‘A Name Writ in Water’ by Richard Boden is a beautifully written, touching novel, which provides the reader with an un-romanticised picture of the Romantic poet, John Keats’, who is embarked on a final voyage to Italy in search of a cure for his consumption. Based on extensive research, it never falls into the trap of becoming a mere biographical account of listed events and places. Rather, it conducts the reader on an imaginative journey, through the personal experiences of its characters, and into another believable historical time. This is a debut of impressive quality that combines a mastery of style and vocabulary with an impressive insight into human nature.
The plot evolves around four main characters all of whom carry with them an emotional baggage from the life they have left behind: Keats, his unconsummated love for Fanny Braun; Joseph Severn, Keats’ companion, the disapproval of his father; the seventeen year old, consumptive, Miss Cotterell, a yearning for a life she will never have; and Mrs Pidgeon, Miss Cotterell’s chaperon, embittered by the loss of a war of her war-damaged husband and reliance on her brother’s demanding charity. Each regards Italy, with varying degrees of optimism, as a possible new beginning – a cure, an artistic outlet, an opportunity for an independent life. But far from their calculations are the rigours of the journey before them and the personal suffering and revelation those rigours will reveal.
‘Later, there’s another voice drowning his hammering heart. It’s coming from him all right, in fits of screeches – ‘Mistake! Mistake!’ but he can’t hear a thing, crouched in his disbelief.’
‘Mrs Pidgeon shins to her bunk at the top … And the words she comes out with, the English. All pretence has gone.’
‘She walks up and down like a ghost, a pained ghost who knows it can’t frighten or haunt, doomed to walk ever thus. Above her, the stars go on being shameless, conducting their lovemaking in all the dark places.’
‘Clinker-build your heart, John Keats, caulk yourself against its seeping sentiments, tar its whorish pores.’
Apart from this depiction of the individual psychologies, Boden sketches a broader insight into human nature – the whims, the petulance, the fears, the desire, the delusion. And never are these emotions separated from or unaffected by the milieu or the carefully created and described ambience, in which they occur. They are staged, for example, inside the creaking claustrophobia of a ship’s cabin, on a sweep of beach, or within an opulent but impersonal room, and haunted ever by the ghost of the English class system. And although the plot centres round Keats’ and his final voyage to Italy, there are no heroes and no heroines to be found here; only four human beings, accompanied by glimpses of their former lives, on a long sea voyage, struggling to make sense of the circumstance in which they find themselves.
‘Day after day, she stares at the same predicament: what to do with herself, what to do about herself. Day after day, the same succession of dirty clouds shoulder-charging the sky, threatening, the sea continuing rough.’
The style of the writing is taut, often poetic and, like poetry itself, rarely wastes a word. The sentence structure is modern, but through an extensive vocabulary, creative selection of imagery and descriptive detail, Boden superbly conjures the early nineteenth century in a way that is both immediate to our comprehension but alien to experience. An effect that is heightened by his frequent use of personification to transform and personalise the forces of nature, in true Romantic tradition:
as the Thames which – ‘At high-tide … wobbles its grey jowls from side to side, as if twitching in its spittle-lipped sleep.’
or the storm off Brighton which – ‘Clenching and darkening as it approaches, like a pang of jealousy … churns an flexes and wrestles with the burden of itself.’
or the sea off the coast of Portugal which – ‘… which sidles up to him, full of itself, swollen and insinuating … thrashing about, like someone who can’t settle, sprawling openly in damp, salty sheets doing its old-fashioned, old harlots tease.’
Whether you are an admirer of Keats poetry or not, or know little of the man or his work, this fine and originally constructed book, through the undoubted inventiveness of its writing and precision of observation, has the immediacy and power to engage. This is an internal as well as an external voyage to another time and another land. Though on the surface it may sound gruelling or unpromising with a brooding, often irascible, physically suffering poet at its heart, it is not. This is a debut of absorbing quality and deep enjoyment.