English Music

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2207

English Music is a work with a double structure. In its odd-numbered chapters we follow the development of Timothy Harcombe from childhood to manhood, opening with Timothy, now an old man, looking back on the much-altered scenes of his youth and reflecting on them. In the even-numbered chapters, by contrast,...

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English Music is a work with a double structure. In its odd-numbered chapters we follow the development of Timothy Harcombe from childhood to manhood, opening with Timothy, now an old man, looking back on the much-altered scenes of his youth and reflecting on them. In the even-numbered chapters, by contrast, we are repeatedly plunged into a succession of strange worlds in which the authors and the characters of English literature, or English culture more generally, come alive and appear to Timothy in visions.

The contrast between these two strands is striking on every level. Timothy’s life is unusual, but nevertheless drab if not dull. He has no mother, and has especially to begin with a particularly close relationship with his father, an undistinguished medium and healer practicing his trade among poor people in the back streets of London. Clement Harcombe uses his son in his business, and seems to treat the small boy Timothy is in the beginning almost as an adult, talking to him at an unusual level of sophistication. In spite of this close relationship, however, as the book develops Mr. Harcombe forms the habit of going off on his own affairs, leaving Timothy to be brought up in haphazard fashion by his grandparents, with further influences on him from members of the “Harcombe Circle,” those people, themselves rather undistinguished, who believe in his father’s powers. In this fashion Timothy grows up, goes to school, discovers that he too has unusual psychic powers of divination, finds a job in an art gallery, and in the end is caught up in World War II. It is easier, however, to say what does not happen to Timothy than what does. He shows no career ambition, makes no use of his psychic powers, remains sexually uninitiated, and from an early age seems more interested in remembering the past than in experiencing the future.

Color and life are added to the novel by the strange events interposed in odd- numbered chapters. These are easier to describe than to analyze. At the start of chap- ter 2, for example, the reader is told that as Timothy slept he “must have dreamed a dream”—an allusion to the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684), by John Bunyan. But the figure whom Timothy sees running toward him is not Bunyan’s Christian but a young girl in a white dress. “Why,” says Timothy to himself, “that’s Alice,” the heroine evidently not of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress but of Alice in Wonderland (1865-1871) by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Dodgson. Yet what Alice says as she runs past him is the cry of Bunyan’s Christian, “How shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity,” while when Christian appears (as he does on the same page), he is muttering a version of the White Rabbit’s complaint from Wonderland, “Won’t He be savage if I’m too late!” Why cross Bunyan with Carroll, Alice with Christian? At first sight they seem to have nothing to do with each other at all, the one pair preoccupied with questions of religion, predestination, and Hell, the other pair part of a child’s fable. Yet as this chapter progresses, one realizes that both stories are for one thing nonrealistic in rather similar ways. Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, Alice finds herself almost drowning in her own tears. They are also both works containing a deep anxiety, overt in the case of Bunyan, covert in the case of Carroll. They feel similar, even if the authors come from almost totally different backgrounds and address different issues.

In brief, this is the mode of the succession of visions which Timothy sees through his young life. The second of them, chapter 4, is a collage of snippets from the works of Charles Dickens, in which Dickens himself mingles with his characters and with quotations from Great Expectations (1860-1861), David Copperfield (1849-1850), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and other novels. In chapter 6 we run into Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in chapter 8 we find both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, from the works by Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift respectively, while the five further “visionary” chapters present allusions to or rewritings of works by a whole string of authors, including William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Thomas Malory, and a dozen others, some relatively little known. There is a certain sense that as the novel proceeds we are going back further in time, in contrast to the movement forward of Timothy’s own life, but this never reaches total consistency. If there is a rule governing appearances, it is one of unexpectedness, connection by feel or style (as with Alice and Christian) rather than formal literary history.

What is the point of this proceeding (a question which Timothy asks himself more than once)? The answer perhaps lies in the phrase “English music,” employed repeatedly in the novel. Timothy’s father, with his lecturing style of conversation, uses the phrase to mean not only English music and its history, but also English literature, history, and painting. Why call all these things music? One answer suggested is that all of them are capable of being transposed without undergoing fundamental change. The same tune can be played by different instruments. Or it can be made into a series of variations. Or it can be absorbed into some other work. In each case it will remain in a sense “the same,” while being discernibly different, and an educated listener will be conscious at once of the original tune and the way that it has been altered. All this is evidently true of Ackroyd’s “variations” on the themes he borrows from his predecessors in English literature.

There is also a biological aspect to the idea of “English music,” through the notion of descendants and relationships. Timothy, as one might expect from a boy with no strong familial roots, is fascinated by the idea of ancestry, of recognizing himself in his grandparents and in the unknown generations beyond them. His name is Har- combe. But his grandparents live in Upper Harford. Could the element Har- in both indicate some connection? Have the Harcombes always lived in Harford? In England, where a high proportion of the population carries surnames derived from places, and where the places are often identifiable, the speculation is not especially fanciful. Yet it is extended to something close to fancy in chapter 6, where one character discusses Sherlock Holmes, and wonders aloud whether there is any connection between the -lock in the detective’s name and the English philosopher John Locke. The suggestion has never been made before; Locke and Conan Doyle are normally kept in entirely separate literary compartments, and Conan Doyle is at the very least most unlikely to have thought of the philosopher when creating his great detective. And yet there is a certain similarity, as with Alice and Christian. Both the author and the character were dedicated to reason, both believed firmly in the powers of analysis; perhaps one could say that they share a certain cold-bloodedness. Is “English music” then not, as another character suggests, rather like the English language, capable of continuous historical change without losing an underlying unity, and perhaps like English faces, all different but bearing the mark of some original gene pool?

At this point one could say that at least one strand of Ackroyd’s intention is visible. He means to create a sense of English “ethnicity.” This is in itself a slightly paradoxical goal, for the reason that English culture generally, like the English language, has through its transference to North America and the subsequent dominance of American culture, become in a way common to the entire developed world. Charles Dickens is read from Hong Kong to Vladivostok. English-language “pop music” is familiar the world over. Even the English Victorian gentleman’s regulation dress of suit-coat, trousers, shirt and tie is as obligatory for business in Tokyo as in London or New York. In this process the sense of “ethnicity,” of culture being the particular possession of a group or nation, has vanished. One might say that someone in a tartan kilt is asserting Scottishness. Someone in a Savile Row suit, however, is asserting nothing, except maybe wealth. Ackroyd wants to regain the sense of Englishness. He does this by stressing the quirky, the visionary, and above all the sense of a simultaneous historical continuity and individual eccentricity that he regards as typically English.

In this the idea of music has a special place. English culture is not famous for its music (or at least not until very modern times, with which Ackroyd does not deal). If one were to rate the European nations for their contribution to classical music, England would be well behind Germany, Italy, and probably France, at least. Nevertheless, in chapter 10 Ackroyd centers a whole scene on William Byrd, a composer now almost forgotten, but the originator of the madrigal, a distinctive English form. At the end of the chapter, the elderly Byrd and his disciples break into a string of traditional songs and dances, at least a score of titles being given from “Lady, Lie Near Me” to “Jack Pudding” and “Chirping of the Lark.” The image they create is of a lost pastoral England full of a kind of folk culture at once innocent and skillful. This is what England has to offer, and this is what has been lost in the imperial and postimperial expansion from Byrd’s lifetime to Timothy Harcombe’s.

A doubt which one may have about this portrayal is its heavy reliance on nostalgia. English culture is often accused of living in the past, and Timothy Harcombe suffers the same accusation. In both cases it seems self-evidently true, and in both cases the risk is that by living in the past one finds it impossible to move forward into the future. Timothy’s sterility on several levels is particularly marked when one remembers that he is supposed to have paranormal powers. He is capable of seeing a malevolent spirit afflicting a woman whom his father is trying to heal. He is capable of reading his grandfather’s mind unerringly. Given these powers, one would think it only natural that a normal person would try to use them, well or badly, not simply accepting and leaving them. Yet this is what Timothy does. He is more interested in understanding than in acting, remains passive under almost all provocations. Arguably he is there only as an eye, as a thread on which to hang the many visions and juxtapositions of Ackroyd’s history. Arguably he is also there, in “postmodernist” style, to call up ideas about the involvement of the observer with the observed, the author with the character—for in English Music, as has been said, characters are liable to escape from their books and fraternize with their authors. Is Sherlock Holmes John Locke come back? Is Timothy Harcombe a reincarnation perhaps of William Blake, greatest of English visionaries and both a poet in his own right and an illustrator of others, Bunyan included? If so, his vision of twentieth century London, like a transposed tune, both hints at the London of Blake 150 years before and shows its own changes; at the very start of the novel Timothy is staring at places he once knew and observing how unrecognizably changed they are, while still being, of course, “the same place.”

These considerations may help one to understand English Music intellectually, and may encourage one also to admire Ackroyd’s skill in creating the feel and the language of many periods and many different authors; in all his books to date he has showed great skill in the writing of pastiche, and a cultivated historical sense. English Music is, however, not an easy book to approach, demanding for one thing the ability to recognize many references and allusions without warning or explanation. There is also a strong feeling in it of private reference, of complication for its own sake. Above all one has to say that the central story, and the central character, have been made quite deliberately bland, small-scale, and uninteresting. In this Ackroyd is following in a distinguished tradition of ironic writing, which takes in works as diverse as James Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922 (the work of an Irishman), or Marcel Proust’s deeply nostalgic À la recherche du temps perdu, whose English title Remembrance of Things Past (translated 1922-1931) would do excellently as a subtitle for Ackroyd’s work. Nevertheless, Timothy Harcombe remains a shadowy and unmemorable character. Readers of Ackroyd’s novel must draw their inspiration from the interaction of a complex background in the past and a drab foreground in the present.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. November 1, 1992, XIV, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 92.

London Review of Books. XIV, July 9, 1992, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 25, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. V, June 5, 1992, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, November 23, 1992, p. 142.

The Observer. May 24, 1992, p. 60.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1992, p. 29.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, October 18, 1992, p. 7.

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