the extensive library belonging to the institution" (539). The Asylum's Report for 1841-2 recorded that "for the superior classes, newspapers and other periodicals are provided and a large number of books are supplied every week from the Mechanics' Institute and subscription libraries, which unitedly contain upwards of 10,000 volumes."

The Northampton Mechanics' Institute opened in 1833, its Rules outlined its aim of instructing workers in "the principles of the arts they practise, and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge." The first Mechanics' Institute had been established in London by George Birkbeck in 1824, and the movement spread rapidly into provincial towns and the countryside; by 1850 there were over 700 institutes around the country, with a total of 815,000 books in their libraries (Hudson vi-vii). The patrons included the 2nd Marquis of Northampton, the 3rd Earl Spencer and Sir William Wake (all of whom had been instrumental in setting up the Asylum). …

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