Ackroyd, Peter 1949–
Ackroyd, Peter 1949–
PERSONAL: Born October 5, 1949, in London, England; son of Graham and Audrey (Whiteside) Ackroyd. Education: Clare College, Cambridge, M.A., 1971; attended Yale University, 1971–73.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—Anthony Sheil Associates Ltd., 43 Doughty St., London WC1N 2LF, England.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. Spectator, London, England, literary editor, 1973–77, managing editor, 1977–81; Times, London, England, television critic, 1977–81; chief book reviewer, 1986–.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: W. Somerset Maugham Award, 1984, for The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde; Whit-bread Award, and Guardian Fiction Prize, both 1985, both for Hawksmoor; Heinemann Award for nonfiction, Royal Society of Literature, 1985, for T.S. Eliot: A Life; James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Best Biography, University of Edinburgh, 1998, for The Life of Thomas More.
Ouch, Curiously Strong Press (London, England), 1971.
London Lickpenny (also see below), Ferry Press (London, England), 1973.
Country Life (also see below), Ferry Press (London, England), 1978.
The Diversions of Purley, and Other Poems (contains poems from London Lickpenny and Country Life), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1987.
The Great Fire of London, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1982.
Hawksmoor, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1985, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.
Chatterton, Grove (New York, NY), 1988.
First Light, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.
English Music, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The House of Doctor Dee, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1993, Penguin (New York, NY), 1994.
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1994, published as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Lime-house Murders, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1995.
Milton in America, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1997.
The Plato Papers: A Prophecy, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2000.
The Clerkenwell Tales, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2003, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2004.
Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, Barnes & Noble (New York, NY), 1976.
Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.
Ezra Pound and His World, Scribner (New York, NY), 1981.
T.S. Eliot: A Life, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984.
(Editor) PEN New Fiction, Quartet Books (London, England), 1984.
(Author of introduction) Dickens' London: An Imaginative Vision, Headline (London, England), 1987.
Dickens, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1990, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1992.
Introduction to Dickens, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1991, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1992.
(Author of introduction) Frank Auerbach, Recent Works, Marlborough (New York, NY), 1994.
Blake, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1995.
(Editor) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, G.K. Hall (Thorndike, ME), 1995.
The Life of Thomas More, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1998.
London: The Biography, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 2000.
The Collection (nonfiction and fiction), Chatto & Win-dus (London, England), 2001.
Dickens (based on documentary film; also see below), British Broadcasting Corporation (London, England), 2002.
Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2003.
Chaucer, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2005.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens (play), produced in New York, NY, 2002.
(And narrator) Dickens (documentary film), British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002, Public Broadcasting Service, 2003.
Escape from Earth (juvenile fiction), DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
The Beginning (juvenile fiction), DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short story "The Inheritance" to anthology London Tales, edited by Julian Evans, Hamish Hamilton, 1983. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Hailed as an accomplished and versatile writer, Peter Ackroyd has authored works ranging from poems to novels, criticism to biography. He was published first as a poet, his book London Lickpenny prompting a Times Literary Supplement reviewer to deem Ackroyd "a delicate and insistent stylist" whose words make "not only an odd poetry, but a poetry out of the oddness of the world." Ackroyd came to literary prominence, however, as a biographer, and his well-received volumes on literary giants T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens have been complemented by novels which frequently fictionalize the lives of famous historical personalities such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas Chatterton. Glen M. Johnson, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explained that "as his career has developed, Ackroyd has sought 'a new way to interanimate' biography and fiction." In addition to fusing history and fiction, his novels also consider the nature of time and art, often involving their protagonists in situations that transcend time and space. Ackroyd once commented: "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."
In 1982 Ackroyd published his first novel, The Great Fire of London, which revolves around a film production of Dickens' novel Little Dorrit. Ackroyd's tale presents itself as a continuation of the Dickens novel, which concerns a young girl's trials and tribulations in Victorian England. Beginning with a summary of Dickens' work, The Great Fire of London then introduces its own cast of Dickensian characters, including Spenser Spender, a filmmaker who plans the adaptation of Little Dorrit; Sir Frederick Lustlambert, a bureaucrat who arranges the film's financing; and Rowan Phillips, a Dickens scholar who has written the film's script. Another important figure is Little Arthur, an adult so named because he ceased growing at age eight. Little Arthur is proprietor of an amusement park near Marshalsea Prison, a key setting in Little Dorrit. When Arthur's park closes, he loses his grasp on reality and commits murder. Once apprehended, he is sentenced to Mar-shalsea Prison, where Spender is filming his adaptation. Spender's insistence on realism eventually sparks the disaster of the novel's title, a raging inferno resulting from a mishap on the film set.
Galen Strawson, in his review of The Great Fire of London in the Times Literary Supplement, described Ackroyd's novel as an extension of Dickens' novel. "Ackroyd is clearly intrigued by the idea of past fiction working great changes in present (fictional) reality," Strawson wrote, "and he misses few chances to make further connections and to elaborate the network of coincidences." Strawson was also impressed with Ack-royd's insights into human nature, writing that the novelist is "continually alive … to that hidden presence in many people's lives which he calls 'the vast sphere of unremembered wishes,' and to the effects it has on their conscious thoughts and actions."
Ackroyd followed The Great Fire of London with The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, a novel purporting to be Wilde's autobiography, written during the final months of the author's life in Paris, where he had fled in self-imposed exile after serving two years in a British prison for indecency. Many critics praised Ackroyd's duplication of Wilde's own writing style and commended the work for its compelling insights into the personality of the notorious Irish writer. Toronto Globe and Mail critic William French, for instance, declared that Ackroyd "does an uncanny job of assuming Wilde's persona." Similarly, London Times reviewer Mary Cosh, who called Ackroyd's novel "a brilliant testament in its own right," lauded the writer for fashioning a well-rounded portrait of Wilde. Cosh wrote: "Not only does Peter Ackroyd exert a masterly command of language and ideas that credibly evokes Wilde's sharp wit in epigram or paradox, but he captures the raw vulnerability of the man isolated behind his mask."
When The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde was published in 1983, Ackroyd was already working on T.S. Eliot: A Life. In researching this biography, Ackroyd encountered imposing obstacles: he was forbidden by Eliot's estate from quoting Eliot's correspondence and unpublished verse, and he was allowed only minimum citations of the published poetry. Critics generally agreed, however, that Ackroyd nonetheless produced a worthwhile account of the modernist poet. As A. Walton Litz wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Given all these restrictions, Peter Ackroyd has written as good a biography as we have any right to expect. He has assimilated most of the available evidence and used it judiciously." Rosemary Dinnage, who reviewed T.S. Eliot in the New York Review of Books, also praised Ackroyd's difficult feat, observing that he "illuminates Eliot's poetry and criticism more acutely than many a ponderous academic volume." And Newsweek's Paul Gray contended that Ackroyd's biography "does more than make the best of a difficult situation; it offers the most detailed portrait yet of an enigmatic and thoroughly peculiar genius." In the end, Ackroyd acknowledged that his inability to quote Eliot's letters or work made for a better book. "I had to be much more inventive about how I brought him to life," he explained.
In his biography Dickens, Ackroyd's intent was not to provide the definitive account of the writer's life, but rather to "rescue the character" of Dickens, as Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in the Smithsonian, and thereby cross "the boundary between Dickens' fiction and his life." Klinkenborg further asserted that Ackroyd "does this not only to show how the novels illuminate the life, but also to understand the transforming powers of Dickens' imagination." Yet James R. Kincaid of the New York Times Book Review lamented that Dickens utilizes none of the twentieth-century conventions for understanding biography: "post-structuralist suspicions have made no inroads, and even Freud causes no alarm." Despite this, Kincaid allowed that Dickens sets itself apart from other biographies on the author and "demands our attention precisely (and only) because it is so open to the strange."
After several more novels, Ackroyd returned to biography with Blake, an account of visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827). Blake's life appeared outwardly unremarkable. A London native, he was happily married, lived modestly, and worked hard. But many of Blake's contemporaries considered him insane; he spoke of his grandiose visions and hallucinations as if they were commonplace, often astounding acquaintances by relating his conversations with devils and angels. Blake was an engraver by trade whose illustration style was composed of intricate scenes of battling angels and fallen men, and he boldly compared his writing to John Milton's Paradise Lost. "Ackroyd does Blake the considerable service of taking his visions as seriously and soberly as he [Blake] did," stated a reviewer in the Economist, who added that Blake "has found the gentlest of biographers." In addition, Ackroyd's knowledge of London history serves to accentuate the biography, continued the reviewer, since he is familiar with the places that Blake would have known and which are the most likely locales for some of his prose. Charles Moore of the Spectator commented that Blake's eccentricities, one of which he called a "magnificent lack of embarrassment," were in fact the result of what Ackroyd deemed the "peculiar kind of lucidity which springs from those who have nothing left to lose."
Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More focuses on More (1479–1535), the lawyer and statesman who was beheaded for refusing to support Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the king's subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was subsequently declared a saint by the Catholic Church. "Ackroyd makes him a man," wrote Bryce Christensen in Booklist, "with all the paradoxes, ironies, and complexities that mortality entails." Ackroyd traces More's life, from his baptism to his execution. Included are descriptions of his upbringing, education, and the people he interacted with, including his friend, the humanist Erasmus.
Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Ackroyd sees More "not as an early individualist (as in Robert Bolt's gorgeously anachronistic play, A Man for All Seasons), or as an early ultramontane absolutist (in the vein of much nineteenth-century Roman Catholic hagiography), or even as a twisted and conflicted bigot (as in Richard Marius's biography, Thomas More). Rather, Ackroyd sees More simply as a particularly sensitive, and elegantly playful, representative of a vibrant, late-medieval, Catholic England." Sullivan claimed that Ackroyd "has an ear and a nose for physicality, and he deploys his expertise in the history of London to illustrate this faith. Rather than condescending to medieval Catholicism, Ackroyd empathetically observes it." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Life of Thomas More "a limpidly written and superbly wrought portrait of a complex hero."
In 2000 Ackroyd expanded his nonfiction writing to include a "biography of place" with his widely acclaimed work London: The Biography. This work has been followed by an even more expansive study: Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. "Albion" is the name given ancient England, a name that evokes the island's mythic past. Calling Albion "fresh and fascinating," America contributor Joseph J. Feeney explained that in this work Ackroyd "turns to the inner springs of English[—as opposed to British, Scots, Welsh, or Irish—]creativity to ask, quite simply, what it means—what it has meant for centuries—to be an English writer, painter or composer." From Beowulf to the Arthurian legends, to the writings of Jonathan Swift, John Milton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Daniel Defoe, to the musical compositions of Ralph Vaughn Williams, and the English penchant for the sea, dreams, gardening, and all things gothic, Ackroyd contends that the uniquely visionary—and often melancholy—English imagination is cyclical rather than linear; "no art can be viewed in isolation since all the arts are part of the same continuum going back to Anglo-Saxon times," explained Library Journal contributor Denise J. Stankovics. Contemporary Review critic George Wedd added that this imagination is guided by the English landscape, a "spirit of place" which embodies "an acute appreciation of living on an island which is different from its neighbours—cold, stormy and dark and only to be reached across an often stormy ocean." Feeney praised Albion as "a grand success in its originality, its detail and its insights," while in New Statesman Will Self maintained that Albion is more a reflection of its author's own view of time and history than a scholarly study. Calling Ackroyd "an encyclopedist, universalist, [and] a cultural critic on the grand scale," Self concluded: "It doesn't matter whether his argument stands up to criticism, because I don't think that he's advancing one at all. Rather, he's taking us by the hand and leading us for a stroll around the tumultuous rookeries of his effortlessly acquired erudition."
Winner of the Whitbread Award, Hawksmoor fuses the detective and horror story genres. One of the work's two principal characters is Nicholas Hawksmoor, a police detective trying to solve a series of grisly murders at various eighteenth-century churches in London. Alternating with the account of Hawksmoor's progress are chapters on Victorian architect Nicholas Dyer. Dyer adheres to certain demonic principles and consecrates his churches with human blood sacrifices to please Satanic creatures. Dyer's nemesis is renowned architect Christopher Wren, his superior, who contends that science and rational thought will bring an end to superstition. Hawksmoor is also faithful to rationalism, and when he fails to perceive the connection between the two sets of murders, he finds himself slowly going insane.
Like Ackroyd's earlier novels, Hawksmoor impressed critics as a daring, technically innovative work. Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott called it "a fascinating hybrid, a tale of terrors that does double duty as a novel of ideas." Similarly, Time's Christopher Porterfield, who noted that Ackroyd possesses "a gift for historical pastiche," acknowledged "the eerie interplay between the earlier age and our own," and commended Hawksmoor as "a fictional architecture that is vivid, provocative, and as clever as … the devil." Another of the novel's many enthusiasts was Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Hawksmoor is "primarily a novel of ideas, a spirited debate between those who believe … that 'the highest Passion is Terrour' and those who believe … that the new science of rationalism and experimental method will even-tually eradicate superstition." Oates deemed Ackroyd a "virtuoso" and lauded Hawksmoor as "an unfailingly intelligent work of the imagination."
Ackroyd executed another multiple-narrative story with Chatterton, a novel revolving around eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide at age seventeen. In Ackroyd's novel, Chatterton appears through an autobiographical document that suggests he may have faked his death. The document is owned by Charles Wychwood, a minor poet obsessed with an old portrait whose subject might have been Chatterton. The painting, however, is dated 1802, thus serving as further indication that Chatterton might not have died in 1770. Another story line concerns the creation of an actual painting, Henry Wallis's "The Death of Chatterton." But this painting, too, is misleading, for Wallis finished it in 1856, long after Chatterton's death, and relied on another young man, writer George Meredith, to represent Chatterton. Further discrepancies of authenticity and originality abound in the novel—a writer steals plots from second-rate Victorian novels, and an artist's secretary completes his employer's canvases. Even Chatterton confesses to chicanery of a sort, having attributed his own poems to fictitious fifteenth-century clergyman Thomas Rowley.
With Chatterton, Ackroyd strengthened his reputation as a unique and compelling storyteller. Dennis Drabelle, in his review for the Washington Post Book World, called Ackroyd's work a "witty, tricky new novel," and "a contrivance of the highest order." Denis Donoghue, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was similarly enthusiastic, describing Chatterton as "a wonderfully vivid book," and "superb." London Times reviewer Victoria Glendinning praised the novel as "agile and entertaining." She added that in the novel Ackroyd "has at least three balls in the air, and [he] keeps them up there."
The interconnectedness of time past, present, and future is central to The House of Doctor Dee, a historical novel concerning the Elizabethan-era intellectual John Dee, a purported practitioner of black magic and alchemy. Dee alternates narrative duties with Matthew Palmer, the modern-day inheritor of Dee's house in London, whose curiosity sparks an investigation into the house's lurid history. Much of the book's detail concerns the milieu of fifteenth-century London's buildings and history, one of Ackroyd's favorite subjects. Spectator reviewer Francis King noted the differing styles of the two narrators—Dee writes in an Elizabethan dialect while Matthew writes in a more modern voice—and called the contrast "fascinating." As Matthew learns more about the house's previous owner, paranormal occurrences abound—not the least of which is Matthew's discovery that he is embroiled in an ancient plot concerning an immortal homunculus. Soon Dee's and Matthew's paths cross, and as they become aware of each other through visions and research, both are eventually redeemed in "a timeless London," stated Eric Korn of the Times Literary Supplement, "for time can be deconstructed by any magician or novelist."
Multiple narratives again are the crux of Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, published in the United States as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders. In 1881 a seedy district in London suffers a gruesome series of murders some residents believe is the work of a golem. Exhibiting Ackroyd's penchant for infusing fiction with historical figures, the suspects include Karl Marx, George Gissing, and Dan Leno, one of the era's popular comedians. Ackroyd also weaves throughout his narrative the pages of a diary that may or may not be written by the murderer him or herself; the diary hints that the killer is actually John Cree, whose wife Elizabeth, a former vaudeville cross-dresser, is hanged for poisoning him during the opening pages of the novel. An air of growing oppression builds throughout the work, as people (both real and fictitious), the squalor of 1880s London, and the tangled storyline weigh increasingly heavily upon reader's imaginations.
Reviewing The Trial of Elizabeth Cree for the Spectator, David Sexton proclaimed that Ackroyd "manages these parallel narratives expertly…. He just loves to feel all London's past coming up behind him." Valerie Martin agreed in the New York Times Book Review, noting that the suspects in the work are all "men of ideas … obsessed with the need for social reform," and stated that the book is "not so much a novel of ideas as a novel about some men who had ideas." "Ackroyd's methods are both subtle and outrageous," Martin concluded. "Everything and everyone in [The Trial of Elizabeth Cree] … is so intimately connected that one reads with a sense of the world becoming progressively smaller and tighter…. The tone is agitated and compelling, by turns macabre and inventive, and this novel is a fine addition to Mr. Ackroyd's impressive body of work."
Placing blind English writer John Milton squarely in the North American colonies is "Ackroyd's joke" in Milton in America, according to Times Literary Supplement reviewer Treve Broughton. Milton perceived the exodus of his countrymen to New England as a kind of purgatory second only to death, and he is recorded as referring to America as "a savage desert." In Ackroyd's novel, the fictional Milton finds himself aboard a ship bound for New England in order to avoid capture by British authorities for publishing pamphlets critical of the Crown (the real Milton was in fact imprisoned for the same transgression). He becomes what Broughton termed a "hero in exile and visionary of the New World, accepting the adulation of his fellow passengers and generally talking up a storm." A shipwreck ends Milton's dreams of a grandiose landing in Boston, however; instead he finds himself aground in the New England wilderness, where he eventually founds his own colony. Broughton praised the work for its allusions and creativity, although he commented that the narrative sometimes fails from a lack of "conviction and pace." The critic called Ackroyd's Milton "a wonderful creation: as exasperating and exhilarating as we have come to expect of an Ackroyd hero." Citing parallels to Milton's Paradise Lost, John Clute viewed the work with a more critical eye. "Blindness governs the telling of the book, and is its final message," Clute stated in the New Statesman. "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, heresay." Milton in America, Clute concluded, "is a hard book to judge."
Ackroyd's fantasy novella The Plato Papers is set in the year 3700, and includes fifty-five short chapters of meditations, essays, and dialogues. The Plato of the story lives in a utopian London and is also a philosopher and teacher. "The Age of Witspell," has replaced "The Age of Mouldwarp," the scientific period that collapsed in the year 2300. Through his papers, Plato tries to educate Londoners about previous ages and encourages them to learn from history how the past can clarify the present. He works from the scraps of information that have survived into Witspell, and misses the mark when he credits Charles Dickens with writing a fictional work titled On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and writes that Brother Marx was a comedian who wrote about gender, class, and race.
"The Plato Papers is a significant comic achievement," wrote Nick Gevers in Infinity Plus online. "But one is always aware in these passages that Plato is the fool whose japes conceal wisdom; every statement he makes about our time is symbolically or spiritually true at the core of its misprision. His scholarly madness is always close to true vision. And so, as Plato is vouchsafed a full and accurate experience of Mouldwarp, in which he can wander its streets and speak with its souls of its benighted, activity-besotted, inwardly blind inhabitants, the novel's tone darkens." John Sutherland noted in the New York Times Book Review that The Plato Papers reminded him of Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, although "the initial impression is surprise. One did not expect this book." Calling The Plato Papers "unlike anything else Peter Ackroyd … has written," Sutherland added that "the most enjoyable section of the book is the opening one, which is replete with jokes—some extremely funny."
Ackroyd, who has embarked on yet another literary endeavor with several volumes of earth history in the "Voyages through Time" series, once commented: "I think of myself primarily as a novelist. The other activities are marginal but related—certainly I think my novels and biographies are connected, although not in ways I myself could interpret. I leave that to the critics." Donna Seaman summed up her Booklist review of Albion by dubbing its author "a master extrapolator and wonderfully epigrammatic stylist fluent in many disciplines," a description Ackroyd's still evolving career proves out.
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Booklist, October 1, 1998, Bryce Christensen, review of The Life of Thomas More; January 1, 2000, review of The Plato Papers, p. 871; September 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Albion, p. 197; December 15, 2003, Jennifer Mattson, review of In the Beginning, p. 749.
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