Joseph Rykwert (review date July 1986)

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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 fiction. In Peter Ackroyd’s book, it is the miniature crowning masterpiece not of Nicholas Hawksmoor, but of a quite different Nicholas—one Dyer, a supposed contemporary of the Hawksmoor of history, whose life, as told in this novel, bears great similarities to that of the great architect. Born in London a few years earlier than the real designer of the churches, Dyer (like Hawksmoor) is from early youth a clerk to Sir Christopher Wren and is employed in the Office of the King’s Works in Scotland Yard when he is killed by “gout of the stomach.” But the resemblance is limited. Dyer is a very different character from the historical Hawksmoor, and the key to the difference is given by that last, fictitious church.

The patron saint of Dyer’s last church is Little St Hugh of Lincoln (called “little” to distinguish him from the great bishop of Lincoln of the same name)—in other words, he is the ten-year-old boy whose alleged ritual murder launched a persecution of local Jews in 1255, and to whom very few churches anywhere were ever dedicated, though images of him were common enough before the Reformation. The plot of Ackroyd’s novel is at the end resolved (if that is the word) in that fictitious church. The story hangs on the similarities between Nicholas Dyer and the character who is in fact called Nicholas Hawksmoor in the novel—a contemporary detective whose 20th-century life runs parallel to that of the 18th-century Dyer: both work in Scotland Yard, both have ambitious assistants called Walter Pyne (each Walter thinks his superior is weird and old-fashioned), and both live in lodgings let to them by sentimental-lecherous landladies. What intertwines these two characters fatally is Dyer’s satanism, which leads him to perform a human sacrifice (preferably of an innocent, immature boy) at the foundation of every church he builds. These sacrifices are echoed in the 20th century by a series of murders carried out by some unknown agent, and Nicholas Hawksmoor is the detective assigned to the case.

The book is divided into two parts; in both, chapters alternate between the 18th and the 20th century. In the modern segments, the author-narrator tells the stories of the sacrificial victims for the first part and of Hawksmoor the detective for the second. Dyer himself narrates the 18th-century chapters of both parts and writes in a sustained 18th-century notation convincingly close to the actual epistolary manner of Hawksmoor the architect. But every now and then quirks of style may bring the reader up short, starting with the “And so let us beginne” of the first sentence. There is, for example, the irritating use of “rubbidge,” a word of which Dyer is very fond. “Rubbidge” was a Nottinghamshire dialect form for “rubbish” (which was the way Shakespeare spelled it). As a Londoner, the Dyer of the novel might be allowed “rubbage,” but nothing weirder. Then, too, Dyer spends too much time in seedy alehouses and on the close-stool for such a busy man. The main problem I have with Dyer, however, is that he is not a credible designer of the real Hawksmoor churches.

We know how the historical architect lived, and what he read: Descartes, Gassendi, Grotius—not (as Dyer does) almanacs and occultists. Perspective he would not have learnt from the tortured (and in England virtually unavailable) Wendel Dietterlin, as Ackroyd insists, but most probably from Solomon de Caus, well known as having worked with Inigo Jones, or perhaps from another popular master, the Jesuit Jean Dubreuil (whose book was familiarly referred to as “the Jesuit’s Perspective”) or even from Father Pozzo, two copies of whose book were in the architect Hawksmoor’s library at his death; if it had to be a Nüremberger, then the most likely perspective teacher was the most obvious one: Dürer, whose prints Hawksmoor avidly collected. Nor could the architect of such magnificent buildings have lived in squalid lodgings, feeding on meat brought in from the cook-house. Indeed, the historical Hawksmoor lived comfortably, almost opulently, had a large library, a sumptuous collection of paintings, prints and drawings, and worried about the fat buck that was his yearly due when they culled the deer at Woodstock (whence, perhaps, the gout!).

To such details one can add Ackroyd’s misconception of the whole business of making designs, and of seeing them built. Inevitably it follows that he has misinterpreted the very nature of Hawksmoor’s architecture, which is not melancholy, satanic and tortured, but clear, audacious, even strained in its use of antique precedent, and certainly never perverse or eccentric. In that sense Ackroyd does a positive disservice to the understanding of what all architecture is about—a misunderstanding compounded by the fact that it forms the foundation of his dense, brooding, almost hypnotic book.

On the other hand, even if an architect is half-hero of the book, architecture is not what Hawksmoor is about. It is, rather, a knowing meditation on universal themes: on death, time and recurrence. The novel is sustained by the parallels between Hawksmoor the detective and Dyer the architect, and its continuity is assured by prose enjambements, which carry the narrative not only over breaks between chapters and narrators, but also over the gap between 18th-century and modern English. A number of other heterogeneous elements have been welded into an almost “natural” unity in Ackroyd’s style—for instance, the recurrent nursery rhymes, which in several cases seem to come out of Iona and Peter Opie’s collections and which punctuate the narrative both in its 18th-century and its modern sections. Towards the end of the book, the prose at two points breaks into formal dramatic dialogue. In the modern section, this dramatized speech takes the form of a Beckett-like conversation between Detective Hawksmoor and a tramp from a doss-house (the detective’s assistant Walter sets down this exchange in a notebook). Whereas in the 18th century, it is a dialogue between Dyer and a “John Vanbrugghe: An Architect in Fashion.” The scene is an imitation Vanbrugh playlet. Here, too, the campy, frivolous Vanbrugh of Ackroyd’s book is very unlike the historical figure we know from his own letters and from historical documents such as the actual Hawksmoor’s accounts of him.

In the novel, the detective Hawksmoor and the architect Dyer (a two-headed hero) are both obsessive melancholics, one in the way he goes about his killings and the spilling of blood, the other in his gathering of minuscule clues—evidence which convinces him that a series of murders he is investigating, all neat stranglings, were committed by one person. Hawksmoor is made a (deliberately?) cliché figure—neurotic, shabbily dressed, a loner; like Dyer, he is obsessed with dust, is given to biting the inside of his mouth, and considers himself something of an intellectual. Yet it is not until the last three pages of the book that it occurs to Hawksmoor that the scenes of all the murders are churches designed by the same architect. A French, Italian, German, or an American detective would have tumbled straightaway, I think, and I wonder whether this fact alone says something about the place of architecture in English intellectual life.

The book’s narrative winds itself round the building sacrifices (which mark the turns in the maze of the 18th-century plot) and the 20th-century murders—their secular and even more sinister mirror-images. In the final resolution of the story, as Hawksmoor meets Dyer, his ghostly double, the sympathetic reader is tempted to suspect that the detective himself was the re-enactor of those 18th-century sacrifices, an unconscious murderer—and that there are yet more cryptic coincidences between Hawksmoor and Dyer than we already know.

As Frazer has noted, building sacrifices were once a universal phenomenon—so common that diabolism need not be invoked to explain them. In fact, I recall that a human building sacrifice was made as recently as the mid-19th century in Britain by a Whig landowner (I wish I remembered his name—I think I read about it in a DNB biography) who walled up “a very obnoxious person” in the pier of a bridge on his estate. The casting of horoscopes for building operations was also common enough in the 18th century; Christopher Wren, who stands for the enlightened man of reason in Ackroyd’s book, had them cast by the Astronomer-Royal, at least for St Paul’s and for Chelsea Hospital.

Is all this relevant to a work of fiction? Yes, if the work of fiction insinuates itself into a historical situation and draws on history for its interpretation. All narrative must be plotted, mis en trame, as it were, but the distinction between fiction and history is finally impassable. Thus, the very ambition of Ackroyd’s book puts the cautious if admiring reviewer on guard. Nevertheless, Hawksmoor is a brilliant exercise in the transformation of buildings into prose narration. The power of its writing as well as the continuity it maintains through all of its coruscating variations of surface and style justify one’s making the claim for this novel that it has the consistency of a prose poem—a status that few narrative fictional works achieve (Ulysses, of course, is the great exemplar). Whatever its blemishes, Ackroyd’s book must be considered as a high achievement of the storyteller’s art.

Michele Roberts (review date 11 September 1987)

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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 able to pull the wool over his contemporaries’ eyes for as long as he did.

Georgette Heyer moved her plots along with thrilling hints of sexual ambiguity and cross-dressing; Chatterton provided nostalgic images of a perfect lost world that his fellows, struggling with the implications of the Industrial Revolution, needed to believe; and Ackroyd, for all his postmodernist sophistication about the diversity of linguistic fancy-dress that history provides as disguise, returns us, eventually, to a sweet and perhaps naive vision of the modern nuclear family, maintaining itself in the face of separation and loss. This novel demonstrates how writers and artists may lie and cheat in the interests of their art and their ambition; but, in the end, it shows us a writer’s family in which the good father (or stepfather) and the good mother go on protecting the good child. Certainly this is a myth of great contemporary potency.

The novel’s plot is as tricksy and clever as admirers of Ackroyd’s previous novel Hawksmoor could wish and, like it, depends on an investigation into the way that the past possesses, informs and alters the present. Charles Wychwood, a poet with writer’s block, discovers documents and a portrait that suggest to him that Chatterton faked his own death in order more safety to go on supplying the fake mediaeval texts for which his fantasy-hungry audience yearned. Simultaneously, we are granted vignettes of Henry Wallis painting his celebrated picture of the (supposed) death of Chatterton, using the writer George Meredith as model. Parallel to this we see the dishonesty and venery of modern London, in which ageing novelist Harriet Scrope fears exposure as a plagiarist and so plots against Charles whom she suspects has cottoned on to her guilty secret (later, she decides simply to steal his work) and in which the art gallery where Charles’ wife Vivien works as a secretary is unashamedly involved in selling forgeries.

Charles is presented as an innocent doomed by his quest for truth, his unworldliness. As his obsession with Chatterton’s secrets grows, so he is increasingly possessed by the dead poet, with tragic results. Proclaiming his belief in the validity of the dream of wholeness and beauty, the dream. Chatterton could only endorse through fakery, he comes face to face with inevitable mortality; in the end, the dream will be made incarnate by his best friend Philip’s decision to write a book about it all (a novel called Chatterton, perhaps).

Ackroyd scrupulously refuses the traditional tricks of the storyteller: to enchant us, to weave spells, to sweep us along. His purpose is sterner; he works through shifts, gaps, halts, silences. For all the earnest intellectual frolicking round questions of truth, intertextuality, plagiarism and inspiration—or perhaps because of it—this remains a curiously cold novel. Why, for example, should two women (Meredith’s wife and Miss Slimmer, a poet) who have just witnessed a fire and the near-death of a child by burning immediately engage Meredith in a discussion of illusion? All right: Ackroyd tries to eschew naturalism, the simple reproduction of surfaces, when describing the past; but he’s happy to give us his awful pastiche of Chatterton’s memoir (yes, a fake) and, when painting the present, to rely on young-fogeyish, creaking pantomime—in which old women are spiteful hags; gay men are grotesque, silly queens; a wife is little but a slavish adorer of her husband’s non-work; and waiters in an Indian restaurant serve up brown goo and talk funny. These caricatures throw into relief the purity of Ackroyd’s heterosexual heroes, fundamentally decent chaps for all their old-fashioned eccentricities. If, as Tony Tanner has brilliantly shown, the 19th-century male novel’s narrative was often driven along by questions of adultery, the 20th-century male novel seems to be equally obsessed by resultant notions of illegitimacy. Does a male author really father his own text? Or is his child really someone else’s? Ackroyd plays with uncertainty on the level of literature but can’t confront the problem squarely in terms of his modern characters: anxieties about masculinity are soothed as Vivien serves up raspberry ripple.

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

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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 of the literary hoaxer—was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize.

Ackroyd talks to PW in his London flat—modern, spare, but discerningly decorated. For a man who writes chilling scenes of young lads having their throats slit by mad architects in churchyards, Ackroyd has a particularly jolly sense of humor. His works range from a book on esthetic criticism to a nonfiction book on cross-dressing, and include biographies of Ezra Pound, four novels, among them The Great Fire of London and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, and a good deal of poetry published by small presses.

It’s unusual, PW comments, to be biographer and fiction writer. “I think there’s not much difference between them,” Ackroyd says. “They’re much the same process. Fiction’s often more factual than biography and far more precise. You can insist that things happen the way they ought to happen. Biography has to be an act of interpretation. No one ever knows what happened. I can’t remember what I did yesterday; imagine trying to reconstruct what happened 200 years ago.

“Certainly writing fiction and biography takes many of the same skills. You’re interested in plot, character, action, theme. All the so-called technical accomplishments of fiction are also present in biography. And that, for the writer, is the most important part of anything, the technique of it. In that sense there isn’t much distinction to be drawn between the two.

“People are beginning to realize that you can introduce experimental devices into biography. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t present the same scene three different ways in a biography; there’s no reason why you shouldn’t admit defeat at a certain point: I don’t know what happened next. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use pastiche or parody of the subject’s style within the biography.”

Ackroyd is currently working on the biography of Dickens he began while writing Hawksmoor (this, he says, will be his final biography) as well as a novel concerned with archeology and astronomy. “I’m a biographer by chance and a novelist by choice. Someone said I was a biographer by trade, which I thought not only an insult but also untrue in terms of practically any standard you want to measure—income, time spent or vocation. It doesn’t really matter, of course, but I hate being called a biographer—it’s like being called a private eye.”

Ackroyd writes fiction in the mornings, biography in the afternoons and journalism in the evenings. “One needs some kind of challenge doing these sorts of things. Everyone told me I shouldn’t do Eliot—it couldn’t be done because of all the restrictions on the estate. The more obstacles that were put in my way, the more I decided that was the best thing for me to do. I did by chance discover that most of Eliot’s letters were in the public domain. Most people fell at the first fence: after getting a strongly worded letter from the widow Eliot, they panicked and gave up, so they didn’t know this stuff was available.

“Similarly with Dickens. Everyone said I shouldn’t do Dickens because he had been done so many times. Again, it was the element of jumping the hurdles that made it interesting for me.”

Born in 1949, Ackroyd grew up in a council house estate of a working-class suburb of London. His grandfather was a van driver for Harrod’s, his father left home when he was young and he was brought up by his mother and grandmother. “It was a perfectly ordinary childhood,” he maintains. Probably the “biggest jolt” came when, at 10, he won a state scholarship to a Catholic public school. “I was lifted out of the environment I knew and placed in an environment of learning and study and ambition.

“It sounds like Barry Manilow,” Ackroyd jests. “I was just reading his autobiography. He had a childhood very similar to mine.” Peter Ackroyd, the Barry Manilow of English writers? PW asks. “The Madonna of English writers,” he counters.

Ackroyd went on to Cambridge, where he read English Literature, then to Yale on a Mellon Fellowship. He speaks of his time in the States as having “a sense of romance, because I got introduced to people I’d always admired: John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and a young poet called David Shapiro. It was a revelation to me to meet these people, and the artists and writers I met through them. I was very young, 21 or 22. It was my first contact with the literary world.”

Once Ackroyd left Yale, he went back to England and at 24 was offered the position of literary editor of the Spectator, the prestigious English weekly. “I don’t know why they offered me the job,” he says. “Looking back, it was a very peculiar thing for them to do. I think they were desperate. But I enjoyed doing it. The entry into journalism was a godsend, because it taught me vaguely how to write for an audience.” Ackroyd subsequently became joint managing editor of the Spectator, where he remained until 1981, when he took up writing full-time. Now, too, he is the chief book reviewer for the Times of London, covering primarily nonfiction.

The counterpointing of past and present is a device Ackroyd uses often in his work. “Certainly in Chatterton, the imagination feeds off of these images of the past,” Ackroyd says. In Chatterton, the painting of the dead poet by Henry Wallace, which hangs at the Tate Gallery, features prominently. “I use that painting as a way of organizing my material, a source of inspiration. My original idea was that Chatterton had faked his own death and was carrying on writing. I began with that story. The rest of it emerged as I started to write.

“My general obsession with the past—I don’t understand it; it just suddenly started happening. That’s the curious things about these books: I’ve never understood what they’re really about. I eagerly wait for someone’s reaction to tell me, since they always rather baffle me. All these themes which apparently appear—I don’t impose them consciously on the books, they somehow just emerge. It wasn’t until I began writing the Oscar Wilde book that I realized I was able to understand the past in a kind of concrete way, think myself back into it. It’s been a sort of education at the public’s expense. I discover what I’m interested in as I write.

“This business about not knowing what I’m doing doesn’t mean that I’m romantically tearing out my hair or drinking absinthe. I don’t agonize over it. It’s almost like having an office job. I just sit there and write it as it comes. I’ve kept the same routine since I began writing novels; it seems to be the only way I can work. As soon as I leave the room, I stop thinking about the novel. Next day, I see where I stopped the day before, and it seems to come straight away.”

Ackroyd writes so evocatively about eccentricity and violence that readers often wonder about him. “Everyone thought that I must be very weird to have written a book like Hawksmoor. One of the people who worked in my publishing house wouldn’t have the book in her home because she thought it was too spooky. I thought, oh my God, what have I unleashed upon the world? People started making tours around the churches in East London [which provide settings for the novel’s murders] and someone wrote in an essay that she’d seen this character whom I created in a dark robe inside one of the churches. So I had to write a comedy after this, just to convince everyone I wasn’t a cross between Alistair Crowley and whomever. For me, it was really a technical exercise. The moment people started being horrified by it, and in some cases, not wanting to read the book, I realized it had much more effect than I’d ever intended.”

Ackroyd shies from discussion of the meaning of the writer’s psychological state in his work. “If anything, I draw my inspiration from the English inheritance. Someone said that the novels I write really have no connection with the novels of my contemporaries, or even with the period itself. I think that’s probably true. I was always interested in the Victorian novel, which is very heavy and symbolic and colorful, with a variety of moods going from grotesque farce to tragedy.”

The theme of plagiarism figures largely in Chatterton. “In fact, Chatterton did plagiarize as well as fake,” Ackroyd says. “The history of English literature is really the history of plagiarism. I discovered that when I was doing T. S. Eliot. He was a great plagiarist. He borrowed texts from other writers. I see nothing wrong with it; I would do it myself. I’m always looking for someone I can steal from. The novel I’m writing now is partly set in Dorset, where I live half the time. I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s novels to see what I can take, because it saves me the trouble of doing it myself. Everybody does it, but some people pretend not to. People get so hung up on the idea of originality and authenticity and sincerity, which is a very modern concept, and they fail to see the beauty of theft.”

One of the characters in Chatterton eats paper, a trait, Ackroyd says, that was stolen from Oscar Wilde. “That was one of his habits. He used to take off bits of wallpaper, too, and put them in his mouth. I use it as a joke. In one of the reviews someone said it was a symbol of what I did with my own fiction—take bits of other people’s books and eat them.”

Ackroyd is often cited for writing what some refer to as pastiche. “I don’t think of it as pastiche; it’s just another way of writing. Certainly that’s the way I wrote Hawksmoor. The only way of getting a grip on the past as far as I was concerned was to write in the language of the past. The pastiche element never occurred to me. I never thought that was what I was doing, I was simply writing a new kind of historical fiction. In the novels in which it does occur, it had a serious purpose: to suggest the difference between past and present in terms of language. It’s actually a lot of hard work; pastiche makes it sound easy. You have to immerse yourself in the period for months and months. The whole end of it, of course, is to write it as easily as you write modern prose, and that takes a while to achieve.”

Ackroyd’s life revolves almost exclusively around his work. “School and university and this—it’s been a constant slog. But I hate writers who complain about their lot. They could easily do something else—be bus conductors if they wanted. They don’t have to be novelists. So I’m not complaining [although] I don’t have much of a life. I never did want one particularly. I have no friends, no social life, no interests, no hobbies.” We offer our disbelief. “I go out for dinner in the evenings occasionally,” Ackroyd relents with a twinkle. “But ever since I was a boy, the thing I most do is work.”

Michael Neve (review date January 1988)

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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 unashamedly commits himself to bringing these figures to life, or at least to bring them back to die at his own hands. The most influential authority here—one whose life Ackroyd represented to considerable critical acclaim—is (or was) T. S. Eliot. Ever since writing about Eliot, Ackroyd has inhabited the layered, indeed the multi-layered world of the living dead, a world exemplified by historical London, and what London can seem to be. The historian’s question must be—is this excusable (on the grounds of pure imagination) or is Ackroyd’s refusal to represent, as against invent, one of the grounds for being uneasy with his work, not least this latest piece, a life, or idea of a life, of Chatterton, the marvellous boy poet?

In this book Charles Wychwood, a poet down on his luck, acquires by chance a portrait of Chatterton, but not of the Chatterton. Rather, it is a Chatterton who didn’t commit suicide at seventeen, but who survived into his fifties. The reason that Chatterton did this, as Wychwood comes to learn, is that he was himself tired of the forgeries that made him a failure (the medieval Rowley poems); it was time for Chatterton to take up other kinds of forgery, in a different genre. Ackroyd thus begins to plot one of his central concerns, that individuals die (and come to life) as they cross genres, as they become, not so much transsexuals, as transgenristes. And of course as the history of fakery (including the idea that historical writing is a kind of fake) becomes rampant. This picture of Chatterton is a mystery but then, so Ackroyd suggests, is all historical representation. History is a loving fake, and the historian is no longer the loyal servant of empirical evaluation, but just another faker.

Much of Chatterton, as with Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, is littered with stories of plagiarism, of fake taking fake to re-fake it; of coincidence; of cross-dressing; of the possible saving of beautiful dead boys. Ackroyd makes brilliant use of the fact (and it’s important that it is a fact) that the person who sat for Henry Wallis’s Tate Gallery picture ‘The Death of Chatterton’ was the novelist George Meredith. So, the historical idea of the dying youth that many of us may feel we know is in fact an idea passed on to us that we haven’t examined, because we haven’t understood history’s twists, history’s fakes. Ackroyd mixes his account with rich and strange tones—part Dickensian, part Eliot—to produce a drunken world of accident and accidental readings. Some of these confusions seem powerful and make connections. Others, such as the brain tumour that hits Charles, seem cruel (and implausible) additions to the heated plot.

Charles Wychwood has a friend, Philip Slack, who plays an important part in the story because he is concerned with the history of Chatterton and with George Meredith’s concerns with Chatterton but does not share in the resurrection of Chatterton that comes at the end of Ackroyd’s novel. He is, as it were, the dull historian, someone who may find his own voice one day, outside the world of Charles and the world of the living dead. The trouble is, Ackroyd himself is so intensely caught up in the baroque world of representation and misrepresentation that it is hard to take Philip as a serious character: he is the dutiful heterosexual in the twilight world of exotic homosexualism that is Ackroyd’s main theme.

Chatterton is a bold novel in so far as it commits itself to the aesthetic belief in the limitless power of imagination, of the inevitable presence of fake in historical recapture, and the undeniable powers that its creator possessed: powers to see history as full of echoes, of sinister footfalls, as packed with the dead who yet live on. And yet, as many readers of History Today might have reason to feel, it won’t altogether do. It won’t do because as soon as the possibility arises that there was a real Thomas Chatterton, whose life was devotedly studied by an army of historical scholars (Meyerstein et al,) then the status of Ackroyd’s inventiveness begins to pall. In that moment of doubt, the ordinary historian comes to feel that Chatterton is ill-served by being metamorphosed into some character close to Peter Ackroyd.

If this seems harsh, Ackroyd’s novel appears at a time when the founding father of aesthetic modernism, Oscar Wilde, receives his biography: Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde. This superb book, worthy of the biographer’s earlier life of James Joyce, can of course be seen as operating in a different genre—that of what might be called straight biography. Wilde, as seen by Ellmann, makes history into a pose, a kind of lie, in order that this lie be exposed. He is the reverse of the novelist as aesthete: he is the historian manqué, the dandy who invents an artificial series of poses in order that they be overthrown by social criticism, even social action. At the end of Chatterton, there is a scene that has this quality, which delivers someone called ‘Chatterton’ into immortality. But how different, and to the historian how infinitely more mysterious, will be the way that Ellmann secures this grandeur for Oscar Wilde whose life he sees without the refusal of historical realities that both makes, and breaks, Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton.

J. D. McClatchy (review date April 1989)

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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 doesn’t seem to be in it. Poems may be witty, curious, fey, but rarely pay attention to their own purposes or possibilities. Lines ramble or dawdle, preoccupied with splicing bits of common speech with literary tags and clichés or bits of pulp fiction and nursery tales.

And everyone heard the wrong story
my terrific love-cries
are probably for sale
the technician said, “these poems are a wounded fawn”:
oh the strange story of the quantum!
if I smile will she smile
no one smiles, your eyes
are like broken glass are
you unemployed?

And so on. No poet could sustain a reader’s interest in such stuff for much longer. So, in the drift of daydreaming speech, cultural flotsam and jetsam are floated, King Lear next to Tinker Bell. There is also the occasional plangent note:

all we have knowledge of is our own time
the shape in the water is your own
the pattern of fixed moments
falling away as you watch
we must wait for the collapse
before we can start a new life
indistinct now as the sky fills with wings.

For all these reasons, Ackroyd has been compared with John Ashbery, but that is like comparing a list of ingredients with the finished dish. The slightly garish effects in Ackroyd’s poems, because the touching moments have no context and the funny bits are all foreground, produce the same feelings I have while watching colorized versions of ’30s film classics. No doubt cults are already forming for the latter, and there is an audience too for this sort of poem:

despite this sorrow as fresh
and every-renewed as a tear
you are small and sexy I dig you
this continuing disharmony
makes for harmony, my dear
I mean it sincerely ouch
during the song of the night
as it is broadcast to you
the complete sphere of wonder
in the boredom of a scream:
the infant twinkles his eye,
blue murder, stairway to heaven.

There is, as I say, an audience for this, but it does not include me. I like a sweet daffiness, and a virtuoso turn of inconsequentiality, and leftovers of late-twentieth-century life popped into a stanza’s Cuisinart. But I can’t read a whole book of it. “This is the new age,” says one poem here, “where the narrator knows everything.” Knows everything but what to do with it. And one thing the narrator knows that a reader may not is the meaning of this book’s title, nowhere explained. “The Diversions of Purley” happens to be the subtitle of a book on linguistics by John Horne Tooke (1736–1812), the eighteenth-century libertarian. The book’s title is a Homeric epithet which, transliterated, would be Epea Pteroenta and means “winged words.” “Purley” was the name of the author’s house, where he would brood on the importance of knowing Anglo-Saxon and Gothic in order properly to understand English. Is there a hidden message from Peter Ackroyd in these facts?

Peter Firchow (review date Autumn 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

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 Sydney and beyond.

What is the secret of such success? Aside from the fact that Ackroyd writes well, with tremendous verve and wit, it is probably due to his complex yet oddly accessible intertextuality. The sometime biographer of T. S. Eliot has clearly gone to school with the master. Hence, all the yuppies who liked The Name of the Rose and who only pretended to like The French Lieutenant’s Woman will undoubtedly enjoy Chatterton—that is, if they haven’t already—for Ackroyd not only fuses semantic with moral riddles as Eco does, but also has the advantage of knowing how to write. Although Fowles admittedly writes well, he is rarely able to crack a smile, either for himself or his reader, whereas Ackroyd wears an almost perpetual ironic or satiric grin.

Chatterton is a multilevel construction. The main floor is located in the twentieth century, with a basement leading into the nineteenth and a subbasement into the eighteenth. There is also a small staircase at one end, ascending into eternity. Not surprisingly, the whole place is situated not far from postmodernist magic-realism land. As for the inhabitants, not only are there a couple of novelists within the novel, but there are also at least three poets and a similar number of painters. (There is lots of room here, as one can see.) At the center, which on the whole manages to hold, is the figure of Chatterton himself, as reflected chiefly in paintings by Harry Wallis, completed in 1856, with George Meredith as his model, and in another by “George Stead,” with the fifty-year-old Chatterton as model. (Chatterton, famous for his forged “medieval” poems, was born in 1752 and died in 1770.) Chatterton also puts in a couple of cameo appearances himself, as do Meredith and Wallis. The main plot, however, involves the efforts of a group of contemporary Londoners, and principally those of the poet manqué Charles Wychwood, to discover the “facts” concerning Chatterton’s real or faked suicide. This is the mystery (as in “intriguing literary mystery”), which grows ever more mysterious as Chatterton’s picture begins to exercise an increasingly baleful influence on the protagonist. One remembers here Ackroyd’s Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, to which the novel sometimes appears to constitute a codicil.

The central locus, then, is the hall of mirrors—temporal, literary, esthetic, metaphysical. It’s all an hallusion, as it were. Wherever we look we see counterfeit or real, literary or historical, humorous or serious faces staring back at us. Is this Chatterton? Meredith? Wilde? Ackroyd? Truth? The solution of the mystery? Hard to say, and in the end perhaps we don’t really care. It’s fun though.

John Sutherland (review date 27 September 1990)

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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’ in a bonfire at his Gad’s Hill garden. What Kaplan ruefully implied by opening with the manuscript holocaust of 1860 was that there was a core of Dickens’s life which we would never know. Dickens laboured tirelessly to make himself publicly famous and at the same time to bury the private Dickens beyond all exhumation. He largely succeeded thanks to his won vandalism and Forster’s loyal destructions and suppressions. We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.

Kaplan’s is an academic’s view of things. For him and his university-based colleagues biographies, like legal cases, are built on the hard evidence of literary remains and interviewable eye-witnesses. No Aspern papers, no Aspern biography. Ackroyd, who is not an academic, thinks otherwise. His life of Dickens [Dickens] opens with the great man dead, lying on the green sofa in the dining-room of Gad’s Hill Place. But Ackroyd does not regard his subject across any fence: he knows Dickens as intimately as the man knew himself; better, perhaps, since Dickens was not great on self-knowledge. There are no lost keys, no closed doors. Ackroyd, for instance, can read the expression on the dead Dickens face on the narrow green sofa. The expression is childlike: ‘It was the look he recorded in William Dorrit’s face in death; it was the look which he saw in the faces of the corpses on view in the Paris Morgue. This connection between death and infancy is one that had haunted him: sleep, repose, death, infancy, innocence, oblivion are the words that formed a circle for him, bringing him back to the place from which he had begun. Here in Gad’s Hill, close to the town in which he had lived as a small child, here in the house which his father had once shown him; here the circle was complete.’

A sceptic might ask how Peter Ackroyd knows that Dickens’s face bore an infantile look in death? No one there seems to have recorded the fact. Was Ackroyd, like Scrooge, transported to the room by the spirit of biography past? How does Ackroyd know that Dickens’s final mental state was one of mellow fruition, the circle completed? Witnesses report that Dickens—who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage—expired in a state of miserable confusion and exasperation. If he had to die in 1870, would he not have chosen the end of the year, when Edwin Drood was completed?

The media preparation for this biography has been intense. Sinclair-Stevenson’s expert publicists have hammered away at the theme of Britain’s greatest living novelist versus Britain’s greatest ever novelist as if it were a literary Godzilla meets King Kong. Ackroyd understands Dickens better than pettifogging academics because Ackroyd, like his subject, is a creative genius, and such minds are privileged to think alike. Ackroyd himself makes this claim, if rather more tactfully than his publicity. Biographies, as he asserts in his opening and closing remarks, should be agents of ‘true knowledge’ and ‘real knowledge’ and this is gained by inspired intuition, mystical inwardness. Ackroyd, we apprehend, is close to—even at times inside—Dickens in ways that mere letters, diaries or memoranda could never permit. ‘I wanted to understand him,’ he says: ‘in that sense Dickens was like a character in a novel I might write—I never like or dislike any of the characters I have created. I simply try to understand them and, in understanding them, to bring them to life.’ Ackroyd understands Dickens, then, as Dickens might understand Micawber. Thou, Ackroyd, seest him.

Ackroyd intrudes his supra-academic credentials on the reader during the course of the narrative. There are seven free-wheeling interludes or inter-chapters. The first fantasises a meeting between Dickens and Little Dorrit. He tells her that his father, too, was incarcerated in the Marshalsea. Brief complications ensue. The third interlude imagines a conversation between Chatterton, Wilde, T. S. Eliot and Dickens—all Ackroydian subjects (‘William Blake will be joining us shortly,’ Chatterton says). The fifth interlude recounts a face-to-face meeting between Dickens and Ackroyd (‘Some of my best friends are biographers,’ Dickens says. It’s the wittiest line he has in the book). In the seventh and last interlude, Ackroyd records a sinister dream he had of Dickens while writing the biography.

These interludes allow Ackroyd to emerge as himself, the novelist and creative writer, unfettered for a moment by the drudgery of the biographical task. He also employs an opposite device by which he occasionally becomes Dickens as he writes about Dickens. Particularly at the beginnings of his chapters. Ackroyd adopts a Bleak House staccato, as a virtuoso might pick up a rival’s Stradivarius and plunk out a phrase. Chapter Three opens:

London. The Great Oven. The Fever Patch. Babylon. The Great Wen. In the early autumn of 1822 the ten-year-old Charles Dickens entered his kingdom.

At any moment of excitement Ackroyd is prone to such ventriloquism. He does not describe the squalor of Warren’s Thames-side blacking factory—he feels it and bang goes the grammar again:

This is the haunted place of his imagination. Dampness. Ruin. Rottenness. Rats, familiar to him from the books he read and stories he heard. Woodworm. The smell of decay. And beside it the river, the Thames which flows through his fiction just as it flowed through the city itself.

There’s a strong whiff of Emlyn Williams ham in all this and one reaches for Trollope’s prissy ‘Of Dickens’s style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules … No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens.’ It doesn’t come off here and Ackroyd shouldn’t have done it.

The most informative of the interludes is the sixth, where Ackroyd the novelist cross-examines Ackroyd the biographer. ‘Are there any particular virtues to this biography?’ A1 inquires. ‘Well,’ replies A2, ‘the first thing to say is that it is very thoroughly researched … I even made a point of reading all the books about Dickens and in most cases, reading them right the way through.’ Doesn’t that make the biography ‘too academic’? A1 objects. It’s a problem, A2 concedes:

I also have a nasty habit of taking scholars, or perhaps I should say academics, too seriously. Take the example of the footnotes. I was determined not to have any at all but then, in the last stages of composition, my nerve failed. I certainly did not intend to sit down and list every source for every quotation but I did compromise: I wrote little essays on my sources for each chapter.

There is, I think, confusion here. Reading books about Dickens is not research—or at least not primary research. Ackroyd may have been conscientious, but what he has done is to review, and use, the research of others—mainly academics. Citing those scholars’ efforts is not, as he alleges, a ‘derelict and now often farcical practice’ but common honesty. Not that Ackroyd is in any sense dishonest, but he is trapped in the contradiction of being Dickens’s Boswell and Dickens’s ‘creator’—a contradiction inherent in the different arts of biography and fiction. Novelists should be original and inimitable, only begetters. Novels which are like other novels are necessarily inferior novels. The same is not necessarily true of literary biography, which, for good or ill, is nowadays dominated by academics and their procedures. Academics conceive themselves as working co-operatively. The reason they acknowledge each other’s efforts in footnotes and annotate sources is not mindless obedience to a derelict and farcical practice but a recognition that theirs is a professional team effort. They are not solitary geniuses, like Dickens or Ackroyd (A1).

There is the other liability that Ackroyd (A2) is rather late in the field. The degree of originality which the 37th full-length biography of Dickens can have is limited. Forster may be, as Ackroyd condescendingly says, ‘very dull’ and Edgar Johnson ‘awfully wrong-headed’, but they got in well before he did. The pool has been comprehensively scooped. Forster got first dibs on the blacking factory episode. Thomas Wright broke the Ellen Ternan scandal. Edgar Johnson had first go at the Burdett-Coutts material. And the editors of the Pilgrim Edition of the letters have forbidden Ackroyd from quoting anything other than occasional and brief phrases from Dickens’s unpublished correspondence’ (i.e. the bulk of letters after 1852).

In these circumstances, Ackroyd’s biography is bound to conform in its main outline with other biographies. It may revolt his artistic conscience, but great gobs of unoriginality are unavoidable if he is going to write anything resembling a reliable account. And certainly there is a feel at times of Ackroyd’s chewing gum having lost its flavour on the bedpost overnight. Take, for instance, Ackroyd’s description of Dickens’s birth, and Kaplan’s:

Charles Dickens was born on the seventh of February 1812, the year of victory and the year of hardship. He came crying into the world in a small first-floor bedroom in an area known as New Town or Mile End, just on the outskirts of Portsmouth where his father, John Dickens, worked in the Naval Pay Office. His mother, Elizabeth, is reported to have claimed that she went to a ball on the night before his birth; but no ball is mentioned in the area for that particular evening and it is likely that this is one of the many apocryphal stories which sprung up around the birth and development of the great writer. He was born on a Friday, on the same day as his young hero David Copperfield, and for ever afterwards Friday became for him a day of omen …

Born in Portsmouth on Friday, February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was the second child of a slim, dark-haired, pretty woman. On the night of his birth, Elizabeth Dickens, who apparently liked to act the part of an invalid, and, like her son, loved to dance, had attended a ball. She was a woman of energetic, aggressive self-definition. His father, who made his living as a clerk in the payroll office of the navy … proudly took the unusual step of trumpeting in the local newspaper that unto him had been born ‘on Friday, at Mile End Terrace, the Lady of John Dickens, Esq, a son’ … As an adult, Charles Dickens considered Friday his lucky day.

Less tentative than Ackroyd, Kaplan entitles his chapter ‘The Hero of my own Life’. I don’t for a moment think that Ackroyd is copying Kaplan. But they are both of them drawing from the same sources and their results are inevitably similar. A new opening in Dickens biography, one assumes, is as hard a thing as a new opening in Grand Master chess.

Variations in the middle and endgame are possible. Ackroyd follows orthodox Forsterian explanation in seeing Warren’s blacking factory and Marshalsea as traumatic and formative of Dickens’s adult personality. But he reconstructs—or invents—the atmosphere of the warehouse and the prison magnificently. Ackroyd’s scene painting—particularly of London Gothic—is consistently brilliant. And his description of metropolitan sordidness staining young Charles’s mind is convincing. Mud and blacking, Ackroyd argues, are the basic pigments of Dickensianism. The point is conveyed by writing which rivals its subject’s.

As he traces the familiar outlines of Dickens’s subsequent history Ackroyd’s originality typically appears as a recklessness of interpretation, a going the whole hog where others have trodden lightly. Take, for instance, the crossroads in Dickens’s early career when he was invited for a stage audition at Covent Garden in 1832. He himself evidently liked to point to this moment as one of the great might-have-beens of English history. Had he gone to the theatre that day, Charles Dickens would have become an actor and not a novelist. But, happy accident, there intervened ‘a terrible bad cold’ the audition was called off and Dickens was spared for literature. Forster mildly declares in an endnote that Dickens rather ‘overstressed’ the likelihood of his becoming an actor in 1832. He thought that his friend was never really drawn to the stage, and that the cold may been a Bunburyism. Following this cue, Fred Kaplan suggests that the cold probably had its source in ‘ambivalence and stage fright’. He makes little of it. In dealing with the same episode, Ackroyd comes on like Carlyle writing about Frederick the Great:

Never can there have been a more fortunate illness … Somehow Dickens knew—or at least his body knew—that this was not the life for which he was intended. There is in great artists a secret momentum that always draws them forward so that they can ride over obstacles and avoid sidetracks without even realising they are doing so—so it was with Dickens. Whether it be called a power of will or of ambition. whether it is a form of self-awareness or even of self-ignorance, there was something which ineluctably led him forward to his proper destination.

The average Englishman, I have heard, catches two and a half colds a year. Ackroyd mentions one other of Dickens’s, which he contracted while writing Bleak House. It, too, suggests that the Victorian virus never struck randomly: ‘Gustave Flaubert used to say that he suffered with his characters even as he created them, that he became invaded by nervous anxiety at the same time as his characters, and even shared in the agony induced by the arsenic poisoning of Emma Bovary. Dickens’s symptoms were not so severe but he did manage to contract a very bad cold at the time he was consigning Esther Summerson to a bout of smallpox.’

Of course there is such a thing as psychosomatic illness, but sometimes a cold is just a cold. Ackroyd with his god-like presumption that he is creating Dickens, will not have it so. ‘There is really no such thing as coincidence.’ he tells us (in the context of Ellen Ternan’s having been born in Rochester, ‘the very place which was at the centre of Dickens’s imagination’). All the accidents and contingency of Dickens’s life—even his sniffles—are thus bent to the ironwork of ‘destiny’. It may make for ornately-patterned novels but it is a dangerous theory on which to base biography, especially the biography of a man whose life has as many unpredictable turns as Dickens’s.

There are other occasions when Ackroyd presses too hard on his evidence. On the matter of Dickens-the-man’s sense of humour, for instance:

Once in the company of Chauncy Hare Townshend he was touring an asylum for the deaf-and-dumb and, when a poor afflicted boy seemed to Townshend to be trying to repeat his name, Dickens laughed out loud at the man’s well-meaning presumption. He laughed at another friend’s ‘ridiculous confusion’ when he lost his luggage, and he said of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes: ‘They really are the ugliest couple in London.’ When that same Lewes contributed a series of articles on the theme of ‘Success in Literature’, Dickens was heard to say: ‘Success in literature? What on earth does George Lewes know about success in literature?’ So Dickens had sarcasm as well as wit.

Is this really a catalogue of ‘wit’? It strikes me as banal and cruel. If Dickens did really jeer at George Eliot for being ugly and at Lewes for not making as much money as he did, I don’t laugh with him. I suppose a friend losing his bags and his self-possession might raise a giggle, but it hardly seems evidence of any wonderful sense of humour or power of wit.

The most revisionary aspect of Ackroyd’s Dickens is in its treatment of Ellen Ternan. The background is well-known. Forster does not mention that while separating from his wife in 1858, Dickens was involved with the young actress and remained involved with her for the rest of his life. The story was broken by Wright in his 1935 biography of Dickens. Wright—drawing on oral testimony—claimed that Dickens had forced himself on an unwilling Ellen, whose resistance inspired Estella’s frigidity in Great Expectations. This insight was adopted uncritically by Edgar Johnson in his authoritative 1952 biography: ‘There is reason for believing that Dickens had won Ellen against her will, wearing down her resistance by sheer force of desperate determination, and that her conscience never ceased to reproach her.’ It was, Johnson guessed, around 1863 that Ellen’s ‘obduracy at last gave way’. Kaplan, in his 1988 biography, deduces a much less neurotic affair, one in which there was neither obduracy nor wearing down. According to Kaplan, the Ternan-Dickens relation ‘became an intimate one, probably by late 1857 or 1858. By Victorian private and modern public standards sexual relations would have been likely.’ Dickens, that is, seduced Ellen almost at first meeting:

Having had sexual relations for much of his adult life, he was not likely to renounce them voluntarily when he found himself deeply in love with an attractive young woman. He had no ascetic impulse. He detested prudishness … There is no reason to believe that either was sufficiently rigid or perverse not to behave normally in their private world.

It was, of course, a private world in which Dickens under an assumed name was regularly—year in, year out—visiting Ellen in a house whose expenses he was paying. By some accounts, there was a child who died.

Ackroyd has no new evidence and we await the publication in November of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan. In the meantime Ackroyd interprets the known facts in a strikingly new way. He contradicts the Wright-derived view of a long-resisted quasi-rape of a disgusted Ellen by a slavering Dickens. He equally contradicts Kaplan’s ‘normal’ couple fornicating as happily as rabbits from the moment they looked in each other’s eyes. Ackroyd discerns in Dickens’s few recorded references to Ellen evidence of ‘an innocent and almost infantile love’. Like Gad’s Hill Place, she represented for him the world of childhood that had always obsessed him. ‘It seems almost inconceivable,’ Ackroyd concludes, ‘that theirs was in any sense a “consummated” affair. We might consider this at least as a hypothesis, therefore—all the evidence about Dickens’s character, and all the evidence we possess about Ellen Ternan herself, suggest that the relationship between them acted for Dickens as the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies. That of sexless marriage with a young, idealised virgin.’

To say that consummation is inconceivable when every serious biographer since Wright has conceived it is a bit overstated. But the idea that the relationship revolved around a high Dickensian fantasy of infantile purity rather than hole-in-corner Victorian adultery is arresting. Ackroyd suggests that there was no straight sex, no intercourse, certainly no love child. This is not entirely new-fangled: Michael Slater in Dickens and Women (1983) pointed to a number of glaring holes in the received view and argued for the possibility of an innocent relationship. What is novel (novelistic, perhaps) is Ackroyd’s idea that for 13 years—the length of many marriages—Dickens and Ellen could sustain the same frozen postures of ungratified desire, like the lovers on Keats’s urn. There was, of course, one difference. By the end of the 13 years Ackroyd’s Ellen would have been no longer ‘a young idealised virgin’ but a spinster fast closing on old maidhood. Presumably Dickens’s imagination could supply the missing bloom.

The attraction of Wright’s theory was that it explained Estella: the vindictive ice maiden whose whole mission in life is to drive men crazy with sexual desire and then disappoint them. The cock-tease appears suddenly in Dickens’s fiction, and disappears as suddenly, lending credence to the hypothesis that he finally got his way with Ellen, after six years lusting, in 1863. Ackroyd’s idealised virgin hypothesis explains the other wholly original character in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham. Trapped at the threshold between consent and defloration, Havisham in her yellowing bridal gown is both changeless and horribly vulnerable to time.

Ackroyd’s main circumstantial evidence for his idealised virgin thesis is Dickens’s bizarre behaviour after the death in 1837 of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. She was just 18 (Ellen’s age when he first met her) and at her death Dickens, as Ackroyd says, felt ‘the most powerful sense of loss and pain he was ever to experience’. It is unthinkable that the newly-married Dickens had an incestuous relationship with Mary, yet undeniable that his feelings towards her were sexual. After her death, ‘he kept all of her clothes.’

All this relates to what is the principal insight in Ackroyd’s portrait of Dickens. For him, the man never outgrew anything. At his death Dickens’s face wore a childlike expression because he had never transcended childhood or wanted to transcend it. At the age of 50 he replayed in his dealings with his mistress the immaturities of his 25-year-old self, just as at the age of 25 he fondled the clothes of the dead Mary Hogarth as a child might weep over a favourite but broken toy. The ‘true knowledge’ about Dickens that Ackroyd offers us is that he was a chronically stunted genius, a kind of Norman Bates whose secret object of desire was a mummy with whom he could play little boy games. Rather sick games, one imagines. Like everyone else on this matter, Ackroyd is playing his hunches and on the basis of some very enigmatic clues he comes up with a psycho. Given the choice, I still prefer a normal to a Norman Dickens. But Ackroyd’s version—whose subsidiary rights have been sold—will make gripping television.

William H. Pritchard (review date Summer 1991)

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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 fear he is harnessed to them. He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left. He daunts me! I have not the key.” A brilliant observation, and by that time (Dickens was to die within three years) it’s fair to say that his “nature” was extremely hard-pressed. Separated from his wife and physically exhausted by a vascular degeneration that manifested itself especially in a painfully swollen right foot, he had put everything into his role as great novelist and great entertainer. This is what Emerson saw clearly, even as he claimed to be daunted by Dickens.

The length and sweep of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the novelist [Dickens] suggests that whether or not he has “the key” to Dickens he is certainly undaunted by him.1 Part of Mr. Ackroyd’s confidence derives from his own identity as a novelist whose books deal boldly and extravagantly with, among other things, the topography and atmosphere of both London and provincial England. (Hawksmoor, 1985, and Chatterton, 1987, are notable in this regard.) And Dickens has been hanging around Ackroyd’s imagination at least since his first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), in which not only the Marshalsea Prison is represented—where Little Dorrit’s and Dickens’ fathers were imprisoned—but in which a character appears who is convinced she is Little Dorrit.

Ackroyd’s boldness and extravagance can also be seen in his implicit claim that this is no ordinary biography by just another professional type. That claim is flamboyantly made by the inclusion of seven short interludes or interchapters marked off from the main narrative. These concern the process of writing biography: they subject both Dickens and his investigator to questions about the enterprise, and they assemble literary figures about whom Ackroyd has written in previous books (Chatterton, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot) to converse with Dickens on the state of things. I found these interludes both curious and intrusive, although they contain some revealing moments. In one of them Dickens asks Ackroyd how he (the biographer) can understand him (the novelist) when he, Dickens, doesn’t even understand himself. Dickens proceeds to dismiss biographers as merely “novelists without imagination,” while going on to admit that some of his best friends are biographers. In another interlude an italicized voice asks the Ackroyd figure why he decided to write on Dickens in the first place. The answer: “I don’t know. It just seemed a good idea at the time.” He might have added that the English publisher, Sinclair-Stevenson, offered him a contract for two biographies (Dickens to be followed by Blake) for the quite spectacular sum of £650,000—so the financial details are in line with the size of the project.

Ackroyd’s main predecessors in academic biographies of Dickens are what we’ve grown used to referring to as the “standard” one by Edgar Johnson, a two-volume work published in 1952, and more recently a shorter treatment by Fred Kaplan in 1988. Johnson was never much fun to read, and he seems to have been unbothered by over-complex thoughts about his subject. He alternates discussion of the life, with “criticism” chapters in which the novels are commented on. The style is banal: “From the world of crowded evil Nicholas Nickleby escapes into the bright outer air again. But not entirely; it mingles the sunlight of Pickwick with the darkness of Oliver.” So begins Johnson’s commentary on Nickleby, and a page later he is telling us again that “Nicholas Nickleby thus fuses the inexhaustible laughter of Pickwick with the somber themes of Oliver Twist.” There is not much reaching here for the mot juste. Fred Kaplan simply eschews discussion of the novels, except in the most limited way, and generally there is a cautious flatness to his treatment that does little for Dickens.

By contrast, Ackroyd takes time to deal with the novels and tales, often with satisfying perceptiveness, and his accounts (say) of Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit are those of a practiced novelist-critic and superior to what one usually encounters in biographies. Here he is on the question of whether Bleak House can be said to have inaugurated a “dark period” in Dickens’ work:

It is agreeable thus to mark off the stages of Dickens’s progress, but it is hard to find any real evidence with which to do so. The development of a novelist can really best be understood not in terms of his “moods” or even of his “themes,” but rather in the slow process of experimentation and self-education which changes the techniques of his prose. In that sense, the “darker” aspects of Dickens’s novels are merely an aspect of their more assiduously unified structure. There are scenes in The Pickwick Papers and in Oliver Twist as dark as anything in Bleak House; what has changed is the way in which he closely packs together all the aspects of his vision, thus excluding that free play and improvisation which we consider to be the “light” pitted against the “darkness” of his structural control.

Ackroyd continues to worry the point in a useful way. His discussions of Dickens’ books don’t make a fuss about how such and such is a symbol for this or that, nor does he attempt dubiously large formulations of what, in a particular novel, Dickens is “saying.” Instead he demonstrates a sympathetic gift for imagining Dickens in the art of composing his works. The pages on Pickwick Papers, for example, emphasize the quickness and energy with which Dickens began it and his confident delight as he became caught up in his own inventions. The novelist gets Pickwick and his friends onto the coach to Rochester, then begins to see and hear Mr. Jingle, the tall thin man in a green coat who says things like “Terrible place—dangerous work—other day—five children—mother—tall lady, eating sandwiches—forgot the arch—crash—knock—children look round—mother’s head off—sandwich in her hand—no mouth to put it in—head of a family off—shocking, shocking.” Ackroyd notes that

As he writes Dickens rarely pauses to correct; his handwriting is large and firm, springing from him with extraordinary ease. He has found his great subject, and it is not long before he has taken Mr Pickwick to a ball, installed him in the Bull Inn, Rochester, and begun to digress upon the characters and adventures of his companions. There is great humour and even joy in all this, it is the joy of the young Dickens able for the first time to write and invent upon a large scale. Of course he still retains some of the supercilious and ironic mannerisms of his journalistic work, and of course he almost at once incorporates the topical and trivial events of the day: but the important thing is that he is now beginning to enlarge himself, to expand everything he had previously, to find himself as a writer at just the appropriate time.

This seems to me the right note to catch the novelist, as it were, on the wing.

What is distinctly the wrong note and a recurrent blemish on this biography is a rhetorical habit, really two rhetorical habits, that occur so regularly it’s hard to believe Ackroyd didn’t exploit them deliberately (though it’s also hard to see why he should have wanted to do so). The first is the rhetorical question, asked for purposes of insinuating a connection between life and fiction. If Dickens spent much of his childhood living in cramped quarters in Chatham and London with siblings, nurses, his parents, and his Aunt Fanny, then Ackroyd will nudge us: “And do we not hear also in this somewhat overcrowded house the echoes of all those people moving through small rooms arguing, fighting, grieving, which play so large a part in his later novels?” If Dickens read Fielding and Smollett as a youth, then “And did he not hear in the syntax of these novels an echo of his father’s own orotund voice?” From a passage in Dombey and Son where Walter Gay runs to seek the aid of Captain Cuttle, we are directed to Dickens’ life: “Is it possible to see here the panorama of the young Dickens’s own flight to seek the help of Christopher Huffam at the time of his father’s bankruptcy?” Well, evidently Ackroyd saw the panorama there, so why doesn’t he just declare it? There are countless more of these awkwardly conceived pleas for our assent to a connection the biographer has already made.

The other disfiguring rhetoric consists of sequences of terse, often one-word sentences, bulletins sent out in unconvincing imitation of the opening page of Bleak House. What did Dickens’ imagination make of his experience as a small boy forced to work in the blacking warehouse? “Dampness. Ruin. Rottenness. Rats … Woodworm. The smell of decay.” How about the London where his imagination most truly lived, the London he saw as a child? “Uncertainty. Poverty. Dirt. Squalor. Interconnectedness, the rich living beside the poor. Fog. Mist. Fever. Madness. A place of crime and punishment. Prisons. Executions.” Sometimes the two tics come together, the better (supposedly) to create a strong effect. If in later years Dickens compared himself to an animal prowling behind bars, “Can we see something of his own memory in these accounts? But do we not also see in the agony which Dickens suffered some image of himself as the innocent victim?” Then, after a sentence, the bulletins begin flowing in again: “Anxiety. Solitude. Defilement. Despair. Blacking.” At another point, apropos of Bleak House, we’re asked “Can we see the head of John Dickens, monstrous as if in a Dali painting, looming over the streets of the metropolis as Dickens walks them? What else surfaces in Bleak House? Decrepitude. Weariness. Anger against the world.” These are not just minor stylistic gaffes since they persistently get in the way of taking seriously some of Ackroyd’s deeply and often justly perceived correspondences between the artist’s life and work. After a certain number of “Do we not feel,” and “Can we not say,”(s) I found myself automatically responding, no we don’t and no I cannot. Both rhetorical habits give a kind of overheated, corny tone that is inappropriate to Ackroyd’s intelligent, if total, immersion in his subject. Or maybe the immersion was so total that he couldn’t help himself.

These practices aside, Ackroyd’s major emphasis seems to me indisputable: that the most serious influence on Dickens’ art was the theater as an “enchanted place”—“a kind of dream, in which all the restrictions and difficulties of conventional reality fell away.” From the days when he and his school friends would put on little plays in the kitchen of a friend’s house, to the final grueling performances of his works before delighted audiences, the theater was no less than everything to his imagination.2 Indeed much of his “real life” became theater, often of a garish and lurid sort. One of the permanently valuable books on Dickens’ art, John Carey’s The Violent Effigy (1974), shows how that art transforms what Carey calls “the materials of horror” into something spirited and resilient, and Carey points out that it is “Riot, murder, savagery” and other disorderly acts and feelings that grip Dickens’ imagination. Ackroyd provides much evidence of his obsession with death, with accounts of murders and murderers, and with the public executions he attended and revelled in (at one of them he encountered Thackeray, there so he could write an article on the event). Dickens regularly talked about his characters in provocatively violent ways: “Paul, I shall slaughter at the end of number five,” he wrote his friend and first biographer, John Forster, referring to the famous death he was cooking up for little Paul Dombey; while at his public readings he repeatedly performed with relish Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy. One of his most striking theatrical displays came when he ascended Mt. Vesuvius (the account is in Pictures from Italy) and, stepping over the ice and the masses of ash and cinders, insisted on going still higher so he could stare into the heart of the volcano itself. Ackroyd describes him standing on the summit and swigging from a bottle of wine before descending: “His own extraordinary and impulsive energy sending him up to the brink of Vesuvius, his hair singed, his clothes burning” (he compares Dickens, relevantly, to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, drinking scalding liquors and doing mad dances). This excessive aspect of Dickens (to put it mildly) seems to me to mock the efforts of those who would account for it by analyzing his childhood or his family situation or whatever. There simply is no accounting for it, just as there isn’t for genius.

In one of his interpolations Ackroyd asks himself whether he “understands” Dickens, then answers that “At the time of the actual writing I certainly did. Immediately after the book was finished, I thought I did. Now I’m not so sure. Only the reader has the answer.” Very clever, but that is exactly what the reader—this one anyway—did not have as he finished the long book. A hundred and some pages from its end, we find our hero separated from his wife Catherine, maintaining some sort of clandestine relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan (Ackroyd thinks it a sexless idealizing of the virgin-to-be-protected), and at work on the last, grim novel he completed, Our Mutual Friend. The biographer, aware that his subject “displayed more paradoxes than most,” attempts to summarize a few of them by saying that Dickens was “impulsive and yet disciplined, restless and yet systematic, modest in manner but driven always by the need for preeminence. He was of genial disposition but he also possessed an inflexible and paramount will. He often maintained a cool or grave demeanour, even while hiding the ‘savage’ or ‘wild animal’ which he sometimes sensed within himself.” And so on through a paragraph, at the end of which and with the paradoxes piled end to end, a reader would have to be bold indeed to claim that he now “understands” Dickens better. Like Ackroyd after completing the heroic labor, he is now not so sure.

At its wildest and most brilliant, Dickens’ comedy displays a similar resistance to formulaic understanding, or to attempts to account for it by juxtaposing it with materials from his life. There is a marvelous scene (one of many) in Martin Chuzzlewit where the evil Jonas Chuzzlewit entertains Pecksniff’s two daughters for dinner at his and his father, Anthony Chuzzlewit’s, residence. At the table, after he crawls or creeps out of his office cubicle, is a relic named Old Chuffey who when taking his place attempts a bow to the ladies, then sits down without having succeeded in making it.

and breathing on his shrivelled hands to warm them, remained with his poor blue nose immovable about his plate, looking at nothing with eyes that saw nothing, and a face that meant nothing. Take him in that state, and he was the embodiment of nothing. Nothing else.

What is the tone or spirit in which that brilliant “Nothing else” is conceived? Jonas introduces the relic to the young ladies:

“Our clerk,” said Mr. Jonas, as host and master of the ceremonies: “Old Chuffey.”

“Is he deaf?” inquired one of the young ladies.

“No, I don’t know that he is. He an’t deaf, is he, father?”

“I never heard him say he was,” replied the old man.

“Blind?” inquired the young ladies.

“N-no. I never understood that he was at all blind,” said Jonas carelessly. “You don’t consider him so, do you, father?”

“Certainly not,” replied Anthony.

“What is he, then?”

“Why, I’ll tell you what he is,” said Mr. Jonas, apart to the young ladies, “he’s precious old, for one thing; and I an’t best pleased with him for that, for I think my father must have caught it of him.”

Jonas warns the Pecksniff girls that “He’ll, be very disagreeable, mind, … He always chokes when it an’t broth,” and when almost immediately Old Chuffey proceeds to choke on some tough mutton, Jonas is “infinitely amused, protesting that he had seldom seen him better company in all his life.” As Santayana put it (in his essay in Soliloquies in England), Dickens’ “pure comedy is scornful, merciless, devastating, holding no door open to anything beyond.” Just as Dickens put it about Old Chuffey—“the embodiment of nothing. Nothing else.”3

At one point in his narrative, Ackroyd, noting that the germ of the character Jo in Bleak House came from the testimony of a fourteen-year-old boy who swept mud and manure from London streets, says rather superiorly, “And there are still those who accuse Dickens of melodramatic exaggeration.” This is a line similar to that taken by Santayana in an often quoted sentence: “When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me they can have no eyes and no ears.” But Dickens always exaggerates, just as Shakespeare does, and if sometimes the exaggeration takes a melodramatic turn at other, more enlivening times, it takes a blackly comic one like the above scene from Chuzzlewit. Dickens couldn’t even take a walk without exaggerating, since his steady pace was four and a half miles an hour and “it was quite common for him to walk twenty or even thirty miles at a stretch.” After a quarrel with Catherine, not long before their separation, he couldn’t sleep and at two o’clock in the morning got up and walked thirty miles from his London residence to his house in Gad’s Hill. Ackroyd catches well the man’s obsessed nature and how, in his last years, it exacted his toll:

But he had to suffer the disadvantages of his gifts; his quick imaginative excitement and his loss of self-possession in the characters of his imagination were now the very qualities which unnerved him, saddened him, rendered him desperate. He saw too much: he experienced too much; he conjured up too readily images of decay and suffering. … All the characteristics that made him a great novelist were now directed against his own life.

Too much indeed, and it is that which Emerson saw and was daunted by.

Ackroyd speaks about how Dickens could never admit to being wrong, how he was “the good man,” “the moral man” who had to be right. And with that went an inability, or a refusal, to “understand” himself except in “a half-exaggerated and half-whimsical manner, as if he too were a character from one of his own books.” This I take to be no reproach to Dickens, since most of us can (or should) say the same thing about our own success in understanding ourselves—except that we haven’t written the novels and invented the characters. What would be the possible terms with which to “understand” a man who concluded his final reading-performance with the following words: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it would be worse than idle—for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling—if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain,” then went on to speak of the fifteen years of readings, of the imminent appearance of what would be his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, then in a faltering voice signed off with “but from these garish lights I vanish now for ever more, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell”:

There was a brief hush in the audience followed by something very like a common sigh and then, as his son recalled, “a storm of cheering as I have never seen equalled in my life.” His head was bowed and the tears were streaming down his face as he left the platform. But the cheering and applause would not stop; after several minutes he returned, faced his audience once again, raised his hands to his lips in a kiss, and then left the platform for the last time.

It was the last superb moment in the Dickens Theater, and by the time we reach it, on page 1067 of the biography, we’re both moved and used up. “Dickens entered the theater of this world through the stage door,” wrote Santayana, so it is fitting that what is virtually his final bow should have been made front and center.


  1. Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd. The book is 1195 pages, 57 of which consist of “Notes on Text and Sources” where the biographer documents his narrative. (There are no footnotes, however.) Ackroyd has read all of Dickens through three times, as well as every book and article about his subject.

  2. In one of his notes Ackroyd singles out for praise Robert Garis' The Dickens Theater, still the best book on how Dickens’ theatrical art informs his novels.

  3. Martin Chuzzlewit and Pickwick Papers show Dickens’ “pure comedy” at its greatest. Recent rereading of those books convinces me it’s a mistake to argue that the novelist improved in his later works, since these early ones are unsurpassable.

Laurence Lerner (review date 20 July 1991)

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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 Spenlow and met her years later to find she had become Flora Finching whom he left a lily and who had turned into a peony; or that both Mr Micawber and Mr Dorritt were based on his father. The huge difference between these figures shows how little we learn when we observe that an author has based a character on a known original. Sometimes the work/life link can mean that the work provides an explanatory grid for the life, and Mr Ackroyd has one or two good examples of this, as when he remarks, in discussing the break-up of Dickens's marriage:

neglectful mothers play so large a part in his novels that it seems to have been for him the simplest act of transference to accuse his own wife of a similar fault.

Sometimes it means little more than a tautology, and Mr Ackroyd is occasionally guilty of such banalities as telling us that the melancholy atmosphere of Edwin Drood can be ascribed to Dickens’s own moods of sadness. What it ought not to mean is that you need to know about the author's life in order to understand or appreciate the fiction: for the very nature of literature is that if a novel is any good it shakes free of the person who produced it, and speaks to those who neither know nor care whom the author maligned, slept with, or adored.

Dickens was an obsessively tidy man. It is interesting to know this, and, yes, it may be ‘some reflection of the squalor and even disorder which invaded his early homes’, as long as we remember that squalid homes can equally well produce squalid children; but what is the interest of this for the reader of his novels? They contain fascinated descriptions of neat and tidy interiors, or delighted accounts of how clerks like Nicholas Nickleby ‘dot all their small i's and cross every t as they write it’; but there are equally fascinated and exuberant descriptions of energy, abundance and even violence, most famously in the exhilarated descriptions of the riots in Barnaby Rudge. John Carey did not need very much biographical study to show, in his brilliant book on Dickens, that his imagination is gloriously full of contradictions, and that attempts to impose a moral schema on it, whether by Dickens himself or by morally concerned critics, reduce a great novelist to a purveyor of Sunday school precepts—something which Mr Ackroyd occasionally slips into, as when he assures us that Dickens’s philosophy of ‘Never say die, never give up’ ‘successfully steered him through life while others clung to the wreckage of their hopes’.

The introductory essay is followed by a set of brief introductions to the novels, which are lucid and jargon-free, and sometimes illuminating. They are liveliest when recalling the actual language of the books, reminding us that Mrs Wilfer ate her dinner ‘as if she were feeding somebody else on high public grounds’. They are also surprisingly uncritical, lavishing as much praise on Dickens’s sentimentality and uplift as on his linguistic fertility and grotesque comedy: there cannot be many critics around nowadays who feel as warmly as Mr Ackroyd does towards the conclusion of Dombey and Son, with its solemn invocation of ‘that higher Father who does not reject his children’s love, or spurn their tried and broken hearts’.

Inevitably, this book will mean most to those who have read the big biography. The brief assertion that in the affair with Ellen Ternan Dickens

acted out one of the enduring fantasies of his fiction—that of an idealised marriage with a young and sexless virgin

must remain just that, an assertion, to those who have not followed Mr Ackroyd through his careful, scholarly and (to me, finally) unconvincing argument that the affair was never consummated sexually. Just as Dickens needed nearly half a million words to create a full-scale novel, so his biographer needs as much to recreate the wonderful supporting characters of his life.

James Buchan (review date 30 May 1992)

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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.

Timothy’s mother is also dead, and he is soon separated from his father and put in the care of his grandparents in Wiltshire, which is an Ackroydian Siberia, Timothy goes to school while Clement Harcombe moves in with a woman disciple. Timothy is reunited with his father in Notting Hill and, in Borough High Street, with the woman who evokes the most complex and disruptive oedipal feelings. Timothy breaks with his father but meets him again, years later, at a travelling circus. Clement’s performance has degenerated into conjuring tricks but, miraculously, he cures his son of illness and they reconstitute their act. Clement dies but Timothy is reconciled to him and his absent mother and through them to his place in England and history.

As stories go, this would have given Peter Ackroyd ample scope for his gifts. He showed in Hawksmoor that he has a flair for the forlorn and spooky in the topography of East End London; a sympathy for the hopeless, timid and disturbed existences at the heart of the metropolis; and the most acute feel for the scarified sensibilities of the male orphan. Ackroyd could have written a historical novel whose only vices would have been a somewhat archaising style and a laboured authenticity:

I can still see the old household goods rising up in front of me. The bottle of White’s Lemonade. The yellow tin of Colman’s Mustard. The green box of Tip-Top Tea. Dark bottles of Whitbread Stout. Oxo. Bournville Cocoa. Nestle Milk.

Such is the tyranny of research or the bad influence of TV.

Unfortunately, to ask Peter Ackroyd to tell such a story would be like asking a post-modernist architect to build you a tool-shed: you’d get the shed, but it would be encrusted in ornamental detail of unusual colour, unsuitable material and hallucinatory scale, littered with self-consciously witty references to hammers or screwdrivers, and with no way in. Peter Ackroyd assembles and presents Timothy with his usual skill and then, at each of the crises I mentioned, introduces him into well-known scenes from British literature which are distorted or even partly demolished to accommodate him.

[English Music] is increasingly taken up with justifying this narrative approach and the drama of Timothy’s story soon dissipates. Ackroyd presents the theory that experience follows patterns already evident in the repertory of British literature which he renames (for reasons not wholly clear to me) ‘English music:’

There is nothing new under the sun. This field has been so traced that it is hard to spring anything original from it, and in the same fashion we must transcribe our knowledge or lend our own names to other men’s endeavours.

This argument proceeds chiefly through assertion, but Ackroyd does quote some literary authorities, including the opening of volume five of Tristram Shandy:

Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?

Having thus covered his back, Ackroyd sets to work on the books that he has assembled on the shelves of Timothy’s bookcase in Hackney Square: Great Expectations, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year (an old friend from Hawksmoor), the Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Musicke by Byrd’s pupil Sir Thomas Morley, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice in Wonderland, and various volumes of English verse, painting and drama.

At each crisis, Timothy falls into a dream which becomes an adventure in British literature. The first amalgamates The Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice: it preserves the abruptness common to both books but scrambles any conviction or meaning in them. The second introduces Timothy into Great Expectations, where he meets Dickens and tinkers with the plot by putting out the fire in Miss Havisham’s dress; in the next, the disappearance of Timothy’s father becomes a Holmesian mystery in which Ackroyd himself (I guess) makes a cameo appearance:

a man with a small moustache, thin mouth, greying hair and startled eyes.

These two chapters make points about the power of an author over his fictions which some readers may find interesting.

The fourth interlude takes Timothy to Robinson Crusoe’s island, while the fifth and sixth introduce him to Byrd and Hogarth, as fathers of English music and painting; in the seventh, Timothy wanders in the landscapes of Gainsborough, Turner and Constable and the London scenes of Whistler (who is English for the purposes of the book). While these chapters suggest an expansion of the concept of ‘English music’, they are in fact highly and exclusively literary: Byrd, for example, inhabits a place called ‘merry England’ (which you thought Kingsley Amis had well and truly killed off in Lucky Jim) while the paintings are staffed with escapees from Richardson, Sterne, Smollett and so on. We then climb up into verse for an encomium of British poets, starting with Caedmon and ending with Dowson (an anthology which even Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch would have approved). The last interlude is a pastiche of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, where Timothy’s father and all the father surrogates are combined in the person of the Maim’d King and of Albion itself.

Is there a set of national ideals which might be termed ‘English music’? Peter Ackroyd does not make a very coherent case. As defining or distinguishing characteristics of EM he presents a thing called Line of Light and another called Line of Beauty: these are, if I’ve understood Ackroyd correctly, the Maxim Guns that we have and they (Americans? Turks? French?) have not.

It was a line of light, a line that moved among the phrases and melodies of music just as it did within the images and colours of painting.

Such is the line of beauty, as it rises and falls in our English music.

Mercifully, Ackroyd leaves it at that.

This national Platonism would interest me more if it were less sentimental, incoherent and selective: I notice that Ackroyd does not engage with modern England or search for his Line of Light in modern English literature (except, implicitly in his own work). The whole thing looks like belated theoretical cover for his fondness for literary pastiche, at which he is quite good (though it isn’t hard.) This was also the story with Hawksmoor, which got up a good speed slipstreaming on its models (notably A Journal of the Plague Year) but came to grief before the finish.

Ackroyd’s position is, as far as I’ve understood it, false: originality is not only possible, it is important; as is immediacy. Modern social reality in Britain, with its cataclysmic changes in relations between the classes and the sexes, is excruciatingly hard for novelists to do; but that doesn’t excuse this mass flight into the secondary reality of existing literature, the past, abroad, circuses, games, writing backwards and cribbing.

I was surprised that Peter Ackroyd should quote Sterne in defence of his literary defeatism because there is a passage, two or three lines later in volume five of Tristram Shandy, which would appear to question Ackroyd’s entire literary project:

Shall we be destined to the days of eternity … to be showing the relics of learning, as monks do the relics of their saints—without working one—one single miracle with them?

Brian Finney (essay date Summer 1992)

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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 radical experimentation, nor do they confine their appeal to an elite, mainly academic coterie. They are capable of producing best-sellers, such as Martin Amis’s Money. They produce works of fiction that are turned into movies, such as Angela Carter’s story “The Company of Wolves,” a rewriting of the traditional fairy story of Little Red Riding Hood. They have absorbed the triumphs (and absurdities) of poststructuralism and can utilize those aspects of recent theory that suit their purposes without becoming enslaved by them. They have never lost touch with their readership. But they are clearly distinguishable (and distinguish themselves) from the mainstream of British realist novelists typified by writers like Angus Wilson, Alan Sillitoe, or Margaret Drabble.

Yet none of these less realist novelists belongs to a school or subscribes to a group identity. Peter Ackroyd typically insists on the difference of his fiction from the entire contemporary scene: “Someone said the novels I write really have no connection with the novels of my contemporaries, or even with the period itself. I think that’s probably true” (Smith 60). Ackroyd is a peculiar combination. He is of his time and outside it, representative of a newer kind of fictional British writing and yet unique, in rebellion against the mainstream English fictional tradition yet writing in an alternative British strain of his choosing. To illustrate the particular position he occupies in the contemporary field of British novelists this article will concentrate on what a number of reviewers consider to be his best novel to date, Chatterton. But because this is the first essay (as opposed to reviews and interviews) to be written about him, the first section will be taken up with his earlier career and stated attitudes to the genres of literature which he has produced.

Ackroyd’s introduction to postmodern writing came when he won a Mellon Fellowship that enabled him to spend two years from 1971 to 1973 at Yale. He had just been awarded a double first in English literature at Cambridge, a bastion of New Criticism in the F. R. Leavis mold. At Yale he met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, both poets of the New York school. Ashbery had spent nine years in France and was well acquainted with contemporary currents in French thought. He was also a friend of a number of postmodern artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. After Cambridge this potent new brew went to Ackroyd’s head like wine. He quickly absorbed these Americans’ disruption of meaning and reference, their exploration of the self-reflexivity of language and art.

Toward the end of his stay at Yale he wrote what he described as “not a scholarly work” but “a polemic,” Notes for a New Culture (9). The position he takes in it reflects Yale’s enthusiastic adoption of contemporary French theory at that time. But, seen in a British context, his assertion that form and language constitute the true subject of contemporary modernism (postmodernism as a term had yet to become fashionable) was inflammatory material. In the book he ridicules F. R. Leavis’s belief in the moral force of literature. He also deplores the English subscription to a great tradition of literature (as defined by Leavis) built on a conventional aesthetic which rests on key notions of “subjectivity” and “experience.” This old humanistic belief in the referential instrumentality of language, Ackroyd argues, was replaced by the modernist aesthetic. “Modernism is the movement in which created form began to interrogate itself, and to move toward an impossible union with itself in self-identity. … Language is seen to constitute meaning only within itself, and to excise the external references of subjectivity and its corollary, Man” (145). But England has insulated itself from “that formal self-criticism and theoretical debate which sustained European modernism” (147). The true line of modernism, according to Ackroyd, runs from Mallarmé and Nietszche through Joyce to contemporaries such as Ashbery in literature and Derrida and Lacan in theory. Both Ashbery and his fellow poet of the New York school, Frank O’Hara, share “a concern for a language which, although assured and relaxed, manifestly ‘says’ nothing” (127). Ackroyd concludes that England’s separation from the mainstream of modernist developments has led to a paucity in English creative writing. “Our own literature has revealed no formal sense of itself and continues no substantial language” (147).

Written in 1973, Notes for a New Culture was not published until 1976, by which time Ackroyd was established back in London as the youngest literary editor of the Spectator, a weekly magazine. It was reviewed in the influential London Sunday Times by Christopher Ricks, a leading professor in English at Cambridge. Professor Ricks was implacably opposed to the irruption of French theory into the field of English studies, and the literary editor of the Sunday Times must have known that he was offering a red rag to a bull when he sent the book to him for review. After expressing his exasperation at Ackroyd’s attempt “to make out that it [the book] is a lonely oasis when in fact it has a swell of trend buoying it up” (somewhat of a mixed metaphor), Ricks concentrates all his fire on Ackroyd’s numerous errors of fact that reflect its origin as the product of a young graduate student who has failed to check all his sources. He mocks Ackroyd’s assertion that Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” was published one year before Mallarmé’s Les Poésies, seeing that Mallarmé was born the same year “Locksley Hall” was published. He castigates Ackroyd for misspelling Tristes Tropiques (Topiques), Mauberley (Mauberly), Revaluation (Revaluations) and other misquotations. “Why all this niggling?” he asks. “Because literary history at present might profit from a long hard look, but only if the look also took a long hard look at itself first.” He concludes: “It will be a gloomy day … if all that happens is that English disdain-for-theory squares up to Continental disdain-for-fact” (39).

Apart from being upset that Ricks had been able to point out so many easily avoidable errors, Ackroyd was not unduly put out by what was ultimately a refusal to confront head-on the argument of his book. After Notes for a New Culture, the next book Ackroyd published was a study of Ezra Pound, one of the modernist giants. Ezra Pound and His World (1980), one of a series, came out the year after a less conventional and more personal book that Ackroyd wrote simultaneously, Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. That combination of the avant-garde and camp places Ackroyd quite accurately outside the mainstream of English culture. He has subsequently said of his eight years as literary then joint managing editor of the Spectator, “I’m not what you’d call a Spectator person. … I don’t fit into that particular kind of Englishness” (Appleyard 53). Asked recently what tradition he does subscribe to, Ackroyd claimed to admire the English genius for “a combination of melancholy, lyricism and camp” (McGrath 47). Those are the qualities he attempts to embody in his work. “I don’t think many other contemporary novelists are working in that vein” (McGrath 47). Clearly he has shifted his position since writing Notes, in that he no longer spurns a particular English literary tradition. But he still redefines which one he admires. It is not, he insists in the same interview, concerned with the moral life of adult love and death. Apart from Shakespeare, English “tragedy slides off into excessive horror, or gothic; and there’s very little love either, it tends to become parody or sentimentality” (McGrath 47). Reading literature may make you a better writer, he quips, but not a better person. So he still stands opposed to the Leavis school of criticism, and he still cultivates a postmodernist delight in parody and linguistic self-consciousness.

Throughout this time Ackroyd thought of himself primarily as a poet in the American avant-garde tradition. His first published work had been a slim book of poems called London Lickpenny (1973), and he published a second small volume of poems, Country Life, in 1978. Even Peter Porter had to admit in his review of London Lickpenny for the Observer that he did not understand most of the poems. Throughout this period Ackroyd saw himself as an experimental poet in the contemporary mode, isolated in England by a general cultural subscription to humanism and realism. The last thing he contemplated during this time was extending his linguistic experimentation to the realm of fiction. Interestingly, since turning to fiction he has stopped writing poetry altogether. But he has noticed that “some of the cadences and the images and the ideas and the perceptions and even the very phrases which occurred in [the] poetry have recurred in the fiction” (CA 3).1

In 1982 he published his first novel, The Great Fire of London. It has many of the unique characteristics that Ackroyd’s readers have come to associate with his subsequent works of fiction. Setting out to offer a continuation of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, the novel stages this in contemporary London. A cast of characters attempt to relive parts of the novel—invariably unsuccessfully. The past is unrepeatable. There is the director of a film based on Little Dorrit who sets himself the impossible task of re-creating Dickens’s London using a contemporary prison for the Marshalsea Prison of Dickens’s time. There is Audrey, a telephone operator, who imagines herself at a séance taken over by the persona of Little Dorrit. Other Dickensian characters include Arthur, a dwarf child murderer and Rowan Philips, a gay Cambridge don whom the director hires to write the script. Inevitably past and present become inextricably fused when Audrey, indignant at the presence of an actress on the set impersonating Little Dorrit (herself), burns down the set, in the process causing the director’s death. That is the fate, Ackroyd considers, that lies in wait for any realist artist attempting to resurrect the past. As he concludes, “This is not a true story, but certain things follow from other things” (169). The entire novel is written in a style that brilliantly encapsulates Dickens’s taste for caricature and Dickens’s style of writing.

Ackroyd’s next novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), won the Somerset Maugham Award for its brilliant reproduction of Wilde’s voice and linguistic mannerisms. It purports to be Wilde’s journal between August and November 1900 (when Wilde died). The text is sprinkled with Wildean aphorisms that bear comparison with their originals. Ackroyd portrays a Wilde transformed by his public trial and period in prison: “I longed for fame and was destroyed by it. I thought, in my days of purple and of gold, that I could reveal myself to the world and instead the world has revealed itself to me” (2). Ackroyd combines (unacknowledged) quotations from Wilde with his own mimicry of Wilde’s voice to invent a highly plausible fictional journal. One critic even claimed that Ackroyd “is sometimes more Wildean than Wilde” (Lewis 40). Ackroyd’s impersonation of an earlier writer reflects his belief in the disappearance of the subject in postmodern art. His Wilde writes, “I have discovered the wonderful impersonality of life. I am an ‘effect’ merely: the meaning of my life exists in the minds of others and no longer in my own” (Last Testament 2). “Wilde” is effectually bequeathing the interpretation of his life and writings to the likes of Ackroyd. Not only does Ackroyd refuse to offer his readers the consolation of an authoritative narrative position, but he further proceeds to undermine the voice of his impersonated narrator/protagonist. At one point Frank Harris, after reading a section of the journal, says to Wilde, “You have stolen lines from other writers.” Wilde retorts, “I did not steal them. I rescued them” (161). Ackroyd here recruits Wilde to justify his own “rescue” of Wilde. As readers we are thoroughly enmeshed in one of Ackroyd’s intertextual mazes, in which all literary paths look like one another and none lead to a center, let alone logocentricism.

The next year, 1984, Ackroyd published T. S. Eliot, a biography that won him wide applause and the Whitbread Award for Biography. It was written under trying circumstances, as the estate refused Ackroyd permission to quote from any of Eliot’s letters or unpublished verse and restricted his citations of the published writings to a legal minimum. Subsequently Ackroyd claimed that not being able to quote from the letters verbatim made him “much more inventive about how [he] brought him to life” (CA 4). It was natural for him to move from Pound to Eliot, and Ackroyd welcomed the opportunity of examining the makeup of another great modernist and his work, one who owed an extraordinary debt to his American fellow poet. Reviewing Pound’s suggested revisions and deletions from the original version of The Waste Land, Ackroyd provocatively claims that “Pound mistook or refused to recognize Eliot’s original schema and as a result rescued the poetry” (Eliot 120). At the same time Ackroyd expresses reservations over the ambiguous role Eliot played in the advent of modernism. “He helped to create the idea of a modern movement with his own ‘difficult’ poetry, and then assisted at its burial” (Eliot 239). This position is similar to that he took in Notes for a New Culture, where he argued that Eliot’s famous dictum about the poet’s need to escape from personality does not amount to “‘escaping’ into, and celebrating language, but rather … ‘escaping’ into a mysterious entity which is himself and yet not himself” (50). In Ackroyd’s eyes Eliot ultimately turned his back on the modernist revolution he helped introduce, unlike Joyce, who took the modernist fascination with the world of language to its limits in Finnegans Wake.

Yet as a biographer Ackroyd is drawn to a writer like Eliot who hides behind invented literary personae. A gifted literary ventriloquist himself, Ackroyd sees Eliot as one of the great instances of the idea that literary creativity consists largely of the ability to absorb and rearticulate voices from the past. “The character inhabited me,” he claimed (McGrath 54). He even wrote the biography “in a style that would re-create Eliot’s presence” (Lehman 80). Revealingly he has confessed that in writing the biography he “wasn’t concerned with the real Eliot,” only with his “creation of an Eliot” toward whom his feelings were those “of an author towards his character” (McGrath 47). Writing about Eliot gave Ackroyd the confidence to employ imitation, quotation and pastiche in his subsequent fiction. “The history of English literature,” Ackroyd has said, “is really the history of plagiarism. I discovered that when I was doing T. S. Eliot. He was a great plagiarist. … I see nothing wrong with it” (Smith 60).

Ackroyd has some particularly illuminating things to say about the passages excised from The Waste Land. “Its first four sections,” he writes, “had been introduced by poetry which is as close to parody as he ever got.” Nevertheless, he continues, there is a difference between Eliot’s use of parody and pure imitation. Eliot’s use of parody amounts to “the creative borrowing of another style and syntax which releases a plethora of ‘voices’ and perceptions.” So, Ackroyd concludes, “Eliot found his own voice by first reproducing that of others” (117–18). All biography reflects, however indirectly, the personality and obsessions of the biographer. Ackroyd is here describing the process by which he too found his own literary voice—by his creative borrowing of the style and syntax of first Dickens, then Wilde.

The connection between the fiery young author of Notes for a New Culture and the biographer of T. S. Eliot surfaces in the latter book when Ackroyd defines biography there as “a convenient fiction” (239). Clearly a writer who believes that the subject is purely a textual construct will be drawn to a poet like Eliot who speaks through an array of “characters” or personae. It was Eliot’s later subscription to extra-textual values that led Ackroyd to denounce his eventual betrayal of the modernist revolution. What is of most interest here is Ackroyd’s refusal to distinguish between the genres of biography and fiction. Elsewhere, in an interview, he has echoed this conviction that “they’re much the same process.” He goes on provocatively to suggest that “fiction’s often more factual than biography and far more precise,” because “biography has to be an act of interpretation. No one ever knows what happened.” Both employ the same technical skills in their writing. “There’s no reason” even “why you shouldn’t use pastiche or parody of the subject’s style within the biography” (Smith 59). “I just think of them [biographies] as other novels,” he has said elsewhere (McGrath 46). Ackroyd’s Notes, his biographies, and his fiction, then, are of a piece. They all assume a linguistically constituted universe in which concepts like originality, authenticity, and objectivity dissolve, to be replaced by the iridescent surface of language and its endless reformation in the works of the great wordsmiths of literature.

The biography of T. S. Eliot was followed the next year (1985) by his third novel, Hawksmoor. This book won him the Whitbread, Guardian Fiction and Goncourt awards, and made him a figure to be reckoned with on the literary scene, especially in Britain. The novel alternates between chapters set in early eighteenth-century London and those set in the twentieth century. The former concern the architect. Nicholas Dyer, who was charged by Parliament with building seven new churches, churches historically built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the exemplar of English Baroque architecture. Dyer is a Manichean whose mystical belief in the pervasive power of evil stands opposed to the more established Sir Christopher Wren’s subscription to the empirical, scientific, and rational ethos of the Royal Society. Dyer enacts his opposition to the spirit of the Enlightenment, his belief in the powers of darkness, by secretly sacrificing to the demonic powers a virgin boy in the foundations of each of his new churches. His modern counterpart, Nicholas Hawksmoor, is a Detective Chief Inspector who is investigating a series of strangulations of boys and childlike tramps that occur on the sites of Dyer’s churches. Hawksmoor is Sir Christopher Wren’s modern counterpart, whose belief in the power of reason fails to solve the murders. His failure brings him close to insanity, but ultimately he is granted a kind of telepathic insight into the mysteries of Dyer’s dark world.

Numerous reviewers of the novel have remarked on the influence of Eliot’s vision on Ackroyd’s portrayal of London past and present. It is as if Ackroyd were redoing not just the police but London past and present in different voices, transforming his modernist predecessor’s disillusioned vision into his own postmodern Gothic rendering of it. One reviewer cited the lines from the last stanza of Section 1 of The Waste Land evoking the “unreal city” at dawn with its ghostly figures flowing down King William Street to “where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hour.” He comments: “The novel at a crucial point reaches the same mood as well as the identical locale,” and suggests that Stetson’s corpses are “likewise mimicked in the plot” (Rogers 18). It is natural for a writer who sees no difference between biography and fiction to allow the one book to cast its linguistic and imaginative (if distorted) shadow on the other. There is a passing reference to “hollow men.” Dyer has a servant called Eliot. Above all, the numerous parallels constructed between time past and time present in the novel seem to be informed by Eliot’s meditation on the same theme in Four Quartets. Alan Hollinghurst comments: “What Ackroyd may be saying is that time present and time past are both present in time future, and that the essence of Dyer’s possession of Hawksmoor is the simultaneity of experiences centuries apart, to which Dyer’s churches are perversely capable of granting access—as all great art may be thought to transcend time” (1049).

Ackroyd has said that when he writes a novel he is “primarily interested in the formal shape of it, the way things are balanced against each other” (McGrath 46). He saw the writing of Hawksmoor “as a sort of linguistic exercise” (45), in which the principal task was to construct an intricate web of parallels between past and present. At the level of ideas, Dyer and Hawksmoor begin as opposed to each other’s belief in Satanism and rationality respectively and are drawn together by the end of the book. There are numerous topographical coincidences, of which the use of the churches Dyer built are the most obvious. Dyer works at the Board of Works in Old Scotland Yard, Hawksmoor at police headquarters in New Scotland Yard. Both live around Seven Dials. Dyer journeys from London to Stonehenge, Hawksmoor from Stonehenge to London. Each of the two characters glimpses his double in passing as a reflection in a glass. Both hear the same children’s songs. At the end both protagonists find themselves in Little St. Hugh (the only imaginary church of the seven), both imagine themselves as children again, and confront one another as each other’s complementaries:

They were face to face, and yet they looked past one another at the pattern which they cast upon the stone; for when there was a shape there was a reflection, and when there was a light there was a shadow, and when there was a sound there was an echo, and who could say where one had ended and the other had begun? (289)

Ackroyd here puts into practice his finding in Notes—that the modernist breakthrough was to show form interrogating itself. In terms of what Gérard Genette calls histoire, or story, the ending of the novel is enigmatic, inconclusive, baffling to many of its reviewers. But seen in terms of narration, of its formal organization of parallel motifs and linguistic patterns, it is an artistic triumph.

In all his books Ackroyd is consistent in the way he treats his various subjects. In Notes he proclaimed that “the emergence of LANGUAGE as the content of literature … has already determined … the death of Man as he finds himself in humanism and in the idea of subjectivity” (9). In The Great Fire of London Audrey is possessed by the fictional character of Little Dorrit so completely that she starts the fire that consumes symbolically and literally the director of the film for his attempting to re-create Little Dorrit within his art form Ackroyd’s Wilde, as was seen, describes himself as an “effect” merely, a linguistic construct that takes shape only in the interpretative minds of others. In his biography of T. S. Eliot Ackroyd was only concerned with creating “an Eliot.” He dismisses the very idea that a historical, coherent composite known as the Eliot ever existed.

The same is true of Dyer in Hawksmoor. Ackroyd has claimed that his voice “is a patchwork of other people’s voices” as well as his own, “an echo from about three hundred different books” that he had read in preparing to write the eighteenth-century portions of the novel. “He doesn’t really exist as a character—he’s just a little patchwork figure.” (McGrath 44). As always, Ackroyd is exaggerating. Nevertheless Dyer is constructed as much from Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary in particular and numerous obscure eighteenth-century treaties on such subjects as gout and necromancy as he is from Ackroyd’s inventiveness. A perfect example of the way Ackroyd puts together his characters by a combination of intertextual borrowing and personal adaption of those sources was pointed out by Alan Hollinghurst when he reviewed the novel: “Few will recognize that Dyer’s chance exclamation, ‘Curved lines are more beautiful than Straight,’ is an inversion of a dictum in one of Wren’s Tracts, that ‘Strait Lines are more beautiful than curved.’” (1049). Ackroyd’s ascription of the opposite of what Wren wrote to Dyer is not simply a clever use of sources but thematically pertinent to the novel’s ongoing debate between the doctrine of the Enlightenment and the previous era’s subscription to superstition.

In choosing the subject for his next book, Chatterton (1987), Ackroyd focused on a cult figure celebrated by the Romantics as the apogee of neglected genius. At first this might seem anomalous in a writer dedicated to the destruction of the humanistic conception of an originating subjectivity. But on reading the novel it becomes obvious that Ackroyd has specifically chosen this Romantic hero in order to demonstrate how the poet disappears into his own texts which survive him. Within the novel textuality rules.

Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, England, in 1752. He lived only to the age of eighteen, when he took his own life by swallowing arsenic (whether accidentally or on purpose remains an open question) in a London garret. Given some scraps of manuscript that his mother had found in the muniments room of their local church when he was seven, Chatterton fell in love with antiquity. At the age of fifteen or sixteen he invented a fifteenth-century monk called Thomas Rowley, whose poems he wrote in authentic medieval style that took his admiring readers in. During his last year, when he moved to London, he failed to make a living for himself by writing despite a prolific output. His forgery of the imaginary Rowley’s poetry was exposed within a few years of his death, and with it he was quickly transformed into a Romantic emblem of the fate of neglected genius.

Wordsworth devotes an entire stanza of one of his best known poems, “Resolution and Independence,” to Chatterton and Burns, both poets who in their youth “begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” Ackroyd has one of his characters, Harriet Scrope, a modern woman novelist, quote these two lines in a brief section that precedes the opening of the main narrative of the novel. Having just misquoted the Chorus’s epilogue from Marlow’s Dr. Faustus (“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight”), she proceeds to get Wordsworth’s word order wrong in an attempt to prove that she can quote correctly when she chooses. Ackroyd is evidently concerned to show from the start of his book that we all appropriate the past for our own purposes and in our own ways. There is no such thing as an objective past, let alone a recoverable figure of Chatterton. Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics had constructed their legend around the recently dead poet, a legend which is itself subject to a sea change by a subsequent age. Ackroyd is intent on undermining the Romantic image of Wordsworth’s “marvelous boy,” Coleridge’s “spirit blest,” Keats’s “child of sorrow,” de Vigny’s poète maudit, Oscar Wilde’s “pure artist.” All that survive from the Romantics’ elevation of the alienated gifted artist reliant on his innate imagination are the texts, and these are themselves forgeries.

Where Hawksmoor employed two distinct time periods, Chatterton has three. The first of these concerns Chatterton’s own brief life span and uses late-eighteenth-century patterns of speech. The second centers on the year 1856, when Henry Wallis completed his portrait of a dead Chatterton that was to supplant in the public imagination the only portrait of the poet to have survived from his lifetime. Wallis used as his model the poet George Meredith, whose wife left him for Wallis after the portrait was completed. The third is located in the present with yet another (failed) poet, Charles Wychwood, and his circle of acquaintances that include Harriet Scrope, who plagiarizes the novels of an obscure Victorian writer; Philip Slack, a failed novelist; and Andrew Flint, a novelist and biographer of—no other than Meredith. Clearly Ackroyd wants these three temporal strata to interact and generate meaning by reiteration beneath a surface difference. One of the most obvious ways this occurs is in the parallels he draws between the way Chatterton disappears into his writings and the way Wallis disappears into his paintings. Charles seeks to make his name through the forged writings of a Chatterton who lived on after his own forged death, and is likely to survive only in the novel Philip hopes to write about Charles’s theory of a resurrected Chatterton, a theory that has already been relegated to the realm of fiction. Even Harriet loses herself in the maze of intertextual borrowing that constitutes her fictional output. In every case the subject disappears into the work of art.

Why is this? Because the work of art is itself a reordering of other works of art from the past. Texts, seen as Ackroyd sees them in a poststructuralist light, are not the inventions of unique writers of genius, of the artistic imagination at odds with society. Texts are rearrangements of other texts. Chatterton as a subject survives only through his writings. In Notes Ackroyd quotes approvingly Lacan’s dictum: “‘I identify myself in Language, but only by losing myself in it like an object’” (139), and concludes, “Language speaks us” (140). Of course Ackroyd is simply agreeing with those French theorists who claim that the notion of what Julia Kristeva termed intertextuality has come to take the place of the notion of intersubjectivity. She proclaims that “every text is the absorption and transformation of other texts” (146). Ackroyd expressed a similar conviction when discussing The Waste Land in Notes:

In their combination these words cease to be a collection of sources … they have become a new thing. It is not that they possess a meaning which is the sum of their separate parts, nor that they embody the poet’s own voice within a tradition of voices. The words have acquired their own density, and their force comes from differences of diction which, although staying in evidence, are mediated by the life of the whole. The source of this life is language itself. (52)

He gives artistic body to this proposition in a highly intricately plotted novel where none of the many texts and works of art turns out to be the simple product of an originating artist. “Writing,” as Ackroyd wrote in Notes, “does not emerge from speech, or from the individual, but only from other writing” (61).

Chatterton uses intertextuality to show how it operates. An excellent example of this occurs in a passage in which Chatterton describes the moment when he discovered that he could do more than transcribe the medieval manuscripts he discovered in the muniments room; he could continue writing in the same style on his own: “The very words had been called forth from me, with as much Ease as if I were writing in the Language of my own Age. Schoolboy tho’ I was, it was even at this time that I decided to shore up these ancient Fragments with my own Genius: thus the Living and the Dead were to be reunited” (85). Ackroyd employs an anachronistic reference to the fourth line from the end of The Waste Land (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”) to underscore the difference between the Romantic cult of “Genius” and the modernist sense of a self in ruins. Besides, it turns out that Chatterton’s autobiographical “Account” of his life is a forgery committed by Chatterton’s Bristol publisher to revenge himself for slanders against him left behind in Chatterton’s papers after his death. So the papers are a bookseller’s attempt “to fake the work of a faker” (221). As if this double act of forgery were not sufficient, the reader also knows that the bookseller’s faked “Account” of Chatterton’s memoirs is itself faked by Ackroyd, who spent considerable time in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum reading through Chatterton’s papers and other contemporary documents.

Ackroyd has been much admired for his ability to mimic the voices of his seventeenth-century architect in Hawksmoor, of his eighteenth-century poet in Chatterton, and of his nineteenth-century wit and writer in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. He, however, claims that it is relatively easy to reproduce these voices from the past. He says this is because “the speech we use today contains or conceals previous levels of speech, from the most recent to the most ancient. They are as it were implicit in modern speech, modern writing, and it only takes a little effort to peel back the layers” (McGrath 46). The modern writer’s job is to give free rein to the natural play of language in all its historically layered complexity, just as the reader’s role, according to Barthes, whom Ackroyd quotes approvingly, “does not consist of the subjective experience of an object … but rather of the relation between one text and another” (Notes 114).

In Chatterton Ackroyd gives satirical and frequently camp expression to this essentially Nietzschean view of the triumph of the autonomy of language. Andrew Flint, in particular, is constituted as a fictional subject through his endless quotations from mainly classical writers. He even makes fun of his own reliance on quotations, as when he says to Charles, “The years are incorrigible, aren’t they? They never cease. Was it Tennyson who said that? No. Horace. Horace Walpole” (75). Flint’s inability to respond to life without resorting to the responses of his classical forebears is parodied at Charles’s funeral by Harriet despite, or with the help of, her lack of classical learning.

“Exeunt omnes—” he began to say.

“In vino veritas.”

She was clearly parodying him, but he did not mind; in fact he welcomed it. He positively invited it. “Dies irae,” he added. (177)

Flint welcomes her parody because in this way she becomes a member of his confined/refined intertextual commonwealth. Of course it is only too appropriate that Harriet, nearly all of whose books are prime examples of intertextuality, should enter with such instinctual enjoyment into Flint’s intertextual word play.

At the same time Harriet is one of the leading instances of what Harold Bloom has termed “the anxiety of influence,” an anxiety felt among writers seeking to deny the influence of their literary predecessors on their own work. In his book of that name Bloom claims that among poets “the anxiety of influence is strongest where poetry is most lyrical, most subjective, and stemming directly from the personality” (62). Bloom sees the strong poet in precisely the terms that Ackroyd condemned in Notes. The strong poet’s “word, his imaginative identity, his whole being,” according to Bloom, “must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish as a poet” (71). To create a space for his or her own uniqueness each new writer is forced to misread his literary forbears, to deny his or her indebtedness to the past. Ackroyd uses the key phrase, “the anxiety of influence,” at a critical juncture in the novel to represent the guilt felt by all writers forced to appropriate the writings of their predecessors in their work. Charles has just quoted a phrase of Eliot’s to Harriet, who has mistakenly attributed it to Shakespeare. She defends herself:

“Well, you know these writers. They’ll steal any …” And her voice trailed off as she looked down at her trembling hands.

“Anything, that’s right.” He leant back in his chair, and smiled benevolently in her general direction. “It’s called the anxiety of influence.” …

“And of course it must be true of novelists, too.” She paused, and licked her lips. “No doubt,” she went on, “there are resemblances between my books and those of other writers.”

“You mean like Harrison Bentley?” Charles only just remembered Philip’s remark of the previous evening, and now brought it out triumphantly as an indication of his wide reading. (100–01)

Harrison Bentley is the Victorian novelist whose plots Harriet has been plagiarizing all these years. Charles sees nothing wrong with what he considers a perfectly natural act of literary appropriation. In fact he opens his preface to his planned book on Chatterton: “Thomas Chatterton believed that he could explain the entire material and spiritual world in terms of imitation and forgery, and so sure was he of his own genius that he allowed it to flourish under other names” (126). How fitting that Charles’s defense of plagiarism should itself be a double act of plagiarism. In the first place the opening half of Charles’s sentence has been lifted verbatim from the catalogue to the exhibition of Art Brut at the art gallery where Charles’s wife, Vivien (cf. Vivien Eliot), works (109–10). In the second place Ackroyd himself is indebted to his own earlier novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, in which he has “Wilde” describe Chatterton as “a strange, slight boy who was so prodigal of his genius that he attached the names of others to it” (67). This in turn is indebted to Wilde’s lecture of March 1888 on Chatterton: “He had the artist’s yearning to represent, and if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery he needs must forge. Still this forgery came from the desire of artistic self-effacement” (Ellmann 285).

Ackroyd’s plagiarism of his own books does not stop here. When Philip accidentally comes across Harrison Bentley’s novels in the library, the first title he reads is The Last Testament (a flagrant piece of self-plagiarism), a book in which a poet’s wife is discovered by his biographer to have been responsible for writing the verses produced at the end of his life that had brought him eternal fame. This is similar in situation to the discovery within the novel that the painter Seymour’s assistant, Merk, has painted all of Seymour’s last pictures. Another of Bentley’s novels is called Stage Fire, in which an actor believes himself to be possessed by the spirits of Kean and other famous performers of the past which results in his own triumphant career on the stage. Of course Stage Fire is a sly reference to Ackroyd’s own The Great Fire of London, in which a character thinks she is possessed by another character from the past. That is not to mention the remark Harriet makes to herself when observing a blind man early in the novel: “‘All you need, old man, … is a circle of stage fire’” (30). Ackroyd appears set on overwhelming his readers in a plethora of unending literary borrowing or plagiarism in which he freely admits his own involvement. Charles, for example, consumes pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations as he finishes reading them, a trait that Ackroyd told an interviewer was stolen from Oscar Wilde. “That was one of his habits. … I use it as a kind of joke. In one of the reviews someone said it was a symbol of what I did with my own fiction—take bits of other people’s books and eat them” (Smith 60).

It is significant that when Philip discovers Harriet’s plagiarism he casts no blame on her. This stems from his own past attempt to write a novel which he abandoned after some forty pages because they “seemed to him to be filled with images and phrases from the work of other writers whom he admired.” He is obviously suffering from a bad case of the anxiety of influence. His novel “had become a patchwork of other voices and other styles, and it was the overwhelming difficulty of recognizing his own voice among them that had led him to abandon the project” (70). So long as he subscribes to the romantic concept of originality, Philip is terrified of the spectral world of language. In the library he has a nightmare vision of books that “seemed to expand as soon as they reached the shadows, creating some dark world where there was no beginning and no end, no story, no meaning” (71). It takes Charles’s death and the exposure of the forgery of Chatterton’s papers to bring Philip to realize that “The important thing is what Charles imagined, and we can keep hold of that. That isn’t an illusion. The imagination never dies.” Even more pertinent is Philip’s insistence that he must tell the story in his own way. “And you know,” he adds, “I might discover that I had a style of my own, after all” (232). Style, the creative use of language, is ultimately the writer’s principal contribution to the world. Just as Ackroyd has found himself as a writer by exposing himself to the writings of Wilde, Eliot, and Dickens, so Philip finds himself by exposing himself to the real and forged writings of Chatterton. Intertextuality is not inimical to writing but an inextricable part of it.

Ackroyd reiterates this position throughout the novel, sometimes in somewhat improbable contexts. For instance, the church leaflet on Chatterton that Philip picks up concludes uncharacteristically: “Chatterton knew that original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which had never occurred before” (58). Yet behind this reiterated message lies a serious comment on the false value that the world attaches to originality and authenticity. The Victorian episodes in which Wallis uses Meredith to pose as the dead Chatterton offer a perfect simulacrum of the world as Ackroyd conceives it in his fiction, fiction which is itself—as Chatterton’s publisher says of his forgeries—“an imitation in a world of Imitations” (91). Ackroyd is not adopting a radically idealist view of existence. He readily admits through his character, Meredith, “Of course there is reality. … But … it is not one that can be depicted” (133). Instead the dead Chatterton is brought to life for succeeding generations by Wallis’s realistic depiction of Meredith pretending to be dead. “I see,” Meredith observes to Wallis. “So the greatest realism is also the greatest fakery?” (139). Equally the greatest fakery becomes the greatest realism when Harriet’s cat, unable to tell the difference, leaps on the stuffed bird decorating her hat and demolishes it.

In Ackroyd’s novels not only is art an autonomous world of its own creation, but art spills over into life, usurps it or becomes indistinguishable from it. Meredith and his wife are in the process of separating during the period in which Wallis is using him as a model. Wallis’s representation of Meredith as dead carries a prophetic force that leads to the real death of his marriage to Mary. She attributes the failure of their relationship to his endless play-acting: “He is always in masquerade” (160). But that is a simplification of the way art and life become necessarily entangled with one another. During one of their bouts of endless banter while Meredith is posing, he says to his wife: “Tragedy is my forte.” She quips back, “And comedy is your vice.” Ackroyd comments: “It seemed to Wallis that this was some theatrical performance they were displaying for his benefit, but then at the same moment he realized that they were also in earnest” (143). Art irrupts into life repeatedly in this book, blurring the boundaries between reality and mimesis. The scene of Chatterton’s death is rehearsed three times in the novel. First comes the painted reconstruction of it by Wallis. Next comes Charles’s death, where he dies in exactly the same posture in which Wallis painted Chatterton. Finally comes Ackroyd’s own imaginative reconstruction of Chatterton’s death. In the New York Review of Books David Lodge took Ackroyd to task for using “his authority as a story-teller to decide the historically undecidable mystery of Chatterton’s death” (16). But the whole point of this novel is to assert the supremacy of the verbal imagination over the irretrievable world of facts. Lodge might have kept in mind Charles’s revelation after reading a whole range of mutually contradictory biographies of Chatterton: “It meant that everything became possible. If there were no truths, everything was true” (127).

The novel as a whole is structured to reflect this essentially deconstructive view of the world seen through contemporary spectacles. The book is divided into three parts. Part One entails the discovery first of the painting of a supposedly fifty-year-old Chatterton and then of manuscripts of his (including a poem by Blake) that Flint dates as early nineteenth century. Essentially Part One questions the authenticity (a dangerous word in Ackroyd’s vocabulary) of both painting and manuscript. Part Two confirms the authenticity of Chatterton’s continued forgeries of poets like Blake. Part Two is an extended meditation on the authenticity of artistic forgery, using Wallis’s faked death scene of Chatterton as its principal extended (possibly overextended) metaphor. Part Three, half the length of the other two parts, ingeniously deconstructs the whole concept of authenticity. Harriet’s response to discovering that the painting of the older Chatterton is a fake is to attempt to fake its restoration only for the painting to completely dissolve in the course of removing its anachronistic details. Similarly, after Philip has learned that the Chatterton manuscripts are forgeries he proceeds to start writing a book based on the imagined assumption that they are authentic. Part Three celebrates the dissolution of the distinctions between authenticity and forgery, originality and imitation, reality and its representation in art. It ends with the historical Chatterton anachronistically imitating Wallis’s representation of his death—down to the unlikely smile on his dead face.

Ackroyd shares the poststructuralists’ distrust of history as something recoverable. He takes a stance similar to that adopted by Hayden White, who ridicules the traditional attempt to authenticate historical and other such discourses by checking them for their fidelity to the facts, because, as White writes, “the discourse is intended to constitute the ground whereon to decide what shall count as a fact in the matters under consideration and to determine what mode of comprehension is best suited to the understanding of the facts thus constituted” (White 3). Harriet puts this viewpoint succinctly to Philip when she admits that none of the story concerning Chatterton’s survival beyond his supposed death made much sense: “None of it seemed very real, but I suppose that’s the trouble with history. It’s the one thing we have to make up for ourselves” (226). Did not Chatterton make up the past, invent the Middle Ages in eighteenth-century terms, just as Wallis invented his own version of Chatterton’s death scene in 1770 in essentially Victorian terms? Equally Ackroyd’s Chatterton expresses a twentieth-century postmodernist view when he confesses, “So the Language of ancient Dayes awoke the Reality itself for, tho’ I knew that it was I that composed these Histories, I also knew that they were true ones” (85).

Ackroyd’s vision is essentially atemporal; past and present interact in the moment. Or you can say that the present consumes the past. Charles jokingly tells his son that he is “eating the past” when licking the dust from the forged painting off his finger (15). Ackroyd has said, “We can live only in the present, but the past is absorbed within that present so that all previous moments exist concurrently in every present moment” (Appleyard 54). Chatterton offers an intricate demonstration of how the past continually surfaces in present-day speech and actions. Chatterton’s life and writings radically affect the subsequent lives and work of Wallis, Meredith, Charles, and Philip. Just as contemporaries of Chatterton found his supposedly medieval poems more historically authentic than some actual medieval verse, so Mary Meredith finds her husband less real than either Wallis’s representation of him on paper or his own poetic writing. The past can best be recaptured by the imaginative act of the artist, not the painstaking researches of the historical scholar. As Karl Miller has put it, “Human history is ‘a succession of interpretations,’ a piling-up of imitations, an accumulation of metaphor which will be received as reality” (17).

Ackroyd’s attitude to the past, then, is one he shares with postmodern artists and thinkers at large. The past is unrecoverable, being constantly amalgamated into contemporary experience to suit the needs of that experience. Ackroyd’s lack of interest in historical fact, his acceptance of history as a discourse subject to linguistic play just as are other more overtly imaginative discourses, has led Denis Donoghue to argue that Ackroyd’s novels are not historical novels at all. They are “historical romances, because they refuse to discriminate between the life a character apparently lived and the other lives he or she performed.” He goes on to argue that Ackroyd “seems to reject the implication, in the historical novel, that people coincide with themselves and settle for the one life which the decorum of historical narration gives them” (40). Certainly Ackroyd’s novels refuse to differentiate between historical fact and imagined fact, between Chatterton the poet who wrote the Rowley poems and Chatterton the poet who wrote some of Blake’s poems. Each Chatterton lives and writes as vividly. There is no narrative bias favoring the “historical” over the invented poet.

But “historical romance” is both too confined and too derogatory a label to affix to his fiction. Ackroyd has said of all his historically situated novels, “My own interest isn’t so much in writing historical fiction as it is in writing about the nature of history as such. … I’m much more interested in playing around with the idea of time” (CA 3). For him the world and its past are constructed within language. Language does not reflect any external sequence of cause and effect. Language produces its own similarities and differences, its own parallels and patterns. And these are what fascinate Ackroyd. The past resolves itself into a series of texts which themselves interact, bringing past to bear on present and occasionally present to bear on past—or at least the past as it is textually constituted in and by the present. So Charles comes to glimpse the same (or is he?) child in the house that Chatterton attempts to help just before he dies. Is this the same child painted by Seymour (or should it be Merk?) that Harriet is convinced she has seen before? Charles’s son visits the Tate Gallery after his father’s death and sees his father lying on the bed in place of Chatterton (who at any rate is Meredith). Meredith dreams that he passes Chatterton on the stairs, just as Charles has a vision of Chatterton in the park. In the final page Chatterton recalls these meetings as his corporeal existence is ending and reflects, “I will not die, then” (234). Evidently he will live on in future representations of him such as those painted by Wallis or passed on from Charles to Philip. But he will live on in the invented image of Wallis’s portrait, dying not with the grimace produced by the effects of arsenic but with the smile that both Wallis and now Ackroyd bestow on him. He has entered the free play of art, the web of language.

Does Chatterton, then, qualify as a fully fledged postmodernist work of art as defined by Fredric Jameson?

Postmodernism … ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage: metabooks which cannibalize other books, metatexts which collate bits of other texts—such is the logic of postmodernism in general. (96)

Not entirely. The fact is that Chatterton displays, as has been shown, a structural patterning, a carefully ordered division between three sections, that disqualify it from Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as a work allowing the flow of signifiers. Ackroyd might well be problematizing such signifiers as “the authentic” or “the original,” but he subordinates the resulting free play between, say, “the authentic” and “the forged” to an aesthetic structure that contains that free play within its confines and limits the problematization of meaning.

This does not imply that Ackroyd is a half-hearted postmodernist. Rather it undermines Jameson’s over-neat categorization of the postmodern phenomenon. For instance, Ackroyd’s scrupulously impartial narrative stance artistically embodies the postmodernist assumption that the subject disappears into the work of art. As William Pritchard has pointed out, each of Ackroyd’s fictions “refuses to put forth a central, reliable narrative voice that stands up and delivers judgments about life, that is firmly anchored in a particular historical time” (39). The sections recounting Chatterton’s eighteenth-century life are told entirely from Chatterton’s focus. There is no attempt to distance the reader from Chatterton even indirectly by the use of irony. Similarly the Wallis-Meredith sections are recounted by an unobtrusive narrative voice that employs vocabulary (but not spelling or punctuation) suited to the historical period. Ackroyd wants to disappear into his own work of art, leaving a seamless garment that is both a patchwork of various cloths and yet invisibly sewn together. The only subject allowed to surface in the novel is a textual construct. Even the unification of the three strands of narrative in the book is achieved by a textually contrived and wholly imaginary meeting of Chatterton, Wallis, and Charles at the end that transcends temporal logic by bringing the latter two back in time to join Chatterton at the moment of his death. Imaginary closure is achieved by purely fictional means, means that defy any attempt to read the novel in a mode of realism. The ending celebrates the triumph of art and the autonomy of the literary work over the contingencies of life.

Ackroyd went on to write another novel, First Light (1989), a pastoral comedy combining gothic horror, science fantasy, and camp satire. Its defiant mixing of genres and its range of wildly divergent voices testify to Ackroyd’s continuing postmodern belief in the supremacy of language. This was followed by his massive biography Dickens (1991). Once again Ackroyd has written a biography in the belief that “there is no truth to tell.” He asserts that “because Dickens was such a large figure, such an amorphous figure, he takes whatever shape you want him to take.” He hopes “it will read like a novel” (McGrath 46–47). But he does include five Interludes in which he conducts imaginary conversations with Dickens, Dickens has imaginary conversations with the literary pillars of Ackroyd’s own writing career—Wilde, Eliot, and Chatterton—or with some of his own characters, and Ackroyd recounts a dream he had about Dickens. It is clear that throughout his writing career to date Ackroyd has remained consistent to the principles he outlined in Notes for a New Culture. In Dickens he continues to demonstrate obliquely the truth of what he asserted with such assurance at the start of his writing career: “Once language has retrieved its history, it emerges as its only subject, it is literature, it is about ‘nothing’” (59).


  1. References to Contemporary Authors are cited as CA.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. London: Hamilton, 1987.

———. Dickens. New York: Sinclair Stevenson, 1991.

———. First Light. London: Hamilton, 1989.

———. The Great Fire of London. London: Hamilton, 1982.

———. Hawksmoor. London: Hamilton, 1985.

———. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. London: Hamilton, 1983.

———. Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism. London: Vision P, 1976.

———. T. S. Eliot. London: Hamilton, 1984.

Appleyard, Bryan. “Aspects of Ackroyd.” Sunday Times Magazine (London) 9 Apr. 1989: 50–54.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Contemporary Authors 127. Detroit: Gale, 1989: 3–5.

Donoghue, Denis. “One Life Was Not Enough.” New York Times Book Review 17 Jan. 1988: 1, 40.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Hollinghurst, Alan. “In Hieroglyph and Shadow.” Times Literary Supplement 434 (1985): 1049.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1991.

Kendrick, Walter. “Past Master, Peter Ackroyd’s Tales from the Crypt.” Village Voice Literary Supplement 78 (1989): 23–24.

Kristeva, Julia. Semiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Lehman, David. “A Serpent by the Tail.” Newsweek 24 Feb. 1986: 80.

Lewis, Roger. “Review of The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.The American Spectator 17.3 (1984): 39–41.

Lodge, David. “The Marvelous Boy.” New York Review of Books 35.6 (1988): 15–16.

McGrath, Patrick, “Peter Ackroyd.” Bomb 26 (1988–89): 44–47.

Miller, Karl. “Poor Toms.” London Review of Books 9.15 (1987): 17–18.

Porter, Peter. “Hearts and Sleeves.” Observer 27 Jan. 1974: 30.

Pritchard, William. “London Forms.” New Republic 201.10 (1989): 39–41.

Ricks, Christopher. “The Craft of Criticism.” Sunday Times (London) 7 Mar. 1976: 39.

Rogers, Pat. “Street Wise.” London Review of Books 7.17 (1985): 18–19.

Smith, Amanda. “Peter Ackroyd.” Publishers Weekly 232.26 (1987): 59–60.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

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

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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 of Dickens, a very large amount of Wilde, a serious interest in all the spangled fakery that makes modern novels truly modern. By the time of Hawksmoor, the extent of Ackroyd’s fossicking in the British Museum reading-room could only be guessed at, but even this mixture of late Stuart pastiche and modern detective story possessed a distinctive life of its own. Only in First Light, with its nods to the Hardy of The Woodlanders and Two on a Tower, and its mannered dialogue, was the reader pulled up short by the sensation of a book that seemed largely written by somebody else.

“Research”, of course, is the touchstone of the modern novel, embraced with equal enthusiasm by the filler of the W H Smith dump-bin and the potential winner of the Booker Prize. To Shirley Conran a team of dutiful assistants and Keesing’s Contemporary Archives; to Ackroyd the BM’s 18th-century pamphlet collection and a fertile imagination. English Music is surely the climax of this magpie’s approach to literary composition: a treatise on themes and continuities in English culture masquerading as a novel, with all the resolute didacticism that implies.

The historical grounding of Timothy Harcombe, its juvenile lead, is quite as marked as that of Ackroyd’s other heroes: in fact, the preface reveals him to have been inspired by the Victorian medium, Daniel Home, “and the short account of his son in Incidents of My Life”. One half of the novel—much the better—traces his desultory childhood progress: helping his widowed father at spiritualist meetings in the early 1920s (young Timothy has powerful psychic powers); being packed off to stay with his grandparents in the country; returning to witness his dad’s decline (he hits the bottle and ends up as a circus musician); settling down into a long, low-key existence in the farmhouse his grandparents leave to him.

This meandering trajectory is no more than a framework for the main topic of the book—the series of visions experienced by Timothy throughout his early life, and their relation to national culture. A wordy encounter with Alice and some characters from The Pilgrim’s Progress; a chat with Dickens; a saunter with Hogarth along Gin Lane; Blake, Byrd and Defoe popping up to recite ersatz poetry, lecture him on the techniques of early music, or simply confound him with gnomic aphorisms. Some responsibility for his receptiveness to these visitations, one assumes, comes from his schoolmaster, Mr Armitage. “Don’t you think he had a vision?” Timothy’s school friend Campion (spot that one?) inquires. “Of what exactly?” “I don’t know. Of life. Of continuity. Of England.”

Ackroyd’s theories on the singularity of English culture have had several airings in the press of late. Learned and partial theories they are, too, notably in their insistence on a suppressed Catholic tradition. To set them down in a volume entitled An Exploration of Englishness would be one thing. To put them to work, amid much gleeful obfuscation, as the armature of a novel is to cancel out their imaginative effects with sheer reader irritation.

This is not only a result of the endless lecturing—and the section on Byrd is literally unreadable, to my mind—but the consequence of Ackroyd’s historical vision, which occasionally slides towards antiquarianism of the fussy, confidential, high-Victorian sort. The volley of 18th-century obscenities that enlivens the Hogarth encounter, for example, is simply obtrusive. It is put there merely to advertise Ackroyd’s airy familiarity with his sources.

Labouring beneath the weight of ulterior motive, English Music ends up oddly similar to one of those Victorian novels that are not really novels but philosophical juggernauts, like W H Mallock’s The New Republic. There are, as you might anticipate, some good bits by way of compensation. In writing about London, Ackroyd’s touch is as sure as ever, and his interest in spiritualism, if not in the same league as a Dickens or even a Powell, is always engrossing.

A final judgment hangs out of reach. I can just about remember the slashing notices with which Ackroyd made his name in the mid-1970s; a youthful literary editor of the Spectator. It seems a safe bet that the author’s younger self would have had particular fun with English Music.

Chris Goodrich (review date 25 October 1992)

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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 books. The written word, for Ackroyd, is a force to be reckoned with, and he has spent much of his literary career doing just that: investigating and envisioning writers’ relationships with, and effect upon, the world.

Ackroyd’s preoccupations are on full display in English Music, an unconventional novel even for Ackroyd, and of interest more for its shortcomings than its strengths. The title is something of a misnomer, for the phrase English music is used by the character Clement Harcombe to refer not to a single art but to all of English history, literature and painting—English culture, in short, everything Harcombe wants his son Timothy to understand and value. Timothy is the central character of English Music, and what Ackroyd apparently hopes to illustrate through Timothy is the powerful, even magical effects that art can have on the receptive soul.

The book begins conventionally enough, with the elder Harcombe, who advertises himself as “medium and healer,” presiding over his periodic spiritual gatherings at a small London theater. He’s no charlatan, which we understand even after accounting for the fact that Timothy the narrator in alternate chapters of the book, writes about his father with great reverence: People are cured of major ailments during these mystical sessions—though later we learn the cures are realized through Timothy, not his father. We understand which Harcombe is truly special long before the son himself does, in part because the healing process often knocks him unconscious, sending Timothy into a dream world as real to him as his flesh-and-blood life.

Healing isn’t the only thing that sends Timothy into these virtual-reality dreams, however; so do theatrical films, emotional crises, music, intense physical visions and, of course, sleep itself. We know all this because every other chapter in English Music shows Timothy in a dream state roaming through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, William Hogarth’s Gin Lane, Daniel Defoe’s deserted island, the classroom of the composer William Byrd, the landscapes of Samuel Palmer and so on. These dreams taken together trace a path through English culture, and each has something to say about the act of artistic creation. “Why is it you, enemy, who always tells the story?” asks Orlick, for example, addressing Pip from “Great Expectations” as Timothy helps Dickens’ creation make good his escape. “Why not old Orlick?”

In real life Timothy is sent off by his father to live with his grandparents in Wiltshire in the hopes that the boy will be able to lead a normal childhood. From time to time he returns to London to seek out his father, however, and eventually determines to become a night guard in a city art gallery, as had one of the afflicted his father had supposedly cured. By this time Timothy has begun to understand his power; he enters a Thomas Gainsborough painting of his own free will, a journey that takes him among a hodgepodge of familiar English landscapes and literary characters. Later Timothy joins the circus as part of his father’s new magic act—Harcombe, alone, is unable to make a living as a healer—and by the book’s close father and son have come to terms with their differing abilities in the course of performing one final, joint cure.

What does English Music add up to? That’s difficult to say, but it’s tempting to say “not much.” Part of the problem is the book’s unrelenting Englishness: When Ackroyd celebrates fair Albion’s artistry in music and paint, the reader is hard put not to wish he were in Germany with Beethoven or France with Delacroix. Another problem is that the novel rarely seems more than an academic exercise; its structure is mechanical, most of Timothy’s dreamy vignettes failing to develop interesting lives of their own. And there’s always the sense, in the back of this reader’s mind at least, that James Joyce did some similar things rather better, that this novel is a distant cousin of “Ulysses,” though one written very, very small.

Joyce doesn’t make an appearance in English Music, of course, because like so many great British writers, he was Irish—like Jonathan Swift, G. B. Shaw, and W. B. Yeats, to name just three more. Their absence is notable, and indicates one way in which this book could have been improved: by Ackroyd’s expanding his canvas, giving both Timothy’s real life and dream life more scope. English Music, as written, feels insular and constricted, Timothy’s potentially powerful story as a novelistic character being diluted by Ackroyd’s once-over-lightly rendering of his imagined adventures.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 23 November 1992)

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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 himself is slow to discern. Onstage at the Chemical Theatre, with his father as mouthpiece, Timothy deciphers the worries and heals the wounds of the small audience that assembles there. At home, the two talk about what Clement Harcombe calls “English music,” by which, Timothy says, “he meant not only music itself but also English history, English literature and English painting.”

It’s one of Timothy’s unworldly quirks that in every other chapter of English Music he has dreams or fits that land him in the midst of oddly jumbled settings, drawn from paintings he has seen or music he has heard or books that have been read to him at bedside by his father. (Timothy’s mother, who died in childbirth, was named Cecilia, we learn; the reader begins to smell an allegory.) In the first of Timothy’s dreams, he meets Lewis Carroll’s Alice and John Bunyan’s Christian. Later, he finds himself in a Gainsborough painting and on Crusoe’s island and in the seventeenth-century classroom of the composer William Byrd. It’s hard to tell whether these visions are meant to be some sort of curriculum or a sign of spiritual election. Then in the final dream, a pale echo of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur,” Clement Harcombe appears as the Maimed King, and the last words Timothy hears in it are his father’s: “The old order changes, yielding place to the new, but I am eternal for I am Albion.”

Clement Harcombe is not only eternal and Albion; he’s also an inveterate gambler and a circus magician, one of a long line of circus magicians—though we don’t learn that until late in the book. In early days, when Timothy and his father are still a team, a circle of misfits—people who have been healed of one ailment or another—gathers around Clement Harcombe; they attend impromptu evening sessions at his home, during which he “would lecture them, provoke them teach them, prompt them lead them forward into a world which they hardly knew to exist.” A dwarf, a waiter, a man who pushes a tea van, a piano tuner, and a scornful beauty who later becomes Clement’s lover: these are young Timothy’s extended family. As his father becomes more elliptical, Timothy is sent to his maternal grandparents, for a conventional education. He grows up a little, he dreams, he grows up some more, he dreams, he takes after his father, and soon English Music has unwound all the way.

“What was the nature of inheritance?” Timothy wonders. That question, a good one, pervades English Music. To whom do the riches of any cultural tradition descend, and by what right, and how are they passed down? But the real issue in this novel, as in all matters of cultural transmission, isn’t inheritance. That may be the means, but authority is the end, and the two are inseparable. Timothy learns this not from his father but from William Hogarth, who pops up in another of Timothy’s dreams, midway through English Music. The painter leads the bewildered boy out of eighteenth-century Bedlam, where they have witnessed all the torments of hell, and they pass a mad fiddler sawing at his violin, wearing sheet music on his head. “English music,” Hogarth declares, “but played without any inheritance or authority.”

The anxiety of influence is one familiar model of inheritance—a model full of pompous poetic fathers and upstart poetic sons fighting over the literary estate. But Ackroyd’s model of inheritance is benign, pre-romantic—a mixture of English rationalism and genteel baptism, like being dunked in a river of warm ink while the tribes of Helicon watch from the shore. His poets aren’t loners, and they don’t wrestle for their legacy; it envelops them at birth, like the green, rolling landscape of southern England. “Our English genius,” Hogarth tells Timothy, “may flourish for a while and then decay … but its true spirit remains intact and ready to be gathered up by each succeeding generation even to the end of time—or of England.”

How it is gathered up is another question. At one point in English Music Ackroyd employs an eighteenth-century subgenre called the progress poem, which was used to trace the evolution of almost anything—agriculture or liberty or, in William Cowper’s case, the sofa. But the subject then was often the progress of poetry itself, tracing the line of true descent as it passed from generation to generation. The result was usually a narrow, fervid canon. In Chapter 16 of English Music the reader comes upon Ackroyd’s progress poem: a literary imitation of Blake with a poetic genealogy that runs from Caedmon and Chaucer to Ernest Dowson, via Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, and Thomas Chatterton (whose significance Ackroyd grievously overrates, as he did in the novel he named after that poet). What binds this literary succession together is the force of the English language. That, says Milton, who speaks in this chapter, “is the only substance, For everything exists there and not one note nor word nor work, Cadence or syllable, not one can pass away.”

Obviously, Ackroyd’s version of cultural dynamics is at once romantic and conservative, and perhaps not necessarily to be disparaged for being so. But what if you’re not just nostalgic about English literature? What if you still feel the real force of Shakespeare or Milton—or even Dowson? What if the stuff matters to you? Then I don’t think English Music can matter to you, too.

There’s something truly demoralizing about seeing Timothy running around with Pip and Estella and Miss Havisham, as he does in Chapter 4. Read “Great Expectations” (or Bunyan or Blake or Defoe) and you can sense the kind of inheritance that’s missing from the visionary chapters of English Music—a tradition rooted in expansiveness and depth, not mere learning. It sounds like a ridiculous question, but on whose authority do these characters from other works appear in Ackroyd’s novel, anyway? Never mind the clever epistemological confusion that comes when Obstinate, from “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” says to Timothy, “You may turn out to be a character, after all.” Timothy is a character—though only a provisional one from posterity’s point of view—and listening to him talk to Miss Havisham is like watching Paula Abdul dance with the Gene Kelly of “Anchors Aweigh” in her diet-Coke commercial: it’s a presumptuous equivalent.

But Ackroyd is partial to epistemological confusion, and his novels, including Hawksmoor (1986) and Chatterton (1987), tend to proceed in ways that suggest the permeability of ordinary time. The present, Ackroyd seems to feel, is the simultaneity of all the presents that belong to what we call the past. He’s especially interested in the psychic interpenetration of creator and creation—so much so that in reading his rather numbing biography of Dickens one often came to feel that there was no distinction in Dickens’s mind between the ghosts of his past, the characters he created, and the present-day reality of his own existence.

Though no one doubts the immortality of Magwitch and Pip, there is nothing illusory about maintaining that Dickens once existed in a different way from his characters. (Common sense isn’t necessarily a form of surrender.) But in English Music, as in Dickens, they are all there together somehow, on the same plane: creators, creations, editors, agents, readers, scholars, past, present, nouns, pronouns, all coexisting in a world whose “substance is language,” which “In its light and life … ever remains unaltered.” It is as if Ackroyd were trying to depict the power of religious faith by describing a Heaven no one would want to visit.

The borrowed characters in this novel—Alice, Christian, Miss Havisham, Albion—can be only as big as Timothy, after all, and that is not big enough. In English Music, Ackroyd’s imitations of Defoe and Blake and Dickens and Malory only remind the reader how wan these imitations really are. The story of English literature becomes a parlor game through which Timothy—the hero of what might have been a pretty fair conventional novel—sullenly wanders. In the end, Clement Harcombe’s death reminded me of another scene of literary inheritance, this one from Dryden’s great satire “Mac Flecknoe,” in which Flecknoe, a bad poet, leaves his powers to Shadwell, a poet who is even worse: “The mantle fell to the young prophet’s part, With double portion of his father’s art.” In Dryden’s poem, every word of praise is twinned with an irony that undercuts it, and his meaning is never in doubt. But when Clement Harcombe passes his circus act on to Timothy the reader is left wondering: Is it princely succession, Albion bequeathing his powers to a new king, or just an old magician handing down props to his son? The problem is that in English Music it really doesn’t matter: to name the poets is not necessarily to seize their fire.

Michael Levenson (review date 18 January 1993)

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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 comes from, Walter.’

‘Comes from, sir?’

‘Where you come from, where I come from, where all this comes from.’ And he gestured at the offices and homes beneath him. He was about to say something else but he stopped, embarrassed; and in any case he was coming to the limits of his understanding.”

—Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor

Here is where Ackroyd began, and where he still begins: with the disconnected life, the wandering soul, the anxiously floating self that knows dimly that it has been torn from some large warm body but doesn’t know why, or when. The condition pervades his work, and leads to a good, gloomy, interesting paradox: life on the margins is the universal norm. The center is an optical illusion, and those who seem to stand there, gleaming with power, only occupy another margin; beneath their aura of dominance, they shudder with the same disease. The suicidal astronomer, the melancholy anthropologist, the obsessed detective, the hysterical waiter, the manic civil servant—no one knows how to live.

For a decade now Ackroyd has been a writer of fiction, and when he wasn’t producing one of his six novels, he was writing biographies (one on T. S. Eliot, one the massive Dickens), or reviewing books, or giving interviews. The word count alone is breathtaking. Now with English Music a ten-year process appears to have run its course. Ackroyd hasn’t just produced another novel; he has arrived somewhere, and it’s suddenly possible to see the arc he has traveled.

Possible, for instance, to see the extent to which Eliot and Dickens were more than just big salable biographical subjects for the’80s: they were major imaginative resources for Ackroyd, two sharply contrasting angles of vision that gave him more than one eye to look through. From Eliot he absorbed a quick sensitivity to spiritual waste, an alertness to the death in life that too easily passes for human existence. From Dickens he took quite another thing, an endless delight in carnival, the love of “the bright surfaces and the powerful stories, the vivid unnatural colors,” the passion for energy even in, maybe especially in, its most grotesque forms. Where Eliot saw a wasted hollow self, Dickens found a frantically leaping puppet; and now Ackroyd sees both. Disease and energy—this potent compound is what he has drawn from his two large predecessors and what has given him his fertile oddity. Ackroyd has recognized like few others the theatricality of the crippled soul, the campy excess of spiritual desperation.

Not surprisingly, within the wide and generous grasp of postmodernism, Ackroyd has been easy to hug. He tells his stories of the broken life not in existentialist gray, but in the bright yellows and blues of the Serious Goof. He has parodied and pastiched with the best of them; he has wiggled and winked. After, he came back to his beloved London from two years of graduate study at Yale in the early’70s, he issued a manifesto, Notes for a New Culture, and to read it now is to marvel at how quickly Ackroyd recognized the coming of a new crusade.

The force of his sharp polemic was that English national culture had failed. For centuries, it had ignored the advanced current of European ideas that had made a modernist revolution possible, and now that the fuller reaches of the revolution had been achieved, the poverty of England was painfully visible. It had remained within the boundaries of tired humanist values—“realism,” “tradition,” “the self”—long past their obsolescence. All over the Continent, poets and philosophers had seen “the death of Man” and the rebirth of a free and independent language that did not serve Man. Meanwhile, the benighted English clung to a belief in the humanizing power of art, ignoring Mallarmé’s insight that literature does not exist for the social good, that on the contrary, “Everything exists to end in a Book.”

In 1982 Ackroyd began a career as a novelist, no doubt with his Notes for a New Culture spread open on his lap. His first novel, The Great Fire of London, gave us a young woman possessed by Dickens’s Little Dorrit, which uproots her from her clerkly routines and urges her to a violent destiny. Hawksmoor (1985) imagines murderous forces stretching through time, linking a Satanic seventeenth-century architect and a fast disintegrating modern detective who are bound by the geography of London and the design of its churches. Chatterton (1987) meditates on the forgeries of the early-dying eighteenth-century boy poet and expands into a comic subversion of the boundaries between the fake and the genuine. In their separate ways these works all rely on the now familiar post-modernist goad: Text, not Sex, is the power that drives lives, and what we call the real is merely the latest successful invention of a world.

They are quick, curious, kinky and original things, these novels, which nevertheless offer easy handles to those who sort literature for a living. The only academic article on Ackroyd appeared just a few months ago and predictably tied a neat postmodernist bow around its package. But the essay has appeared just in time to be obsolete: Ackroyd is up to something else now, something that forces us not only to revise our view of his career, but also to think harder about the commonplaces of postmodernism.

In the early sections of English Music a spiritualist named Clement Harcombe gathers around him a circle of broken lives who turn to him to inspire belief. This he pompously does. But then in a bleak moment, Harcombe admits to his son, “Everyone’s life is like that, Tim. Frail. Always very frail. … It takes only one accident, one crisis … and everything is torn away. The whole edifice collapses, and there is nothing beneath our feet any more. That’s when we start falling.” And by “we,” Ackroyd means us.

For a time, in his early work, he saw no end to the anguish of living without foundations—no end beyond a last acrobatic leap into the abyss. In The Great Fire of London, or in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), he gave nothing more consoling than the splendid flare at the moment of extinction when some twisted soul burns out of its suffering. There was nothing to hope for, nothing beyond a camp nihilism that grins in the flames.

Then at some point, difficult to fix precisely, Ackroyd began writing his way into new convictions. The earlier insight, dripping with comic juices, that we are rudely coerced by scripts from the dead past, gave way to the thought that those scripts may be the best things we have. We late moderns may be the living dead, but we needn’t surrender all hope: the true dead are all around us. If only we can learn to meet them, to acknowledge them, to weave ourselves into a compact with them, then we may all come alive together.

On the facades of London buildings, found usually between door and window, blue plaques mark the fact that here a politician schemed, a writer composed, a scientist pondered, a hospital stood, a prison incarcerated. You simply can’t overestimate how excited Ackroyd grows at the thought that on that very spot Johnson talked or Blake dreamed. Dickens walked here. More than any infatuated tourist can imagine, Ackroyd now nourishes his writing on the excited recognition that to move through London is to collide at every moment with benevolent ghosts asking nothing more than to haunt us back to life.

As his career has gone on, he has more than indulged, he has passionately succumbed to his fascination with the past—its distance, its presence. “My general obsession with the past,” Ackroyd has said, “I don’t understand it; it just suddenly started happening.” In English Music Clement Harcombe surely speaks for his author when he says that our world is “dominated by the dead. By the spirits of the past.” For Ackroyd the clearest sign of our crisis is the failure to acknowledge this fact, the failure to acknowledge our neighbors, the ghosts. In First Light (1989) the shattered bureaucrat Evangeline Tupper, “thought of her own parents, and their parents before them; they were strangers to her. But somehow worse than strangers. Somehow they were her enemies.” When the past is alien and the continuity of generations broken, then—thinks Ackroyd—you arrive at the pretty pass where we find ourselves. English Music means to show the way home.

In the years after the First World War, the Harcombes, father and son, Clement and Timothy, perform spiritual exercises in a seedy theater in the East End of London. With his hand on the boy’s head, the elder Harcombe summons energy from beyond the grave and heals the wounded living. Nervous seizures disappear; depression is lifted; back pain is relieved. Timothy, who sees the visible evidence, never doubts his father’s power. But when the boy leaves London, taken to the country to be raised by his dead mother’s parents, the father’s power fades. He deserts the circle of his dependents and gives up his spiritualism. Was it Timothy then who held the charm that he attributed to the charismatic father?

Yes—and no. Ackroyd builds this plot contrivance in order to write an allegory of English tradition. Son and father separate, reunite, quarrel, confess, and reconcile, and in their changing relations the novel renders the marriage of past and present. A visionary gift passes between the generations, but, as Ackroyd is at great pains to suggest, the gift is not something any one individual can hold; it lies in the act of inheritance itself. The visionary charge resides in the activity of generational passage—the giving not the gift. Climactically, Timothy realizes that “it seemed such an abstract category; inheritance, and yet it glowed with all the power of the world.”

The showy technical maneuver in the novel is to alternate present-tense chapters in young Timothy’s story—his parting and then his reunion with his father, his discovery of friendship, his sexual awakening, his spiritual revelation—with chapters in which he loses ordinary consciousness and walks inside the great imaginative works of the past. The first time this happens he finds himself inside a bizarre composite landscape, half Alice in Wonderland, half The Pilgrim’s Progress. The second time he falls into Great Expectations, where he encounters both Dickens and his characters. Then Robinson Crusoe on his island, William Hogarth and his engravings, Thomas Malory and Merlin—and so on.

Partly, this device belongs to a frankly visionary project that Ackroyd has been approaching for years. “The mystery of time, and how to journey from time into eternity”—this is the way English Music describes the goal. The task is to escape the cycles of futility in our fallen world and to glimpse the eternal truth. But very notably Ackroyd offers no religious perception as the guarantor, of the vision; he seeks the vision without the belief. In place of faith English Music offers the imagination, and in place of God, the past. On this grand subject Timothy’s friend Edward quotes an aptly titled book called The Secrets of the Fallen World:

Past acts or past traditions are not necessarily lost in time, therefore, because they can be re-created in the imagination; not relived as part of the endless cycle of the generations but restored in their absolute and unchanging essence. Thus do they become part of that eternal present through which the imagination lives. Similarly the evidence of past civilizations, of past lives, can be renewed and enter that state of permanent reality which the imagination bestows upon it.

But which past, and whose past? The answer is unequivocal: the English past, that’s whose. When they arrive home from a hard night’s spiritualism, Timothy and his father sit and eat and chat. They never talk about their work directly:

Instead we discussed what he used to call “English music,” by which he meant not only music itself but also English history, English literature, and English painting. With him one subject always led to another and he would break off from a discussion of William Byrd or Henry Purcell in order to tell me about Tennyson and Browning; he would turn from the work of Samuel Johnson to the painting of Thomas Gains-borough, from pavanes and galliards to odes and sonnets, from the London of Daniel Defoe to the London of Charles Dickens. And in my imagination, as he talked, all these things comprised one world which I believed to be still living—even in this small room where we sat.

That there is an English music, that it shows itself in every cultural domain, that it sings as clearly through English philosophy as it does in English poetry—on this theme the novel is relentlessly lyrical. But back at the start of his career Ackroyd had hummed a different tune. In The Great Fire of London he savaged the Rule Britannia complacency of an unctuous bureaucrat from the Film Finance Board, Sir Frederick Lustlambert. With freezing irony he gave Sir Frederick’s prideful image of “a great English classic … being filmed in this country, with our superb reservoir of English actors, our pool of English technicians.” Now ten years later, the Englishness of the English—“the one true shape of Britain”—is Ackroyd’s unrelievedly cherished motif. In English Music William Hogarth rises from the grave and earnestly testifies that “my own desire of excellence impelled me to fix my attention upon English life: English nature was to be my subject, and English people to be my audience.” Here at the end of his decade, Ackroyd can chant the word “England”—“Of time. Of continuity. Of England”—without irony, and nearly without cease.

So the parade of cultural masterworks in English Music is more than the latest Romantic imagination-cult. It is an eye-catching act in the politics of culture, a fervent gesture of literary nationalism, a recent extravagant contribution to the revival of national identities. In these bad days our picture of nationalism is darkly blotted with images of bloody ethnic war. But it would be dangerous to forget that the fetish of Nation shows itself in many less overtly violent ways. Ackroyd has come to some hard conclusions that he unshrinkingly records. We are lost lonely souls; only the imagination can save us; and it can save us only by reanimating a national past.

“At moments of great change,” reflects Timothy, “it is customary to return to the scenes of an earlier life.” He means merely to be indicating the strength of his own nostalgia, but he might well be describing the present crisis of Europe. In the face of both the Maastricht treaty for a federal Europe and the erupting claims of rival ethnicities, Ackroyd’s instinct, like many another, is to recall (or to imagine) a pure nation that was. When the British tabloid The Sun blazed its famous anti-Europe headline, UP YOURS DELORS, it was scarcely more resolute in its refusal of a transnational, multicultural future than English Music. At one point the elder Harcombe meditates on “the spirits of a nation” and observes, “You know when you are in England, don’t you? How different it is from the atmosphere of France, and how different France is from Germany? We might even call this the spirit of the past. The spirit of time. It is part of us, you see.”

The book goes on like this, with no particular subtlety but with the doggedness of a mind that has grown impatient with a love of the subtle. The English, French and German are different and inassimilable—Ackroyd takes this as brute fact. He wants nothing of Euro-culture: he acknowledges no such thing. But it won’t help to get sniffy and to call this a low provincialism, pabulum for the right; too many left cosmopolitans have also felt the need to phone home. For all the cranky overinsistence of the book, English Music registers a condition worth marking: that identity develops inside a language, which unfolds inside a tradition, which bears the ancient traces of nation. Whatever happens in Europe or anywhere else, it will be good to remember that the entrenchments of consciousness cannot simply be willed away.

“You have inherited all that you possess”—this insidious half-truth (“all”!) shows just how far Ackroyd is willing to go. For him there can be no point in pursuing a multinational community, a new Europe, because you can never invent a community, you can only inherit one. In pressing this theme, English Music takes its most disagreeable turn and threatens to sink beneath a nationalism into a racialism. Toward the end of the book, Timothy wonders what he had “inherited from all of these people, from previous fathers and sons,” and once the test of inheritance becomes a matter of fathers and sons, then it is easy to see how nation can transmute to race. The critic John Barrell has already noticed that given the novel’s setting in the East End of London in the 1920s, the absence of Jews is notable—notable, yes, but perfectly predictable. It follows swiftly from the view of English imagination as its own pool of literary genes, separate from any other pool, including the pool of women, who appear as a strange race of their own. The novel is unabashedly masculinist. Women are no more than carriers of male imagination; when it comes to visionary inheritance, a King bequeaths a throne to a Prince.

Impurity had once been Ackroyd’s greatest virtue, his jaunty willingness to combine literary speech with T.V. talk, to mix up the tacky with the solemn, to let his gays and lesbians camp up the prose with stagy verbal struts. In those days no titter was too silly for his form of seriousness. But now the sex and the speech have straightened out, and as English Music unfolds, the vestiges of play drop aside, leaving the sentimental lyric of England for the English, a grand nation preserved by its artists, musicians and writers—all this from a man who began his career by mocking the provincial stupidities of his home island.

As the culture heroes of England make their stately parade through the novel—Chaucer and Shakespeare, Malory and Milton, Constable and Keats, Turner and Tennyson—they become at last a gloomy procession, because they lose their distinguishing marks. In Ackroyd’s theory of nationhood, nothing deep ever changes: English genius has only one identity behind its many masks. As a feeble masquerade of Blake puts it:

So men pass on but the nation remains permanent for ever.
All things acted on this island are in Chaucer’s verses
And every age renews its power from his winged words.
As one age falls another rises, different to mortal sight,
But in substance ever the same.

Or as Timothy elsewhere says of English Music: “The instruments may alter and the form may vary but the spirit seems always to remain the same.”

National greatness issues from a changeless identity, and one can’t help but think; how sad. How sad, and finally how banal, that the yearning to belong must imply an endless return of the same sweet song. In the tedium of the book’s pyrotechnics—one weakly impersonated genius after another—lurks a lesson for certain high-shouldered defenders of the literary canon who claim that greatness is good enough, and that monuments alone can feed a culture’s need. Ackroyd inadvertently shows just how closed and airless the history of the great can be, when so little more is said than that they were great, and still are great, and isn’t that great?

The politics of postmodernism show their troubling intricacy in the case of Ackroyd. The assault on the absolute—Absolute Reality, Absolute Truth and all their close cousins—has been taken to carry a progressive social charge: the “tyranny” of one truth to which all texts must correspond yields to the “democracy” of many versions of many truths. But Ackroyd’s example points up the hollowness of the political analogy. Ackroyd is the Tory postmodernist: now we know that there can be such a thing. He still regards the Text as not the reflection but the source of experience. He still sees “reality” as an artifact of the imagination. He still suggests that the “truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry.” And yet these contemporary maneuvers, so often held up as acts of subversion and liberation, are here put in the service of a Tory nostalgia. Ackroyd may croon the fashionable tune, “There is nothing outside the Text,” but he now adds the chorus, “And only the best English Texts will do.”

All truths may be relative, but some are closer relatives than others. Some beliefs live so near at hand that in times of instability they serve as a place of rest even for the campiest skeptic. English Music is a dull book by a lively writer, and for what it most broadly implies, it is as significant as a dull book can get. Its nationalism has nothing of blood and guts; it appears rather as a shelter for a rarefied sensibility that has finally abandoned the desire to pass from identity to difference. But its high literary tone cannot mute the low political bass, the soft, ominous sound of settling dust.

John Clute (review date 3 September 1993)

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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 substantial figure. But this is not the whole story.

Around 1990, a young man named Matthew Palmer inherits from his father a house in Clerkenwell. (Ackroyd places the house in a fictional close located exactly where the New Statesman had its offices in the 1980s.) It is a strange building, and clearly manifests the rebuildings of several centuries. On moving in, Palmer finds himself haunted by dreams that threaten his identity, hinting that his very self is somehow occupied.

After a few pages, the novel moves to the time of John Dee (1527–1608), the Elizabethan savant and magus. For it is his house Palmer has moved into. Ackroyd deliberately scumbles any precise indications of the period the Dee chapters occupy. By indicating that the Royal Exchange is under construction, he allows readers to do their own research and to date it between 1566 and 1570. During this time, Dee is engaged in researches into the generation of life. He is attempting to create a homunculus.

The historical Doctor Dee stood, as did so many of his contemporaries, at the cusp of two worlds. He was an astrologer and astronomer both; a Neoplatonist and a man of the new science; an alchemist and a practical geographer. His mind was both tenacious and wide-ranging, and he has fascinated intellectual historians for many decades. He and his explorations play central roles in novels by writers as diverse as Marjorie Bowen (whom Ackroyd mentions), John Crowley, Gustav Meyrink and Michael Moorcock. But for much of The House of Doctor Dee, it looks dangerously as though, flying against these models, Ackroyd has decided to treat the Doctor as a figure of fun.

In these early pages, Dee appears as an imperceptive potential cuckold, a dupe, a comic miser, a stuffed-shirt mumpsimus, a man who knows not who he is. As such, it is sometimes difficult to pay proper heed to the iconic weight he must bear as the symbolic (and perhaps actual) shaper of poor Matthew Palmer—himself a shadowy orphan whose sexual practices are mean, and who dispiritedly misunderstands those who love him. Because of the sudden turn the novel takes halfway through, it is almost certain these derisory portraits are deliberate. The problem is that they are far too convincing.

But for those who press on, the rewards are considerable. In a version of the Neoplatonic doctrine of correspondences, Dee and Palmer occupy alternate sections throughout. Their experiences serve as mirrors of each other’s souls. They are, in fact, haunted by each other, and by an underlying map of the ancient underground city of London, whose runnels contour their separate but conjoined quests for deliverance from emptiness. What redeems The House of Doctor Dee from Gothic cliche is something very simple: both Dee and Palmer succeed in their quests.

Dee has a vision of the City as a place without love. He suffers a tragedy; and he has a second vision, set in the “garden of the true world”, and sheds the dross of his caricature self. Palmer, more modestly, bids the homunculus within him to vanish, and it vanishes; but this too is an epiphany.

The novel ends in an onrush—almost a gush—of correspondences, and a prayer that we may all become one. It is not, perhaps, unembarrassing to paraphrase. But in practice, this cunning, compulsive tale carries us, without a snicker, into love.

Francis King (review date 11 September 1993)

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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.

For most of his life, when he was not travelling on the Continent at the invitation of this or that foreign potentate, John Dee, his wife and numerous children inhabited a rambling mansion by the Thames at Mortlake. During one of Dee’s absences abroad, a crowd, incensed by his reputation as a ‘conjurer’ or master of the black arts, set fire to this mansion, destroying many of the rare and valuable books contained in it.

In Peter Ackroyd’s complex and mysterious new novel, [The House of Doctor Dee,] it is significant that Doctor Dee’s house should have been spirited from Mortlake to Clerkenwell. As in this author’s Hawksmoor and Chatterton, it would be foolish and futile to look here for historical accuracy. Three pages before the end of his novel, Ackroyd asks:

… Is Doctor Dee now no more than a projection of my own attitudes and obsessions, or is he an historical figure whom I have tried genuinely to recreate?

The answer must be that he is far more the first of these things than the second.

T. S. Eliot, of whom Ackroyd produced an outstanding biography, wrote in some by now over-familiar lines of how:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

This sense of past, present and future interpenetrating each other clearly obsesses Ackroyd. Once explicitly, and frequently implicitly, his novel poses the questions: What is the past? Does it have a substantial reality or is it created in the formal act of writing? Am I discovering it or inventing it?

J. W. Dunne, similarly obsessed, often likened time to a river, on which we are carried as in boat, with our vision restricted to what is on either side of us on the banks and to what lies a short distance behind us and a short distance ahead of us. It is only in dreams or, for a few people, in moments of clairvoyance, that we ascend over the river, as it were in an aeroplane, and are at liberty to travel back and forth where we will.

Ackroyd usually prefers a different metaphor. This is either the archaeological one: of periods of history resembling the strata of some such great and ancient city as London, or the architectural one; of an old house; a patchwork of masonry from different periods. His characters are constantly aware of the tyranny of time and no less constantly strive to escape from it. ‘I am still within the net of demons who govern time,’ Dee complains at one point; and elsewhere there is a reference to people being ‘trapped in time’.

In this novel, two narrators alternate. From the past, there is Doctor Dee, determined to hold converse with angels through his villainous ‘skryer’ Edward Kelley; to discover the fabled city of a London as old as Rome or Athens, a place of stupendous grandeur and richness, lying buried under the London familiar to him: and to create the immortal creature known to the alchemists of the time as the homunculus. From the present, there is Matthew, a young man with little memory of his own past, who, on inheriting from his hugely wealthy father what was once John Dee’s house, begins to research into its often sinister and lurid history. Just as Dee dreams of a future in which he is ‘turned into a book’ by Ackroyd, so Matthew is haunted by this past from which he derives his being.

Dee himself is an impressive but hardly admirable figure. He bullies his wife and his servants; he behaves with contemptuous sadism to a prostitute whom he picks up at the theatre and then takes to a brothel; and, when his father dies—the scenes between the two are among the finest in the book—he is content to let the old man be buried as a pauper, at no cost to himself. But though so steely, his character can buckle. In his relationship with Kelley, for whom he acts as amanuensis while the young man pretends to see visions in a ball of smoky quartz, he displays a pathetic gullibility; and at the death of his wife, poisoned by Kelley, he gives way to the weaknesses of an all too human grief.

Ackroyd’s evocation of Dee’s Elizabethan world is superb. Early in the novel, Dee boasts of an encyclopaedic knowledge of his London—of its shops, its ordinaries, its cockpits, its gaming-houses, its bowling-alleys. This is a knowledge which, miraculously, Ackroyd seems to share, so that when, at one point in the novel, Dee celebrates his father’s death by visiting in turn a barber’s shop, a bear-pit, a play-house and a bawdy-house, every detail has a confident ring of authenticity.

Matthew is a far less vivid and far more enigmatic figure. Eventually revealed, not merely to the reader but to himself, as John Dee’s homunculus, he also, in the last half-dozen or so pages of the book, merges in perplexing fashion with Ackroyd himself. His closest friend, Daniel, turns out to be not merely a transvestite but also the lover of Matthew’s now dead father, with whom he has performed acts of sexual magic similar to those performed by Dee. There is some failure of total realisation here, as there is some lack of total coherence. Despite the adroitness of the scenes between Matthew and the woman whom he has always thought to be his mother, his half of the narration is therefore far weaker than Dee’s.

Many critics have praised the power of Ackroyd’s imagination; fewer the brilliance of his style—or rather, since he is a master of impersonation, styles. In Dee’s narrative, so vigorous, so rich in vocabulary, so teeming with similes and metaphors it might be Ben Jonson’s Volpone who is talking. In Matthew’s so simple, so lucid, so poetic in its euphony, it might be some character from one of George Moore’s later works. The contrast between the two narratives is fascinating.

Dee remarks of one of the books in his library, Ars Notaria: ‘Note how every word signifies the quiddity of the substance, and how every sentence signifies its form.’ The same might he said of this imperfect but always ingenious and arresting novel.

Gary Davenport (review date Spring 1994)

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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 currently available musical keyboard boasts among its many electronic voices one labeled postmodern. But to lament or celebrate just yet would be premature. For literary postmodernism in America, like no other intellectual, cultural, and artistic movement before it, has been academically systematized and methodically taught to legions of ambitious and professionally astute young writers and teachers of writing. It is going to be a hard habit—and it has certainly become a habit—for them to break.

Nor has this aggressive dissemination confined itself nationally. Tom Wolfe has complained that American postmodernism is too slavishly modeled on European and Latin-American originals, but I think a case can be made that recent American literature has been at least as much an export as an import trade. One manifestation of this influence is that English novelists nowadays often sound strangely and sometimes grotesquely American. And yet, as fugitives from both cultures would certainly agree (I am thinking of such expatriates as James, Eliot, and the earlier Auden), England is finally different: its past looms large, either as a blessing or as a burden. And, inasmuch as postmodernism represents a disjunction with meaning and tradition, it would seem prima facie to come less naturally to an English novelist than it might to his American, Latin-American, or commonwealth counterpart.

To Peter Ackroyd it clearly does not come naturally. His work on Pound and Eliot bespeaks a knowledgeable interest in American modernism, but when he tries to write an American postmodernist novel—which is what English Music seems hellbent on being—the result is a painfully contrived, affected, and unconvincing book. It is a work of that unhappy genre—perhaps the unhappiest—in which the author’s passion for his subject is intense but noncontagious. And I say this as a reader who largely shares Ackroyd’s passion for “English music,” by which he means the whole historical sweep of English imaginative work—musical, literary, and pictorial. This is a novel that is postmodern in form only, since it is deeply, even tendentiously committed to the English cultural tradition and sees it as profoundly beautiful and coherent—a deconstructionist’s worst nightmare.

The comparatively authentic parts of English Music are the sections set in the novel’s present (London after the first world war) and devoted to the story of the child Timothy Harcombe and his mountebank-healer father. But Timothy’s painful existence is interrupted with increasing frequency by his visions, which are presented with labored virtuosity in passages (announced in the tiresomely illustrated text by clip-art bugles) in which both the creators and the creatures of English imaginative culture come to life and sing the praises of the tradition that comprises them. “Never forget these books,” a Crusoe-like figure tells Timothy, “and out of them you may build your own barricade against sorrow”—and then shortly thereafter: “Feel something of your ancestors within your own self, and trust not simply to your own compass. Fill your sails with English music.” Dozens of similar exhortations appear throughout the novel, and there is never any doubt that they are intended for the reader as well as for young Timothy. What results is the self-conscious shoring of tradition against ruin that used to be a distinguishing mark of American expatriate modernism, but which has the effect, in the work of this urgently English novelist, of an unwitting obituary for the very culture he is so determined to keep alive.

The author’s condescending acknowledgment of his sources more accurately suggests the purpose and tone of the novel than any account I could give: “The scholarly reader will soon realize that I have appropriated passages from Thomas Browne, Thomas Malory, William Hogarth, Thomas Morley, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, and many other English writers; the alert reader will understand why I have done so.” The smugness apparent here is not only offensive, but is the reason for the failure of the entire novel. Camus once defined a thesis novel (as distinct from a true philosophical novel) as one which merely records truths that its author is confident of possessing in advance rather than arriving at truth as it unfolds. English Music is clearly a thesis novel by this definition—if the conviction of English cultural superiority can be called a thesis. The few manifestations of the author’s talent—for example such not-quite-Dickensian characters as Margaret Collins and other quirky disciples of the senior Harcombe, and such realizations of background atmosphere as the contrasting depictions of the immediate postwar era and the 1930s—are buried in a heavy-handed and self-regarding “play of signifiers.” The novel’s only distinction is that it is a militant assertion of an unfashionable conservatism in the trendiest format imaginable.

John Peck (essay date September 1994)

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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 that this can amount to little more than a statement of the obvious: that Ackroyd is a writer with an interest in the past, who is skilled at historical reconstruction, but who is more than just an historical novelist as he is concerned with larger questions about the relationship between the past and the present. Alongside the interest in history is an interest in literature that permeates his work: it ranges from the subject of The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1983), through the concern with fundamental questions about writing in Chatterton (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1987), and the allusiveness of First Light (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989), to the chapters echoing earlier authors in English Music. Putting together the interest in the past and the interest in literature, we get a not altogether surprising focus for a contemporary novelist: novels which raise questions about how we comprehend the world in which we live. This theme is common in contemporary fiction; in the same way, Ackroyd’s principal narrative strategy is also widely employed. He writes literary detective stories, where the pursuit of clues invariably expands to a commentary on the nature of the pursuit of truth itself.

Ackroyd, as such, has a great deal in common with other novelists, but what has to be set against the representativeness of his work is its eccentric quality. To some extent this impression comes across because the kind of novel he writes is more commonly produced by non-British authors. To the British reader, it can seem odd to see the experimentation of foreign fiction combining with familiar landscapes and familiar literary history. The novels become a mixture of the incongruous and the commonplace; in Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985), for example, the surprising element of the novel—the plunge into a mysterious and mystifying past—is combined with a very recognisable English literary detective in Hawksmoor himself. It is hard to see how the cosy familiarity of one half of the novel combines with the challenging quality of its other half. Such an uneasy mixture of elements is a constant feature of Ackroyd’s novels, but is pushed to an extreme with his comic characters. We can see this if we look at how he assigns roles by gender. At the centre of Hawksmoor, Chatterton, First Light and English Music are men on a quest: Hawksmoor seeking a murderer, Charles Wychwood in Chatterton pursuing the dead writer, the men of First Light—including Mark Clare, an archaeologist, and Joey Hanover, a comedian—seeking their past and their ancestors, and Timothy Harcombe, in English Music, wanting to understand both his father and his whole cultural inheritance. If the novels limited themselves to these characters on their journeys of discovery, Ackroyd’s fiction would be easy to categorise as belonging to the genre of the ‘metaphysical detective story’. But the novels also feature, or at least Chatterton and First Light do, bizarre women characters who provide a comic, and often coarse, commentary on the events at the centre of the novel. In Chatterton there is the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend Sarah Tilt. It is hard to see how Harriet’s abrasive and vulgar wit relates to the larger concerns of the novel. In First Light there are not just two but several strange women characters. Harriet and Sarah are paralleled by Evangeline Tupper and her friend Hermione, who are presented as a camp lesbian couple. Accompanying Joey Hanover on his quest for his parents is his wife Floey, who is memorable mainly for her malapropisms; an elderly resident is the grotesque and foul-mouthed Lola Trout; at the archaeological site is Martha Temple, who specialises in ironic deflation of her male colleagues. But the most extraordinary woman character is Brenda, who works at the observatory: like a character from a ‘Carry On’ film, every sentence she speaks is ambiguous. Waking Damian, the astronomer at the observatory, she says: ‘I couldn’t rouse you for ever such a long time. Just couldn’t arouse you’ (p. 157). And every sentence from her features this kind of innuendo. Somehow, and in a very odd way, a novel of journeying and discovery seems to be clashing with schoolboy smut.

The result in First Light is an uneasy mixture, the novel veering between seriousness, even attempted profundity, and the most crass effects. What is clear, however, is that in this novel Ackroyd has deliberately pushed his work in this direction (to the bewilderment, even annoyance, as we shall see, of a number of reviewers). But the uncomfortable clash of modes is already apparent in Hawksmoor. (There are two earlier novels, The Great Fire of London [Hamish Hamilton, London, 1982] and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, but there seems little point in considering them here as neither adds much to a sense of the questions prompted by the four subsequent novels.) In Hawksmoor, there are two time-settings: the early eighteenth century, when the architect Nicholas Dyer is building a group of new churches in the City of London, and the present day, where Hawksmoor is on the trail of a murderer. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation of the darkness of the present connects with the darkness in the past. The novel is intensely literary; indeed, the opening paragraph can be taken to be as much about the nature of fiction as about anything else:

And so let us beginne; and, as the Fabrick takes its Shape in front of you, alwaies keep the Structure intirely in Mind as you inscribe it. First, you must measure out or cast the Area in as exact a Manner as can be, and then you must draw the Plot and make the Scale. I have imparted to you the Principles of Terrour and Magnificence, for these you must represent in the due placing of Parts and Ornaments as well as in the Proportion of the several Orders … (p. 5)

The speaker is the architect, Dyer, instructing his assistant, but the references to shape, structure and plot alert us to the constructed quality of the text we are about to read. The contrived archaic language also acts against transparency. If we know that Hawksmoor is a detective story, these initial gestures make it clear that the novel is unlikely to offer the neatness of resolution of the ordinary detective story; the gestures of self-consciousness alert us to the fact that any ordering matrix will be at odds with disconcerting material in the text.

As is often the case in this kind of intellectual puzzle-game (from Dickens through to Umberto Eco), the area of investigation is the irrational, the abyss, a dark, concealed world. The text explores the structures of rationality, knowledge and understanding, but exposes us to the uncharted depths of a dark romanticism. As such, the novel occupies familiar ground, both in the history of the novel (at least, from Dickens onwards) and in contemporary fiction generally, although an English-language novelist does have the bonus of the tantalising resemblance of the words ‘history’ and ‘mystery’:

In History class (which was known to the children as the ‘Mystery’ lesson), for example, he liked to write down names or dates and watch the ink flow across the spacious white paper of his exercise book. (p. 29)

This sentence sums up economically much of what the book is about: the relationship between events and the desire to interpret events, between rationality and irrationality, and the peculiar, almost magical, power of writing in controlling blank space. Such themes do, however, need to be brought to life, and the novel distinguishes itself by the richness of its local texture, by its power to suggest mysteries that exceed any system of rational explanation:

This mundus tenebrosus, this shaddowy world of Mankind, is sunk into Night; there is not a Field without its Spirits, nor a City without its Daemons, and the Lunaticks speak Prophesies while the Wise men fall into the Pitte. We are all in the Dark, one with another. And, as the Inke stains the Paper on which it is spilt and slowly spreads to Blot out the Characters, so the Contagion of darkness and malefaction grows apace until all becomes unrecognizable. (p. 101)

When the world is called ‘this mundus tenebrosus’ it becomes an unfamiliar and disquieting place; the idea is sustained in the elaboration of images of darkness and madness. What is wiped out is not just the written character on the page but also human character, as we gain a sense of an irrational power beyond individual will. It is a disturbing picture. As is often the case in self-conscious novels, the text’s exposure of its own constructed quality helps draw our attention to the wafer-thin fragility of human reason, and makes us consider anew the murkiness beneath the surface.

The text turns repeatedly to the failure of reason, focusing on the borderline between reason and darkness. The effect is undeniably powerful; yet, curiously, it is possible for the reader simultaneously to feel that the novel is little more than a detective story with pretensions. The problem seems to be that while Hawksmoor deconstructs it also relies upon the traditional detective novel. In particular, it relies upon the detective. This is a figure we can trace through from Inspector Bucket, in Bleak House, to the present day, but Dickens’s presentation of his fictional detective is more unusual than Ackroyd’s. Bucket is a shadowy character who suddenly appears in the text, who manipulates, who gets inside the minds of other characters, who is full of energy and yet blunders in his interpretation of the clues. He seems more the embodiment of an idea than a person. Hawksmoor is different. He is introduced at the opening of the second part of the novel, as if we are moving from the elaboration of a mystery to the clearing-up of a mystery. In fact, the novel does not move in this direction; at the end, Hawksmoor has not solved the crimes, and we are left with a puzzling impression of him sensing an unusual power. None the less, the presence of Hawksmoor provides the reader with something secure to hang on to, particularly as he is given the conventional qualities of fictional detectives: lonely men, fighting a difficult and frustrating battle, caught between duty and obsession. As he is introduced, we are taken inside his mind:

Hawksmoor bit the inside of his mouth and drew blood: once again, as with every such inquiry, he was faced with the possibility of failure. (p. 110)

But there is also the possibility of success, which would be a triumph for the individual will. Hawksmoor, in short, provides a focus of interest and dependability in a bewildering novel. We are offered a reassuring character, and this creates a sense of confidence and security. Indeed, a sequel—The Further Adventures of Hawksmoor—is easy to imagine, whereas it would be hard to create further installments of Inspector Bucket Investigates.

The great stride from Hawksmoor to Chatterton lies in the later novel’s increased readiness to question everything. If Hawksmoor is too close to an authentic detective novel, everything in Chatterton is a forgery. The issues are again history and literature, but at a far more ingenious level where, as in the possibility that Chatterton did not die young, history itself might be a literary forgery. The narrative format that carries these speculations is again, however, a detective story: Charles Wychwood is in pursuit of the truth about Chatterton. But what is uncovered in the course of the quest is substantially different from what we find in Hawksmoor. In the earlier novel, the surface of civilized behaviour is disturbed to reveal the darkness behind. Chatterton does not plunge into darkness in this kind of way; instead, it concentrates on chicanery and misrepresentation, particularly in writing. Harriet Scrope, for example, adds a dimension to the central theme in that her career is built upon plagiarising the work of another novelist. It is in relation to Harriet Scrope’s novels that one character says that he has been ‘impressed by her combination of violence and comedy …’ (p. 70). Chatterton cuts back on Ackroyd’s own interest in the violent and inexplicable, and emphasises comedy, for, of course, the notion of a world where everything is false and everybody a forger is essentially comic.

And a fairly brittle kind of comedy, for it is hard to become sympathetically engaged with any of the characters in Chatterton: they are too artificial, presented in too mannered a fashion to permit us to be moved in any way. Some time before the end of the novel, for example, Charles dies:

He could see her outline as she bent over him, and she was encircled by light; the boy burned brightly also and, as Charles’s soul left the world, their souls were shining in farewell. At that instant of recognition he smiled: nothing was really lost and yet this was the last time he would ever see them, the last time, the last time, the last time, the last time. Vivien, Edward. I met them on a journey somewhere. We were travelling together. (p. 169)

If any reader is dashing away a tear, it is more than likely a tear of laughter, for the death scene—as the four-times repeated ‘the last time’ makes clear—is stagey, or perhaps the word is ‘literary’. It is part of the general exposure of literary forgery in the novel; that everything in the text, including ‘moving’ material, is phoney. Our expectations as readers are, therefore, baffled. We tend to look for secure elements in a novel to hold on to. The relationship between Charles and his wife, for example, might stand as a trustworthy value in a corrupt world, but the relationship is presented in idealised and stylised terms that make it unbelievable. Similarly, we might expect the Meredith complication in the novel—the story of how George Meredith posed as Chatterton for the artist Henry Wallis, Wallis then going off with Meredith’s wife—to add a human dimension, but it is not allowed to develop in that kind of way. The whole episode remains very much a part of the novel’s world of deceit and misrepresentation. The result is that, whereas in Hawksmoor we have the character of Hawksmoor to hang on to, in Chatterton there are no such steady points in the text. Indeed, one of Ackroyd’s most effective ways of unsettling the reader is by killing Charles off some fifty or so pages before the end; it frustrates us, robbing us of continuity and the conventional pleasure of fictional closure.

Many readers will feel that a novel where the authenticity of everything, including love, is denied, is cynical. Others will question whether the novel is as cold as this. It is, for example, possible to point to passages where substantial rather than clever points are made: as Harriet Scrope reflects on the whole Chatterton business, we are told, ‘She was getting old. She would soon be joining Chatterton under the ground, so why try to find him now? Why should she concern herself with the dead when she could see the living all around her?’ (p. 208). It would be possible on the basis of passages such as this to argue that Chatterton looks seriously at questions of mortality and the value of individual lives. The problem with arguing such a case, however, is that it goes against the grain of the novel’s emphasis on the fakery involved in all literary texts. It seems more appropriate to take the view that Chatterton works so well because of its readiness to question everything, to throw everything into doubt, including any shreds of liberal humanist values that we might try to extract from the text.

Or at least, that is true up to a point. But possibly Chatterton does offer something to cling on to, even if it is something that is, in a sense, external to the text. Chatterton is, in the end, a very confident novel; it subverts and is thoroughly sceptical, but at the same time the reader and author occupy a position of power. It is a position of power that results from knowing who Chatterton was, of recognising the painting on the cover of the book, of knowing some of the details of Chatterton’s life in advance, and possibly knowing about Meredith’s role in the full story. The more ‘literary’ the reader, the greater the control he/she enjoys. Consequently, the questioning in the novel ruffles, but does not really disturb a cultural self-confidence that reader and author share. The whole game in the novel may be a fake, but the reader still feels that he/she holds the trump card. In Chatterton then, as in Hawksmoor, the British literary inheritance is part of Ackroyd’s subject, but it is also a trap; there is a level at which an apparently sceptical book is a contented bask in the certainties of a received culture. Harriet Scrope is a part of this inherited literary culture: her abrasive wit might seem out of place in the novel, but at the same time we accept and understand such a character because she belongs to a literary tradition of outspoken, elderly women characters. As is the case in Hawksmoor, therefore, the ambitious reach of Ackroyd’s novel seems to be partly undercut by the familiar British qualities that enable us to place the text; there is, in both novels, a culture that author and reader share, which provides them both with reassuring points of reference.

First Light, however, is different; yet it achieves its difference, and greater force as a novel, by plunging more fully into literary tradition and literary stereotypes. The novel is so allusive, so full of references to other novels, that it seems to fall apart as a result of being so packed; the lack of steadiness is compounded by the way in which the novel veers between comic and serious scenes, such scenes often shot through with literary echoes. Such effects are so concentrated that we soon reach a point where the literary motifs no longer act as reassuring points of reference, because no single one is sustained or central enough. We are, consequently, thrust into genuine areas of uncertainty in a way that is never really the case in Hawksmoor or Chatterton. In First Light we are struck by a babble of voices from the past and the absence of any kind of stable or organising perspective. It might be for these reasons that the novel made less of an impact than Ackroyd’s two previous works; in the initial reviews, one senses an air of disappointment, even exasperation, with the novel. Martin Cropper in The Daily Telegraph, for example, was irritated by ‘ludicrous solemnity conspiring with grating frivolity …’ (April 15 1989, Weekend Telegraph, p. xv). D. J. Taylor in The Independent was also struck by the odd juxtapositions of the novel, and felt that, as a whole, there was an ‘uncertainty about motive …’ on Ackroyd’s part (April 15 1989, p. 31). But uncertainty is the strength of First Light, that Ackroyd relinquishes the kind of control that he clings on to in Hawksmoor and Chatterton.

The most substantial review of First Light was by Claude Rawson in the TLS (April 28-May 4 1989, No. 4491, p. 453); the approach he adopts relates in an interesting way to the case I have been developing. His review starts with a sustained exploration of the connections between First Light and Hardy’s Two on a Tower. Pursuing the connections between the two novels is, to my mind, a mistake; what it amounts to is an attempt at cultural possession of Ackroyd’s novel. Rawson tries to pin it down by use of a literary point of reference; it enables him to accommodate the novel in a tradition. This is a reasonable approach with Hawksmoor or Chatterton, because they place themselves in a cultural frame, but my point about First Light is that there is no such stabilising perspective in the novel. Indeed, it would be hard to think of anything more unhelpful than showing off one’s familiarity with Two on a Tower as a way of establishing critical control over First Light; it is such an obvious interpretative key that common sense should tell one that, in a detective story, it is offered as a false lead. After discussing Two on a Tower, Rawson goes on to discuss the minor characters in First Light; what is interesting is how the comic characters seem to fail to fuse with the larger concerns of the novel, but Rawson virtually ignores this and concentrates on their literary ancestry. It is another gesture of control and critical possession: Rawson steadies and limits the novel, rather than confronting the complicated mess in the work itself. At the end of Rawson’s review one is left feeling that Ackroyd is dazzlingly clever, but that he occupies what is really a rather safe world of books.

A defence of First Light must, therefore, start by trying to show how there is more to it than mere literary cleverness; indeed, that it moves beyond the ‘bookishness’ of Ackroyd’s earlier novels. A good place to start is with a look at how First Light utilises the repeated pattern of Ackroyd’s work, the pattern of quest. In this novel it is a quest for origins. It is reflected in the use the novel makes of archaeology and families. The central thread in the narrative is concerned with the archaeologist Mark Clare excavating a neolithic passage grave; eventually he discovers, at the end of the tunnel, a coffin containing the ancestor of the Mint family, a local family who still make use of the body of their ancestor to give their lives significance. Joey Hanover, the comedian, searching for his parents, discovers that he is a member of the Mint family; it makes him feel secure, that he is part of a larger pattern. This is important in a world where lack of pattern is far more evident; this is underlined in the use of the observatory and the character Damian Fall. As he explores the heavens he becomes more convinced of the fictionality of all ideas of structure:

Science is like fiction, you see. We make up stories, we sketch our narrative, we try to find some pattern beneath events. We are interested observers. And we like to go on with the story, we like to advance, we like to make progress. Even though they are stories told in the dark. (p. 159)

The favourite story in the book is a story of families; the reality, however, might be sterility. Most of the marriages in the book are childless; when there is a child, as with the son of Farmer Mint, he is seen as a prodigy, almost as a miracle, by his father; behind the action is the star ‘Aldebaran’—old barren one. It is, for the most part, a barren world.

Such serious themes are prominent in the novel, but there are also scenes of broad comedy and a range of eccentric characters. There is, for example, Evangeline Tupper, sent down from London to oversee the archaeological dig: we can connect her to the larger thematic concerns of the novel in that we are told that her family history is disordered, but for the most part she seems to be included in order to disrupt, just as most of the women characters defuse, disrupt and pull against any level of seriousness in the quest story of the novel. The central narrative thread is the search for the coffin, but the novel is forever sprawling into local untidiness, into subplots, and into local diversions. It is, then, a very uneasy mixture in the novel; we do not have, as in Hawksmoor, either a central character or a dominating story to pull everything together. On the contrary, there are overlapping quests, all rather defused by eccentric characters. The odd juxtapositions of the novel are particularly apparent in its closing stages. Mark Clare discovers the ancient body in its tomb, but the coffin is removed by the Mints and kept in Joey Hanover’s garden shed. When Mark discovers the body, the novel is explicit about the significance that can be attached to such an event:

He had reached the end of his quest, but he could see neither backward nor forward. He switched off his torch, and with bowed head placed his hands once again upon the wooded casket. Alec had told him that the human body contained cosmic debris, and was the relic of dead stars. Surely here, if anywhere, this was true: there was starlight above and beneath the earth. Those who had come to Pilgrin Valley had come to venerate the body but also to worship the stars; and in so doing they had created a circle of light, like the circle of stones above his head. He had seen eternity, too, for here there was no beginning and no end. ‘Kathleen’, he said. (p. 289)

The moment is profound: religious, cosmic and light images merge with his personal thoughts to create a moment where a significant order has been achieved. It can, therefore, only be disconcerting when the novel, immediately after this, resorts to low comedy with the stolen coffin. Perhaps we are being teased in the same way that we are with the word ‘Pilgrin’, the name of the valley: at first sight it seems a word with religious implications, but we end with a grin.

When the tone of the novel fluctuates like this, it becomes interesting to turn to the last pages of the work to see what note is struck at the end. In fact, it ends on a serious, rather than comic, note, but a couple of sentences particularly catch the eye:

Once this region was thought to form the outline of a face in the constellation of Taurus. He smiled at his shadow. But the Pleiades contains three hundred stars in no real pattern. (p. 328)

The passage touches upon the expectation we have probably had that here, in the closing pages, a shape will be found, but the text resists this desire: it emphasises the frames we impose and reminds us of the lack of actual pattern. We are denied the comfort of any one shape. This is the case with all the quest narratives in the novel. Quest can be called a male narrative form: the man shrugs off the demands of domesticity and journeys in pursuit of an obsessional goal. But the use of the women characters in First Light sabotages the pretensions of the romantic quest. Generally, the effect is a mocking of the pretensions of significance and a significant pattern; First Light, as such, denies us the comfort of a single perspective or a single tone. This is not just a consequence of sudden shifts from seriousness to comedy, but also of serious passages that are so overtly symbolic that it is difficult to be anything other than wary of them and comedy that is so broad that it is as if Ackroyd has misjudged his tone. We are teased with the possibility of meaning, but then everything dissolves. It is the same with the literary references: several characters, even a dog, are named after characters in Hardy’s novels, and incidents from Hardy are echoed in the text. But, as tempting as it is to use these references as keys, it seems far more likely that a game is being played around the very idea of interpretation, for the text is always veering off into other references or clashing material. All in all, First Light sways between the weightiness of myth and the vulgarity of crude comedy in an almost random manner. It is no wonder that some readers will be tempted to grab at parallels with Two on a Tower in order to exercise some control, but the true comparison is with Hardy’s own inconsistency of register and refusal to privilege any single interpretative perspective.

The comparison with Hardy does, however, raise the question of whether Ackroyd is doing anything new, or whether he is just continuing with the kind of novel that Hardy began to establish in the 1880s, and which was to develop into the characteristically sceptical, ironic modernist novel? There is certainly a sense in which Ackroyd seems old-fashioned: the extent to which First Light is saturated with literary references seems closer to Joyce than to the practice of a post-modern novelist. It is reasonable to suggest that a post-modern novel would display a more radical severance from the sustaining tradition of the past. Even the use of the detective novel format is more modernist than post-modernist, for it plays with the idea of a search for truth rather than thrusting us without defences into a world where such a search might seem obsolete. But the question of whether or not Ackroyd is a post-modernist novelist is in the end irrelevant. The important point about First Light, however we might label the novel, is that it does push into new and disturbing areas.

English Music, by contrast, represents a disappointing retreat. All the familiar, and necessary, ingredients of an Ackroyd novel are in evidence: there is the hero, Timothy Harcombe, on a quest, a journey of discovery. There are the usual metaphors:

‘When you go out from this place tonight, you will see the light from the hall pierce the darkness as you cross the threshold. That is all I have done: I have opened the door, and allowed the light to pass through.’ (p. 48.)

The stress throughout Ackroyd’s fiction is on light illuminating dark places, with, usually, an equal stress on the darkness of the mystery and the fallibility of all attempts at understanding. In English Music the mystery is Timothy’s strange power as a healer. Predictably, parallels are drawn between the role of the healer/magician and the novelist: when Timothy takes over his father’s magic act, he becomes, like the novelist a ventriloquist and thought-reader (p. 396). And, alongside all this, there are the expected literary echoes that feature in all Ackroyd’s novels: in between the chapters offering a conventional account of Timothy’s quest, there are chapters in which he becomes a character in classic texts or is guided on his way by famous writers and artists.

It is a superbly executed performance, but, unfortunately, it all seems to blend together into a rather routine and reassuring overall pattern. One aspect of this is that the disruption of First Light is, on this occasion, kept firmly under control. In First Light it is the women characters who disrupt male system-building, but the few women characters in English Music are slight and peripheral. There is also a lack of comedy in English Music. As Barbara Everett notes in her review of the novel: ‘any jokes at all, are painfully lacking in English Music … all is pontifically solemn’ (The Independent, May 30 1992, p. 32). It would seem therefore, that this is a novel in which Ackroyd is not prepared to take apart the structure he is putting together. And, indeed, what we have by the end is, overwhelmingly, a sense of a pattern completed: the mystery at the heart of the novel, the sense of a strange power in life, is forgotten as Timothy’s father, and Timothy, decline from healers to magicians. At the end, it is as if Timothy has come to terms with his origins, completed a circle by taking over his father’s trade, and returned to his roots as he inherits his grandparents’ home. A biographical journey has been completed.

This is, of course, a deliberate effect in the novel; Ackroyd offers us a text in which all the threads are pulled together, or pulled together sufficiently neatly for us to forget the loose ends. There is a balanced sense of coming to terms with the past. And the literary echoes are equally reassuring in this novel. When Ackroyd imitates authors such as Lewis Carroll, Dickens or Conan Doyle, we are, it is true, reminded up to a point of the precarious relationship between the facts of experience and trying to make rational sense of experience. But it is also the case in English Music that the interpolated chapters are a celebration of the English cultural inheritance, of cultural continuity, of, in fact, the harmonies of ‘English music’. And why not, we might well ask? How nice to read a novel that becomes a positive celebration of what art has achieved, produced by England’s leading literary biographer, who, because of his trade, has an understandable debt to, and loyalty to, his nation’s literary inheritance. But it seems a celebration at odds with Ackroyd’s own understanding of art. English Music is eloquent on the subject of the demands imposed upon the writer:

‘The great world of order contains within itself irregularity, and he who knows most will have the greatest power of expressing it.’ (p. 255)

Quite simply, what English Music lacks is ‘irregularity’. Of Ackroyd’s novels to date, it is really only First Light that dares to defy regularity.

And does so in a way which not only rejects the consolations of the past, but is also thoroughly disconcerting about the present. Traditional values of rationality and civility, even of British eccentricity, seem inadequate in First Light, but the really disturbing thing about the novel is that no new values or frames of interpretation have established themselves to cope with a changed political and social reality. It is a difficulty, of finding new directions and adequate responses, that Ackroyd’s novel reflects by showing the flimsiness of the characters’ lives. It is most evident in the novel’s handling of sex: the truth of the novel seems to be exhaustion and sterility. The characters, however, do talk about sex, but almost always in a jokey way, as if they are shying away from a difficulty. And in the end that makes the lives of the characters pathetic and desperate, in that they can really only talk and joke and not actively engage with the present. One of the central events of the novel is the suicide of Mark Clare’s wife, Kathleen. As with so much else in the novel, there has been something barren and empty about their marriage. But now, after the suicide, although Mark knows that ‘grief and guilt would follow soon … he understood, also, that he must re-enter the world’ (p. 259). Yet the quest he is engaged on, the journey he is pursuing, is a voyage into the past rather than a genuine engagement with the world. If Hawksmoor, Chatterton and English Music beguile, divert and, ultimately, comfort us with their employment of literary history, First Light presents characters lost in the modern world with nothing to sustain them except old myths and old stories. Repeatedly, we feel the gap between the pretensions of ‘significant’ journeys into the past and the reality of a world where sex has, for the majority of characters, dwindled into nothing more than a grotesque or dirty joke. The novel nags with its sense of the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of a productive or creative engagement with the present. Indeed, it is the one Ackroyd novel so far where the author really seems to challenge the value of the major props to his own existence both as a novelist and biographer.

Nicholas Meyer (review date 25 June 1995)

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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, moreover, that works triumphantly on its own terms. Agatha Christie could not devise a better plot.

In The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Peter Ackroyd may not have written anything to compare with Oedipus, but he has written a novel several cuts above the average mystery story, a novel, in a word, with more on its mind than who-dunit.

Ackroyd, whose previous novels include the Whitbread Prize winner Hawksmoor as well as biographies of Charles Dickens and T. S. Eliot, has cunningly blended fact and fiction to tell his version of the notorious and unsolved Limehouse murders, a series of brutal deaths that occurred in and around an impoverished and then largely Jewish district of London in 1880. Panicked superstition at the time suspected the agency of a Golem, “the medieval Jewish word for an artificial being, created by the magician or the rabbi: it literally means ‘thing without form,’ and perhaps sprang from the same fears which surrounded the 15th-Century concept of the ‘homunculus’. … It was an object of horror, sometimes said to be made of red clay or sand, and in the mid-18th Century it was associated with spectres and succubi who have a taste for blood.”

Woven into the fabric of the story are the real-life personages of Karl Marx, author George Gissing (himself on the trail of another kind of artificial being, a forerunner of the computer called an Analytical Engine) and, most important of all, Dan Leno, the legendary music hall star and precursor of Charlie Chaplin. It should be said at once that the presence of these characters in the novel does not constitute mere window dressing, but rather is much the raison d’étre of the tale itself, whose concerns are variously social, economic, political and moral. Elizabeth Cree delivers all the prerequisite thrills and chills of a mystery, but it also has the power to disturb, with characters and issues likely to haunt our imaginations long after the book has ended. The crepuscular atmosphere of industrial London, so meticulously evoked by the author (to call it lovingly evoked is to miss the point), is no mere backdrop for the action; it is the reason for it.

The book bounces in a kind of dreamy slow-motion between four narrative devices. The text of Elizabeth Cree’s actual trial for the murder of her husband—John Cree, a failed journalist living on a large inheritance—is juxtaposed with Elizabeth’s own interior reminiscences, her husband’s diary and that of an omniscient and vaguely “modern” commentator. While such switching may sound cumbersome in theory, in practice it proves to be nothing of the sort. The effect is merely to compound the sense of dread, while at the same time effortlessly elucidating the time, the place and the strange events being chronicled.

The horrific murders are committed in the midst of a particularly seamy part of London, at the center of which there thrives a vigorous theatrical tradition, variously described as vaudeville, pantomime or music hall. Elizabeth Cree, a child of the workhouse, finds success as a comedienne in the troupe of Dan Leno, where cross-dressing is a frequent part of the comic shtick. Performing in the music halls, she meets her future husband. Ackroyd knows and writes of these mean streets and vaudeville routines with an effortless, unquestioned authority, whose authenticity never overwhelms but always serves to underline his themes.

At the same time Lizzie is making her way through this squalid existence, Karl Marx and George Gissing share space in the serene reading room of the British Museum (also with Lizzie’s husband, the unfortunate Cree), far removed from the sordid goings-on in Limehouse—or perhaps not so far removed, after all. Is this irony or is it merely life? Perhaps it is both, but Ackroyd is too subtle to provide pat answers.

It does not hurt that, among other things, Ackroyd actually knows how to write. It is something of a shock to encounter language that possesses rhythm and melody, prose which actually buoys us aloft on its musical currents. Reading is simply more fun when the words do more than convey information. In the modern popular novel the line between prose and journalism has blurred to the point of indecipherability. It is downright exhilarating to float on Ackroyd’s simple but elegant language.

I suppose it is inevitable that Elizabeth Cree be compared to “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, a recent novel of old New York, wherein police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt helps catch a serial killer. This comparison is as unjust as it is inaccurate. Where “The Alienist” is flat, woodenly written, crammed with irrelevant research, two-dimensional characters and implausible plotting, Ackroyd writes of old London as though he had nothing to prove—rather as though he lived there. His characters breathe real life (more’s the pity in some cases), and his purposes seem to me far more ambitious than the stunt work of Caleb Carr. By contrast, Ackroyd’s work—like the best of Conrad or even Melville—has woven, dreamlike, in its tangled skein a labyrinth of suggestion and purpose. The reader may not readily be capable of disentangling all the clues and distilling all the ideas planted by the author as to the meaning of his book, but he knows they damn well mean something. Questions of artificial intelligence, its meaning and uses, permeate the narrative, as does the relation between art and crime (De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” runs like a fine thread throughout).

“There is one other curious and chance connection between murder and the Romantic movement,” Ackroyd’s anonymous annotator quotes George Gissing. “De Quincey’s ‘Confessions’ were first published anonymously, and one of those who falsely laid claim to their composition was Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. Wainewright was a critic and journalist of great refinement … [but also] an accomplished and malevolent murderer, a secret poisoner who dispatched members of his own family before turning his attention to chance acquaintances. He read poetry by day and poisoned by night. … Murder may have been his occupation, but poetry was his delight.”

I confess I was reluctant to read Ackroyd’s life of Dickens when I learned that within it he had invented conversations between himself and his subject. This seemed woefully inappropriate in a biography, wherein I much prefer the facts to speak for themselves. After having read The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, however, I am prepared to reserve judgment and give Ackroyd’s Dickens a chance.

James Wood (review date 21 September 1995)

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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 or secret—that Sir Christopher Wren’s chief architect was a devil-worshiper and murderer who embedded corpses in the foundations of his new churches; or that Thomas Chatterton, the doomed eighteenth-century poet, did not die at seventeen, but faked his death and lived into middle age. The historical mystery is central to a present-day situation which mimics it. In Hawksmoor, a detective investigates a series of murders, all at seventeenth-century London churches built by the architect and friend of Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor. In Chatterton a struggling contemporary poet is haunted by Chatterton’s ghost when he buys a portrait of the writer in an antiques shop. In Ackroyd’s recent novel, English Music, a boy sets out to explore the mysteries of English literature by going back in time to meet Dickens and Defoe. These books are filled with shifting historical atmospheres, strange parallels, and longstanding curses.

His new novel is another puzzle, and perhaps his most ingenious yet. But it depends heavily on unlikely connections and coincidences, and one is relieved to emerge from it into a world of accident and contingency. The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is set in Limehouse and Wapping, London’s old East End, in the autumn of 1880. A number of vicious murders have prompted inhabitants and police to cast around for a suspect. The locals imagine a spirit or even a golem responsible (one of the murders is in a largely Jewish neighborhood). The police have their eye on Karl Marx, because he is seen leaving the house of Solomon Weil, one of the victims. But Marx does not remain a suspect for long. They then turn their attention to the novelist George Gissing, after he is seen leaving another victim, a prostitute called Alice Stanton, shortly before her murder. Dan Leno, the celebrated Victorian pantomime artist and Cockney comic, is questioned by police because the shirt Alice Stanton is found wearing bears a label inside it marked “Mr. Leno.”

The two characters most obviously implicated—as far as the reader can tell—are never suspected by the police: they are the book’s two chief narrators, John Cree, whose diary serves to tell part of the story, and his wife, Elizabeth, a former actress who is eventually tried and convicted for poisoning her husband.

These are only some of the characters who could be the Limehouse murderer, and Ackroyd, like any other crime writer, dupes his readers with false leads until the final disclosure comes in John Cree’s diary. But the book is not so much a historical thriller as a postmodern exercise whose purpose is less to build suspense than to display textual ingenuity. For Ackroyd’s characters here are linked not only by place and time but by texts. Most of them have sat next to one another in the Reading Room of the British Museum, though they are ignorant of this. Marx, in his retirement, is exploring literary London and reading Bleak House in preparation for a long poem “which was to be set in the turbulent streets of Limehouse and entitled The Secret Sorrows of London.” The others have been reading the essays of Thomas De Quincey. John and Elizabeth Cree both stumble upon De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Gissing, who is writing about Romanticism and murder for the Pall Mall Review, reads the same essay. And when the police arrive at Dan Leno’s house, they find a book of De Quincey’s writing open at the first page of “On Murder.”

This is hardly subtle but the point of these contrived encounters is evidently to undermine rational assumptions about cause and effect with a display of artifice. All of Ackroyd’s books blur the separation of the real and unreal: all of them whip us toward skepticism about the distinction between the two. In Hawksmoor, the devil-worshiping architect tells the scientifically minded Sir Christopher Wren that “Your World and your Universe are but Philosophicall Romances.” Ackroyd enacts this belief by turning the world of his fiction into that of philosophical romance, with explicit homilies and sermons about the provisional nature of the real. “But didn’t you know?” asks the forger in Chatterton. “Everything is made up. … Who’s to say what is real and what is unreal?”

Conveniently, Gissing remarks at the end of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: “It is not that human beings cannot bear too much reality, it is that human beings cannot bear too much artifice.” This rather literal way with unreality is at its most extreme in Ackroyd’s loaf-sized biography of Dickens, which seeks to turn the historical Dickens into a fictional character. The fictional Dickens interrupts the historical narrative to wander through London chatting with his creations. “I knew this place as a boy. There was a pie-shop. Berry’s it was called,” Dickens confides to Little Dorritt. Dickens solemnly converses with Wilde, T. S. Eliot, and Chatterton (all of them subjects of Ackroyd’s fiction or biography).

One of the elements of this artifice is that the historical atmosphere is derived from literature. The East End of London also the setting of Hawksmoor—is the ideal place for Ackroyd’s hauntings and spectral coincidences. This is partly to do with its antiquity and its strangely alluring but also menacing history. When Ackroyd talked recently, in a London Weekend Television lecture, about the presence of the past in London, he meant the East End:

Is it not also possible that within this city and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond? Does the passage of the city through time create its own energies that exert a pressure upon our, perceptions and our understandings, which is all the more powerful for being normally overlooked?

The East End is useful for Ackroyd because it is a part of London that figures in so much English literature, and it is also the place best suited for the creation of Ackroyd’s vaguely Dickensian city. In The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Gissing refers to De Quincey’s London as “a sinister, crepuscular London, a haven for strange powers, a city of footsteps and flaring lights, of houses packed close together, of lachrymose alleys and false doors.” But this is Ackroyd’s own London, unchanged since his earliest books. And it is the London of many other writers, from Swift to the “slimy aquarium” and city of “marvels and mud” of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Ackroyd takes this dark London—shadowed by literature and blackened with history—and hangs over it a big Dickensian cloud.

There is a power to this, but it is a derivative power. De Quincey, in a famous passage from his Confessions of an English Opium Eater not quoted by Ackroyd, wanders dazed around the back streets off Oxford Street.

such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares … I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted, whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.

De Quincey’s London is ancient but he acts as if he is its “first discoverer,” making a fresh literary charting. Ackroyd, by contrast writes as a last guest. Doubtless he would sniff at the philosophical naiveté of first discovery. But De Quincey did not turn London into a library.

Generally, Ackroyd’s pastiche—his mimicry of a seventeenth-century diary, or of Chatterton’s journals, his Dickensian atmosphere—is stronger, more vivid; than his contemporary evocation of late-twentieth-century London. But even the pastiche, though assured, is often both archival and puzzling. Hawksmoor alternates passages from the seventeenth-century diaries of the diabolic architect with contemporary narrative, the account of the detective Nicholas Hawksmoor and his investigation of murders committed at churches built by his namesake. Just what we are to think of the relation between the two periods is not clear. For all its energy, the pastiche offers an essentially literary notion of the seventeenth century, and a familiar one at that. For example, the seventeenth century is taken to be a time—at least in its literary language—of extreme frankness about physical functions. This idea has the dust beaten out of it: “Then he began to spew soundly”; “Sir Chris took out his Linnen and blew a Piece of Jelly from his Nose into it”; “having need to Shit I used the House of Office”; “then he seemed to have a need to Make Water and unbutton’d his Breeches in sight of us.”

The point is not whether Ackroyd is historically accurate here, but whether a writer is likely to produce anything interesting if he is merely exhausting the possibilities of the known. Necessarily, the people in these novels are frozen in historical attitudes. They act not as human beings might but as historical reconstruction would expect them to. Thus Karl Marx, in the new novel, when questioned about the murders, complains: “If I may say so, sir, murder is a bourgeois preoccupation.” This is what Henry James meant in his celebrated letter to Sara Orne Jewett, by the “fatal cheapness” of the historical novel—that the work of original literary creation is consumed by archaeology.

Lacking a convincing literary texture, Ackroyd’s novels surrender the suggestive for the explicit. They are machines for manufacturing connections, coincidences, linkages, and lessons. One senses this most strongly in their enthusiasm for the theatrical. Ackroyd admires Dickensian melodrama and pantomime, and has said that it is the true expression of the English character. In his London Weekend Television lecture, he linked Victorian pantomime artists such as Dan Leno with Fielding, Dickens, and Blake as “cockney visionaries” who “tend to favor spectacle and melodrama.” These artists were the possessors of what he called “the London genius” and “a particular London sensibility that derives its energy from variety, from spectacle, and from display.”

This is not a fresh idea about London: V.S. Pritchett said much the same thing, more subtly, years ago notably in his Clark Lectures on George Meredith. But Pritchett’s fiction and Ackroyd’s are very different. Pritchett’s use of Dickensian theatricality is instinctive and natural; his characters are eccentric, mysteriously melancholy, softly theatrical in their Englishness. Ackroyd takes the suggestive notion of theatricality and makes it explicit when he writes about theater people, actors, singers, stage comedians. In English Music, the hero’s father is a turn-of-the-century stage-spiritualist. Much of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is set in the theater. As in Angela Carter’s novels about puppeteers, magicians, and circus performers, the novel is about the theatrical world and the prose itself has a theatrical quality. Elizabeth Cree secretly completes John Cree’s half-finished play Misery Junction (“I will never be able to forgive you Elizabeth”) and performs in it before a derisive Limehouse audience (“all my efforts at pathos and grandeur were wasted on them”).

The effect of so much talk about the theater is to make the work itself less theatrical. The determination to be lively is merely determined. Much is made, for instance, of Dan Leno, “the Whipper-Snapper, Contortionist and Posturer,” “Great Little Leno, the Quintessence of Cockney Comedians.” We are told that Max Beerbohm thought him the funniest man in the world. Ackroyd invents a meeting between Leno and Charlie Chaplin’s father. But Dan Leno never really has an independent life because he is one of the ants in Ackroyd’s thematic colony: he is put to work. He is there only to suggest the stagyness of this late-Victorian world and to remind us, again, of Ackroyd’s message that reality and unreality cannot be easily separated. Dan Leno is a cross-dresser, and Ackroyd tells us that De Quincey, in his essay on murder, notes that a notorious London murderer of the early nineteenth century, John Williams, dressed up as a woman before hunting for victims, “as if he were going upon the stage.” The Limehouse murderer, who is also revealed to be a cross-dresser, murders a family on the site of one of John Williams’s killings.

Ackroyd’s novels are natural teachers; very little else comes naturally to them. But what, besides giving us a tutorial in postmodern skepticism, does Ackroyd want us to learn? It is, apparently, that history is a process of eternal recurrence. History renews itself but remains essentially the same. The dark wheel goes on turning. We can only update our ancestors malevolences (he has much less to say about the longevity of benevolence). He batters us with this in every book he writes. In The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Gissing recalls Charles Babbage’s apprehension that “the air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” Hawksmoor expresses this in the way it shows the past haunting the present, ancient evil revisiting the same ground centuries later. In that book the architect speculates that “now, now is the Hour, every Hour, every part of an Hour, every Moment, which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.”

This theme received its crudest formulation in English Music. In it, the young Timothy Harcombe is excited into reading books by his spiritualist father, who tells his son about “what he used to call ‘English music,’ by which he meant not only music itself but also English history. English literature and English painting … as he talked, all these things comprised one world which I believed to be still living.” Credulous and vulnerable. Timothy spends the rest of the novel meeting famous English writers, composers, and fictional characters. As if in some bureaucratic hell, Timothy is told the same thing by virtually everyone he meets. Yet the sound of it is apparently sweet. Dickens tells him that houses are knocked down and rebuilt, but “one gives place to another … It is always the same. It is always renewed.” Defoe implores him to “fill your sails with English music. … It is always the same, and yet it must always be renewed: it is the same, and not the same. So this island is continually being recreated in other men’s words while its identity can never change.”

This mystical idea of renewal is curiously unaffecting, lacking as it does the soundless power of Proust’s involuntary memory, of Nabokov’s “democracy of ghosts,” or of the anthroposophical leap in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In Ackroyd’s work the mystical mainly assumes sensational and simpleminded forms—murders, ghosts, spiritualists, the lurid telepathy of history. For Proust, Nabokov, and Bellow, the mystical is not the screech of a ghost but the whisper of memory and its entreaties. Someone in Chatterton refers to “Chatterton’s curse.” But this is not Chatterton’s curse; it is closer, in its crudeness, to the curse of the Pharaohs.

Ackroyd’s eternal recurrence is translated into literal appearances, and it is thus no more mystical to us than what goes on in banks after closing hours. The past exists for Ackroyd as an uncomplicated presence. This is at odds with his modish philosophical uncertainties about the nature of reality. Ackroyd seems to want to be like young Timothy Harcombe in English Music. He treats the past as if it were the food on someone else’s plate, always more interesting than one’s own. He does, not want just to make use of the past; he tries to be in it, and without irony about the oddity of doing so. He does not merely make use of Dickens, he tries to be Dickens. (In his London Weekend Television lecture, he noted that he had been accused of “treating fiction as if it were some kind of intellectual or cultural pantomime. … Now, at last, I know why it happened. I was coming into my inheritance.”) Ackroyd consumes history sacramentally, longing to be one with it. He advises the reader that our reality is ungrounded while reverently presenting his own reconstructions as if they were the most real of all. For he is a religious postmodernist—happy to reconcile belief and unbelief, faith and skepticism.

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

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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 Booker Prize. One of the most original and fertile British writers of the 1980s, on a par with novelists such as John Banville, Julian Barnes, Charles Palliser, Salman Rushdie, Rose Tremain, and Jeanette Winterson, Ackroyd considers his poetry, his biographies, and his novels simply as “writing,” the result of the same creative impulse.1

Outstanding features of the biographies and novels (as well as of the poetry) are the recurrent tendency to blur the boundaries between storytelling and history; to enhance the linguistic component of writing; and to underline the constructedness of the world created in a way that aligns Ackroyd with other postmodernist writers of “historio-graphic metafiction” (Hutcheon 1988). Also recurrent is Ackroyd’s contradictory yearning for mythical closure, expressed, for example, in his fictional treatment of London as a mystic center of power, the result of the concentration through time of the English cultural tradition, which he defines as Catholic, visionary, and transhistorical. The striving for mythical closure evinces the influence of high modernism, while the visionary and specifically Catholic component of Ackroyd’s world view confers on his writing a kind of marginality comparable to that of transition-to-postmodernism experimental British writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, Maureen Duffy, and John Fowles.

[Onega]: As you have explained in an interview, you were educated as a Catholic and were even altar server as a child. Are you still a practicing Catholic?

[Ackroyd]: No, I’m not. I ceased to practice when I left school. I went to a bad school run by Benedictine monks in Ealing, named, of course, Saint Benedict, and I practiced obviously when I was at school, because it was part of the discipline, that we had to, but as soon as I left school, I ceased to practice. But then, of course, I don’t believe that stops you from remaining a Catholic but probably takes other forms.

What do you mean?

I think there is a difference between sacred and secular writers, or people who believe in the sacred and people who believe in the secular, and I think if you are formed in a Catholic education, you imbibe a sense of the sacred which never actually leaves you.

Which you obviously have …?

Yes, I think so. Yes. I certainly do consider myself a secular writer.

Are your parents or any other members of your family artistically gifted?

Well, my father is a painter. But I don’t think any of the rest of my family were. No. I was brought up in a working-class area and lived in a council house. My grandfather was a lorry driver. So I think it would be hard for me to create any genealogy of talent in that sense.

How early did you start writing poetry, or at least think of becoming a poet?

I think from my earliest days. I think, when I was a boy, the only thing that interested me was poetry. When I was a schoolboy, I wrote poetry. And when I was a student, I wrote poetry, and when I was at university or at school, all I really wanted to read was poetry. That was my great ambition, to be a poet. And I believe I kept on writing poetry until my late 20s. I didn’t begin a fiction or anything of that kind until after that.

You have told an interviewer that you had not read a novel until you were “about 26 or 27.” How did you manage to get an honor’s degree in English—a “double first,” in fact—without having read any novels? Weren’t they part of the curriculum at Cambridge?

No, they weren’t. We read drama and poetry and classical literature in the English curriculum, and fiction wasn’t part of the courses I chose. I mean, I could have chosen. … Oh, no, I am wrong. I am wrong, because I did a thesis in my last year on black American fiction. So you’re completely right. I had forgotten that. That was at Cambridge. That was a thesis on James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. So I did actually read fiction. Now it has come back to me. But apart from that, it was not in the curriculum, and when I went to Yale, I had no special area of study. I just chose what I wanted to read. So I never thought of fiction seriously at all.

During your stay at Yale in 1971-73, you wrote Notes for a New Culture, a book you describe in the introduction to the 1993 edition as “a polemic and extended essay directed against our declining national culture.” Why did you think English culture was declining in the early 70s? Do you think that it is still on the decline?

No, I don’t believe it is still on the decline. For a variety of reasons, I thought that then. Possibly it was just the impatience of youth and the fact that I was only interested in poetry, and English poetry had during those decade of my lifetime gone through a very steep decline in interest as far as I was concerned. I was interested in people like Eliot and Pound and in American poets like Ashbery, and the English poets of the period I didn’t find satisfying. So, I presume, when I made that comment at the time, when I first wrote that book, I was perplexed or dismayed by the lack of courage in English poetry.

Do you mean the lack of courage of poets like Philip Larkin and his epigones?

Yes, that sort of thing. But my opinion has changed now, simply because I understand that there is a future.

In Notes for a New Culture, you differentiate between the “paradoxical humanism” of poets like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and the more innovative “New York School” represented by Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Would it be right to place your own poetry within this second trend?

I think so, yes. But there was also another influence on me, which is the English school of poetry. There is a poet called J.H. Prynne, a poet called Andrew Crozier, and I was very much influenced by the work of these people who were at Cambridge at the same time as I was. All the teachers there. I suppose the twin influences on my early poetry were Prynne and Ashbery, essentially.

London plays an important role in this poetry collection and is also a recurrent feature in all your novels, except for First Light. Interestingly, the vision of London you invariably offer is more in line with Blake’s Jerusalem than with the cosmopolitan metropolis it appears to be to the outsider. Is this mythical and atemporal London related to the recuperation of the English culture you allude to in Notes for a New Culture?

I think so. I think it has something to do with the fact that once I discovered my own particular talent, I discovered the vision which exemplified it, and that vision of London is one which has stayed with me ever since. So, when I talk about a future for English culture, I am talking about specific kinds of literature which I am interested in. It is difficult to explain it properly. I found the subject in my 30s, mid-30s, quite by accident. It wasn’t a design on my part at all. And once I’d found that subject, I realized that other people, certain other writers as least, were interested in the same area, roughly at the same time. …

Like Iain Sinclair, for example?


And who else?

Michael Moorcock, to a certain extent, a couple of other writers. Douglas Oliver. … But he is a poet. It is not really the same thing. Once I realized that there is other consciousness of London, of the city and of time, I came to believe that perhaps because it is such a specifically English phenomenon as far as I can see, that perhaps there was a future for English literature in ways which I hadn’t conceived when I was younger.

You have said in an interview that you never thought you’d be a novelist. That you never wanted to be a novelist and that you hated fiction because it is very untidy. Would you describe your evolution from poetry to fiction and biography writing as a process of adjustment to the two media that are better suited for your creative imagination, or rather as the necessary choice of the two genres that are more appropriate for the purpose of renewing the English literary tradition?

I think, perhaps, possibly the latter more than anything else. I would say that the poetry didn’t disappear. It just went into the fiction. I mean, people say that the fiction I write is not like that of my contemporaries. I think the reason is that essentially the poetic sensibility, whatever that is, has been carried over into the fiction and into the biographies. I certainly don’t see any great disjunction, or any great hiatus, between the poetry and the fiction. For me, they are part of the same process. Similarly, the biographies. I don’t think of biographies and fictions as being separate activities. For me, they are part of the same undertaking.

Your attempts at revitalizing English culture bring to mind John Barth's contention in “The Literature of Exhaustion” that the truly creative writer is one capable of renewing the literary tradition from within, through a double process of absorption and recasting of the achievements of the preceding masters. Would it be right to say that the biographies you have written on Pound, Eliot, Dickens, and Blake, as well as novels such as The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and Chatterton, are your creative responses to the pressure exerted by these writers of your imagination?

Only partly so, because in the case of Oscar Wilde and in the case of the other books I have written, my interest began when I began writing the book. There was no conscious or overt similarity between myself and them, and certainly I didn’t feel any pressure; I didn’t feel what Bloom calls “anxiety of influence,” nothing of that kind at all. I suppose I could describe it as a process of exploration of myself. That when I began writing about other people, I was also writing about myself essentially, and I suppose what happens is that when one carries within oneself the whole literary tradition, it is just a question of tapping into it on some level.

Reading the biographies in a sequence, we witness a growing reluctance to accept the traditional assumption that biography equals “truth” and fiction “lie.” The novels likewise show a consistent tendency to blur the boundaries between historical “fact” and fictional “fancy.” How are we to interpret this recurrent generic hesitancy?

Well, because both for me are simply aspects of the same process. For me, they are just writing, as I have said before. But it is almost true that the difference between biography and fiction is that in biography you can make things up, whereas in fiction you have to tell the truth, by which I mean that the vision we understand that recurs behind any fiction is far more intense than in biography, where you have to fabricate stuff technically more. … What was the actual question?

How are we to interpret the generic hesitancy between biography and fiction?

I don’t think they are different genres. So the hesitancy isn’t really there. Maybe they are for the reader, but for me they are not.

Well, Dickens is a case in point, isn’t it?

Why I put the fictional bits in?


Well, I did that for a specific reason. I just got tired of writing a straightforward biography, and I wanted to make it more fun, for me as well as for the reader. But I wouldn’t say hesitancy was the right word, because that’s just a certain lack of conviction.

Not necessarily. And the novels are also suffused by historical data … ?

Well, I think that’s just the shape my imagination has taken—always has taken, I suppose. I think the other aspect you have to think of though is in poetry. I realize now in retrospect that I tended to take lines of various writers and string them together. I wrote a play at Yale, which now I can’t find, in which I got about 60 different playwrights. I used a different line from each poet and structured a play out of that. So I presume my interest in lifting or adopting various styles, various traces, various languages, is part of my imaginative trend, and I suppose the use of historical fact as well as other people’s writings is just an aspect of this magpie-like quality.

Do you sometimes use historical facts that are not true?

Oh, yes, all the time.

For example, somebody pointed out to me that the desk at the British Library Round Reading Room where Karl Marx used to sit was not C3 or C4, as is suggested in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, but rather L7. Did you do that on purpose?

Yes. O.K. I don’t know why I do these things. I think it is possibly because I have such a loose hold on the truth. I mean, continuously we are inventing ourselves as a person, so that I don’t find any real sacrosanct quality about so-called facts and so-called truths. I mean, that’s probably rather wicked of me or impious of me to do that. But as far as I am concerned, everything is available for recreation or manipulation. In the Hawskmoor book, I created a different church altogether, and in Chatterton, there are all sorts of things that were completely made up. I have just written a novel named Milton in America, which is the story of Milton fleeing from England and founding a colony in New England, which is all obviously counterfeited.

When is it due to come out?

In October.

When asked to make a list of the creative writers you admire most, you usually mention writers like Oscar Wilde, Milton, Dickens, Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Blake, and Sir Philip Sidney. If we accept Joyce’s contention that all writers go back to two basic kinds, represented by Balzac and Dante, could we say that you are invariably attracted to Dantean or visionary writers, with the interesting exception of Defoe? Could you explain why this is so?

It’s just what I like to read. I do believe in what I call “London visionary tradition,” as I explained in a lecture entitled “Cockney Visionaries.” And now I am thinking of writers like Thomas More, a Londoner, a Catholic, as you know. Either by instinct or intuition, or by an active act of identification, I am interested in those writers who add a visionary or sacred dimension to their prose or to their poetry. I have in the meantime constructed various theories why that should be so. One of them is what I call the “Cockney visionary tradition,” and the other is what I call the “latent Catholicism of the English race.” Of course, you know England has been Catholic for 1,500 years and has only been Protestant for 400, and I am very interested to rediscover the Catholic roots of English culture, which I do in this lecture on “Cockney Visionaries.”

Another element I’m interested in is the traditional Gothic literature, which goes back to … what? The early nineteenth century? And which is all very fascinating, because it does the same kind of thing I am trying to do, which is melodramatic Jews and melodramatic whores, a sort of, I suppose, not self-consciousness, but a sort of humor that is certainly involved even in the most terrifying scenes and that is also a very English tradition. We were talking earlier about the future for English literature. I am convinced that its only future, its possible future, is to recognize the native tradition, and a lot of modern writers, as far as I can see them, have been too seduced by American literature, which has no roots in a certain sense on the whole. And so they write a kind of Americanese mid-Atlantic prose which I dislike intensely.

Maybe also because their work is more readily appreciated in America than in Britain?

Yes. I think that is possibly true. And also you have to remember that a lot of them come from a kind of academic institution which encourages that kind of writing.

Do you mean institutions like the creative writing seminar at East Anglia University?

Yes. I have known people who came from that. I have nothing against it, but I think it is a very secular Protestant consciousness which comes across, which I don’t find appetizing at all.

Do you mean these writers would need a sense of transcendence?

Absolutely, a sense of transcendence and a sense of humor, which is almost the same thing.

Interestingly, contemporary writers often express a need for transcendence even while declaring themselves agnostic or even atheists, like Fowles, for example.

Of course. I was thinking about people who ask me why I play with time and history. Well, I suppose it is a Catholic consciousness trying to formulate faith in a different way. Trying to give the sense of the sacred some new dimension. But what this is, I don’t know.

Do you believe in art as the vehicle for that?

I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. I suppose on one level that would be sort of heretical. So, I’m not too sure about that. I have to think about it.

A puzzling element in your suggested alternative canon is the vital total absence of women in it.

I know, that’s a problem.

Wouldn’t it be possible to include Virginia Woolf within it?

Yes, it would, indeed. Yes, absolutely. She wrote Orlando. …

She spent all her life trying to write “novels of vision” as opposed to “novels of fact.”

I know. She did. It has nothing to do with homosexuality. It has nothing to do with my gender. I think it has all to do with the fact that I find it very difficult to …You see, I am always writing about myself, as I said to you, and I can’t write about myself as a female, because I am not. It is a weakness which I regret actually, because in my fiction, when I create books, I find it very difficult to create sympathic or real, old female characters. Someone would say I can’t create real characters at all.

Elizabeth Cree was wicked.

I know. It is a problem. Emily Dickinson I admire very much, for example. But you are absolutely right about Virginia Woolf. She could very well be included within the visionary writers.

And Jeanette Winterson also writes visionary fictions of a sort.

That’s right. But the thing is I don’t read any kind of contemporary fiction at all. So I don’t know what is going on.

But you have read the work of Iain Sinclair, haven’t you?

Yes, I have read it. Yes, I am very fond of his writing.

Are you close friends, too?

No, I see him occasionally. That’s all. I see him about twice a year.

You have said that when you wrote Hawksmoor, you didn’t know about plots. It is true that Hawksmoor appears chaotic at surface level; however, it also hides a very neat textual structure that knits the eighteenth- and the twentieth-century stories together and suggests the metafictional reproduction of Dyer’s mystical ladder to heaven. Would it be right to conclude that this hidden structure is a textual ladder the reader of Hawksmoor can use analogically, like the medieval reader of the Divine Comedy, in order to achieve his or her own cosmic integration?

I think that’s possible, but on a conscious level those organizations you are talking about, which are sometimes too prominent, I believe—I suppose I made the plot too artificial—is just a quality of my imagination, which is very highly structured. But I couldn’t extrapolate from that and say there is any analogical or allegorical significance.

But were you trying to create while you were writing? Were you trying to write a kind of parodic Divine Comedy?

No, not at all. No. I was simply trying to figure out a way of creating a story, and I had no exemplars in mind at all. It was just a question of …, how can I put it? I had an eighteenth-century and a twentieth-century plot, and I just had to tie them together. The idea of the murders came quite late in the day, as a way of doing that. Well, I’ll tell you another thing. When I write biography, everything I do is highly organized, and when I write fiction, it is also very highly organized in advance. So, the plot scheme is also very prominent. But I couldn’t possibly claim that it is part of some great typological mystery. Although, obviously, the thesis2 would suggest otherwise.

Yes, but sometimes writers do things unconsciously.

Of course. Absolutely. I think half of it is unconscious. I mean, I write unconsciously, as it were. And I read the books I like and then I do the writing. … Is it me or not me? I don’t know. I might presume, since half of it sort of springs unimpeded toward the mind, it may well be that within those structures are other layers of consciousness which I am not aware of. It is certainly possible.

Your attempts at renewing English culture involve two apparently contradictory elements. On the one hand, the recovery of the visionary or transcendental component of writing and, on the other, the recuperation of such popular art forms as vaudeville, pantomime, and the grotesque in general. This combination of the “high” and the “low” is a typically postmodernist feature. Would you describe your work as “postmodernist”?

No, it’s English. It’s a completely different thing. This combination of high and low, farce and tragedy, is something which is innate in the English tradition. Dickens, of course, is the great example. Shakespeare, too. And you talk about pantomime and vaudeville. That’s also a very innately English sensibility at work. And as far as I am concerned, it’s just part of the inheritance that goes back as far as a thousand years. It’s nothing really to do with postmodernism.

You have said that you never read contemporary fiction. However, your novels, although extraordinarily innovative, have interesting points in common with the works of writers of historiographic metafiction such as Lawrence Durrell, Julian Barnes, Charles Palliser, or Jeanette Winterson, and with John Fowles’s fiction in particular. A case in point is Fowles's A Maggot, published in 1986, one year after Hawksmoor. Both novels are set in Augustan England, are indebted to Defoe, and deal with esoteric and dissenting sectarianism. And both novels may be read as heroes’ quests for transcendence and cosmic integration. What is more, Fowles is well known for his defense of “English”—as opposed to “British”—culture. Do you see yourself in any way related to any of these writers?

Oh, certainly. If you put it like that. Then I can obviously see connections between John Fowles and myself. There can be no doubt about that, although I haven’t read his fiction. Yes. I think he is obviously on the same track as I am. That there is an innately English sensibility, which is part antiquarian, partly visionary. Fowles has been mocked for being antiquarian in temperament, and I certainly think that a writer like myself is innately antiquarian, superstitious, concerned with pantomimic reality, rather than with true reality. …

A basic difference between yourself and John Fowles, I think, is that he would consider himself a humanist, a position you reject in favor of modernism in Notes for a New Culture.

Well, you see, I wouldn’t exactly agree with the thesis of my criticism now, because it was written when I was very young.

Yes, but you revised it in 1993.

Well, I just cut it. I didn’t actually do any real revision. I had no control over the new issue, so I had to cut it. I wouldn’t disown the book, but I would say that my own understanding of things has moved on since I was 20. The contrast between humanism and modernism doesn’t strike me as probably being as important now. I think there are other forces, other contexts.

Which ones?

Well, as I said to you, the London sensibility, the visionary sensibility, the English Catholic sensibility. All are more nebulous areas than those I mentioned in the book. But it strikes me now that they are more important than the very stark dichotomies I introduced into that book.

An important component of the alternative English tradition you propose is the Catholic element. Wouldn’t this give the tradition an unexpected cosmopolitanism, linking it to the Catholic visionary tradition, from, let’s say, Dante, St. Teresa, and St. Juan de la Cruz to the work of magical realist writers like Borges, García Márquez, Cortázar, Italo Calvino, or Umberto Eco?

I’m sure that’s absolutely true. I think there is a sense in which the Catholic … This is a very difficult area, because we have to discuss it at more length when I have thought about it. But the Catholic sensibility of the English is innately strong. Hence the interest in spectacle, hence the interest in pantomime, in display andvaudeville. And I presume that, at some level, a Catholic English tradition would very quickly attach itself to this European Catholic tradition; we can be sure of that. And the South American Catholic tradition, too. I mean, you have to discuss what it meant to be a Catholic, what it meant in terms of writing, but certainly the interest in informal properties, the interest in display, the interest in melodrama, in the theatrical use of language, the interest in ritual, all these things stem from a Catholic sense of life. Obviously. I would certainly think of myself in that way now.

And the magical realist element, too?

Well, possibly. But, I mean, the magical realism goes back many, many centuries. Philip Sidney, you know, Spenser. … It all goes back a very long way, and these modern phases are simply attached to very ancient forms of narrative.

Do you usually work on two or three manuscripts at the same time?

No, what happens is I do novels in the morning. When I am writing fictions, I do that in the mornings, and I do research for the next biography in the afternoons, and then—as now that I am about to start work on a biography—I’ll concentrate for a year and do no fiction, just make notes to myself and then begin the process again with the fiction and research for the next biography.

And do you keep both processes separate?

No, they bleed into each other the whole time. It is inevitable. When I was writing the life of Blake, I was writing the novel about Dr. Dee, and of course there are similar attitudes or similar word puzzles, similar interests, involved in both; and when I was writing Blake, I was researching the book about Milton, and again there were similarities of religious discourse and so forth. So, they are always sort of combined at a certain level. I mean, it is not deliberate. It’s not that I was trying to think, “Oh, maybe I can try to do these at the same time.”

Have you any other books in mind, apart from Milton in America?

Yes, I might write a biography of Thomas More, and I am planning a new novel which is set in the future, which should be a Catholic England in 300 years hence.

I look forward to reading them. Thank you very much for your patience.


  1. So far, Ackroyd has published three poetry collections: Ouch (1971). London Lickpenny (1973), and The Diversions of Purley (1987); four biographies: on Ezra Pound (1980), T. S. Eliot (1984), Charles Dickens (1990), and William Blake (1995); and eight novels: The Great Fire of London (1982), The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1984), Hawksmoor (1985), Chatterton (1987), First Light (1989), English Music (1992), The House of Dr. Dee (1993), and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), published in the United States as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. At present he is working on his ninth novel, Milton in America.

  2. Ackroyd is here referring to Ma José Auría Labayen’s unpublished PhD thesis, La estructura simbólica de Hawksmoor y First Light (University of Zaragoza, 1995).

Trev Broughton (review date 30 August 1996)

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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 clotted streets, a violent past and poor plumbing.

Setting Milton in America is Ackroyd’s joke: at all those poet-of-London clichés, and hence, more indirectly, at his own expense. The novel might just as easily be called Fish out of Water. For John Milton, America was a “savage desert” to which free-born Englishmen fled, “in heaps”, from the fury of the bishops; the grim alternative, but only a rhetorical alternative, to staying in the kitchen and putting up with the heat. It was, in other words, a place of exile and last resort, only marginally preferable to death. History’s Milton wrote virulently anti-royalist pamphlets, but when the monarchy came back into favour, he stayed put, had his books burnt and went—albeit briefly—to prison. Ackroyd’s Milton smuggles himself to Barnstaple on the back of a wagon, and sets sail for New England. “I leave England in order to pray for England”, he assures us. “I leave England in order to be a witness for England. I leave England in order to be England.”

En route, he meets another runaway: an apprentice scrivener of uncertain youth, born of a long line of Smithfield sausage-makers, whom he adopts as his amanuensis and guide. Goosequill, so nicknamed for his punkish hair and skill with a pen, thus becomes Milton’s faithful, if not always properly reverent, right hand, eyes and all-purpose fixer. On board ship, Milton soon settles into his new role as hero in exile and visionary of the New World, accepting the adulation of his fellow passengers and generally talking up a storm. Goosequill meanwhile attends to the minor details, such as keeping them both alive. He gets his master out of tight corners, buys provisions for the crossing, barters for better rations on board ship (a translation of Psalm 107 traded for a bag pudding) and saves them from the inevitable shipwreck.

So instead of arriving in pomp and state at Boston Harbour, Milton fetches up in the wilderness, with only Goosequill to fend for him and protect him from bears and wolves. After sundry adventures, the pair finally make their way to a small settlement, where the Precise Separatist Brethren of New Tiverton eagerly adopt the hero of the Commonwealth as their leader (by due election, of course, nem con). Founding the colony of New Milton keeps the poet happy for a while. There are laws to draft, infractions to punish, sermons to deliver, grandiloquent epistles to dictate, savages to convert:

“It is time, Goose, to uproot this goblin world and its affrightments”.


“It is time to teach our Indians how to pray”.

But starved of books and learned company—his good Puritan neighbours speak an execrable sub-Bunyanese—Milton soon becomes bored, vainglorious and restless. Stumbling into the woods one day, he simply disappears.

He reappears several weeks later, but strangely, subtly changed. He has lived among natives, recovering from a broken leg and being instructed in their customs and rituals. Once returned, he continues to go about his legislative business, but seems nervy and embittered. By the time Ralph Kempis arrives to found a colony of Catholics in the vicinity, Milton the urbane lover of liberty is on the wane, and Milton the anti-papist bigot is firmly in the ascendant. How could a man, dripping Dante and Scripture from every pore, deny the lessons of his own pilgrimage, his own wilderness? What is it about his time with the Indians that he cannot stomach? What did they show him and how? He will drench paradise in blood sooner than tell us.

Milton’s story is a New World tragedy; yet Milton in America is not a tragic book. The lessons are there to be learned, by the reader if not by the pilgrim himself. Milton, meanwhile, has a job to do: being a sage, being England, is a time-consuming business. In fact, Milton is the latest in a succession of Ackroyd heroes treading the fine line between prophet and performer, shaman and showman. In biographies, novels and in the murkier territories in between, he has given us sympathetic portraits of visionaries on their uppers, charismatic conjurers and clay-footed mystics. Ackroyd’s Milton is a tyrant, a pedant, a grumpy old sod; yet Goosequill’s affection and admiration for him are palpable, and understandable, from the start, and their constant bickering is the highlight of the novel. Goosequill’s Cockney repartee is the perfect foil for Milton’s solemn proclamations. Meanwhile, the homesickness of his sweetheart, Kate Jervis, and indeed of almost all the pilgrims, affords plenty of scope for in-jokey Ackroydian burps of London lore: “I was born in Duncan Lane!” “Known as Drunken Lane?” “The very same”, etc, etc. Milton’s dialogue, too, is wittily done: a choice medley of allegory and allusion, sermon, scripture, vituperation and song. Ackroyd’s Milton may not be the first, or last, poet to find himself an acknowledged legislator with a tabula (more or less) rasa to work upon, but he is certainly the most long-winded. Imagine living alongside a man who relies on you for the simplest tasks, yet who will never use two short words when eight long ones will do, and whose mighty cadences brook no interruption even in the direst emergency. Yet Goosequill and Milton, for all their differences, get along well enough: their converse shares enough colours and similes (if only by way of pub names and folk tales) to make for some energetic banter.

Milton in America is not a perfect novel. The avalanche of allegory does not prevent the narrative from lacking conviction and pace, at times; Dante was elaborate, but at least he was consistent and knew where he was going. Ackroyd’s characteristic play with form seems redundant in so densely allusive a work. He mixes dream sequence with chronicle, epistle, journal, first- and third-person narrative, dialogue, and dialogue within dialogue, until the punctuation looks like Morse code and the reader begs for mercy. Milton’s arch-enemies, too, are unevenly drawn. Ralph Kempis’s Catholic followers, with their incessant merriness, their jocund ceremonies, their pick-and-mix doctrines and their extravagant costumes seem more like New Age Travellers than persecuted exiles, and one can see why they get up the Precise Separatist noses of the New Milton Brethren. But John Milton himself is a wonderful creation: as exasperating and exhilarating as we have come to expect of an Ackroyd hero.

John Clute (review date 27 September 1996)

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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 pages of Carl Jung—it would seem.

Milton in America does indeed seem to chart a new course. It is an Alternate History tale though it takes small advantage of a mode whose popularity in the 1990s marks one creative response to the task of gaining perspective on the century-end. Only John Milton’s flight to America in 1660, and a small religious war a few years later, mark Ackroyd’s narrative off from real history.

And the Milton who thus takes flight we know already: the blind, arrogant, chillingly adamant Puritan genius who wrote Paradise Lost in this world, instead of finding a new one to ruin. Ackroyd—who has vanishingly little sympathy for his doctrinal certainties and his hatred of the flesh—does relatively little to humanise Milton. There is a sense of humour; and the Quixote/Panza relationship between him and his young attendant Goosequill is smilingly conveyed; and in New England his Puritan brethren secretly bore him. But, in the end, Milton is a cartoon.

Blindness governs the telling of the book, and is its final message Milton’s own blindness, as he stumbles into a paradise he will soon be instrumental in losing, is matched by the virtuoso blindness of the text itself, most of which comprises letters, recounted anecdotes, reveries, hearsay. There is no naked sight in America, only the imperialisms of precedent. Milton grasps his brave new world solely in terms of biblical typology, literary analogy, images of the Wilderness as Hell. And by grasping he conquers it.

But there is an interlude, told in both first and third person, almost randomly, as though it were impossible to tell who was the real Milton and who the Shadow. Milton wanders off from the community, is caught in an Indian deer trap, is rescued by the natives. Healed by them, he regains his sight. He sees the true world: “John Milton opens his eyes and sees the Indians around him.”

Except for the fact that the episode is told in retrospect, after it is too late, there is almost a sense that the shackles of blindness—perceptual, literary, religious, moral—will dissolve, and the white man, of whom Milton is the blindest and bravest and purest example, will live in peace. But, as we already know, the vision cannot last. Sex with an Indian maiden, who thinks she has married him, causes a revulsion, and sick thoughts of concupiscense blind him again. His Shadow—which stands for a whole Milton capable of attaining the earthly paradise of an unsullied America—dies.

Returned to his community, he contrives a holy war against a neighbouring Catholic town, where Indians live and interbreed with whites. There are lots of deaths. Milton has made America.

It is a hard book to judge. Some of the cartooning is tedious; Milton himself—and the traumas which carry him back into the dark—is not subtly drawn. But his destruction of paradise—Paradise Lost is not mentioned in the novel—is deeply scary, deeply prophetic. Milton in America is a slingshot ideogram of our loss of America, of all the world.

Helen Pike Bauer (review date Spring 1997)

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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 accessibility of all Blake’s work. Ackroyd does not brush away the difficulties and, at times, admits that Blake’s complexities have never been and may never be fully unraveled. Yet he argues that “much of [Blake’s] prophetic symbolism can actually be understood without undue difficulty, but it requires in the reader a reawakening of what is essentially a clear and simple vision. He is a ‘difficult’ poet only if we decide to make him so” (279).

Ackroyd attempts to account for, or to give some sources for, the shape of Blake’s imagination, from the earliest poetry to the last, from the apprentice copies of tombs in Westminster Abbey to the Dante watercolors he was working on at his death. Blake never forgot anything he saw, Ackroyd maintains; from his youth to his old age, he recalled, reimagined, reinterpreted, adapted, and modified his materials. This recursive technique derives, in part, from the demands on an impoverished engraver frugally reusing his plates, an economic necessity that becomes a way of thinking, a mode of creativity.

Indeed, one of Ackroyd’s major interpretive motifs is the influence of Blake’s engraving work on all his art. The need for a strong outline—the detailed particulars—characterizes his watercolors as well, with their vivid surface, vibrant outline without shadow or indeterminate context. And his poetry, with its absence of inwardness or complex characterization or subtlety of feeling, is heavily influenced by the materials to which the young Blake was apprenticed and by which he made his living. Ackroyd’s intelligent and subtle descriptions of engraving techniques and their effects, his meticulous tracing of the development of Blake’s mature engraving and watercolor styles and their relationship to his poetry, distinguish this biography. Such focused attention to the materiality of Blake’s craft is more common in scholarly studies devoted exclusively to his art work. Ackroyd’s attention to technique, put to the broader service of biography and the investigation of Blake’s creativity, allows us to follow the precise visual and verbal analogies Ackroyd is arguing for. This handsome volume is also provided with numerous plates, both in color and black and white, helping the reader to pursue these connections.

Born in Soho, the son of a hosier, Blake spent almost all his life within walking distance of his birthplace. The sights and sounds of eighteenth-century London permeate his art. Relying on Blake’s letters and poems as well as on historical studies of the period, Ackroyd imagines Blake’s walks through London, and locates the furnaces and mills, the rivers and fields the artist encountered. Blake, to Ackroyd, is an urban poet, one who looks out on a modern city, its horror and its energy, and is inflamed by it. From the early “London” to the late Jerusalem, Blake reacts to what he sees in front of him.

The social protest in Blake’s work is underscored by Ackroyd. Blake foresaw the deterioration of art as it became increasingly influenced by industrial economics and he perceived the decay of the imagination in a consumerist, mechanical, mercantile society. In his ferocious protest, he is not unlike Ruskin, who would also be deemed mad. But Blake saw these forces as they were just beginning to take shape, long before their effects were readily apparent. And he saw their consequences in his own life, in his poverty and neglect, as printing became more mechanized and uniformity and speed became necessary. Blake, a craftsman in an increasingly commercial society, speaks from the experience of personal hardship. And Ackroyd returns repeatedly to the privations Blake and his wife endured, their cramped rooms, meager diet, worn clothing, and fifteen-hour work days.

Ackroyd describes a man for whom nothing came easily, who lived a life of penury and grinding labor. But Ackroyd finally argues that the more obscure Blake became, the more insistent his work grew. Its particular hue and flavor were the result of his sufferings; his was not a personality to flourish in good times. One great gift he was accorded, Ackroyd maintains, differing here from some other biographers, was a happy marriage. Catherine Blake became her husband’s helpmeet in every way, his greatest disciple, the “angel” Blake called her on his deathbed (367). She firmly believed in the truth of his visions. “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company,” she once observed; “he is always in Paradise” (295). But, after his death, she reported that he visited her each day, sat down, and spoke with her for two or three hours.

Blake’s own visions were, to many of his contemporaries, a great stumbling block. He himself never doubted their reality. He saw and conversed with his dead brother, the spirits of the great, the angels. He was inspired by them, directed by them; they constituted the deepest truth in his life. And, as Ackroyd states, Blake, in his obstinate London tradesman’s temperament, was not to be dissuaded from believing what he saw. He was a “born antinomian” (23), with a hatred of authority and submission. Ackroyd, citing psychological studies of eidetic images, suggests that Blake retained throughout his life what is essentially a not uncommon childhood phenomenon. It is the lifelong persistence of his visions that marks Blake as unusual. And, in times of distress, they became more frequent, a source of comfort and support to a man who had few other solaces. Ackroyd suggests that the later visions may have been a recreation of memories, but Blake would never have agreed. He thought all men had the capacity for visions but lost it as they grew older. His blessing was that he had not. And his poverty and obscurity were minor hardships compared to his gift. To Crabb Robinson, he said, “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy” (342).

And yet, as Ackroyd makes clear, Blake’s was not a life of complete isolation. Generous patrons commissioned work, and although Blake’s dilatoriness and prickly, suspicious temperament would often exasperate a client, some of his friends continued to support him. Nor was he intellectually isolated. Ackroyd spends much time sketching out the radical political and religious communities of late eighteenth-century London, noting the meetings Blake attended and the circles of acquaintances he developed. Blake’s revolutionary political sentiments, though strong, were yet dampened in their expression by his nervous fear that he would be persecuted for his views. He was more outspoken about his religious opinions. As Ackroyd makes clear, Blake lived in a time when London contained a variety of mystical, millenarian, occultist sects. And he was well read in Swedenborg, Paracelsus, and Boehme. Ackroyd argues however, that Blake remains, finally, a man who found it difficult to integrate himself into larger intellectual or social communities. He rejected ready-made ideas, adopting attitudes rather than principles. He creates his own mythology, his own artistic style, his own philosophy.

It is that system that Ackroyd finally approaches, painstakingly tracing through the prophetic books, elucidating the strands of intellect, passion, temperament, and circumstance that weave through them. Profoundly influenced by Blake’s early reading of the Bible and yet deeply insubordinate in doctrine and tone, the prophetic art elaborates, over the embodiments of many years, a theory of human psychology; of the constitution of evil; of the radiant, contentious, frightening power of sexuality; of the divinity within each human being, and the cruel religious and human systems that work to deny and destroy that divinity. Blake’s poetry enacts, in its own terms, the apocalyptic drama of perdition and salvation. It turns with contempt from the merely rational, the life without imagination and faith, and celebrates freedom and joy. The prophetic books are formidable, Ackroyd maintains, because Blake creates his own myth. We readers must enter without outside guidance. But because he defines his own characters and devises his own plot, Blake is able to explore reality, both human and divine, in unique ways. Urizen and Los and Vala, and even Milton and Satan, do not correspond to anyone else’s construction. We must take Blake on his own terms.

In this beautifully written book, Ackroyd once more demonstrates his strong talent for narrative design and vivid scene. He captures the difficult and yet powerfully admirable personality of his subject, one whom he names “the last great religious poet in England” (18). And although Ackroyd concentrates on the comprehensible strands that make up Blake’s art, he acknowledges the limits of his approach, the temperament that is irreducible, the imagination that moves beyond our ability to follow. Blake’s independence and integrity, Ackroyd avers, were part of his genius, but his withdrawal from the world deprived him of a community and an audience. Left to himself, his references became more private and allusive; he lost the opportunity to judge the effectiveness of his work. For these reasons, he today demands more than many readers are willing to give. But Ackroyd insists that our judgment of him as a visionary must be balanced by our appreciation of his pugnacious, down-to-earth character. It is in this insistence, perhaps, that Blake’s values and personality are recognizable, that his work is readable, that Ackroyd’s greatest contribution lies. This sympathetic, intelligent, learned book, which reveals a deep and affecting love of its subject, encourages the reader to turn once again to Blake’s work. Surely this is the most desirable accomplishment for an artist’s biographer.

William Hutchings (review date Winter 1997)

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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 Victorians’ own “novels of sensation,” but told with a twentieth-century sophistication in its narrative technique that presents multiple points of view. The lurid crimes, known as the Golem murders (named after a malevolent spirit of Jewish legend), are remarkable not only for the ability of the murderer seemingly to vanish but also for the skill with which the victims have been mutilated.

The novel’s sensational events are recounted in part by a third-person neo-Victorian narrator, but there are also, throughout the book, chapters that reproduce documents germane to the case. Transcripts from the trial of Elizabeth Cree for the poisoning of her husband John, an eccentric would-be playwright and social critic, are included, as are excerpts from his diary, “now preserved in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum.” The fact of her conviction and execution by hanging is established in the first chapter of the novel, but neither this knowledge nor the emerging details of her troubled marriage—nor, indeed, the presence of her husband’s diaries—undercuts the book’s startling denouement. As the details of her life are established, her career as a performer in the East End music halls is described; there, comedian Dan Leno is acclaimed “The Funniest Man on Earth,” and Elizabeth Cree gains much success as a cross-dressing comedian in his company. These chapters—which are perhaps the most fascinating of the entire novel—convincingly evoke Victorian popular culture and the largely unrecorded and unrecounted world of working-class London; they also offer a remarkable demonstration of the extent to which comedy is a product of its particular era and may well not “cross over” into later times. In a structural device familiar to readers of Ackroyd’s Chatterton, however, three generations (Dan Leno, his father, and Charlie Chaplin) interestingly “intersect” across time in a single room.

Meanwhile, seemingly a world away from the raucous music halls, the elderly Karl Marx labors on with his writings in the Reading Room of the British Museum, convinced that “murder is a bourgeois preoccupation,” even though he is a friend of one of the victims. Nearby sits the young George Gissing, married to an alcoholic prostitute whose sordid life causes him to be a suspect in the murders and eventually lands him in jail. Like E. L. Doctorow, Ackroyd deftly blends the lives of his fictional characters with well-known historical figures, but in contrast to Doctorow’s recent pseudo-Sherlock Holmesian novel The Waterworks, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is more sophisticated in its narrative technique, more plausible in its crimes, and more chillingly memorable in its final disclosures.

Aileen Ward (review date 1997)

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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 Jungian, close readings of poetic texture, revaluations of his place in English painting, discussions of the “composite art” of text and design in his illuminated books, and most recently close study of his methods as a graphic artist: each approach has widened the scope of our knowledge about Blake’s work and deepened our admiration for his achievement. In all this furor of critical activity only biography has lagged behind: partly because of the magnitude of the task of covering Blake’s three careers as poet, painter, and engraver spread over almost seven decades, but still more because of the sketchy information about his life (1757–1827) as provided by the usual sources of letters, journals, reminiscences and so forth. Not only was his life externally quite uneventful, passed for the most part in poverty and obscurity, but he was so little regarded in his time that few records of his existence were preserved. Alexander Gilchrist’s pioneering biography of 1863, however inadequate it may seem today, is still the source on which most biographers lean most heavily. But in the last few decades the work of editors, bibliographers, cataloguers and historically-minded scholars on many fronts has accumulated a critical mass of information that offers a basis for a new portrait of Blake in all his extraordinary fullness.

Peter Ackroyd, who has previously written the lives of T. S. Eliot, Thomas Chatterton, and Charles Dickens, has now risen to this challenge. His biography of Blake [Blake] is the first to draw on the full range of recent scholarship, and his skillful infusion of this new material adds depth and color to the familiar outlines of Blake’s life. He brings to his task the Blakean traits of energy and enthusiasm as well as an infectious identification with his subject, and his book will appeal to readers who have responded to the legend of Blake while remaining bewildered by much of his work and unacquainted with the man behind it. Blake has long had his small groups of special admirers—wealthy collectors of his paintings and illuminated books, students in the 1960’s claiming him as a fellow revolutionist, even drug addicts fascinated by his hallucinatory power: Ackroyd aims at a wider, more general and more prosaic audience. He gives us a biography for the age of information—a mosaic of facts drawn from a wide variety of sources, interspersed with vivid descriptions of Blake’s London, vignettes of his friends and patrons, and some cautious psychoanalytic speculation, all deftly assembled, generously illustrated, and narrated with brio. Ackroyd has a sharp eye for enlivening small detail: he has noted the decorations on the Grinling Gibbons font where Blake was baptized, the firmness of his signature in the marriage register, and the names of three of the seven other Londoners with whom he shares a common grave in Bunhill Fields. Yet the reader should be warned that the book contains many small inaccuracies as well as fictional touches based loosely on fact. A few small examples: Ackroyd takes us on one of Blake’s boyhood rambles through the fields north of London, where he may or may not have met a maiden lady mounted on a gray mare who liked to cut small boys’ kitestrings with a large pair of scissors—which may or may not have inspired his later engraving of “Aged Ignorance” clipping the wings of youthful vision. He pictures Blake the apprentice in Basire’s workshop learning the messy and laborious steps of making an engraving—though what he describes is clearly an etching. He tells of “The Great Fiery Meteor” of 1783 which may or may not have inspired a later drawing by Blake’s younger brother Robert that William copied in 1788 in “The Approach of Doom,” his first relief etching—which Ackroyd twice labels an engraving. What is more important, the reader looking for a new understanding of Blake’s work, or of the inner drama of the imagination that produced it, may well be disappointed. In the very profusion of detail which is the strength of Ackroyd’s method the significant outlines of Blake’s creative career tend to be lost.

The conception of Blake’s career in modern criticism turns on two poles which may be described as the systematic and the historical. The first of these approaches, deriving from Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, views Blake’s work (especially his poetry) as the expression of a unified unchanging view of reality expressed in terms of an original mythological system which gradually unfolds over the course of his career, self-contained and insulated from the issues of the age. The critic’s task is to tease out the details of the system and their interconnections, and his goal is to achieve what Frye described as the “total intelligibility” of Blake’s myth. The second approach locates Blake squarely within his period and views his work as responding to various intellectual and artistic forces of the times and reflecting significant changes in his outlook. David Erdman’s Blake: Prophet Against Empire led the way in 1954 by charting Blake’s relation to the historical and political upheavals of the age, and since then other critics have explored a wide variety of contexts for his work, from the rise of the English working class to the outbreak of millenarianism in the 1790’s. Their method is to accumulate as much relevant information about the times as possible, as well as the facts of Blake’s own life and working methods, then bring them to bear on the interpretation of his work.

Ackroyd’s conception of Blake looks in both these directions. He provides a wealth of information about Blake and his milieu, especially from recent sources, and from time to time he sketches in the historical background of the American and French Revolutions and the long war against Napoleon, with its political repression and the sufferings it inflicted on the London poor. Yet he hardly indicates how these events shaped Blake’s lifelong hatred of the Establishment or figured in his work. He distances himself from the view of Blake’s radicalism advanced by Erdman and recently elaborated in terms of intellectual and religious history by Jon Mee and E. P. Thompson. Ackroyd’s lack of interest in the political context may explain the short shrift he gives to the four Continental Prophecies America, Europe, and The Song of Los (including “Africa” and “Asia”) except to praise their magnificent illustrations. These works, which trace the growth of the idea of revolution back to the beginning of time, are Blake’s first venture in writing the universal history that culminated in his last long poem Jerusalem, but Ackroyd views them as little more than popular narrative in an Ossianic idiom. While it may be too fanciful to see his dismissal of the continental poems as a kind of insularity, it is striking how often Ackroyd stresses Blake’s Englishness and places him as a “Cockney visionary” within a line of great London artists such as Turner and Dickens. He opposes Blake’s “English strain of moral seriousness and earnest spirituality” to the infection of “sceptical and deistical” ideas presumably caught from the continent, and he reads the conclusion of almost every one of Blake’s poems from Tiriel onward as a triumph of spirituality over materialism. But this downplays the radical nature of Blake’s religious thought from beginning to end (though Ackroyd associates his liberated attitude toward nakedness with his Dissenting heritage); it also oversimplifies Blake’s religious development, which is the ground base of his entire career as poet and artist.

Ackroyd’s claim that Blake is “the last great religious poet in England” and his stress on the formative influence of the Bible from his childhood onward link him with the critical tradition of Frye and its insistence on the centrality of the Bible and Milton in Blake’s work. Yet he is not especially interested in Blake’s relationship to Christianity, specifically the Dissenting background of his religious thought, which he dismisses as “of no consequence.” He does not spell out the implications of Blake’s antinomianism—his hatred of the Moral Law, his denial of original sin, his conviction that God exists only in individual men; and he hardly mentions Blake’s defense of “sensual enjoyment,” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell onward, as the basis of spiritual freedom. Instead he describes Blake simply as “imbued with a religion of piety, enthusiasm, and vision.” Indeed, except for his passing involvement with Swedenborgianism, Ackroyd has less to say about Blake’s Christianity than his interest in mesmerism, alchemy, Freemasonry, and other contemporary forms of occultism. About Blake’s own mythological system, which originated as an alternative not only to classical mythology but to Christianity itself, he provides little more than a cursory introduction to seven or eight of the main characters—Orc, Urizen, Los, and others. Central concepts such as the Divine Humanity or fourfold vision, or even such phrases as “the Hermaphroditic Satanic world of rocky destiny,” are left unexplained. Blake’s gradual conversion from a kind of imaginative deism to an evangelical faith in Christ as “the Friend of Sinners” and his final acceptance of Jehovah as a loving and forgiving Father go almost unnoticed. In the religious dimension as in others, Blake developed and changed; yet Ackroyd gives little sense of this evolution.

Blake’s ideas on the subject of art had both religious and political implications, and here again one might question some aspects of Ackroyd’s analysis. Blake’s early drawings and paintings, like his early poetry, show a striking preference for historical subjects over religious ones—predominantly subjects with radical and anti-monarchical implications drawn from early British history, such as “The Making of Magna Carta” or “The Penance of Jane Shore,” rather than from the classical myth and history sanctioned by Establishment taste or the traditional themes of Christian art. At the same time the style of his paintings up to about 1800 conforms for the most part to the classical modes he had learned as a student at the Royal Academy. Ackroyd, however, sees Blake as committed to a spiritualized Gothic ideal from the time of his apprentice days when he sketched the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey for his master Basire. But it is hard to find any evidence of a “spiritual revelation” in Blake’s meticulous and impersonal renderings of the effigies of the Norman kings (whom he in fact despised), and Gothic motifs are almost entirely absent from his painting till about 1804. To overlook this fact dilutes the importance of the turning point in his artistic career that came in 1804, when he experienced a sudden insight that the true way to art was to be found in the austere Gothic style he had encountered years earlier in Westminster Abbey rather than in the opulence of the grand style exemplified by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This crystallized his hostility to academic painting, or what he called “Venetian and Flemish ooze,” and set him on a path that led farther and farther away from contemporary acceptance.

For more specific discussion of Blake’s work, Ackroyd makes good use of recent research on Blake’s methods as painter and printmaker in an appreciative account of his art in general. He gives a perceptive description of the two series of Biblical paintings Blake executed for Thomas Butts, with his classical handling of structure, light, and color in the first and his approach to Gothic forms in the second. He provides an informed summary of the development of Blake’s graphic style, from the linearity of the early engravings through the tactile exuberance of the color prints of 1795 to the tonal richness of the 1825 Illustrations to the Book of Job. He mentions Blake’s uncomfortable relationship with the Royal Academy, though hardly suggesting the extent of his lifelong ambition to be recognized by the Academy and his bitterness at being rejected. He recounts at length the sorry story of Blake’s falling out with his agent Robert Cromek and his old friend Thomas Stothard, whom he accused (unjustly, as has recently been shown) of stealing his idea for the painting of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Pilgrims.” Ackroyd’s description of individual works, however, remains mostly on the surface: he does not really explain why, for instance, the figure of Job had such central importance in Blake’s art from his 1785 drawing “The Complaint of Job” to the 1825 Illustrations, or how his interpretation of the story challenged the orthodox view of Job’s repentance, or how it deepened over the years with his changing conception of God.

By and large Ackroyd is not as much interested in Blake’s poetry as in his art. His discussion of the Poetical Sketches, the volume of Blake’s juvenilia, is too brief and allusive to give a clear sense of the range and virtuosity of Blake’s earliest poems, from Elizabethan limpidity and bardic vigor to Shakespearean heroics and Spenserian pastoralism. So also with the Songs of Innocence and of Experience: he offers generalities about Blake’s style rather than exploring the significant contrasts between the two sets—the joyous world of childhood Innocence, suffused with trust and love, counterpointed to the troubled world of Experience, of adolescent protest against the restrictions of adult authority. In two short chapters examining two of the Songs more closely, he discusses “The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence largely in terms of the cruel exploitation of the hapless children sold into the trade, and relates “The Tyger” of Experience chiefly to real or symbolic tigers Blake might have met in menageries or in books or paintings or even in newspaper reports comparing the French revolutionaries to a “tribunal of tigers.” The central question of the poem, what kind of Creator can have made such a creature, is not considered, while “The Chimney Sweeper” with its arresting and ironic conclusion “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” is dismissed as sanctimonious or “destructive and ignorant innocence.” Blake once defended the seeming obscurity or indirection of his work because it “rouzes the faculties to act”: yet Ackroyd rarely moves the reader to reflect on the deeper meaning of the samples of Blake’s poetry that he quotes. In discussing the autobiographical prophecy Milton he makes a number of pertinent comments on Blake’s lifelong sympathy with Milton, the contemporary vogue of Miltonic painting and recitation, the allegorical union of Blake and Milton within the poem, and so forth: but he does not confront the central message of “this long and sometimes difficult work”—Blake’s climactic denunciation of the false art and false religion and false philosophy of his age and the reassertion of his prophetic mission against all challengers. His account of Jerusalem is more illuminating: yet it too does not define the vital core of the poem. Albion’s deliverance from spiritual sickness through forgiveness and self-annihilation.

At times the multiplication of contexts in Ackroyd’s discussion of Blake’s work makes for a lack of direction in his narrative. With a Blakean disregard of chronology he often juxtaposes events that might better be kept separate. For example, in describing the apprentice engraving copied from a copy of a figure from Michaelangelo that Blake afterward entitled “Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion,” he reads into it a wealth of significance—religious, artistic, political—that it did not take on for Blake till thirty years later. He is consistently vague about dates, which enables him to argue, for instance, that the lucidity of the “Pickering Manuscript” poems, written around 1803, proves that Blake was not suffering from any serious mental instability in 1809 or 1810. He conflates the famous 1799 exhibition of paintings belonging to the Duc d’Orléans, which inspired Blake to return to painting after an interval of fourteen years, with an earlier exhibition of 1793. He credits Blake’s patron William Hayley with “genuine enthusiasm” for his art, but the record shows that Hayley never bought an original painting of Blake’s or a single copy of the illuminated books. Inaccuracies such as these are usually hard to spot since Ackroyd’s documentation is slight and often slipshod. For instance, the curious reader is not told where to find the two anonymous fifteenth-century engravings which Ackroyd believes Blake recalled in his illustrations to the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, or the mysterious notebook containing a translation of Sophocles’ Ajax which Ackroyd attributes to Blake on hearsay evidence. Many of the articles from journals and collections on which he draws are not mentioned in his notes or bibliography; within the notes page references are occasionally lacking, or the names of authors or essential dates of works cited; or a wrong title may be given, or the wrong edition, or a wrong page—as when a familiar quotation from Keats’s letters is referred to a non-existent page in Robert Gittings’s biography.

Ackroyd’s most dramatic error occurs in his account of the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which Blake took a part that most of his biographers have tried to paper over. The Riots began on June 2nd as an orderly demonstration by some sixty thousand members of the Protestant Association opposing a bill in Parliament easing restrictions on Catholics. The Government responded by delaying tactics, then arrested and committed five of the leaders to Newgate following attacks on two Catholic chapels (one of them on Warwick Street, four blocks from Blake’s house). These arrests touched off more anti-Catholic incidents that gradually escalated into a full-blown riot by the London poor against wealth and power in general. Ackroyd’s account of the “general madness” of that week owes more to Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge than to sober historical research such as that of W. E. H. Lecky or George Rudé. He pictures a drunken mob rampaging into Broad Street, Westminster on the night of June 2nd, plundering and setting fires and engaging in a pitched battle with the militia “a few yards” from Blake’s own home. But Ackroyd has mistaken both the date and the place of the scene he describes, which he bases on a famous engraving by James Heath. This engraving, entitled “The Riots in Broad Street on June 7th, 1780,” depicts the bloody climax of the Riots that occurred not on June 2nd but five days later on Broad Street, Holborn, over half a mile from Blake’s home in Westminster, where the militia finally opened fire on the crowds. Ackroyd suggests that Blake reacted in panic to these events, producing a recurrent anxiety about and rejection of politics expressed in his later work. But this does not square either with the tone and message of Blake’s work as a whole or with his action at the time. At the height of the Riots on June 6th, as reported by Gilchrist, Blake was in the front ranks of a crowd that marched on Newgate to free the five leaders and ended by sacking and burning the hated prison itself. This event, the formative political experience of his life, resonates throughout his poetry and illustrations, all the way from the images of broken chains and liberating flames in America to the beatific vision of “dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free” in the last chapter of Jerusalem.

Ackroyd’s misreading of this event raises a question about his use of his sources, which tends toward the uncritical but where, given the fragmentary and often unreliable nature of the original accounts of Blake’s life, a sceptical approach is required. It appears that his recounting of the riot on Broad Street is based on the biographer Michael Davis’s careless reference to Heath’s engraving (omitting the date) rather than on more trustworthy reports. Ackroyd also repeats, without examining their bases, the story of Blake’s adolescent vision of a procession of monks in Westminster Abbey and the legend that he died “Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven.” Like Gilchrist, on whom he relies heavily, he rarely names the informants he quotes, yet he refers respectfully several times to Frederick Tatham’s “Life” of 1832, which of all the early memoirs was the most prone to pious exaggeration—seen most dramatically in its description of the room resounding with “the beatific Symphony” of Blake singing on his deathbed. Ackroyd mentions that Blake himself was “a wonderful fabulist,” whose memories are not always to be trusted, but he does not pursue the interesting implications of his remark—that all the early accounts of Blake, from Malkin through Tatham to Gilchrist, need to be far more carefully scrutinized than they have been. Some years ago, David Erdman exploded the most famous of these fabulations, Blake’s prophetic warning to Tom Paine in 1792 that he should flee to France to escape Government pursuit; Ackroyd alludes to this as a “report” but does not actually deny it.

In the end, in the absence of significant original research or a fresh slant on existing evidence, Ackroyd has not offered a genuinely new portrait of Blake. A wealth of information, however skilfully deployed, does not quite correspond to insight, and the multifarious details of his account do not quite cohere into the compelling inner drama of Blake’s life that speaks through his poetry and painting. Indeed, Ackroyd’s version, highly readable though it is, seems oddly like updated Gilchrist with his picture of the visionary child, the faithful husband, the hard-working painter and mostly impenetrable poet, honest, pious, and sane. Blake the radical, the “dangerous” Blake whom the critic W. J. T. Mitchell has recently described as incoherent, obscene, and quite possibly mad, or “terrible Blake in his pride” as he once described himself, is largely overlooked. And yet, in spite of his shortcomings, Ackroyd has fashioned from the expanded store of our present knowledge of Blake a more rounded and substantial picture of Blake the man in his time than any previous biographer has done. Blake’s favorite word, as the Concordance shows, was “all,” and one of his earliest aphorisms was “Less than All cannot satisfy Man.” Perhaps no biography can ever do justice to his complexity and inclusiveness. Nevertheless, Ackroyd has taken a large step in the right direction, and his lively and ambitious portrait should win new admiration with many readers for a very great man.

Michael Glover (review date 6 March 1998)

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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 have been all of 18 months since those marvellously tangy words first appeared in print? At the time, the literary agent Giles Gordon likened Ackroyd’s working habits to all those planes that are banked above Heathrow waiting to descend, one every two minutes or so. They just never seem to stop coming.

And so it is with Ackroyd. He is under contract to write seven more books, which will presumably be his usual mixture of biography and fiction—that is to say, works of fictionalised biography alternating with works of biographically grounded fiction. For Ackroyd’s views of the relationship between biography and fiction are paradoxical enough to be worthy of debate by the Oxford Union. “In fiction you are obliged to tell the truth,” he once said. “In biography you make things up—it’s a highly formalised activity.”

Unfortunately in order to make things up effectively you need to know a great deal about the context within which you are fabricating. Ackroyd could engage in credible dialogue with Charles Dickens in his unusual biography of 1990 because so much of Victorian England—books, buildings, ideas, artefacts—has survived. But pre-Reformation England is a time before our time, extremely remote in its values.

The king who did for More did for the great majority of the period’s buildings and artefacts, too. It is for this reason that Ackroyd feels cramped and confined on this occasion. Although he has read widely, he does not understand enough about the feelings and the impulses that drove this late-medieval world along (and how could he?) to recreate it with his customary stylistic panache.

He seems to grope his way through More’s life like a bent man with a taper in the dark, never able to stand upright and see far enough ahead to draw his usual bold and cheeky conclusions.

The part of the book that does come to life is, not surprisingly, to do with London. More was one of London’s greatest sons, and Ackroyd, tearing up the Victorian cobbles to dig a little deeper into his favourite theme—the half-buried Matter of London—recreates for us the street life of the late-medieval capital with its masques and pageantries, and the interiors of the houses where More lived. Much of this has the daring and invention to be expected of good fiction. But in most respects the book leaves us with the feeling that this time Ackroyd might have done better to leave his subject to the historians.

Lavon B. Fulwiler (review date Spring 1999)

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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 Blake through intermediate sections of the biography concerning subsequent periods and those tracing the closing years of Blake’s life, the author emphasizes the circumstances and events that rendered the visionary engraver-painter-poet unique among creators of great art. It should be noted that Ackroyd prefers the designation of engraver to that of painter even though he writes about the artist’s paintings.

By focusing on the fact that both James and Catherine Blake, the parents of William, were Dissenters, Ackroyd establishes the religious milieu of the poet’s childhood. He states that “all the evidence of Blake’s art and writing suggests that he was imbued with a religion of piety” and that “he is the last great religious poet in England.” Ackroyd further observes that the prophet and visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose views would influence Blake, wrote in the year of Blake’s birth: “The Last Judgment was accomplished in the year 1757 … the former heaven and the former earth are passed away, and all things are become New” (18). Blake read the prophecy and referred to it in a poem. As one who understood prophecy and visions, he himself experienced visions: of God, of Elijah, of a biblical city he identified with London. This childhood capacity for visions continued throughout his life, and Ackroyd explains the visions as a kind of second sight. Appropriately, he titles his second chapter “The Whole Life is fill’d with Imagination & Visions” and the final one “The Imagination which Liveth for Ever,” drawing from Blake’s own writings. The early and late concern with imagination and vision emphasizes a theme basic to the entire biography.

With the concept of Blake as visionary and prophet carefully established, Ackroyd devotes succeeding sections to Blake’s preparation as an artist and to influences by both literary and visual arts on his work. Sent by the engraver James Basire, to whom he was apprenticed, to make drawings of art (especially of figures on tombs) in Westminster Abbey, Blake found that the great church strengthened his religious impulses and provided him images for his poems and for the illuminations to accompany them. Never willing merely to copy nature, he relied on imagination and vision for his artistic inspiration.

For literary landscapes Blake turned to Dante’s Inferno and James Macpherson’s “Ossian,” and he was influenced by the vocabulary and imagery of Thomas Chatterton’s ballads. His assiduous reading of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, when their poetry was less fashionable than it would later become, attests not only to his deep commitment to self-education but also to his considering himself a member of their visionary company.

Study of John Milton contributed to Blake’s cadences and imagery in his poetry. But Ackroyd avers that the poet’s desire was not limited to praising or imitating Milton: “He wanted to rewrite Paradise Lost with … vigour and visionary intensity” and thus “to change the epic of the Fall into the prophecy of Man’s faculties restored” (311). In the epic poem Milton the deceased poet descends to earth as “a falling star” but then joins with Blake to celebrate vision and poetic genius. Blake felt free to praise but also to criticize Milton even as he incorporated Milton into his myth of man’s fall and ultimate regeneration through poetic vision.

Aside from direct artistic and literary influences on Blake, Ackroyd considers the roles of his contemporaries Henry Fuseli, John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard, and William Hayley in encouraging him and in sometimes disagreeing with him. So also does Ackroyd devote attention to the roles of Catherine Boucher Blake, his wife, and Robert Blake, his younger brother. Catherine, whom Blake married in 1782, was known to their friends as a good wife who helped Blake in his work and who, according to Hayley, was “‘the only female on earth who could have suited him exactly’” (232). Robert was the sibling to whom Blake was most closely attached; after death Robert appeared to Blake in a vision, the poet said, and offered advice on how to proceed in employing a new engraving technique—relief etching—and so became a kind of muse to the artist.

Ackroyd’s biography encompasses more than influences on Blake’s life and work. It records events in his lifetime: political occurrences, revolutions, and Blake’s disputes and rifts with acquaintances. It also explicates various works—Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Jerusalem, Milton, The Four Zoas, and other writings—as well as his major engravings related to his own poems or to the works of other masters. Ackroyd’s interpretations throughout are clear and well founded.

As the author brings the biography to its close, he refers to the artist’s work on a series of watercolors as companion pieces to Dante’s poetry and on an illuminated version of the Bible, which were incomplete at the time of Blake’s death in 1827. At the end of his life as at the beginning of it, Blake was thinking of religious matters. Ackroyd quotes from a letter written by Blake’s friend George Richmond to Samuel Palmer: “‘He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see and expressed Himself Happy, hoping for salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven’” (367). Ackroyd concludes that Blake’s “vision had not faded in the pilgrimage of seventy years, and it has not faded yet” (369).

A meticulous researcher, Ackroyd cites material from Frederick Tatham, who had the advantage of knowing and talking with Blake before writing the first biography of him. Ackroyd also refers to Alexander Gilchrist’s 1863 Life of William Blake, which embraces information gathered from acquaintances of the poet. And he further cites the Thomas Wright biography of 1929 and the Mona Wilson life of 1933 as well as numerous other sources. However, his biography deserves recognition as a definitive work on its own merits: its style and its thoughtful assessment of Blake’s engravings and paintings and writings, supported by plates of Blake’s drawings and pictures of his associates, a comprehensive and valuable bibliography, and a full and well organized index. The volume should be in every research library and in every general library.

Eric Korn (review date 2 April 1999)

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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. They have names like Madrigal and Sparkler. For Plato, everything from AD 1500 to 2300 is (was, will be, will have been) the age of Mouldwarp, when people pursue smoke and phantoms and no one is happy or good; Man, the self-destroyer, is not easy in his mind.

Scientism (to Ackroyd, the necessary corollary of science) will fail. At the end of that age, allegedly, the stars began to vanish the moment astronomers took their eyes off them—a sort of intrusion of quantum ontology into the macrocosm, whereby observation is creation. Science-fiction readers will recall (what they cannot forget) the ending of Arthur C. Clark’s Nine Billion Names of God.

“The people burnt the machines and learnt to live by their own light”, says Plato, an unreliable witness: it is the dawning of the age of Wittspell (AD2300–3400), an age which places the inner vision above the telescope, or even above those useful polarizing sunglasses that prevent bright people being dazzled by the effulgence of their own luminosity. This time of spiritual fatuity, I was depressed to learn, is scheduled to last a thousand years and more:

But the age of anxiety passed, together with the illusions of abstract law and uniform dimensions. The first evidence of change came when it was reported that a centaur had been seen galloping across the meadows of Greece. This was followed by the news that a phoenix had been observed rising from its ashes somewhere in northern France. There were less consoling prospects, however, when the pit of Maleborge [sic] was discovered in Sumatra and a Slough of Despond located on the border of Wales.

More musically, Ackroyd adds: “we have found the nests of nymphs even here, by the Tyburn and the Lea.” The pervasive presence of a London transformed by the mythical and magical possibilities of its distant past and its imagined future is one of the attractions, perhaps overused, of this short but thin-stretched book.

The Plato Papers presents Plato’s literary remains: lectures and notes for lectures, dialogues with self, soul, hecklers and disciples, indictment and apologia. He lives at the end of the age of Wittspell, in a Republic uncomfortably like Plato’s. It is no surprise that he falls foul of the Guardians. He is a history teacher, with a style to delight or corrupt the young; and like all the inhabitants of the future, his special period is the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is particularly entertaining to them when he discusses On the Origin of Species, a comic masterpiece attributed to Charles Dickens: “the quixotic hero of The Origin, however, is portrayed as being obsessed by ‘struggle’, ‘competition’, and ‘death by natural selection’, in a manner both morbid and ludicrous”, and likewise by “the Mouldwarp delusion that all human beings could be classified in terms of ‘race’, ‘gender’ or ‘class’. We find interesting evidence of this in the anecdotes of a comedian, Brother Marx.”

I was left primly frozen-faced by all of this, and likewise by Ackroyd on Plato on psychoanalysis: “the joke book itself is the work of a clown or buffoon who was billed as Sigmund Freud—no doubt pronounced ‘fraud’ to add piquancy to his character.” Similarly weary and overwrought are the analysis of a fragment of a print of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and the samples from Plato’s glossary of our common tongue:

antibiotic: a death ray of the Mouldwarp era.

biographer: from bio-graphy, the reading of a life by means of lines. A fortuneteller or palmist.

daylight saving: a technique by which light was stored in great containers and then taken through underground pipes to the residences of Mouldwarp.

There are many more of these.

London references abound to please the reader who catches them and to bewilder outsiders; they advert particularly—white chapel, clerk’s well—to works by Ackroyd and by Iain Sinclair; some appear to be private.

Plato has a vision in a cave: he experiences the agonies and triumphs of the people of the time of Mouldwarp. He is appalled, but no longer, entertained by their follies and agonies. He concludes that the scientific awareness of time is no more deluded than the notions that flourish in his own time, and sets about liberating his people from their delusions; with the consequences prescribed for poets by his namesake and exemplar, though the Guardians and inhabitants of this Republic are more understanding. He propounds his revised version

We are astounded by our ancestors and their misconceptions, but we may seem equally foolish to our successors. … The people of Mouldwarp did not know why they believed in science. They knew only that it was absurd not to believe, and their science worked in their dimension! They could move quickly from place to place, converse with one another over long distances, and see one another in distant regions of the earth

“Three of the most foolish activities one can imagine”, remarks a sceptical colleague.

In this brief and intermittently entertaining fantasy, Peter Ackroyd toys with topics—the omnipresence of the past, the arbitrariness of historicism—which underpin both his biographies and his fictions, never far apart. But it is a sinewless skeleton, and will not stand alone.

Leonard R. Koos (essay date Summer 1999)

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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.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “Thou Art The Man”

In the never-ending parade of tormented Romantic outcasts, ambitious social climbers, consumptive bohemians, bourgeois liberals, arch criminals (like the real-life Vidocq and the fictive Vautrin), anarchists, decadents, and geniuses in every field, nineteenth-century European culture exhibited its developing cult of the individual. In this burgeoning landscape of real or imagined individualism, a new literary genre took root whose paired protagonists, the criminal and the detective, exemplified the increasing privatized and individualized network of subjective presuppositions.1 The inventor of this new genre, Edgar Allan Poe—whom Walter Benjamin called “the first physiognomist of the interior” (169)—presented in the character of C, Auguste Dupin a detective whose particular version of subjectivity dominated detective fiction for the next century.

Dupin's self-imposed isolation, a conduit for the expansion of the cogitating subject, transforms him into a veritable “man of the crowd,” effectively stripping away, for criminal and detective alike, the signifying overdetermination of an array of societal structures, notably those that potentially circumvent logic and truth: convention, appearance, habit, law, and so on.2 The narrator of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” recognizes Dupin's particular sense of selfhood when he muses on “the philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul” in imagining, as an explanation of his remarkable and quasi-fantastic powers, “a double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent” (338–39). Many critics cite this rather peculiar description, along with Dupin's other idiosyncrasies—his impulsive nature, his dwelling in a “time-eaten and grotesque mansion” (337), his possibly “diseased intelligence” (339)—to emphasize how successfully Poe melded Enlightenment and Romantic values (Tani 3–15). But the possibility of a “double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent” also unequivocally foregrounds questions of subjectivity in the traditional detective story, and provides a fecund point of comparison with the metaphysical detective novel of the late twentieth century.

The description of Dupin's deductive process offers several clues to the nature of his particular subjectivity. While Dupin normally indulges in eccentricities and “wild whims,” he becomes in this state “frigid and abstract, his eyes … vacant in expression” (338); as Stefano Tani suggestively remarks, “Dupin in other words temporarily sets aside his own psyche” (5). The resulting selfless void that Dupin willfully produces allows him to imagine a number of possibilities, intersecting or corresponding to those traces of the crime that have hitherto confounded reasonable explanation and narration: in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, the locked room, the absence of theft, the assailant's superhuman strength, the witnesses's divergent identifications of the “criminal's” language, and so forth. These possibilities, invented by the “creative” self, are then sorted out by the “resolvent” Dupin as a prelude to constructing the crime as a narrative solution.

The detective's “Bi-Part Soul” in traditional detective fiction thus mirrors the genre's necessary condition of duplicity and the more philosophically significant implication of the radical arbitrariness of value in the world. The criminal takes advantage of equivocal signifying structures, and the detective reads and interprets these misleading appearances in order to reestablish truth and meaning. In a century that extolled the value of the bourgeois individual over all others, the detective hero, from Dupin onwards, nevertheless seems to acknowledge the inevitability of indeterminacy in the human realm—subjectivity included. Dupin is able to strip himself of himself and reach back to an ur-subjectivity that Daniel Hoffman finds “is closer to the origins of being” (108). This primordial center, which Dupin can access at will, permits him to escape not only his own phenomenological existence, but also any unconsciously internalized societal values. Only in this void of an evacuated self can the detective simulate the motivating design that left its unreliable traces at the scene of the crime. Perhaps it is only his extraordinarily varied knowledge that allows Dupin to retrieve his usual self, despite the obvious allure (the narrator admits as much) of losing himself for a time.3

From the very beginning, then, detective fiction seems to limit, if not problematize, the transcendent value of differentiated subjectivity. Dupin, like his celebrated descendants in the nineteenth century Lecoq and Holmes, always remains capable of vacating the created, alternate self. But the presence of that second, simulated subject—reflecting in turn the criminal's own “Bi-Part Soul” which is equally creative but ultimately confounding—anticipates the undoing of traditional notions of subjectivity in the postmodern detective novel of the late twentieth century. Whereas the nineteenth-century detective contributes to the developing bourgeois metanarrative of the self, metaphysical detective novels like Jean Echenoz's Cherokee (1983) and Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987) challenge such models, as they revisit and attempt to reformulate the notion of subjectivity in the postmodern era. …


Yes, they very much like to make the dead live and kill off the living.

—Alfred de Vigny, Chatterton

Toward the end of Peter Ackroyd's early work Notes for a New Culture (1976), he discusses a range of contemporary thinkers and writers—Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, O’Hara, Roche, Ashbury, and others—who seem to “proclaim the death of Man” (147). Ackroyd locates the first instances of this withering away of humanism in transitional modernists (Joyce and Eliot, among others) who marked the end of what Jameson has recently called “the modernism of isolated ‘genius’” (305). Ackroyd, like many other critics, takes Surrealism as his primary example of the assertive, self-reflexive subjectivity of high modernism. In this view, modernism rejects previous paradigms of selfhood, engaging in a lengthy self-questioning that leads to postmodernism's more radical notion of the impossibility of a fixed or fixable subjectivity. In his subsequent novels, Ackroyd further explores the dimensions of postmodern subjectivity in his extensive use of pastiche.

Despite Jameson's rather spurious description of postmodernist pastiche as “that strange new thing” (17), it was certainly not born with the postmodernist era, nor have contemporary authors been its sole virtuoso practitioners (consider its use in Joyce, Eliot, Proust, and Mann). Nonetheless, pastiche has become a frequent means of postmodernist production. Ackroyd, in novels like The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and Hawksmoor (1985), has become the contemporary European writer most closely associated with pastiche. In his recent novel, English Music (1992)—which begins with the telling assertion. “Yes, you have returned to the past” (1), and continues in alternating chapters that imitate the styles and contents of a score of writers—Ackroyd produces his most extreme and elaborate pastiche. In Chatterton (1987), he thematizes and employs pastiche while appropriating and parodying the detective fiction form, taking as his subject the preromantic poet Thomas Chatterton, the infamous eighteenth-century “forger” of a series of poems by an imaginary late-medieval monk.

Chatterton, which evokes both detective story and research novel (from Henry James's The Aspern Papers to A. S. Byatt's Possession), follows this premise: what if the actual existence of the poet Thomas Chatterton had not ended in suicide in 1770? When Charles Lynchwood, the novel's main character, happens upon a painting dated 1802 that seemingly depicts an older Chatterton, he begins to question the official account. In the subsequent detective-like inquiry, the reader encounters a successful novelist who plagiarizes from obscure nineteenth-century authors, an art dealer who sells forgeries to unwitting clients, and a host of other eccentric characters—one of whom is descended from a long line of playful pastichers, and who further confounds the situation by providing a manuscript allegedly documenting Chatterton's staged death and ultimate survival. Chatterton's chosen structure, the research novel as detective story (made more suspect by the preliminary disclosure of Chatterton's actual history), becomes progressively more metaphysical. The initial authority of the biographical fact is obscured by the successive pastiched fantasies of Chatterton's end (one in which he dies from an improperly administered venereal disease treatment, and another in which he stages his own death and goes on to ghost-write well-known works by Gray and Blake), not to mention an imagined conversation on poetry, representation, and imitation between painter Henry Wallis and his model as the former composes the famous painting of Chatterton's suicide (actually finished in 1856). Ackroyd's metaphysical detective novel parallels the guiding principle of Chatterton's poetry, as summarized in a fictive citation: “the truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry” (87). Framed by these shifting perspectives on origin, influence, imitation, forgery, and plagiarism, pastiche in Chatterton foregrounds postmodernism's problematization of the reliance on language as the barometer for the traditional conception of a fixed, centered, and unique self.

Pastiche, in the form of the supposed Chatterton manuscript, generates the novel's detective structure. When successfully rendered, as Chatterton's plot suggests, pastiche challenges an array of presuppositions that constitute the edifice of bourgeois self-fashioning—such as the originally Romantic values of the uniqueness, originality, and authenticity of the individual self and its issue (in this case, the text). The frequent use of pastiche in postmodernism reverses the claim that language and literary style are reliable depositories of the idiosyncrasies of the differentiated subject. Like Echenoz's talkative parrot, or Chatterton's own cast of forgers and plagiarists, Ackroyd the pasticher denies representation's aspirations to subjective authenticity, novelty, and originality. Ackroyd initially encourages this process through his choice of title character: Chatterton, the eighteenth-century poet who convincingly produced a fifteenth-century self in the textual person of Thomas Rowley. The comments of artist and model, during the painting of the suicide of Chatterton, further obscure the possibility of a monumental self expressed through literary style; Chatterton was the model poet, the model contends, because he is “pretending to be someone else” (2). In the contemporary characters’ search for the truth behind the found and purloined documents, the individualistic production of the isolated subject in a historical continuum is shown to be a hopelessly arbitrary and obsolete construction. In Chatterton, then, language in general, and writing in particular, are the quintessential means by which to chart the disappearance of the subject. Akin to the provocative “death of the author” conceived by Roland Barthes, Ackroyd's version of subjectivity, simultaneously represented and enacted, denies the subject's ability to affirm itself in language.

The issue of pastiche also raises questions regarding the notion of a temporally (or historically) constituted subject. The pasticher clearly disallows the historicity of the constituted, centered subject by simulating it in an historically disjunctive moment. Chatterton, like Ackroyd's other pastiche novels, participates in this travesty of the authority of chronological history. As Charles Lynchwood inquires into the supposed mystery of Chatterton's life, he discovers, in a moment reminiscent of Roquentin's research into the life of the Marquis de Rollebon in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, that the available studies of Chatterton vary significantly: “each biography described a quite different poet: even the simplest observation by one was contradicted by another, so that nothing seemed certain” (127). On this dilemma in Chatterton, Linda Hutcheon has written that “the postmodern condition with respect to history might well be described as one of radical uncertainty” (97). Such radical uncertainty provides Charles Lynchwood with a feeling of exhilaration, “for it meant that anything became possible” (127). Limitless possibilities can have nevertheless a predatory influence. In the end, Lynchwood is yet another “doomed detective,” in Tani's phrase, who dies before discovering that the Chatterton “documents” were forged. Moreover, the decline of his health and untimely death (echoing that of the young poet) would seem to be directly related to his contact and engagement with these documents. Like the myth of Oedipus, Jorge Luis Borges's “Death and the Compass,” Paul Auster's first book in the “New York Trilogy” City of Glass, and a number of other metaphysical detective stories, Chatterton underlines the existential risk that the detective must take in attempting to solve a mystery. Writing, as exemplified by the purloined styles of pastiche, becomes the primary accomplice of this radical uncertainty because it provides the purest realm for the non-representation of the subject. Individualistic literary styles and historically identifiable selves, alive and well prior to the postmodern condition, fall into Ackroyd's vortex of hyperreality which obstructs, if not eliminates, the possibility of any decisive constitution of the subject in language and time.


Within the larger story are inset the stories of how I came to be marooned (told by myself to Cruso) and that of Cruso's shipwreck and early years (told by Cruso to myself), as well as the story of Friday, which is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative (I picture it as a buttonhole, carefully cross-stitched around, but waiting for the button).

—J. M. Coetzee Foe

This is not a true story, but certain things follow from other things.

—Peter Ackroyd The Great Fire of London

Writers in the postmodern era have been strikingly drawn to detective fiction, and have elaborated some of their most fundamental concepts in that genre. Their predilection for detective fiction has facilitated the expression of characteristic postmodern concerns, not least the examination of selfhood through representational permutations of the genre's subjective presuppositions. In classic detective fiction, the detective, however divided his identity, could always return to the realm of authentic selfhood after the crime was solved. With the postmodern decentering of the subject, however, a number of the traditional detective story's underpinnings become anachronistic and irrelevant. Both chatty parrots and limitless pastiches emphasize the postmodern allure of hyperreality as applied to the self. These novels' ironic appropriation of genre significantly challenges the metanarrative in which the conventional detective story participates: the story of the self, replete with notions of an unequivocal moral, legal, social, and referential reality. The metaphysical detective story, however, attempts to enact the predicament of the decentered subject of postmodernism in all its indeterminate glory. It rewrites the detective structure according to the demands of postmodern parody: while explicitly alluding to its model, the metaphysical detective story immobilizes it through the ironic space created by its slightly defective citation of the original. With every new twist, the literary corpus of the postmodern detective novel—of which Jean Echenoz's Cherokee and Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton are only two recent examples—seeks to unhinge the process of reading from the generic assumptions of its monolithic institutional format, in which the narrative's closure is meant somehow to project the shadow of closure beyond its own textual limits. By appropriating the detective genre, postmodernism enacts in minute detail the erosion of the great metanarratives of European culture—primary among them, perhaps, the conception of a totalizing subjectivity. The reader might ask, as the narrator of Patrick Modiano's recent novel Fleurs de ruine does, “what good is it to try and resolve unsolvable mysteries and pursue ghosts, when life is there, completely simple, under the sun?” (87; my translation). The metaphysical detective story's only reply is to ceaselessly plot the spectral traces of a fugitive being.


  1. Hegel traces this new system of relationships to revolutionary and post-revolutionary France and christens it “free subjectivity” (84; 280), the limitless possibility of the self as a self-justifying goal. On the real-life detective's role in the nineteenth century's polarization of public and private spheres, see Lock and Morn; on the role of the body and the late nineteenth-century insistence on physiology as the incontrovertible origin of identity, criminal or otherwise, see Thorwald and Darmon.

  2. Dupin first applies his deductive powers in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to an anonymous encounter between the narrator and another man in the early-evening Parisian crowd. Dupin himself, due to his self-imposed exile from society, has “ceased to be known in Paris” (337). His existential anonymity—not unlike Marie Rogêt's on the day of her murder in another of the author's ground-breaking stories—also corresponds to Poe's characterization of “The Man of the Crowd.” In that story, the eponymous character whom the narrator follows represents “the type and genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd!” (118). Both Dupin and the criminal live in a world in which anonymity and the equivocal meaning of the traces left at the scene of the crime are directly related, the only difference being the teleologically opposed applications of their production and decipherment.

  3. The classic detective's ability to lose and regain himself accounts, perhaps, for his propensity for and successful mastery of disguise and impersonation. The theatricality of the gesture of disguise and the context within which it is employed (that is, to gain information that otherwise would not be divulged to the detective), however, suggests a resilient, resolute, and ever-present consciousness on the part of the true, hidden self behind the proposed, simulated self.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. New York: Ballantine, 1987.

———. English Music. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992.

———. Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 1983.

Darmon, Pierre, Médecins et assassins de la Belle Époque. Paris: Seuil, 1989.

Echenoz, Jean. Cherokee. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Boston: Godine, 1987.

———. Le Méridien de Greenwich. Paris: Minuit, 1979.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of Right. Trans. T. M. Knox. London: Oxford UP, 1952.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Hutcheon, Linda, The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Jullien, Dominque. “Jean Echenoz.” Yale French Studies special number (“After the Age of Suspicion: The French Novel Today,” 1988): 337–41.

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. London: Routledge, 1991.

Lock, Joan. Dreadful Deeds and Awful Murders: Scotland Yard's First Detectives, 1829–1878. London: Barn Owl Books, 1990.

Modiano, Patrick. Fleurs de ruine. Paris: Seuil, 1991.

Morn, Frank. The Eye that Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Man of the Crowd.” The Portable Poe 107–18.

———. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The Portable Poe 332–76.

———. The Portable Poe. Ed. Philip Van Doren Stern. New York: Viking, 1945.

Shrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Perspectives on Film Noir. Ed. R. Barton Palmer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. 99–109.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Thorwald, Jürgen. The Century of the Detective. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864

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 out into the garden where I met Ackroyd, 50, in the December drizzle.

He wasn’t emaciated or covered in sores, but he did look a little pale and thinner. To be honest, the weight loss suited him: he seemed fitter than when I last saw him a year ago. He sweetly apologised for the workmen and his inaccessibility—quite a bit of phone tag was played in order to organise the interview. “I’ve been spending most of my time at the Royal Brompton convalescing and only come back to do bits of reading during the day,” he said, walking into the huge, tube-shaped shed that houses his study. Sitting at his ten-foot long, uncharacteristically messy desk, he sipped shakily at a glass of water as he spoke about the circumstances of his coronary.

“It was actually on the very day that I had finished my biography of London. I had just written the words ‘the end’ when I felt a certain breathlessness. At the time, I ignored it, had a little to drink and went to bed. But the next day, still feeling out of breath, I visited the doctor, who immediately sent me to hospital in an ambulance. I was very lucky. If I hadn’t been admitted then, I would have definitely died. Apparently I had a blocked artery and my heart had stopped beating properly; the consultant put my chances of survival at 50:50. For reasons I don’t understand, there was a lot of fluid on my lungs; if the liquid hadn’t been pumped out, I would have died. Once in hospital I was wheeled into intensive care and they immediately sedated me on morphine. I was unconscious for a week. When I woke up it felt like I had just arrived in hospital. My friends and my mother all came to visit me and looked rather anxious. It began to sink in that a very major thing had happened to me. Oddly enough, though, I wasn’t worried at all: I hadn’t felt so good in a long time. It was the first rest I’d had in years.”

Asked what he thought had caused the heart attack, he said, laughing: “Writing my biography of London was a big contributory factor. London very nearly killed me. While I was writing it, I would jokingly tell my friends that it was killing me. This turned out to be literally true. You see, London has definitely made my career—my most successful books all have the capital as their main theme—but it has exacted a very high price. Perhaps the city, which I regard as an organic being in its biography, wanted my death as payment. Luckily it didn’t cash the cheque. In a strange way, I think that the very last word of the biography helped to resurrect me. It’s the Latin word Resurgam, which is what Christopher Wren made the centrepiece of St Paul’s: I will arise again.”

Ackroyd then drifted into mysticism as he discussed the ways in which his work explores his sense of the numinous, and of how human beings are pre-eminently spiritual beings. “I totally reject all these institutionalised lies about man being descended from apes. Evolution is all a myth,” he said, adding that because he rejects a deterministic world-view, he has intimations of an afterlife.

All this talk of death made me curious. Was his heart attack an HIV-related condition? He blinked.

“Whatever do you mean by that?”

Well, are you HIV positive?

“I am negative … What the bloody hell do you want to know that for?”

When I explained that it was well documented that his partner, Brian Kuhn, died from Aids in 1994, Ackroyd said: “It’s a bloody stupid question. It’s totally irrelevant. Brian died six years ago. Aids is a difficult disease to catch. You have to receive infected blood in an opened wound to infect yourself.”

There was an awkward silence. So what did cause the heart attack? “Too much smoking, drinking and working too hard,” he said, regaining his composure. “I was writing 1,000 words a day for two years and covering 2,000 years of London’s history in every chapter; all the chapters are thematic so that there are histories of light, smells, children, death. That’s a huge amount of information to assimilate, and if you’ve been drinking a lot the night before, it’s even harder work. I never drank while I was working, though. I’m taking things a bit more easily now—only a couple of glasses a night.”

But Ackroyd’s idea of a relaxed life is not most people’s. Just a week after surfacing from his coma, he wrote a lead review for the Times, where he is chief book reviewer, and an essay on William Blake for the Tate Gallery. “I suppose my work-rate was near suicidal before the attack, although it didn’t feel like that at the time. I’ve been like that since adolescence,” he said.

It was as a pupil at St Benedict’s, the Catholic state school in Acton, that Ackroyd discovered his compulsion to work. “I was a scholar and altar server there. I loved reading and writing Latin and Greek from the age of 11, as well as listening to the Latin Mass. It wasn’t until my final year that I read English literature. I grew up with my mother in a council house near Wormwood Scrubs—there weren’t many books to read in the house—and so my sources for reading were to be found in school and at the library. But my mother, as well as the monks, did encourage me. She’s proud of all that I’ve done.”

Was growing up in such a religious environment difficult when he discovered he was gay? He curls his lip, pondering the question. “No. Not at all. By that time, I had already stopped believing, in the traditional sense.”

But does his mother, who is still a Catholic, have problems with his sexuality? “No,” he said. “We never discuss it.”

This is what is both intriguing and puzzling about Ackroyd: while many writers are explicitly motivated to write by traumatic events in their life, he seems to have glided through situations that many might have found intensely difficult. He derives no inspiration from his homosexuality or working-class origins; he has never made an issue about being gay and solved the class problem by teaching himself to speak “properly” in front of his bedroom mirror. He sailed through Cambridge during the late 1960s, achieving a First in English. He then went to Yale on a scholarship for two years, where he caroused with the likes of the gay American modernist poet John Ashbery. When he returned to England, he was made literary editor of the Spectator at the age of 23, becoming joint managing editor a few years later. By 1981, he had published three books and decided to write full-time; now, for the first time, he hit a tough patch.

“The early to mid-1980s was a very dark period for me. I dropped out of the literary scene and became very isolated. People said that my biography of T. S. Eliot (1984) would be a disaster because I was refused permission to look at his papers by the Eliot estate. My agent said that the parallel narratives of the 18th century and the present day that form the backbone of Hawksmoor [a literary thriller about Satanism in east London] wouldn’t sell. I was vindicated by the success of both books. They were real breakthroughs for me: my body of work based around the theme of London began then. I gained confidence in my own judgement.”

Ackroyd won’t be drawn into saying which of his works he considers most highly, although it’s clear that his biographies of William Blake (1994) and Thomas More (1998) are favourites simply because he refers to them most in conversation. “I’m more like a musician who writes operas, sonatas and symphonies, and should be judged upon the oeuvre rather than one piece. However, I never reread my work and I never read my published reviews. I don’t deem myself successful: I’m always wanting to write a better piece. Also, regarding feeling successful, living in England affects me. Here no one comes and lauds me in the street like they might, say, Günter Grass in Germany. The English don’t celebrate their writers. I feel very alone here, but I suppose I like it that way. I’m not an introspective person, so I don’t care what people think of me. I just get on with my work; I’m driven from within to write about events outside of me. I’ll never write about myself.”

On a personal level, though, the death of Brian Kuhn contributed to his increasing his rate of literary production to near-suicidal levels: a novel or biography a year since 1994. “Brian’s illness was a shock, but it stopped me being frightened of death. It was a definite watershed. I sold my mansion in Devon and moved to London permanently. After he died, I employed a full-time research assistant, Thomas Wright, who does a lot of my research in the British Library. I now have a new partner, Carl.”

But the heart attack has made him re-evaluate priorities. “It’s made me realise that I have no right to be depressed. I suppose my excessive drinking and industry had made me feel quite low. But now I feel rejuvenated, ready to live another 50 years. I’m currently working on a history of the English imagination, which should keep me occupied well into the next millennium: But I am going to enjoy life more now, take more breaks, go for walks and listen to music, a love of mine. I find the music of Byrd and Tallis very soothing.”

I left Peter Ackroyd feeling oddly uplifted. Having expected to disinter doom and gloom, I discovered spirit and optimism. This great man of letters, who has produced one of the most influential novels of the past 50 years, Hawksmoor, and some of the best biographies of the century, has, on the edge of death, discovered a new vitality, a renewed will to live. The publication, in August next year, of the book that nearly killed him, his monumental Biography of London, is likely to be one of the most important texts to herald the new millennium.

Peter Green (review date 20 March 2000)

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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 Study of History remains remarkable mainly for having got its argument so wrong on such a massive scale, and Orwell's bleak forecast of the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever never envisaged the Soviet monolith's ignominious collapse less than a decade after 1984.

Maybe it is the impossibility of being proved wrong that elicits predictions aimed centuries, or even millennia, into the future; but there is also that ever-present urge to escape the less-than-ideal realities of the here-and-now. Hence also the notion of Utopia, the supposedly perfect community that, as its punning name reminds us, is situated nowhere. Not that its two most famous proponents, Plato and Thomas More—with both of whom Peter Ackroyd shows more than a nodding acquaintance—are much calculated to appeal today. Plato's Republic, and certainly his Laws, offers a nightmarish picture of intellectual totalitarianism, complete with eugenics, slavery, censorship of art and literature, and communal ownership of all goods, women included. More's Utopia was similarly communistic: no private property, civic mess-halls, and ferocious penalties for sexual offenses. Six hours of manual work a day was mandatory; education and medical services were free. It sounds not unlike Fidel Castro's Cuba.

A cynic might say that there was not much to choose between such blueprints for mankind and the raging modern dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley (Ape and Essence rather than Brave New World), and Orwell's Animal Farm. Small wonder that in this nuclear age the doomsayers have dominated the field. But this same futurology also produced, ever since Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), a strong tendency towards ethical idealism and, sometimes, cosmic mysticism: the urge to redesign the human race, and predict a new sort of humanity, to sweep away our accumulation of grubby and demeaning mistakes, and make a completely fresh start. Indeed, it was in much the same spirit that Plato, surveying the murderous excesses of both oligarchs and democrats in his famous Seventh Letter, began moving towards a Theory of Forms or Ideas. What he envisaged was the notion of an absolute truth, an ideal of reality that all mundane phenomena no more than approximated. In spiritually barren times, this dream of the Logos becomes immensely attractive, as something above and outside the seemingly meaningless fragmentation of life as it is commonly lived.

Now comes Peter Ackroyd, fresh from his biography of Thomas More, with The Plato Papers: A Prophecy. Set in or about the year 3700 C.E., this short fiction reaches America garlanded with hyperbolic tributes (“a timeless literary masterpiece” and so on) from London. Sounds important, doesn't it? So what kind of seer is Ackroyd? What does he vouchsafe about the future of the race?


We begin with a short time-chart, which raises many questions but answers none. The period between c. 3500 B.C. and c. 300 B.C. (this is Ackroyd's happy Christian usage: no B.C.E. or C.E. for him) was the “Age of Orpheus.” Orpheus, you will recall, was the rather elusive mythical figure whose lyre-playing had the ability to move wild beasts, trees, and rocks, and who made a descent into Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice (but looked back at her on their way out, thus breaking the spell and losing her). Orpheus met his death at the hands of wild Thracian women. Incensed at his introduction of homosexuality into their country, they tore off his head, which travelled, still singing, “down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore,” as Milton put it in Lycidas. So which aspect of Orpheus, one asks oneself, is supposed to characterize Ackroyd's huge “Age of Orpheus,” stretching from the mists of neolithic Greece down to the aftermath of the battle of Ipsus in 301? Enchantment and magic? Stupid egotism? Gay pride going before a fall? What do Cycladic islanders of the third millennium B.C.E. have in common with the first generation of Alexander's Successors, those wolfish generals who sliced up his empire like a Saturday-night pizza? Ackroyd does not say.

His second world-historical span, from c. 300 B.C. to c. A.D. 1500, is a tad clearer. This is the Age of the Apostles. They stop short just before Wyclif, Henry VIII, and the Reformation, which offers a good clue to Ackroyd's sympathies; but they also start early in the Hellenistic era, and this suggests that our author is well aware of the various salvationist and eschatological movements (some of them, incidentally, long before 300 B.C.E.) that offer students of the period the odd sense of coming events casting shadows. From Empedocles, the traveling shaman and self-styled “immortal god” offering prophecies and healing, to the slave-magician (and, later, revolutionary leader) Eunus, mockingly bidden by his master's guests to “remember them when he came into his kingdom,” the pre-Christian Hellenic world has always offered a powerful sense of deja vu. Classics professors have been known to use this anticipatory evidence to tease their born-again students; and something tells me that Ackroyd, too, has his own agenda for it.

His third period, from c. A.D. 1500 to c. A.D. 2300, he calls the Age of Mouldwarp. “Mouldwarp” is not an expressive neologism coined by Ackroyd. The word has been around for centuries, and it rates an enlightening entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its basic meaning (in an astonishing variety of spellings) is “mole,” with the stress both literal and metaphorical on the mole's two best-known characteristics: blindness and subterranean burrowing. As early as 1380, the word was being used by religious polemicists: Wyclif attacked “thes blynde moldewerpis, evere wrotyng [rooting] in the erthe aboute erthely muk,” and in 1607 one cleric sermonized that “they begin their works with a mine underground (Romish pioneers, Antichristian molewarps).” For Ackroyd, the whole period from the Reformation through the Enlightenment to today and beyond is the Age of Mouldwarp. Get it? We can't say that we haven't been warned about his view of modernity or his view of the Protestant ethic.

This, of course, is where the prophesying begins. From c. A.D. 2300 till c. A.D. 3400, according to Ackroyd, comes the tantalizing Age of Witspell. This term, in contrast to Mouldwarp, does appear to be a neologism, coined on the analogy of such existing terms as “witworm” (a persistent humorist) or “witrack” (the knack, as the OED happily puts it, of “eliciting speech by wit as a rack elicits confession.”) Witspell, then: the magic of wit? A period dominated by wit? The era ends, in any case, some three hundred years ahead of The Present, which is c. A.D. 3700; and before we are pitched into his narrative, Ackroyd offers us a further series of clues in the form of quotations from various fictional titles. The reader's instinct is to skip these and to cut to the chase: an unwise move, since we have here some characteristically obscure clues to what has been going on between Now and Then, and in the fog of Ackroyd's narrative we need all the help we can get.

We begin in 2030, with one Ronald Corvo (Ackroyd has a weakness for jokey and allusive names), in his treatise A New Theory of the Earth, meditating on how, “in this new age of universal and instantaneous communication,” the planet Earth might look “to distant observers. It must seem to shimmer in a state of continued excited activity.” That is the last recognizable glimpse that we get, so make the most of it. By 2299, Joseph P. can enter in his diary: “All fallen dark and quiet, all gone down. Collapsophe.” This picture (post-atomic? what?) is reinforced by the next extract, from a London hymn dated 2302: “We who survive, we scoured ones, in depths of dark dismay, call out of the night of our world, gone as we knew it, as we know it.” Two years later, “slivers of light” begin to appear, “riding the waves of darkness.” For 2310, we get a snippet from the preamble of a historian, announcing that “the world of science had collapsed, but the divine consciousness of humanity had not yet asserted itself.” The preamble parodies those of Herodotus and Thucydides. The historian's name is Myander, the termination presumably being cognate with Alexander and other similar masculine forms, but the historian reveals herself as a woman. This discrepancy proves symptomatic.

Forty years later, in 2350, something really has happened. The positively Byzantine proclamation—“The holy city, restored. Ourselves, revived”—at first suggested to me that Ackroyd had been reading too much Yeats. But the situation is in fact more bizarre than Yeats at his Blavatsky-inspired worst. Less than half a century on, in 2998, we get a clipping from The London Intelligencer suggesting that areas of the earth can directly, and consciously, affect their occupants: “This city, for example, is not indifferent to the joys or sufferings of its inhabitants.” Not Yeats, then, but a kind of bastard degenerate Stoicism.

Also something to do with the components of a new, restored light. Jump another four hundred years, to 3399, and we have a letter from Popcorn (see above) to Mellitus (more pseudo-classicism) remarking upon “the glorious restoration of human light, and the joy of living on the verge of a new age.” What new age, we want to know? And what is human about that light? Well, Popcorn is “beginning to see greatness and munificence erected” all around him, though in what form we are not told: the strike-rate of abstractions in this text is exceptionally high. And what are his fellow-citizens up to? According to Popcorn, “with wonderful zeal” they “have tried to revive and emulate the labours of distant antiquity,” for all the world as though they were scholars in the great library of Hellenistic Alexandria. “When asked why they are engaged on this pursuit, they reply ‘Why not? What else is there to do?’ This is our new spirit!” Beats me.

A century or so passes, and we get another proclamation: “The city bears us. The city loves its burden. Nurture it in return. Do not leave its bounds.” The quasi-Stoic notion of a world-soul is still going strong, with what sounds like a dab of sentimental Marxism thrown in. On now to the year 3640, and one of the apothegms coined by the “guardian of London,” who is named Restituta: “In returning to the origin of all things, we meet our destiny. Do you see our doubles, passing by us weeping? This is the nature of our world.” Whatever else may have changed, political aphorisms clearly have not: this specimen is as windily Delphic as any Thought of Chairman Mao.

So, in a state of considerable puzzlement, we reach our final citation, which is dated 3705 and ascribed to the anonymous author of, guess what, The Plato Papers. This proem promises more than it delivers. The intention is “to conjure up a likeness of Plato, the great orator of London.” Up to a point, the promise is fulfilled; but we are given a reference to his “unhappily brief life” without any subsequent discussion of, or reference to, his death, as well as to “a cruel superstition” that “excercised boundless domination over [his] most elevated and benevolent mind.” For the life of me, I cannot figure out what that is supposed to have been. There are also enigmatic allusions to “the conventions of spherical drama” and “the pictures of parishioners lit upon the Wall of our great and glorious city,” to remind us that Plato's London isn't exactly that of Tony Blair. But from this point on, we are on our own.


The first thing one notices about Ackroyd's future is the way it keeps harping on the remote past. Not only is the London orator called Plato, but our first introduction to the world of 3705 C.E. is by way of a dramatic set-piece clearly modelled on the typical opening of a Platonic dialogue, as it might be the Phaedrus, Symposium, or Theaetetus. The speakers are Sparkler and Sidonia; and they refer to a friend called Madrigal. Is Sidonia descended from a long line of Spanish aristocrats? Does Madrigal have as his distant ancestor the transsexual landlady in Tales of the City? Even if the answer is yes (which I doubt), is there any point to any of this? All that these cute names achieve (and there are quite a few more) is to irritate the reader, who has more than enough aggravation already.

For a start, the London that these characters inhabit sounds not at all futuristic, but rather like the pre-medieval phantasmagoria that was drawn so memorably by David Jones in The Anathemata in 1952. The Fleet river is there to be crossed (later we find references to Lud's Hill and archers). There is a city wall (with multiple gates, at each of which the orator must speak), a white chapel, a market. There is talk of celebrating the feast of Gog. Moreover, Ackroyd keeps skewing his classical references. Any reader of Plato will see at once that the person to whom Ackroyd is really alluding is not Plato, but rather Plato's Socrates. Anyway, Plato must be turning in his grave to have his name given to, of all low occupations, an orator. Also, a Greek orator never wore a mask: leave that to the even lower profession of actor. So what is going on here? Just the biggest, flattest, most elaborate, and by miles the unfunniest academic joke ever unloaded on a gullible public.

Sparkler and Sidonia provide a kind of trailer of Plato's discourse “On the Condition of Past Ages.” Their tidbits tell us as much about their own world as about the past, and geophysically stop us in our tracks. Sidonia says: “There was a period when our ancestors believed that they inhabited a world which revolved around a sun … They had been told that they lived upon a spherical planet, moving through some kind of infinite space.” Cries of astonished incredulity. This, of course, was the deluded Age of Mouldwarp, when (Sidonia again) people were much smaller, with tiny heads and pinpoint eyes. So we are back with the science-trashing mystics, and all we have to do now is figure out whether Ackroyd is backing them or setting them up. (I have to confess that by the end I didn't care all that much which it was; but as we will see, it matters.)

A hint of Ackroyd's technique, and attitude, emerges from a tell-tale quoted remark of Plato's: “Do you know that in the end they believed themselves to be covered by a great net or web?” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What we are being treated to, clearly, is an extended set of variations on that most ancient of all intellectual chestnuts, the infinite capacity of the professorial mind for the dogmatic and ludicrous misinterpretation of evidence regarding past civilizations. To make quite sure we get the point, Plato kicks off in his second oration (we are spared an in extenso version of the first one) with an elaborate interpretation of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles D ….. (the rest of the name is missing) as a “comic masterpiece” of fiction by Charles Dickens. Quite apart from the literary point, and wit, of this being about on the level of the far-right Mallard Fillmore comic strip (there is a passing reference to “the anecdotes of a comedian, Brother Marx”), it also exhibits some of that strip's attitudes. I found my mind running on Kansas and the Scopes trial, not least on being informed that “only in the Age of Witspell … was it realized that the petrified shapes found in rock or ice were created to mock or mimic their organic counterparts” and that “each portion of the earth produces its own creatures spontaneously.”

Ackroyd is so concerned with getting across his futurist (but in fact all too contemporary) view of Mouldwarp—that is, us—that he largely forgets to give his fourth-millennium society any kind of tangible reality. We have no idea how this London operates, what people do with their lives, even (except for casual references) what they look like. Any details that we glean belong either to a pseudo-classical past (Sparkler's long white robe) or to science-fiction (red-haired Sidonia has a “blue light shining from her”). And then there are the angels. We do not see them ourselves, but they are all around. They are interested in Plato's remarks about evolution. Their wing-tips change color to indicate emotion. A fun afternoon consists of taking a skiff down the Fleet and searching for angels' feathers. No explanation given. No explanation possible.

In the intervals of giving lectures, and exchanging bright chit-chat with his soul, Plato produces a really excruciating series of misdefinitions of Mouldwarp terms, which (let the reader be warned) runs on for pages. An antibiotic is a death ray. A dead end is glossed as “a place where corpses were taken.” Fiber optic is “a coarse material woven out of eyes.” A recreation ground becomes “an area of the city selected for the restoration of past life.” Rock music is “the sound of old stones.” Had enough? Good. Most of what Plato has to say is an elaboration of such conceits.

And if curiosity remains about the mysterious disasters coyly hinted at in the opening quotations, well, one cause of the Age of Mouldwarp's demise, apart from science, is presented as—get this—the worship of information: “The dimming of the stars and the burning of instruments had many complex causes, but there is every reason to believe that the sacred cult of information was at least one of the symptoms of decline.” What we have here is a text that is not only stupefyingly regressive, but also plain loony.

And the literary jokes bore on regardless. E. A. Poe is interpreted as an anonymous E[minent] A[merican] Poe[t], whose Tales and Histories offer “the unique record of a lost race,” the inhabitants of which “dwelled in very large and very old houses which, perhaps because of climatic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy.” There is a Platonic-style Academy, and to balance it a sub-Egyptian House of the Dead. In the year 3075, people do not just die and have done with it, they vaguely fade away like old soldiers. Plato (described as of Pie Corner, but by now it might as well be Pooh Corner) undertakes to speak on the first ages of the earth. In the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Thanatos (Death) sheds ruby tears. We get Cerberus, but no Thracian women or homosexuality. The Apostles are linked to blood, guilt, and sorrow. Angels, we learn, seldom visited earth in those days, for lack of intelligent conversation.

The end of Mouldwarp is something again. The “cult of webs and nets” engenders despair. Stars and nebulae vanish because nobody is looking at them: the universe's components cease to be when not studied. Darkness spreads. “They had never understood that they were engaged in acts of magic, and that their universe was an emanation of the human mind. Then the sun went out.” Oops. The resentment and the anger that follows comes over as a sort of cosmic Luddism. Nets, webs, screens, signs, machines: all are destroyed in one vast conflagration, a raging holocaust. And then, a new morning: “Only then, in the exhaustion and silent despair which marked the demise of Mouldwarp, did the light of humankind begin its ministry.” This light emanates both from the earth and from individuals. There is no more night. It is the dawning of the age of Witspell. This is the old Armageddon scenario in a new pseudo-humanistic guise: the lux perpetua of the chiliastic Second Coming written up for the year 2000. Ackroyd may be a writer with a serious reputation, but here he is in the same business as Tim LaHaye.

As human light reappears, anxieties vanish. But note what happens to cheer folks up. A centaur is sighted in Greece. A phoenix duly rises from its own ashes in northern France. Banshees keen outside Dublin. Sirens sing off the Asia Minor coast. There is a resurgence of everything mythical from unicorns to valkyries, except that for Plato they are “the fabric of the old reality.” Atlantis, “otherwise known as Avalon or Cockaigne or the Isle of the Blessed,” surfaces from the ocean. I wish we were told just where. According to Plato, “it had always lain below the surface of Mouldwarp vision, but now it rose in glory.” Dante's Maleborge turns up in Sumatra, and Bunyan's Slough of Despond on the Welsh border. Ackroyd's eschatological future is nothing more than the rebirth of the pre-rational past.

At this point the academic parodist in Ackroyd takes over again, with Geoffrey of Monmouth's re-discovery as the oldest—and hence, of course, the best—surviving source on British history, and various features of London today given fanciful ritual explanations, presumably by fourth-millennium archaeologists. This stuff apparently affected Sparkler and Madrigal much as it did me: when Omatus informs them that Plato's starting yet another oration “at the clerk's well,” they both excuse themselves on the grounds of exhaustion. Lucky them, because what follows is a clumping send-up of Freud and his “straight man” Oedipus. Plato's excruciating account of their patter has to be heard to be disbelieved. (‘“Tell me, what is your opinion of chair legs and train tunnels?” “Rather out than in, as the bishop—”’ and so on.)

Are we done yet? We are not. We get Egyptian creation myth tangled up with string theory. We learn that in 3075 people only get to work when chosen (though we have no idea what they work at, or who chooses them), and they are proud of the honor. We also gather that rowing races take place, in which nobody is expected to win. Have a nice day. We get another elaborate anthropological joke in the form of a dragged-out misinterpretation of a strip from Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, to read which is rather like being dragged slowly through a meat-grinder. And worse yet is in store, with hints and guesses applied to a charred fragment from the last section of The Waste Land (George [sic] Eliot as an African singer, “ieronymo” anagrammatized as “i.e. my room” = “that is my spell”). This is a book that shows its reader no mercy.

But Ackroyd is still not finished. In a patchy take-off from the real Plato's Myth of Er, he sends his own Plato on a symbolic time-traveling journey into the Cave of Mouldwarp. Since up above there was no sun, Plato finds shadows a novelty. (Blurry thinking there: what happens if you get in the blue light emanating from Sidonia?) Of course, the whole episode exists only to serve as an excuse for baffled incomprehension at everything that gets Ackroyd's goat about contemporary English society, from “the inhuman smell of numbers and machines” to cloning, the pursuit of profit, and an obsession with time. (There are no clocks in the fourth millennium.)

It is at this point that Ackroyd's Plato begins to admit that his orations have been “filled with errors and misapprehensions,” so much that the Guardians—ah, yes—put him, in default of Socrates, on trial for “corrupting the young by spinning lies and fables.” If readers expect Plato's trial to clear up any of the problems that we have encountered along the way, they are in for a big disappointment. The Guardians, clearly not so acclimatized to slippery metaphor as their author, accuse Plato of dreaming up the Cave of Mouldwarp in a drunken stupor. Plato himself muddies the waters further by wondering whether “we are being dreamed by the people of Mouldwarp,” adding provocatively: “And what if we were dreaming them?”

He follows this up with the dangerous platitude that ages which refuse to recognize any reality but their own are liable to go under. But despite this, he is acquitted. He wants to sentence himself but he cannot, since there is no longer a charge against him. Since his ego will not let him live on where reactions to him are limited to derision, disregard, or pity, he asks to be escorted beyond the city limits, into permanent exile. As Ackroyd portrays it, the world outside resembles the Bellman's chart in The Hunting of the Snark: a “perfect and absolute blank.” Exile on these terms is oblivion, and so regarded.

Plato's departure takes place in a barge, down the Fleet, with Sidonia in the prow. By now (once more according to Sparkler and Madrigal) not only are the citizens getting bewildered and restless as a result of Plato's protracted antics, but the angels, too, have left the scene. (They have, presumably, been bored wingless.) And here, at last, at last, Ackroyd's fable ends.


What on earth is all this about, or for? On the face of it, certainly, The Plato Papers seems too vapid a concoction to merit serious attention. It is set in a perfunctorily futuristic context, which is then made the platform for a sour all-out attack on contemporary Western mores. It harks back to the kind of pseudo-antique England celebrated by romantic Catholics such as David Jones or G. K. Chesterton, a reversion further overlaid with borrowings from Plato's Athens. This curdling mixture is then laced with simpliste and drawn-out literary or historical or philosophical jokes, most of them agonizingly flat. None of Ackroyd's characters, let alone the London that they inhabit, is even remotely real.

Why, then, waste time and space on such fustian stuff? There are several good reasons. For a start, the failings of this book cannot by any stretch of the imagination be ascribed to mere authorial inadequacy. Peter Ackroyd, the product of a working-class Catholic childhood, gained a double First in English at Cambridge, became Literary Editor of the Spectator at the tender age of twenty-four, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, won the Somerset Maugham Prize for his novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and both the Whitbread Prize and the Heinemann Award for his biography of T. S. Eliot. Since 1986, he has been chief book reviewer for the London Times. He has published five biographies, and The Plato Papers is his tenth novel. This record means that anything that Ackroyd writes has to be taken seriously. He is not an amateur.

To read the paeans of praise with which The Plato Papers was greeted in the United Kingdom, one might suppose that Ackroyd had blessed the world with a tract combining all the virtues of Utopia, the Paradiso, and the Sermon on the Mount. Now, a worldly critic must discount a good deal of the hyperbole by reminding himself of the falsities of the London literary universe. But I suspect that the explanation for the enthusiasm is even more disquieting. It appears that it is Ackroyd's message to which some people are resonating.

British cultural journalists who pontificate in the review columns of the Times (Ackroyd's own pulpit), the literary weeklies, and the “Sunday heavies” (the Observer, the Sunday Times, and the Independent), have always had a weakness for anyone pushing what Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm mercilessly labelled Asterisked Great Thoughts, a.k.a. the Higher Nonsense; and there is (as I hope I have shown) a fair amount of the Higher Nonsense in The Plato Papers. Elsewhere, though mercifully not here, Ackroyd has shown an interest in kinky sex, and black magic, and serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, which certainly can widen an author's readership. But in this new fable of Ackroyd's, it is, I fear, the quasi-philosophical polemic that accounts for the hoopla. The Plato Papers turns out to be a minor classic (a pretentious and very minor classic) of whole-hogging reaction.

What Ackroyd's Plato attacks in this Mouldwarp of ours is nothing less than its rationally and scientifically constituted foundation. What he finds to praise in Witspell, and in the age that follows it, is its ditching of every axiom of rational thought, its regression to a kind of pre-industrial Luddism, its emphasis on instinct, intuition, and mythical vision, on life as self-generated metaphor. In Ackroyd, unreason is not a dystopia: quite the reverse. It comes across as a cuckoo utopia. In this vision of the eschaton, unreason bids fair to replace science as the definitive illumination of human life.

The creepy sacred wood that Ackroyd explores here has been home to a number of causes, by no means all of them harmless. They include, as we have seen, the sort of Merrie Englande Catholicism peddled by Belloc and Chesterton and David Jones. But this neck of the woods also nurtured the phallic fantasies and the blood-cults of D. H. Lawrence, not to mention the debased inheritors of Bergsonian vitalism. These last—blaming all the ills of modernity on the Enlightenment, on the French Revolution, on cities, and on technology, while seeking to locate genuine reality in myth and in the irrationalist imagination of the artist—opened the door to the worst ideological excesses of the century that has just passed; and they conform, with uncomfortable precision, to the overview served up by Ackroyd's Plato.

Is Ackroyd promoting this dark and nasty view of reality, or is he satirizing it? Therein lies his game. He hedges his bets with uncommon skill, but his own moral angle is about as hard to pin down as that of Thucydides or the real Plato. I suspect, though, that it shares with both these predecessors a taste for authoritarian blueprinting. The more rigid the creed, the greater its attraction; and for dictators, the greater its utility. Even the most innocent enemy of reason and science may end up in bed with some really terrifying monsters.

I do not mean to flatter Ackroyd by making him seem dangerous. His own position, I suspect, is fairly harmless, being for the most part literary, romantic, and nostalgic. Those angels are hard to explain on any other basis. They also suggest that he is expressing some late metastasis of his Catholic upbringing. When Sidonia talks about being joined by the angels “in a dream of my own,” claiming that “they whisper to me,” and sometimes finds expression in the voices of children—very Victorian, that—what springs to my mind is the end of Newman's famous hymn: “And with the morn those angel faces smile / which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.” Newman was also responsible for the observation that “it would be a gain to the country [Great Britain] were it vastly more superstitious.” That is the governing idea of The Plato Papers exactly.

How did an allegedly serious writer come up with so regressive and sugary a concoction as The Plato Papers? There is an interesting parallel here with the career of Jose Saramago, who followed up a series of splendid novels, most recently The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1996) and Blindness (1997), with a little fable even more pathetic than Ackroyd's, The Tale of the Unknown Island, which appeared last year. Do these writers—on the face of it so disparate, Saramago the professional Marxist and Ackroyd the not-so-cryptic Catholic—have anything in common? They do. Each was stamped long ago with a dogmatic and authoritarian creed guaranteed to leave its mark on their creative psychology for life.

Ackroyd's literary career offers a remarkable example of the inroads that programming can make on the free will, and never mind the subject's brilliance. At Cambridge, his interests lay almost exclusively in poetry. He came under the influence of teachers and students such as J. H. Prynne and Ian Patterson, who were moving towards the kind of experimental cosmopolitanism represented by John Ashbery and the New York School. After Cambridge he spent two years at Yale, where he wrote his Notes for a New Culture (1976). From this, and his published poetry, it became very clear that his literary compass would not work without the magnetic pole of authority.

Ackroyd the cultural acolyte found his master in Modernism. Poetry, he insisted, was about language, and had no further validity; and ever the good party-liner, he tried to write poems according to the formula. The results make for painful reading, and ended in mere incoherence: “The first axiom of this proposition is that the firpppppppppp the the the the the the the the the / spanish fly, my own true / tttttttttoooppp …” He brought in allusion, parody, pastiche, and five-finger variations on earlier texts (no wonder he later wrote biographies of Eliot and Pound), but it never seemed to work. “I can connect / nothing with nothing,” Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, and this seems to have been Ackroyd's problem, too.

As an escape from what Susan Onega has aptly termed “the modernist prison-house of language,” Ackroyd began to flirt with the no less constrictive (if more varied) doctrines of postmodernism, still conceding the artificiality of language while trying at the same time to find room for mythopoeia and transcendentalism. This took him into the business of novel-writing, and a complex self-contradictory system of trawling the past for realities that were also fictional. In Milton in America (1996), Ackroyd makes the carefully researched poet flee to the New World in 1660, just before the return of Charles II, and set up that most oxymoronic of institutions, a Puritan paradise, when by rights he should have been back in England writing Paradise Lost. Earlier, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, (1983) its details researched with equal care, had Wilde himself, in brilliantly pastiched style, treating all accounts of him, his own included, as mere literary inventions, packed with inevitable distortions and misreadings. The theoretical constraints might be more surreal, but the obscurantism was still very much in place.

Pity the post-modernist. You don't need to work your way through, say, a book such as Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction to realize what a quagmire Ackroyd got himself into. Consult only the encyclopedias, and despair. From A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, we are referred to experimental techniques (some “perilously close to mere gimmickry”), “an eclectic approach, aleatory writing, parody and pastiche,” and, critically speaking, “complete relativism.” The Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism, bleating desperately about the apparent impossibility of something now existent coming after the present, offers six competing explanations of post-modernism and leaves us to choose. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and criticism regards post-modernism as the “site” of a number of recent intellectual debates, those applicable to Ackroyd including “the relation of an image-dominated consumer society to artistic practice.” The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism stresses “the fragmentation that defines existence,” and reminds us that with post-modernist writing “it is not always possible to tell if one is reading an autobiography, a history, a novel, or literary criticism.”

That last remark should resonate forcefully with readers of Ackroyd's writing in recent years, particularly (as we have seen) his fiction. But it also suggests what may have happened in The Plato Papers. Throughout his career Ackroyd has been looking for, wrestling with, trying to escape, and trying to reconcile with his talent, a whole series of ideological dogmata, principles, party lines, call them what you will. Wherever he turned, he found a certainty, a yardstick. It was in a final desperate effort to break free from this overpowering urge, to stop being an apparatchik to his own rigid and imprisoning psyche, that he took his plunge into the remote future, confident that whatever happened, he would have his praise-chorus to support him. And so indeed it has turned out. But what he didn't bet on was the discovery that, when he got there and could play things his own way, he would have no free-wheeling imagination left to dramatize his new world, and so could do nothing but let loose a ton of bile and nostalgia about what he had left behind. All the way to Witspell, to find only the old resentments and constrictions. Of all the bad jokes cluttering Ackroyd's book, this one is surely the worst.

Will Self (review date 16 October 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1517

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 personages and events that have enmeshed London, both with its own past and that of other political realities. But Ackroyd has encountered the great modern Babylon face to face. He has bearded it and felt the heft of its mighty agglomeration of masonry, metal, wood and earth. He has discoursed with its teeming inhabitants in all ages and all states of being; he has wrestled with its tortuous thoroughfares and contorted byways; he has smelt its moods and partaken of its strange delusions; he has stared into the basilisk eyes of the metropolis and wrested from it an account of its entire life, from conception, to this: the latest instantiation of its triumphal brazening. Truly, he has written London's biography.

Reading both Porter and Inwood, one felt the lack of a book, the absence of a text that, like debris filling in the walls of an old London building, could bulk out the city, give it form and substance, bring it to life, not in the way that a mere account of its people's mores would, but in the way that some Frankensteinian machine might vivify an assemblage of body parts, rendering them both mobile and sentient. These earlier accounts of millennial London were like Jaws without the shark—Ackroyd has given us the shark.

To write this book we needed a visionary; we needed a writer who combined an encyclopaedic erudition and an effortless ability to progress a narrative, with a hypertrophic level of identification with his subject. In Ackroyd, we have this. He is our contemporary Dr Dee, effecting cohobation from the dross and vapours of the urbanscape to produce this golden vision; and he is, like his biographical subjects Blake and Dickens, the quintessential London walker-as-writer. He burnishes the rest of us by association—it is a privilege to be describing the same things as he is, in the same era.

I may be taken to task for this—although, I warrant, only by non-Cockneys—but we also needed a native Londoner for this labour, we needed someone who feels the city to be both constituent of all that he is, as much as he feels himself to be part of it. I dare say others will look at Ackroyd's London in terms of the writer's own biography, but to do so would, in my view, be a poor species of reductio-psycho-absurdum. Rather, let us celebrate the intensity of his indentured identification, and allow him to disappear into the hubbub and the brickwork, the clatter and the patter of the city he has so splendidly memorialised. In more than 800 pages, the author only pokes his “I” above the narrative parapet twice, once to recollect how much tranquillity he gained as a boy from sitting by the fountain in the gardens of the Middle Temple, and once, at the very end, to encompass all times and modes of London into a single purview. This subtle economy of affect left me weeping.

Such a mystical approach to the life and times of a city will not be to everyone's taste. Ackroyd unabashedly proclaims London to be not merely an organism—but a person; an individual who is “half of stone, half of flesh”. He rejects any conventional narrative of London as being an attempt to subdue the multifarious forms of time found in the city to one, crude, linear progression.

So, instead of detailing events chronologically, or describing the area of the city from a fixed orientation, Ackroyd has approached his subject using a species of literary circumambulation. He begins at the beginning of each aspect of the city's being—its criminality and laws, its violence and debauchery, its smells and lighting, its music and noise—and takes us down into the streets to wander about in his train, accruing his observations alongside him. Thus he will stroll from past to future, while never losing the particular fugue he has embarked upon. Yet, with each compass he undertakes, he strays further, in time and space, until he has achieved a prodigious kind of inclusiveness.

It is always notable in a work of great length and intense perspicacity that a writer will use and reuse one or two words that sum up the mood of the piece—in Austen's Emma the word is “approbation”, in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov it is “ecstasy”. For Ackroyd, the words that best express London are “mercantile”, “pagan” and “curious”. Reading him, you cannot help but feel that, like Thomas de Quincey, another seer of the Great Wen whom he quotes with approval, Ackroyd has also experienced the city as “a vast magnetic range”, imparting a “suction so powerful, felt along radii so vast, and a consciousness, at the same time, that upon other radii, still more vast, both by land and sea, the same suction is operating”. All roads not only lead, they compel towards the city.

Ackroyd sees the stone half of London as its body, the fleshy half as its ego, and its soul as something altogether stranger. He writes at length on all the ways that Cockneys have earned a crust, from the booths of Cheapside to the “big bang” of the Stock Exchange. He submerges himself in the offal commerce of Smithfield and the tatter medallion on offer in Petticoat Lane. Understanding that the city's raison d'etre is trade—and trade alone—Ackroyd is unfazed by civic hypocrisies and public vices. He urges us, again and again, to remember that London is ungovernable and unmanageable; it is red, it is raging, it is drunken, it is unforgiving.

For Ackroyd, each core district or neighbourhood, whether corresponding to an ancient ward, a parish without the walls, or a more recent suburban enclave, is possessed of its own inalienable character—and, by extension, its own destiny. He begins his case by examining the history of the ancient St Giles parish (roughly compassed in the present by New Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane), and advancing the view that this place is always fated to be debauched and deluded, inhabited by the sedulous and the credulous. He centres the magical preoccupation on Seven Dials, and the micturating one on the slums to the north. Even if the “front line” for street-dealt hard drugs had not always run (following Eros's hypodermic arrow) up Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road to where, at present, it quivers in Centrepoint, Ackroyd's thesis would still have a fearful resonance.

As it is, that he can convey his sense of this district's intrinsic mood without recourse to any such modern ephemera tells you how queerly objective the intimacy he enjoys with London really is. Ackroyd writes of the idealised perspective that so many painters of London's panorama have adopted—as if they were poised in mid-air some hundreds of feet above the spire of Southwark Cathedral; and yet he himself occupies a similarly vertiginous and queasy relationship with his subject, atone and the same time its possessive lover and its jealous cuckold. He may not have written the biography of “my” London, but his book is an exhortation for all of us to know the city that we inhabit, to understand the way it operates on our psyches. And it is the antithesis of all the estate-agent twaddle that reduces London—with arrant spuriousness—to a collection of villages. By making of the metropolis an entity, he explains why we feel so corpuscular when we course through its arteries, and so like social insects when we labour in its mines of pelf, and so like historical figures ourselves when we walk upon its stages.

And what else is in Ackroyd's “London” besides? Why, everything: this is a city without circumference, illimitable and unknowable. And he tells us of all the curiosities, in this most curious of cities, from the 18th-century foundlings of Covent Garden given the surname “Piazza”, to Henry Moore wandering the Tube stations during the Blitz, and noting: “I had never seen so many reclining figures.” On every page there is another anecdotal nugget to be panned from the printed stream—or five, or ten.

To review Ackroyd's London in any conventional way would be to do this book a great disservice. If it isn't truly as compendious as that which it describes, it at least manages that very theatrical London feat of seeming to be so. I began rereading it as soon as I finished, and I urge you to read it as soon as possible, so that you can begin rereading it as well.


Principal Works


Further Reading