Chatterton

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339

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...

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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 irrecoverable) but the man as he came to be understood, or represented—first by the Romantics, then by Wallis, and finally by Charles and the reader, each adding interpretive layer to interpretive layer in a work that continues to appear merely and naïvely itself: picture rather than sign.

“A great Genius can affect anything, and I understood their Passions as soon as I imployed their Styles: it was not some cold Burlesque but rather—“. Read first by Charles and the reader as Thomas Chatterton’s own words from a recovered but presumably fragmentary manuscript, these lines are later exposed as having themselves been forged sometime after Chatterton’s death by his publisher, Samuel Joynson. Joynson, so the novel has it, turned against Chatterton after the post-humous publication of certain letters in which Chatterton spoke bitterly of Joynson. The publisher devised a plan to discredit Chatterton by forging the manuscript quoted above, in which Chatterton acknowledges having forged his own death. Rather than clearing up a mystery, however, this explanation further complicates matters, for what the novel implies (though nowhere states) is the possibility that the letters upon which Joynson based his decision to discredit Chatterton may have themselves been forged by the rival bookseller who published them, perhaps in order to discredit Joynson. In other words, Charles is right: Everything is possible.

If one of the questions raised by Chatterton, as well as by Chatterton, is “What is true?” then another, equally important and equally vexing, is “What is art?” or “What is the artist?” How is art to be distinguished from forgery and the artist from the forger? The modern debate over the political and ideological assumptions implicit within any given literary canon (recognized classics of world literature, for example, are for the most part written by white, male, Western authors) is not far removed from Ackroyd’s novel. The same may be said of other issues drawn from the critical debates of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s: Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory, structuralist and poststructuralist skepticism as to the existence of any individual talent whatsoever, and the problematic status of much contemporary art, including literary art, which increasingly takes the form of an “anxious object”—tentative, polyphonic, essentially and perhaps even entirely parodic. It is an art of forgery made in Chatterton’s own image. Speaking of Joseph Seymour, another of the novel’s many artists, the supposedly knowledgeable Sarah Tilt claims, “He’s such a recognisable artist. . . . Each work is unmistakably his.” Seymour’s late works, the ones Sarah likes most, were, however, all forged by Seymour’s assistant, after arthritis had left the “real” artist incapacitated. Following the success of her first novel, Harriet Scrope suffered a mental rather than physical paralysis, from which she escaped by plagiarizing the work of another novelist; borrowing his plots liberated her imagination.

Chatterton is, in fact, filled with stalled, baffled writers and artists: Charles (his poem), Harriet (first her novels, now her memoirs), Seymour (his paintings), Sarah (her Art of Death, already six years in the making), and even the nineteenth century writer George Meredith, the model for Wallis’ Chatterton, whose own stalled career was (in Ackroyd’s version) at least partly responsible for his wife’s running off with Wallis. The aesthetic crisis extends further, however. As yet another writer, Andrew Flint (currently writing a biography of Meredith) complains, there no longer seem to be any “standards to encourage permanence—only novelty.” Flint’s complaint is clearly something of a permanent feature in the world of art and literature, but in Chatterton the situation appears to have grown more critical as the gap between style and truth, mimesis and invention, widens, and the one between original and forgery narrows. Here, art and literature take on a self-referential life of their own, which, however obliquely, does manage to reconnect with a “real world” that, as it now seems, the reader must “forge” for himself.

Ackroyd’s method is, as Chatterton’s was, one of pastiche. Pastiche has become a dominant mode in the twentieth century, yet despite its rise it remains suspect, for it insists not only on its own derivativeness but indeed on the derivativeness of all art and on the seeming triumph of imitative technique over “imaginative exploration.” As Mrs. Meredith’s friend, Miss Slimmer, says of Chatterton’s poetry, “It is all pasticcio,” meaning that it is only pastiche and therefore merely parasitic. Unlike Charles, who literally devours the pages of the books he reads, the self-conscious Borgesian postmodernist pasticheur knows what he is doing and knows too the limitations as well as the very real possibilities of his chosen mode. He escapes the Romantics’ obsession with originality by practicing the art of bricolage. He does not complain, as Meredith does, “I never know what is mine any more,” for he understands, as the novel’s Chatterton does (at least according to what one old pamphlet says about him), that “original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which had never occurred before.”

The reader finds himself in much the same position, splicing together a workable and wholly provisional interpretation from the multiplicity of sources, stories, and parallels which the novel provides so overgenerously, including its own system of narrative causality. Following a brief biographical sketch of Thomas Chatterton, which in effect invites the reader to confuse fiction with history, the novel’s first part traces Charles’s acquisition of the painting, his discovery of the represented figure’s identity, and his subsequently solving the mystery surrounding Chatterton’s death. In the second section, the past—Chatterton’s as well as Wallis’ and Meredith’s—repeatedly interrupts the narrative present, and in the third section the two worlds and times intertwine, so much so that not only does the past seem to be relived in the present but the present is foreseen in the past as well. As the novel progresses, the comic elements become less noticeable, the supernatural and psychological more pronounced, until the reader takes over the role that death has forced Charles to abandon: that of the literary sleuth whose solution to the mystery comes to supplant or at least vie with history, accounting for Wallis’ Chatterton in new and unusual ways (Chatterton’s death, for example, was not a suicide but the result of a botched attempt to cure himself of the clap).

Two additional surprises remain—two additional mysteries to be solved. One is Ackroyd’s ability to evoke so much interest in and sympathy for pastiche characters whose delusions, actions, and even names (Merk, Slack, Slimmer, Scrope) suggest humorous condescension. The other is that Philip comes to take his friend Charles’s place both as Vivien’s husband and Edward’s father and as a writer. He now believes that he will be able to write his own novel in his own style, one that will deal with Charles’s Chatterton theory. As Philip comes to understand, although the painting and papers were fakes, the feelings they evoked in Charles were nevertheless real. Still, right as Philip may be, he seems no more so than Harriet Scrope, who chooses just as wisely to free herself of the mystery, preferring as she says, “to stay with the living for as long as possible.” Like novels by J. M. Coetzee (Foe, 1986) and Philip Roth (The Counterlife, 1986), Chatterton offers the reader a multiplicity of what must finally be read as irreconcilable stories. Chatterton concludes—appropriately enough—provisionally, with what Frank Kermode has termed “a sense of an ending,” leaving the reader precariously but necessarily balanced between belief and “clerkly skepticism,” sure of Ackroyd’s skill but perhaps doubtful whether his brilliant novel is to be taken seriously. That, one may conclude, is its art and its achievement.

Further Reading

The Atlantic. CCLXI, February, 1988, p. 86.

British Book News. August, 1987, p. 523.

Contemporary Review. CCLI, October, 1987, p. 213.

History Today. XXXVIII, January, 1988, p. 53.

Illustrated London News. CCLXXV, November, 1987, p. 91.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 96.

London Review of Books. IX, September 3, 1987, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 14, 1988, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, April 14, 1988, p. 15.

The New York Times. CXXXVII, December 31, 1987, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 17, 1988, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIII, February 8, 1988, p. 100.

Time. CXXXI, January 18, 1988, p. 65.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 11, 1987, p. 976.

Tribune Books. January 17, 1988, p. 6.

The Wall Street Journal. CCXII, January 19, 1988, p. 26.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

CHATTERTON is set simultaneously in three centuries. In modern London, a young poet, Charles Wychwood, suspects another “forgery”--a suicide faked by Chatterton to further his “ghostwriting” career. An aging novelist, Harriet Scrope, who has plagiarized several plots from obscure old novels, eccentrically schemes to “borrow” Wychwood’s research on the topic. Meanwhile, in 1856, the artist Henry Wallis paints his celebrated picture (now in the Tate Gallery) of young Chatterton lying dead. Wallis’ model is the then unknown novelist George Meredith, with whose wife the painter soon runs away. Finally, the living Chatterton also takes part in Ackroyd’s narrative, revealing another version of the facts.

Though widely separated in time, these characters often echo one another’s words and actions--an Ackroyd trademark--and seem to exert mutual influence. Ironically, the slowly dying Wychwood believes that he has evidence that Chatterton did not die. He, in turn, is comforted by Chatterton’s spirit. Meredith, posing as the dead poet for Wallis, gains the bitter life experience that turns him into a true poet. He is on the verge of suicide when Chatterton’s ghost appears and dissuades him. In the end, Chatterton, Meredith, and Wychwood, now all dead, join hands.

Ackroyd’s forte is imagined extension of actual historic situations, and this enables him in CHATTERTON to raise large questions that concern all eras--such as that of artistic (and personal) authenticity, and the nature of success and failure--while suggesting that the past is still a living force. These serious explorations, however, do not prevent the novel from delivering a liberal dose of comedy through some contemporary fiction’s most eccentric characters.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXI, February, 1988, p. 86.

British Book News. August, 1987, p. 523.

Contemporary Review. CCLI, October, 1987, p. 213.

History Today. XXXVIII, January, 1988, p. 53.

Illustrated London News. CCLXXV, November, 1987, p. 91.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 96.

London Review of Books. IX, September 3, 1987, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 14, 1988, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, April 14, 1988, p. 15.

The New York Times. CXXXVII, December 31, 1987, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 17, 1988, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIII, February 8, 1988, p. 100.

Time. CXXXI, January 18, 1988, p. 65.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 11, 1987, p. 976.

Tribune Books. January 17, 1988, p. 6.

The Wall Street Journal. CCXII, January 19, 1988, p. 26.

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