Written by John MacKenna
Review by Fenella Miller

This is a new edition of a book that was published in 1994. It recounts the life of John Clare, poet and naturalist, and is told from the viewpoint of his sister Sophy; his wife Patty; a would-be patron, Lady Kettering, his daughter Eliza; and finally through a few pages from Clare himself.

MacKenna brings the fens of the 19th century vividly to life. The reader experiences the misery John Clare feels as the fields and woods he loved so much are enclosed. He is the son of a field worker, but his mother arranges for him and his sister to be educated. Clare suffered from epilepsy in his youth, and when he suffers a fit in public his sister Sophy and his friend Richard take care of him. This illness already sets him apart from his peers, and his determination to become a published poet make him more of an oddity. His lifelong obsession with a school friend, Mary Joyce, also influences his life.

This is a beautifully written book, the prose reflecting Clare’s poetry: the language is authentic, and the melancholy and insanity that followed Clare into his adult life is poignantly portrayed. MacKenna takes you into the minds of the characters.  It is not always comfortable reading, but brilliantly done and true to the period.

I knew little about John Clare before I read this book, but I was so riveted by his story that I am going to search out his poetry and read it. I shall also immediately seek out other titles by John MacKenna. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is a masterpiece, and I was held to the very last page.