The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“Yes, I have returned to the past,” notes narrator Timothy Harcombe, son of a spiritual medium and healer, at the outset of Peter Ackroyd’s 1992 novel, English Music. So, of course, has Ackroyd, in work after work—so much so that readers may well find themselves saying of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree what several characters say in it: “Here we are again.” The surprise “here” is not that Ackroyd has returned to his old narrative haunts—temporal palimpsests, metaphysical mysteries, historical conundrums—but that in following the same basic modus operandi he continues to dazzle and delight, this time with his most inventive, inspired, and artfully contrived work to date (no mean feat given that his 1989 novel, Chatterton, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize).

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree invites the attention of scholarly readers because it is obviously a historical novel. Ultimately, however, Ackroyd’s novel is “in fact” a historical novel in a postmodern key, closer in spirit and texture to Don DeLillo’s Libra (1989) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) than to the novels of John Jakes and James Michener. Erudite and entertaining, Ackroyd plays fast and loose with the historical record. He changes the real Dan Leno’s year of birth from 1860 to 1850, a switch few readers will notice. He also fails to mention the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in 1888, upon which he has modeled the fictitious ones committed eight years earlier by the novel’s equally mysterious Limehouse Golem. Yet what may at first seem a rather odd omission in a novel that drops literary and historical facts the way some people drop names turns out not to be so odd after all; most readers will make the connection without needing any additional prompting. What does all of this mean? Maybe, as one reviewer suggested, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is a novel to be enjoyed but not to be trusted. Maybe Ackroyd is a version of the title character of his 1993 novel, The House of Doctor Dee, the sixteenth century mathematician and astrologer described in the Oxford Companion to English Literature as “a profoundly learned scholar and hermeticist, but also a sham.”

Ackroyd shuttles between roles the way The Trial of Elizabeth Cree shuttles between its several main characters (real and imaginary) and various London settings (East End, the British Library, a prison, a courtroom, various music halls and residential areas). For all of its diversity, the novel creates a foggy atmosphere of odd coincidences, mysterious connections, and possible conspiracies. Sitting side by side in the British Library’s Main Reading Room in the spring of 1880, for example, are Karl Marx nearing the end of his career, George Gissing at the beginning of his, and (the fictional) John Cree, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, a man with literary aspirations but little talent. His wife Elizabeth, later to be found guilty of poisoning him, formerly worked with Dan Leno, “the funniest man alive on earth,” who has also spent time in the library reading about his hero, the eighteenth century pantomimist Grimaldi, in an essay by Thomas De Quincey. Another of De Quincey’s extended essays, Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827), plays an important role in a novel that in many ways seems like something out of De Quincey’s most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), by way of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published the year the fictional Elizabeth and the differently fictional Dan Leno meet (1865).

The novel also shuttles between titles (it was published as Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem in Great Britain) and, more important, between narrative methods. Elizabeth Cree’s story takes up twenty-six of the novel’s fifty-one chapters: eleven in conventional first person, eight in the form of extracts of the trial “taken from the full report in the Illustrated Police News Law Courts and Weekly Record,” and three more in conventional third person. Eleven chapters concern her husband, John: eight in the form of extracts from his diary and three others in third person. Of the remaining fourteen chapters, all in third person, three concern Dan Leno, four George Gissing, two Karl Marx, one Inspector Kildare, and three the Limehouse Golem, as the murderer comes to be called by the press. At times the change from one chapter to the next is abrupt. At other times one chapter segues into the next; a question posed at the end of a trial extract, for example, is “answered” by Elizabeth in the first person but not in her trial voice.

Elizabeth is a fascinating character. The illegitimate daughter of a prostitute who subsequently “got religion,” she becomes an orphan at age fourteen,...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)