Epping Forest, 1840. The poet John Clare, once admired by the critics but now out of favour and struggling with alcohol and mental disturbance, is incarcerated in an asylum, High Beach. At the same time, the young Alfred Tennyson moves in nearby: his brother Septimus, suffering from melancholia, is also a patient at the asylum. Matthew Allen, the charismatic asylum owner, has recurring financial worries, having already been imprisoned for debt earlier in his life. He hopes to solve these problems by persuading investors, the Tennyson brothers included, to support an ill-fated scheme.
Beyond the walls are all that Clare longs for: the beauty of the natural world, home, and the possibility of reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Mary, and his wife, Patty. Outside is also the world of the gypsies whom Clare encounters on brief excursions. The closed world of High Beach asylum is vividly depicted – the travails of individual patients, the mad with ‘their frantic, tunnelling logic, their sorrow, their hopelessness and aggression and indecencies’, as well as the hopes and aspirations of Allen and his wife and family. At the centre is Clare’s own fall into madness and the delusions that convince him he is Byron, or prize-fighter Jack Randall, or even Robinson Crusoe. At the end of the book, Clare escapes and struggles homewards towards his village of Helpston, not knowing that Mary has died in his absence.