Ackroyd, Peter 1949-
Ackroyd, Peter 1949-
PERSONAL: Born October 5, 1949, in London, England; son of Graham and Audrey Ackroyd. Education: Clare College, Cambridge, M.A., 1971; attended Yale University, 1971-73.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—Sheil Land Associates Ltd., 52 Doughty St., London WC1N 2LS, 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; Whitbread 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.
The Lambs of London, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2006.
The Fall of Troy, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2007.
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 & Windus (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 (Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series), Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2005.
Ancient Rome, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2005.
Shakespeare: The Biography, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2005.
Ancient Greece, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2005.
Newton (Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series), Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.
J.M.W. Turner (Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series), Nan A.Talese (New York, NY), 2006.
Thames: Sacred River, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 2007.
Poe: A Life Cut Short, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 2008.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens (play), produced in New York, NY, 2002.
(And narrator) Dickens (documentary film), British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002, Public Broadcast-in Service 2003.
Escape from Earth (juvenile fiction), DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
The Beginning (juvenile fiction), DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
(Author of introduction) Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
(Author of foreword) A Christmas Dinner by Charles Dickens, menus and recipes by Alice Ross, Red Rock Press (New York, NY), 2007.
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 that 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 told CA: “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 Dickeens 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 Marshalsea 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 Ackroyd’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 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.” Newsweek contributor 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 told CA.
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 later 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 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 was 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; the writings of Jonathan Swift, John Milton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Daniel Defoe; the musical compositions of Ralph Vaughan 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” that 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 the 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 contributor Peter S. Prescott called it “a fascinating hybrid, a tale of terrors that does double duty as a novel of ideas.” Similarly, Time reviewer 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 eventually 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 story line weigh increasingly heavily upon readers’ 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’ 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.”
Ackroyd’s fantasy novella The Plato Papers: A Prophecy 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.”
In 2005, Ackroyd published Shakespeare: The Biography, offering his take on the life of one of Great Britain’s best known and most often chronicled writers. Although many other biographies have been written about Shakespeare, what sets Ackroyd’s offering apart is his own interpretations of the playwright’s life and work, as well as his own polished writing style. The book offers a wonderful introduction to the life and times of Shakespeare, and many critics opined that it would prove especially of use to readers who have little previous knowledge of the Bard’s life and career. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews commented of Ackroyd that “his discursive biography capably synthesizes current knowledge with just enough of a point of view to make it interesting.” Booklist reviewer Bryce Christensen commented: “Ackroyd brings to his biographical reading the imaginative insights of a gifted poet and novelist, along with the passions of a scholar.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked that “the great strength of Ackroyd’s book is the depth of his immersion in the culture of Shakespeare’s age and the sense he gives of Shakespeare as a product of that extraordinary moment in time.”
Newton, a slim biography that comprises one of the volumes of Ackroyd’s “Brief Lives” series, chronicles the life of scientist Sir Isaac Newton. He begins with Newton’s birth after the death of his father, and his abandonment by his mother who remarried, leaving her small son with his grandmother to be raised while she began her new family. Ackroyd goes on to note Newton’s precocious childhood and early affinity for mathematics, a talent that took him to Cambridge University and made him a professor when he was just twenty-six. During the Plague, when universities were shut down for public safety, Newton used his free time to advance his own theories, performing scientific experiments that served as the groundwork for his eventual theories regarding gravity. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews commented that “Ackroyd gives enough of the historical context to make Newton’s salient character traits and greatest accomplishments clear to the modern reader.”
With The Lambs of London, Ackroyd once again offers readers a fictionalized biography of eminent figures in British literary history. Siblings Charles and Mary Lamb are best known for their attention to and study of the works of William Shakespeare during the late 1800s. Ackroyd’s book tells of their involvement with William Ireland, a teenage book clerk who comes to them with certain articles he claims to be previously undiscovered writings of Shakespeare, including a deed, a poem, and ultimately a new play. Readers familiar with the historical figure of Ireland, who is now known as a forger of Shakespeare’s works, can see the writing on the wall, but Ireland’s discoveries are at first declared authentic and Ireland appears a literary hero, albeit briefly. Ackroyd sets his story against the backdrop of 1890s London, and the Lamb family, including Mary’s degenerating mental condition and Charles’s tendency to drink too much. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews commented that “because this material is so familiar to anyone with an interest in English culture, the novel has a slightly shopworn feel,” but concluded that the book is “reasonable entertainment for serious Anglophiles.” Brad Hooper, writing for Booklist, found the book to be “marvelous, sophisticated entertainment.”
The Fall of Troy is set in 1867 and recounts the tale of a young Greek woman of little fortune, Sophia Chrysanthis, who has been promised in marriage to a far older man, a German business executive who is convinced that he has discovered where the ruins of Troy lie. His goal in marrying is to find a wife with a classical education whom he can expect to assist with the excavations soon to begin in Turkey. Despite her concerns about the match, once married and in Turkey, Sophia finds herself in awe of the scope of the project and begins to fall in love with the romance of the dig, if not with her husband, who continues to make her uneasy. The relationship only worsens as Sophia learns more and more about the man she has married. Ackroyd’s story is loosely based on an actual excavation in Hissarlik, Turkey, also led by a German businessman. Brad Hooper, again writing for Booklist, commented: “A delicious working out of the theme of scientific fraud, this is a sophisticated, energetic, and learned work.”
Ackroyd once told CA: “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.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34, 1985, Volume 52, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 155: Twentieth-Century Literary Biographers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
America, January 19, 1985; December 22, 2003, Joseph J. Feeney, review of Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, p. 23.
Booklist, October 1, 1998, Bryce Christensen, review of The Life of Thomas More; January 1, 2000, review of The Plato Papers: A Prophecy, p. 871; September 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Albion, p. 197; December 15, 2003, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Beginning, p. 749; July, 2005, Bryce Christensen, review of Shakespeare: The Biography, p. 1890; April 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of The Lambs of London, p. 36; September 15, 2007, Brad Hooper, review of The Fall of Troy, p. 33.
Choice, March, 1999, review of The Life of Thomas More, p. 1329.
Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 1990, Merle Rubin, review of First Light, p. 13; February 25, 1991, Merle Rubin, review of Dickens, p. 13; December 10, 1998, Merle Rubin, “Thomas More’s Devotion to a Higher Law,” p. 16; January 20, 2000, review of The Plato Papers, p. 16.
Contemporary Review, May, 2003, George Wedd, “Peter Ackroyd and the Englishman’s Imagination,” p.305
Economist, November 11, 1995, review of Blake; December 4, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. 4.
English Review, April, 2003, Victoria Kingston, “Face to Face,” interview with author, pp. 21-24.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 7, 1984, William French, review of The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde; June 26, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. D15.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Life of Thomas More; December 1, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. 1824; August 1, 2003, review of Albion, p. 997; July 1, 2005, review of Shakespeare, p. 715; April 1, 2006, review of The Lambs of London, p. 307; December 15, 2007, review of Newton.
Library Journal, January, 2000, review of The Plato Papers, p. 154; December, 2002, Nancy R. Ives, review of The Collection, p. 125; September 15, 2003, Denise J. Stankovics, review of Albion, p. 57.
New Statesman, November 4, 2002, Will Self, review of Albion, p. 50.
Newsweek, November 26, 1984, Paul Gray, review of T.S. Eliot: A Life; February 24, 1986, Peter S. Prescott, review of Hawksmoor.
New York Review of Books, December 20, 1984, Rosemary Dinnage, review of T.S. Eliot.
New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1984, Walter Litz, review of T.S. Eliot; January 19, 1986, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Hawksmoor; January 17, 1988, Denis Donoghue, review of Chatterton; January 13, 1991, James R. Kincaid, review of Dickens, pp. 1, 24; October 11, 1992, Alison Lurie, “Hanging out with Hogarth,” p. 7; November 9, 1992, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “An Entertainment for the Library”; April 16, 1995, Valerie
Martin, review of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders, p. 7; August 21, 1995, Richard Bernstein, “The Limehouse Killings and Much, Much More”; April 14, 1996, Penelope Fitzgerald, “Innocence and Experience”; September 14, 1997, review of Blake, p. 44; October 25, 1998, Andrew Sullivan, “Public Man, Public Faith”; February 6, 2000, John Sutherland, “After Mould-warp,”p. 7.
Observer (London, England), March 14, 1999, review of The Life of Thomas More, p. 14; March 28, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. 55; August 11, 2003, review of Albion, p. 267; October 27, 2003, review of The Beginning, p. 71; July 11, 2005, review of Shakespeare, p. 75.
School Library Journal, January, 2004, Courtney Lewis, review of The Beginning, p. 138.
Smithsonian, January, 1993, Verlyn Klinkenborg, review of Dickens, pp. 131-132.
Spectator, September 11, 1993, Francis King, review of The House of Doctor Dee, p. 27; September 10, 1994, David Sexton, review of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree; September 23, 1995, Charles Moore, review of Blake, pp. 36-37; August 9, 2003, Sebastian Smee, review of The Clerkenwell Tales, p. 38.
Time, February 24, 1986, Christopher Porterfield, review of Hawksmoor.
Times (London, England), April 14, 1983, Mary Cosh, review of The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.
Times Literary Supplement, May 3, 1974, review of London Lickpenny; January 29, 1982, Galen Straw-son, review of The Great Fire of London; September 10, 1993, Eric Korn, review of The House of Doctor Dee, p. 20; August 30, 1996, Treve Broughton, review of Milton in America, p. 23.
Wall Street Journal, April 9, 1996, Robert M. Adams, review of Blake, p. A16; May 6, 1997, Paul Dean, review of Milton in America, p. A20; October 22, 1998, Perez Zagorin, review of The Life of Thomas More, p. A20.
Washington Post Book World, January 24, 1988, Dennis Drabelle, review of Chatterton.