Peter Ackroyd Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Peter Ackroyd 1949-

English novelist, biographer, nonfiction writer, critic, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ackroyd's career through 2000.

A leading practitioner of “British historiographic metafiction,” Peter Ackroyd has built his reputation upon a growing number of challenging novels and significant literary biographies that highlight the interplay of historical time, literary influence, and the problem of authorship. Ackroyd's unique literary vision is marked by a belief that writers find their voice through emulating writers of the past, a corollary to his theory that writing emanates not from life experiences, but from the writing that has preceded it. Accordingly, obscure references to English literature and shifting perspectives among author, protagonist, and other fictional and non-fictional characters abound in his texts. In acclaimed biographies such as T. S. Eliot: A Life (1984) and Dickens (1990), and novels such as Hawksmoor (1986), Chatterton (1988), and Milton in America: A Novel (1997), Ackroyd celebrates English culture and merges fact and fiction.

Biographical Information

The only child of parents who separated early in his life, Ackroyd was raised by his mother, Audrey Whiteside Ackroyd, and his maternal grandparents in a public housing project in West London. The family was Roman Catholic, and Ackroyd's religious heritage influenced both his critical work and his fiction. Early in life he was determined to escape his working-class origins, and at age ten he received a scholarship to attend a Catholic school in Ealing, Saint Benedict's. In 1968 he matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1971 with a double first in English literature. He then spent two years as a Mellon fellow at Yale University, where he was influenced by the avant-garde poetry of John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Ackroyd's early ambition was to be a poet, and his first published works, Ouch (1971) and London Lickpenny (1973), were volumes of poetry. While at Yale, Ackroyd produced Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism (1976), a literary manifesto that established him as an early proponent of postmodernism among his generation of writers. Upon his return to London, Ackroyd was hired as a literary editor for Spectator magazine. During this time, he produced Ezra Pound and His World (1980), the first of several large biographies of noted English authors. After eight years with Spectator Ackroyd resigned to devote himself to a full-time writing career. He has received many honors for his work, including the Somerset Maugham award for The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983); the Heinemann award for nonfiction from the Royal Society of Literature for T. S. Eliot: A Life; and the Prix Goncourt, the Whitbread award, and the fiction prize from the Guardian, all for Hawksmoor. In addition, Chatterton was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. Ackroyd has since served as the chief book reviewer for the London Times, a position he has maintained while producing an extensive body of work, nearly one book a year since 1978. Ackroyd acknowledged that his rigorous work schedule contributed to the massive heart attack he suffered in 1999.

Major Works

Most of Ackroyd's prodigious body of work resides in the realm of historiographic metafiction—an experimental, postmodern technique that blurs distinctions between imagination and historical fact. In particular, Ackroyd's prose explores the convergence of past and present time, and human lives associated with a place—generally London—through successive centuries. In The Great Fire of London (1982) Ackroyd began the practice of merging fact and imagination and traversing time through characters and plot. A skilled mimic, Ackroyd identifies strongly with various literary figures. This is especially evident in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, a novel purporting to be Wilde's autobiographical account of the last months of his life in exile in Paris. Ackroyd captures Wilde's voice, wit, and persona, offering insight into the author's psyche. Hawksmoor is perhaps the most successful example of Ackroyd's literary approach. Bold and structurally innovative, the novel transcends time, place, and even characters themselves in a plot that moves between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Historically, Nicholas Hawksmoor designed several well-known churches in London and lived a comfortable, cultured life. In Ackroyd's book, however, the architect becomes Nicholas Dyer, a Satanist, and the character named Hawksmoor is a twentieth-century detective attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders taking place in the very churches that the real-life architect Hawksmoor constructed two hundred years earlier. It is learned that the evil Dyer sacrificed an innocent young boy on the foundation of every church he created, and the modern murders appear to be connected to these earlier ones. The novel illustrates the similarities between the two protagonists and examines universal themes involving death and regeneration.

Ackroyd's Chatterton posits that Thomas Chatterton, the famed eighteenth-century faker of medieval texts, did not commit suicide at age seventeen; rather he fabricated his own death and survived to continue his fraudulent production of antique manuscripts. Ackroyd plays with the ideas of fraud and plagiarism, littering the plot with deceptions at every turn. In the course of the narration, Ackroyd exploits opportunities to examine themes important to him: the cyclical nature of history, the cross-genre aesthetic, and real and imagined people who both transform and are connected through time. The novel English Music (1992) contains two distinct narratives: a straightforward story about the early life of protagonist Timothy Harcombe during the 1920s and a series of visions involving encounters with various literary and historical figures. Presented in alternating chapters, Timothy's childhood and psychic leaps serve to evoke the distinct legacy and grandeur of English culture. The House of Doctor Dee (1993) mixes ghosts and images of a past historical figure with an imperfectly realized character in the present who stumbles back and forth in time. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), published in the United States as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders (1995), features multiple narratives set in Ackroyd's favored locale, a squalid area of London. The narrative threads include the text of the trial of Cree, her own interior monologue, her husband's diary, and remarks by an omniscient observer. Milton in America places the revered poet in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, where he engages in various adventures with both settlers and Indians. A work of imagined history, Milton in America carries Ackroyd's tendency to mingle fact and fiction to an extreme. Rather than staying in London following the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, as the real Milton did, Ackroyd's creation sails for Massachusetts Colony with a Sancho Panza-like figure named Goosequill. Seemingly more puritanical than the Puritans themselves, Milton changes subtly following a sojourn in the wilderness with Native Americans. Milton's blindness is briefly healed, but then returns when he is shamed by having sexual relations with an Indian maiden. He returns to the Puritan settlement and conspires to start a holy war against a neighboring Roman Catholic village. The Milton of the novel effectively destroys a paradise, echoing the work of the historical Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost.

In his biographies, Ackroyd approaches his subjects in unusual and sometimes controversial ways, which notably includes the insertion of fictional episodes, a radical departure from accepted academic practice. In T. S. Eliot, a biographical undertaking limited by the highly restrictive rules governing Eliot's estate, Ackroyd used papers held in various university archives to produce a work that reveals an understanding of the poet and his writings. Ackroyd's massive and unconventional biography of Charles Dickens approaches its formidable subject from the standpoint of a fellow creative spirit. Through the unusual practice of inserting imaginative interludes in the text, Ackroyd interweaves lucid critical commentary about Dickens's novels, evocations of Victorian London, and speculation about Dickens's life with exposition on the meaning of biography itself. In the work Ackroyd presents scenes of Dickens walking the streets of London with various characters from his fiction, examining landmarks, and conversing about events of the day. A companion volume, Introduction to Dickens (1991), contains useful, authoritative introductions to Dickens's novels. In Blake (1995), Ackroyd attempts to elucidate the life of William Blake, the famed poet, engraver, and painter. Ackroyd has also produced the biography The Life of Thomas More (1998); The Plato Papers: A Prophesy (2000), a work of speculative fiction; and a “biography” of his beloved home city, London: A Biography (2000).

Critical Reception

Considered a prolific, accomplished, and highly creative writer, Ackroyd's work is both admired and maligned by critics—evidence of his reputation as a literary experimenter. Ackroyd's work is difficult to classify, perhaps because the author himself is reluctant to distinguish among genres. While many praise Ackroyd's postmodern fiction for its complex plotting, frequent temporal shifts, obscure allusions, and wide cast of historical characters, others find incoherence, contrivance, and epistemological evasions in these same attributes. His best fiction, including works such as The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Hawksmoor, Chatterton, and Milton in America, display his favorite themes—the convergence and interaction of past and present time, literary mimicry, and the tenuous relationship between historical reality and fiction. Ackroyd's finest work is considered on a par with that of Salman Rushdie and Rose Tremain, while its transitional nature has been compared to the work of Lawrence Durrell and John Fowles. Ackroyd's body of work insists on the primacy of the English cultural tradition, which he defines as “Catholic, visionary, and transhistorical,” characteristics that echo throughout his writings. However, Ackroyd's nostalgic view of English culture—in particular, his suggestion in the widely-panned novel English Music that Englishness is historically and racially inherited—has been criticized by reviewers. Many reviewers have taken issue with Ackroyd's loose, interpretative approach to biography. His studies of Dickens, Blake, and More received mixed assessment, with most reviewers objecting to some aspect of Ackroyd's approach, typically his historical methodology or prose mannerisms. Yet, T. S. Eliot garnered acclaim for the inventive way Ackroyd handled the material and brought the poet to life, and Dickens was commended for its vivid, loving treatment of the great novelist. Even disdainful reviewers respect Ackroyd's wide knowledge, fertile imagination, and remarkable ability to evoke the settings and people of the past in convincing detail.