Peter Ackroyd Essay - Critical Essays

Ackroyd, Peter


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.

Principal Works

Ouch (poetry) 1971

London Lickpenny (poetry) 1973

Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism (criticism) 1976

Country Life (poetry) 1978

Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of An Obsession (nonfiction) 1979

Ezra Pound and His World (biography) 1980; published as Ezra Pound, 1987

The Great Fire of London (novel) 1982

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (novel) 1983

T. S. Eliot: A Life (biography) 1984

Hawksmoor (novel) 1986

The Diversions of Purley...

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Joseph Rykwert (review date July 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Hawksmoor, in Art in America, Vol. 74, July, 1986, pp. 11, 13.

[In the following review of Hawksmoor, Rykwert praises Ackroyd's literary skill, but finds flaws in the novel's historical details.]

Christchurch, Spitalfields: St George-in-the-East; St Anne’s, Limehouse; St Mary Woolnoth; St George, Bloomsbury; Little St Hugh, Moorfields—18th-century architecture buffs would expect the first five of these buildings to figure importantly in any book called Hawksmoor, but not the last one. The first five are among the masterpieces of Nicholas Hawksmoor (whom I think the greatest of all English architects). The last church is a...

(The entire section is 1660 words.)

Michele Roberts (review date 11 September 1987)

SOURCE: “Marvellous Boys,” in New Statesman, September 11, 1987, pp. 27-8.

[In the following review of Chatterton, Roberts finds shortcomings in the dubious intellectual games and caricatures of Ackroyd's postmodern narrative.]

Just as Georgette Heyer may be said to have reinvented the late 18th century for several generations of modern romantics, so the poet-plagiarist Thomas Chatterton invented the mediaeval period for the early 19th-century Romantics. Finally, of course, he was exposed as a faker of texts, so now Peter Ackroyd offers this thriller-romance [Chatterton] about the quest of a modern poet-romantic to discover how and why Chatterton was...

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Peter Ackroyd with Amanda Smith (interview date 25 December 1987)

SOURCE: “PW Interviews Peter Ackroyd,” in Publisher's Weekly, December 25, 1987, pp. 59-60.

[In the following interview, Ackroyd discusses his literary career, his imaginative historical fiction, and the interrelationship between his work as a biographer and novelist.]

At 38, Peter Ackroyd has stakes planted in several literary camps. Ackroyd came to prominence four years ago with his biography of T. S. Eliot. Since then, his novel Hawksmoor—a dark, violent tale that slips between past and present, rendered partly in 18th century prose—has become a cult phenomenon in his native England. His new novel Chatterton—based in part on the life...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)

Michael Neve (review date January 1988)

SOURCE: “The Living Dead,” in History Today, Vol. 38, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 53-4.

[In the following review of Chatterton, Neve commends Ackroyd's commitment to “the limitless power of the imagination,” though he finds fault in the novel's historical skepticism.]

The novels of Peter Ackroyd pose interesting questions for readers of history, and for those trying to write works of historical imagination: in asking the question ‘what is history?’, Ackroyd answers in what might be called the modern way; it is the resurrection of the dead. That is to say, in thinking about Oscar Wilde, or Nicholas Hawksmoor, or Thomas Chatterton, Ackroyd as novelist...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

J. D. McClatchy (review date April 1989)

SOURCE: “Mask and Passions,” in Poetry, Vol. CLIV, No. 1, April, 1989, pp. 29-48.

[In the following excerpted review, McClatchy offers a negative assessment of Ackroyd's poetry in The Diversions of Purley and Other Poems.]

Peter Ackroyd’s The Diversions of Purley is, in effect, a Selected Poems, incorporating as it does work from his previous collections, London Lickpenny (1973) and Country Life (1978). Whatever his other accomplishments—and Mr. Ackroyd is a marvelous novelist and biographer—his career in poetry has gotten nowhere over the years, and this representative view of it makes no strong or lasting impression. Frankly, his heart...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Peter Firchow (review date Autumn 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Chatterton, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, p. 681.

[In the following review, Firchow offers a positive assessment of Chatterton.]

Peter Ackroyd is rapidly becoming the next novelist to watch. One sign of his newly acquired status is the appearance of Chatterton, his third novel, in a plush paperback edition featuring gushing blurbs from the New York Times, Time, and other watched places. This event has taken place more than a year after the book’s first publication in hardback and at about the same time as his most recent novel, First Light, is being hailed in triumph from London to New York to...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

John Sutherland (review date 27 September 1990)

SOURCE: “A Terrible Bad Cold,” in London Review of Books, September 27, 1990, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review of Dickens, Sutherland expresses reservations about Ackroyd's reconstruction and interpretation of Charles Dickens's life.]

In the manner of old Hollywood movies, biographies like to open at a terminal point and then flash back to the start of things. It is a device that stakes out the territory while creating a sense of overall shape—something that even famous lives lack in the day-to-day business of living. Fred Kaplan’s 1988 life of Dickens began with the vivid scene of his incinerating ‘every letter he owned not on a business matter’...

(The entire section is 3750 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: “The Exaggerator,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 301-08.

[In the following review of Dickens, Pritchard finds shortcomings in Ackroyd's “rhetorical habits” and the biography's contribution toward greater understanding of Charles Dickens.]

On his second reading tour of America in 1867–68, Dickens met Emerson, and although the sage of Concord was later assured by Dickens’ hosts that the novelist was a man of great cheerfulness and high spirits, Emerson demurred: “You see him quite wrong, evidently, and would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)

Laurence Lerner (review date 20 July 1991)

SOURCE: “The Long and Short of It,” in London Spectator, July 20, 1991, p. 32.

[In the following review, Lerner provides a brief assessment of Ackroyd's Introduction to Dickens.]

Literary biographers are naturally committed to the view that an author’s life provides the best context for understanding his work; and Peter Ackroyd has followed his huge biography of Dickens with a short volume [Introduction to Dickens] that claims to be both a condensed version of it and also a genuine original, and to put forward the argument for ‘connecting the life and the work’. What, we may ask, does this fine phrase mean? We have long known that Dickens courted Dora...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

James Buchan (review date 30 May 1992)

SOURCE: “The Relics of Learning,” in The Spectator, May 30, 1992, pp. 24-5.

[In the following unfavorable review of English Music, Buchan objects to Ackroyd's sentimental literary pastiche and the postmodern notion that originality is no longer possible.]

This novel starts well. A boy stands in the glare of gaslight on the wooden stage of an East End theatre, helping his father perform acts of faith healing. It is 1925 or thereabouts and the London air is crowded with the souls of the recent dead. Though he barely yet knows it, it is Timothy Harcombe, not the father he adores, who has the medium’s power of communication with the departed spirits.


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Brian Finney (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: “Peter Ackroyd, Postmodern Play and Chatterton,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 240-61.

[In the following essay, Finney provides an overview of Ackroyd's theoretical development and postmodern perspective—particularly his view of history, language, and authenticity, as revealed in his biographical works and fiction, notably Chatterton.]

Well known in Britain, less generally known in the United States, Peter Ackroyd is representative of a new breed of British novelists who can loosely be termed postmodernist. But, unlike their counterparts in the States, these British postmodernists do not necessarily cultivate...

(The entire section is 9430 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 5 June 1992)

SOURCE: “Fogey Heaven,” in New Statesman & Society, June 5, 1992, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review of English Music, Taylor finds irritating shortcomings in Ackroyd's didacticism and antiquarianism, but declines to pass final judgment on the novel.]

We read Peter Ackroyd’s fiction in rather the same way that the Victorian critic George Saintsbury read Anatole France: to find out what Peter Ackroyd has been reading. As one dense and allusive novel gives way to another, that task has become progressively more arduous.

The Great Fire of London and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, the early novels, were easy ones: a bit...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Chris Goodrich (review date 25 October 1992)

SOURCE: “Shadow Play,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, p. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Goodrich offers an unfavorable assessment of English Music.]

Peter Ackroyd, the English novelist and biographer, has published nearly a dozen books, among them Dickens: Life and Times, Chatterton, T. S. Eliot, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound. It’s not hard to see from this selected list that one of Ackroyd’s major concerns is the writer at work, or to believe that Ackroyd really means it when he says, as he did to The New York Times last year, that he’s only “a half-person, a shadow” when he’s not writing...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 23 November 1992)

SOURCE: “Peter Ackroyd's Music,” in The New Yorker, November 23, 1992, pp. 142-44.

[In the following review, Klinkenborg offers an unfavorable evaluation of English Music.]

In Peter Ackroyd’s sixth novel, English Music, a great thickness of remembered time lies over the English landscape like a new fall of snow. “Yes,” the book begins, “I have returned to the past.” This voice belongs to Timothy Harcombe, narrating the events of his youth from a cavern deep in old age in 1992. Timothy is the son of Clement Harcombe, a fake medium who has prospered in London during the nineteen-twenties by using Timothy’s (very real) psychic gifts, which the boy...

(The entire section is 1619 words.)

Michael Levenson (review date 18 January 1993)

SOURCE: “Tradition and the National Talent,” in The New Republic, January 18, 1993, pp. 29-32.

[In the following review, Levenson traces the development of Ackroyd's literary preoccupations and criticizes his conservative nostalgia for English history and cultural identity as presented in English Music.]

“She walked between the leafless poplars and, when a woman crossed her path, instinctively Evangeline looked away. She looked down at the ground. So I have no connection with the world, she thought.”

—Peter Ackroyd, First Light

“‘I never know where anything...

(The entire section is 3675 words.)

John Clute (review date 3 September 1993)

SOURCE: “Conjurors of Clerkenwell,” in New Statesman & Society, September 3, 1993, p. 39.

[In the following review, Clute offers a positive assessment of The House of Doctor Dee.]

At first glance, the title of Peter Ackroyd’s seventh novel, and the fourth to be named after a real person, seems to tell all. Indeed, it tells much. The House of Doctor Dee, as one might expect from memories of Hawksmoor, is a tale in which the past haunts the present, in which the London of some centuries ago lays its correspondences on the glass sepulchres of today, and in which a frail modern man seems doomed to fade into a shadow and parody of a dead but more...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Francis King (review date 11 September 1993)

SOURCE: “The Older the Better,” in Spectator, September 11, 1993, p. 27.

[In the following review, King concludes that The House of Doctor Dee is an “imperfect but always ingenious and arresting novel.”]

Scientist, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, antiquarian, theologian, possessor of the greatest English library of his time, John Dee was described by Frances A. Yates as ‘one of the most influential figures in the thought of Elizabethan England’. But parallel with this reputation as a scholar of outstanding achievement is one more sinister: that of a magus, in the manner of Pico della Mirandola or Henry Cornelius Agrippa.


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Gary Davenport (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: “Tradition and the English Novel Today,” in Sewanee Review, Spring, 1994, pp. 326-33.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport pans English Music for its condescending attitude and its contrived and unconvincing nature.]

Is there life after postmodernism? We may soon find out, for signs of the end are everywhere: the architects of poststructuralist criticism are now speaking of their creation in the past tense; academic impresarios are busy organizing conferences with names like “The Ends of Postmodernism”; and that once hierophantic term itself has taken sluttishly to appearing in television commercials and other temporal contexts—for example, a...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

John Peck (essay date September 1994)

SOURCE: “The Novels of Peter Ackroyd,” in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 5, September, 1994, pp. 442-52.

[In the following essay, Peck provides an overview of the major literary themes and postmodern narrative effects in Ackroyd's fiction, including extended analysis of Hawksmoor, Chatterton, and First Light. Peck offers an unfavorable assessment of English Music and contends that First Light represents Ackroyd's most challenging novel to date.]

The publication of Peter Ackroyd’s sixth novel, English Music (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1992), provides a good opportunity for an assessment of the nature of his fiction. It might be felt...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Nicholas Meyer (review date 25 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Goings-On in Old London,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 25, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Meyer offers a positive assessment of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.]

In the literary pantheon the mystery or detective novel is largely relegated to an inferior rung on the ladder. Yet isn’t “Oedipus the King,” when all’s said and done, a detective story, complete with “surprise” final twist ending in which the detective discovers to his horror that the murderer he has been searching for is himself? The fact that “Oedipus” is a great deal more than a detective story ought not to obscure the fact that it is also nothing less—and one,...

(The entire section is 1201 words.)

James Wood (review date 21 September 1995)

SOURCE: “Little Guignol,” in New York Review of Books, September 21, 1995, p. 49.

[In the following review, Wood offers an unfavorable evaluation of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and Ackroyd's fiction in general, which he views as contrived, overly derivative, and unsubtle.]

History, for Peter Ackroyd, is a puzzle for which the novel is a solution. The puzzle, broadly speaking, is coincidence; the solution, that there is no such thing as coincidence. For “Everything is part of everything … Everything is part of the pattern,” as a character in his novel First Light puts it. His novels tend to follow the outline of a sensational historical mystery...

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Susana Onega with Peter Ackroyd (interview date 23 November 1995)

SOURCE: “Interview with Peter Ackroyd,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 208-20.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on November 23, 1995, Ackroyd discusses his early life, his literary influences, his development from poet to novelist and biographer, and his views on English culture, creative imagination, and Catholicism.]

Born in London in 1949, of working-class background, Peter Ackroyd—poet, biographer, reviewer, and novelist—won international repute after the publication of his third novel, Hawksmoor (1985), which was awarded the Whitbread Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and was short-listed for...

(The entire section is 4917 words.)

Trev Broughton (review date 30 August 1996)

SOURCE: “The Poet Crying in the Wilderness,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1996, p. 23.

[In the following review, Broughton offers a generally favorable assessment of Milton in America, though he notes that it “is not a perfect novel.”]

In the unlikely event that he ran out of ideas, Peter Ackroyd would have a number of choices. He could drive a London cab, bewildering his customers with arcane short-cuts and encyclopaedic chat. Or he might make a second fortune designing erudite Virtual Reality tours of Olde Whitechapel, pestilential smells included. Or maybe he would find another metropolis to be his Muse: preferably somewhere with richly...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

John Clute (review date 27 September 1996)

SOURCE: “Pastures New,” in New Statesman, September 27, 1996, p. 60.

[In the following review, Clute offers a tempered assessment of Milton in America, which, he concludes, “is a hard book to judge.”]

It is his most presumptuous act of possession to date, Peter Ackroyd has already taken on five historical figures in his fiction, including Doctor Dee, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Dan Leno and Oscar Wilde. The stories he tells of them tend to invoke metaphors of possession, with buried aspects of the protagonists’ selves signalling desperately for recognition. Now it is the turn of John Milton, who is too formidable a figure to mock with Shadows from the back...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Helen Pike Bauer (review date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: “An Antinomian Born for Glory,” in Cross Currents, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 114-17.

[In the following review, Bauer offers a positive evaluation of Blake.]

William Blake remains, for many readers, a distant, imposing figure. Those who enjoy his poetry are usually familiar with the early work, the seemingly simple Songs of Innocence and of Experience or The Book of Thel. The later prophetic books, Milton or Jerusalem, for example, with their declamatory tone and private mythology, may seem virtually impenetrable. It is one of the great virtues of his new biography, Blake, that Peter Ackroyd assumes the...

(The entire section is 1697 words.)

William Hutchings (review date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 149.

[In the following review, Hutchings offers a favorable assessment of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.]

With the detailed knowledge of Victorian London that was reflected in his biography of Charles Dickens, and with the ingeniousness of plot construction associated with his previous novels, Chatterton and Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd has written The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, an intriguing and meticulously detailed account of a series of brutal murders in the Limehouse district in 1880. It is in many ways a worthy successor of the...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Aileen Ward (review date 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Blake, in Partisan Review, Vol. 64, No. 3, 1997, pp. 473-81.

[In the following review, Ward finds Ackroyd's biography of Blake lacking in original research and insight, but concludes that, despite its shortcomings, it represents a positive contribution to a complex subject.]

The explosion of critical interest in William Blake touched off by Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry in 1947 is still reverberating, though it has moved into new dimensions since then. Studies of his archetypal symbolism, explications of his metaphysical system, explorations of his political and religious thought, psychoanalytic interpretations both Freudian and...

(The entire section is 3828 words.)

Michael Glover (review date 6 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Fact as Fiction,” in New Statesman, March 6, 1998, p. 47.

[In the following review, Glover offers an unfavorable assessment of The Life of Thomas More.]

It seems a long time since Peter Ackroyd published his last book, a novel about the surprising appearance of John Milton in the New World. Its single most memorable sentence would have made Sir Thomas More, the greatest of all defenders of the religion and values of pre-Reformation England, puke: “This missal,” Milton remarks with contempt during some routine persecution of a poor woman caught at her miserable devotions, “is fit only to make winding sheets for pilchards.”

Could it...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Lavon B. Fulwiler (review date Spring 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Blake, in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 48, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 374-76.

[In the following review, Fulwiler offers a positive evaluation of Blake.]

Effectively interweaving recurring topics of religion, spiritual matters, visions, the Bible, and the autodidacticism of William Blake, Peter Ackroyd repeatedly refers to the contraries, or oppositions, in the life and personality as well as the verbal and visual works of his subject [in Blake]; in so doing, he reminds the reader of Blake’s own declaration that “Without contraries is no progression.” From the three opening chapters treating the early religious influences on...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

Eric Korn (review date 2 April 1999)

SOURCE: “In the Unreal City,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 2, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review, Korn offers an unfavorable assessment of The Plato Papers.]

Times when blind men into ditches lead the blind. … The 1920s and 30s may be fine examples of political myopia, but Peter Ackroyd’s Plato (Plato prime, Plato II, neo-Plato) takes a longer view. He observes history (his history, our future) from his mid-fourth-millennium standpoint, a freelance Academic in a new Athens on the banks of the Thames but otherwise not much like London, a city clean and green where the people speak with a sweet slangless suavity, like the worst of Wells’s futuropians....

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Leonard R. Koos (essay date Summer 1999)

SOURCE: “Missing Persons: Cherokee's Parrot and Chatterton's Poet,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 315–29.

[In the following essay, Koos discusses elements of pastiche and the detective novel genre in Ackroyd's fiction, particularly as found in Chatterton.]

Lönnrot thought of himself as a pure thinker, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of an adventurer in him, and even a gamester.

—Jorge Luis Borges “Death and the Compass”

I will now play the Oedipus to the Rattleborough enigma.


(The entire section is 3085 words.)

Peter Ackroyd with Francis Gilbert (interview date 20 December 1999-3 January 2000)

SOURCE: “I Will Arise Again,” in New Statesman, December 20, 1999-January 3, 2000, pp. 116-17.

[In the following interview, Ackroyd discusses his recovery from a near-fatal heart attack and comments on his literary career, personal life, and recent writings.]

Having heard that Peter Ackroyd had just suffered a major heart attack, and knowing that his lover died of Aids six years ago, I assumed the worst. So I was surprised to find that there were decorators painting his hallway as I arrived at his Islington home: does a dying man renovate his house? I was hurried through and walked past Blake’s tortured face-mask in the living-room, down a spiral staircase, and...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)

Peter Green (review date 20 March 2000)

SOURCE: “Collapsophe,” in The New Republic, March 20, 2000, pp. 31-4.

[In the following review, Green offers an extended negative evaluation of The Plato Papers and comments unfavorably on Ackroyd's postmodern aesthetic.]


What drives anyone to speculate, or, worse, to prophesy, about the future? Curiosity, and an interest in self-preservation: it isn't hard to see why Delphi commanded such a market for so long. And in the longer view, there is always the fun of seeing the guesses confirmed or refuted. Jules Verne got aviation more or less right, and H. G. Wells was depressingly accurate about the atom bomb; but Arnold Toynbee's...

(The entire section is 6120 words.)

Will Self (review date 16 October 2000)

SOURCE: “Into the Labyrinth,” in New Statesman, October 16, 2000, p. 51.

[In the following review, Self offers praise for London.]

In a decade that has seen two large and structurally sound pillars erected in the ever-expanding historiographic monument of London—Roy Porter's London: A Social History and Stephen Inwood's A History of London—comes Peter Ackroyd's sublime capstone [London: A Biography]. Porter's work conceived of the city in terms of its inhabitants' quotidian lives, social mores, political organisations and their religious turmoils. Inwood's looked to the city as an entrepot of the Hegelian world spirit, detailing the...

(The entire section is 1517 words.)

Further Reading


Bemrose, John. “The Nation Within.” Maclean's (10 August 1992): 47.

A positive review of English Music.

Davenport, Gary. “Tradition and the English Novel.” Sewanee Review 102, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 326-33.

A negative review of English Music.

Gray, Paul. “Mark Ahead to the Past: The Plato Papers Imagines the View from the 3700s.” Time (31 January 2000): 68.

A review of The Plato Papers.

Koos, Leonard R. “Missing Persons: Cherokee's Parrot and Chatterton's Poet.” Studies in Twentieth Century...

(The entire section is 252 words.)