In his well-known essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the subject of one of Peter Ackroyd’s four previous books, T. S. Eliot: A Life (1984), sets forth the two central obsessions of the literary modernists: the impersonalism (or impersonations) of the writer and the interdependence and interpenetration of past and present, or more specifically, the ways in which the past influences the present and the present influences the past. These same obsessions figure prominently in Ackroyd’s third and most emphatically postmodern novel, Chatterton, as they do in his two earlier ones, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and the archly parodic Hawksmoor (1985). The impersonation that plays so important a role in T. S. Eliot’s theory—and, according to Ackroyd, in Eliot’s life—plays an equally important role in Ackroyd’s Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession (1979). Chatterton is itself a literary impersonation, a kind of transvestite novel: a mystery novel, a literary biography, and an English comedy, at once wildly comical and deadly serious, light yet obsessive. In its own highly readable way, it manages to raise virtually all the twentieth century’s most problematic and insistent literary questions—the existence of the text as object or mirror or sign, and the writer as authority and presence or as that absence or void that the reader is expected to fill. In the guise of a very old-fashioned work ostensibly about the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton, Ackroyd’s novel proves decidedly contemporary.
The event which starts the novel in motion is Charles Wychwood’s acquisition of a mysterious painting and his subsequent “discovery” that, contrary to received literary history, Thomas Chatterton did not die in 1770, a suicide at age eighteen. Instead, he lived on long after faking his own death, writing many of the finest poems of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Attributed to William Blake, William Wordsworth, and others, these works were in fact composed by Chatterton, master forger and Romantic genius. The fact that Charles is a poet manqué—author of a book of photocopied sheets that he and his wife Vivien have stapled together and left with local booksellers—complicates the matter insofar as it turns his literary sleuthing into a kind of comic psychodrama, starring himself as Chatterton. Charles’s obsession first with the painting and then with Chatterton may indicate his having uncovered something important, in effect the literary coup of the century. Then again, it may simply reflect his desire to procrastinate in the writing of the long poem on which he was supposed to be working, with the encouragement and financial support of his too-maternal wife. Is Charles fooling himself? Is he a case of arrested development, a true believer in the Romantic myth which Chatterton represents even though he lives in the age of postmodernist irony? Are his intimations of immortality the real thing or are they delusions, and if they are delusions do they derive from his own Romantic aspirations or from the undiagnosed brain tumor that will soon kill him? If, as Charles likes to say, “there are no rules,” then “everything is possible,” including Charles’s genius, Chatterton’s unrivaled greatness, and Ackroyd’s novel.
Charles’s capacity for self-deception may be no greater than the reader’s own gullibility, which Ackroyd both encourages and undermines. When the popular novelist Harriet Scrope attributes to Charles words she knows come from a book review, “that reality is the invention of unimaginative people,” Charles, hired to ghostwrite her memoirs, is duly flattered, which is to say duped. Yet her words are in a way his, for they do accurately represent his own view. If “everyone needs stories,” as Charles says to his wife, and if “everything is made up,” as Harriet claims, and if history is, as Harriet believes, “the one thing we have to make up for ourselves,” then the proliferation of truths, interpretations, and stories which Chatterton at once encourages and questions may prove the most necessary of human activities. Furthermore, the storyteller, the novelist, may be the most representative man insofar as the need to indulge in stories is coupled with the need to resist them, or rather to resist the finality of any one story, of any one interpretation.
Wiping the mysterious painting with a damp cloth, Charles seems to complete it, but his act is, unknown to himself, a paradoxical one, for what Charles does is to complete the painting by restoring it to its original state, freed of dirt and grime. Yet even this act is ironic. His act restores only the topmost image of a painting that much later is discovered to be less a portrait than a palimpsest, as well as a mirror which reflects the viewer’s own image. The novel’s title is a sign of its own interpretive multiplicity. It signifies the historical figure Thomas Chatterton, or more specifically the myth and mystery he represents. Chatterton is also, however, the title of another painting, completed by Henry Wallis in 1856, one which hangs in London’s Tate Gallery and which figures prominently in the imaginations of Charles, his son Edward, and the reader, (for whom the painting is conveniently reproduced on the novel’s dust jacket). Wallis’ painting exists in the novel (as it does on the dust jacket) in reproduction—reproduced by the printer and by Ackroyd’s words and in Charles’s and the reader’s imaginative interpretations of it and of the man whom the painted figure is presumed to represent. This figure is not the man as he actually was (this being...
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