Great Fire of London 1666
Nationality: British. Born: London, 5 October 1949. Education: St. Benedict's, Ealing, 1960-67; Clare College, Cambridge, 1968-71; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (Mellon fellow), 1971-73. Career: Literary editor, 1973-77, and joint managing editor, 1978-81, the Spectator, London; chief book reviewer, the Times, London, from 1986; editor, president, and CEO, Tuttle Publishing; editor, Element Books, 1996-97, CEO, 1997-99. Lives in London. Awards: Maugham award, 1984; Whitbread award, for biography, 1985, for fiction, 1986; Royal Society of Literature Heinemann award, for non-fiction, 1985; Guardian Fiction prize, 1985. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984. H.D.L.: Exeter University, 1993. Agent: Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. London, Hamish Hamilton, andNew York, Harper, 1983.
Hawksmoor. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985; New York, Harper, 1986.
Chatterton. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987; New York, GrovePress, 1988.
First Light. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, GroveWeidenfeld, 1989.
English Music. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1991; New York, Knopf, 1993.
The House of Doctor Dee. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1993.
Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994; as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, New York, Doubleday, 1995.
Blake. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1995; New York, Knopf, 1996.
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. London, Minerva, 1995.
The Plato Papers: A Prophecy. New York, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Inheritance," in London Tales, edited by Julian Evans. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983.
"Ringing in the Good News," in The Times (London), 24 December1985.
London Lickpenny. London, Ferry Press, 1973.
Country Life. London, Ferry Press, 1978.
The Diversions of Purley and Other Poems. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism. London, VisionPress, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1976.
Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. London, Thames and Hudson, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Ezra Pound and His World. London, Thames and Hudson, and NewYork, Scribner, 1981.
T.S. Eliot (biography). London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Dickens (biography). London, Sinclair Stevenson, and New York, Harper Collins, 1990.
The Life of Thomas More. London, Chatto and Windus, 1998.
Foreword, Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture, edited by NickGroom. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Editor, PEN New Fiction. London, Quartet, 1984.
Editor, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. London, Penguin, 1985.
Editor, Dickens' London: An Imaginative Vision. London, Headline, 1987.* * *
By the time Peter Ackroyd published his first novel in 1982, he was already well known in the literary world as a poet, critic, literary theorist, and cultural historian. Since his début as a novelist he has further enhanced his reputation as a non-fiction writer, first with his award-winning biography of T.S. Eliot and more recently with his imaginatively daring biographies of Charles Dickens, William Blake, and Thomas More. Before the appearance of his first novel, it seemed that his writing career was likely to develop in the fields of literary criticism and biography, but with ten novels in quick succession between 1982 and 1999 he has established himself as one of the most gifted and imaginative English novelists to have emerged during the recent past.
Ackroyd's polemical book, Notes for a New Culture, contains a relentless attack on the parochialism and impoverishment of contemporary English culture, especially literature and the academic literary establishment; he makes clear his intellectual allegiance to Continental (primarily French and German) models and theories descending from such figures as de Sade, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, and Husserl, in opposition to what he sees as the stultifying tradition of empiricism, positivism, and humanism still dominant in English artistic and intellectual life. He insists on the autonomy and formal absoluteness of language, on the way in which language constitutes meaning only within itself, and he therefore challenges the philosophical basis of orthodox realistic fiction, regarding its conventions as no longer having any validity for the modern writer. As might be expected, his novels are not conventionally realistic, but his innovative approach to fiction has not led him into the cul-de-sacs of hyper-selfconscious experimentalism or navel-gazing phenomenology. On the contrary, each novel possesses a strong narrative drive and is highly readable, demonstrating that Ackroyd has not felt the need to reject storytelling in order to develop his own type of literary fiction.
There is an element of deception in the title of Ackroyd's novels, especially as the first four, The Great Fire of London, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Hawksmoor, and Chatterton could be the titles of historical or biographical studies rather than works of fiction. The fire in The Great Fire of London is not that of 1666, but an apocalyptic fictional one that begins with the burning of a film set for a screen adaptation of Little Dorrit. As if to substantiate his theoretical point that writing emerges from other writing rather than from life, Ackroyd draws on Dickens's novel in many ways, thus emphasizing the fictionality of his own fictional world, however realistic it may appear in some respects. Ackroyd's novel is centrally concerned with the perpetual human activity of creating fictions in life as well as in art. The short opening section of The Great Fire of London, "the story so far," outlines the plot of Little Dorrit and ends: "although it could not be described as a true story, certain events have certain consequences"—including, of course, the writing of Ackroyd's novel. Dickens's eponymous heroine and the novel itself feature prominently in the minds of many of Ackroyd's characters, including Spenser Spender (a filmmaker, with two poets' names who is determined to put the novel on the screen), Rowan Phillips (a Cambridge don currently working on Dickens), and Audrey Skelton (a telephone operator who is possessed by the spirit of Little Dorrit during a séance). The setting of much of Little Dorrit, the Marshalsea Prison, also provides a link between the two novels because its site is visited by several of Ackroyd's characters. With its panorama of London in the 1980s from left-wing activists to gay bars, The Great Fire of London is at least as much a London novel as Little Dorrit. Ackroyd's narrative structure, in which several strands begin in parallel and gradually intertwine and coalesce, is itself derived from Dickens's methods and techniques, especially in his later novels such as Little Dorrit. By using one of the greatest of English novels as his point of departure, Ackroyd inevitably takes the risk of being unflatteringly compared with Dickens, but The Great Fire of London must be taken on its own terms, not Dickens's, and as such it is an exuberant, inventive, and accomplished piece of writing.
Ackroyd's second novel draws its inspiration from the life of an important late Victorian writer. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is the testament that Wilde himself did not write but that Ackroyd has written for him in the form of a journal-cum-memoir covering that last few months of Wilde's life in Paris in 1900. The book therefore purports to be Wilde's autobiographical confessions in the tradition of writing that connects St. Augustine with Rousseau and De Quincey. To write The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde Ackroyd must have steeped himself in Wilde's biography as well as his writing, and presumably could have written yet another study of the man and his work. Instead Ackroyd has chosen the freedom of fiction to enter imaginatively into Wilde's mind as he lives through his last weeks in France and simultaneously offers an explanation of his famous rise and infamous fall. The obvious danger with a novel of this type, not only about an historical personage but written from his point of view, is that readers will be tempted to compare the "facts" with the fictional re-creation, but this would be to approach the novel in far too literal-minded a way. As a fictional character, Ackroyd's Wilde cannot be the historical Wilde: for all its "factual" content, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is primarily a work of the imagination about the relationship between the artist and the world and about the difference between fictional and historical truth.
The skill with which Ackroyd creates a style and tone of voice for his narrator and sustains it throughout The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is a remarkable technical achievement, but it pales beside the ludic and verbal virtuosity of Hawksmoor, in which he plays far more elaborate games with fact and fiction, history and imagination. The title is the name of Sir Christopher Wren's most distinguished assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, the great architect responsible for some of London's finest churches (referred to in The Great Fire of London ), but in the novel these churches are attributed to Nicholas Dyer while Hawksmoor himself is a modern Detective Chief Superintendent investigating a series of murders in the East End. Although Hawksmoor contains characters who belong to history and draws heavily on various historical sources, it is not an historical novel in the usual sense; indeed, it radically subverts the conventions of historical fiction. In a concluding note Ackryod states that "this version of history is my own invention" and that "any relation to real people, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental." The six odd-numbered chapters in a book in which numerology plays a significant part are set in the early 18th century and are narrated by Dyer in a contemporary idiom, complete with old spellings and the initial capitalization of many words. Although a builder of churches, Dyer is secretly a Satanist and devotee of black magic, as well as being an opponent of the new scientific empiricism of the Royal Society. He dedicates his buildings to the dark powers by ensuring a human sacrifice in connection with each one. The six even-numbered chapters, set two and a half centuries later, provide a third-person narration of the bizarre and puzzling killings associated with the same churches and of Hawksmoor's attempt to track down the culprit. Ackroyd creates mystery and suspense, but unlike orthodox writers of crime and detection he does not provide a solution. Despite the time shift between the two narratives, they flow smoothly into each other and run strictly in parallel. The last words of the first chapter are also the first words of the second chapter. For example, the name of Dyer's first sacrificial victim is the same as that of the first person murdered in the twentieth-century narrative. Time dissolves so that the modern policeman is, in a sense, investigating crimes of the past. One of Ackroyd's central concerns is the human continuity associated with place, specifically the East End of London, in spite of all the changes wrought by the passage of time. Hawksmoor is as multi-layered as the archaeological heritage beneath the baroque churches built by Dyer. The dazzling erudition and ingenuity of Ackroyd's third novel bring to mind such authors as Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon, and Eco without seeming derivative in the pejorative sense.
Like The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Chatterton fictionalises the last part of an important literary figure's life, but in other respects, especially its handling of time and form, this novel is much closer to Hawksmoor, and is equally rich in internal echoes and cross-references. Like Ackroyd himself, the "marvellous boy" Thomas Chatterton was a master of pastiche and "faking," and it is easy to understand why Ackroyd should have been attracted by the fictional, rather than the biographical, possibilities offered by this extraordinary eighteenth-century poet. Chatterton committed suicide in 1770 while still in his teens, and for his Romantic successors his bizarre and tragic death ensured his status as a martyr in the cause of Art and Poetry. At a time when there was a great revival of interest in the Middle Ages, Chatterton was one of several poets who adopted a medieval style and presented their literary pastiches not as "imitations" but as authentic poetry of the past which they had unearthed. Chatterton attributed his "Rowley" poems to a fifteenth-century monk. However only some sections of the novel are set in the eighteenth century, with Chatterton either speaking in his own voice or being described. Much of the novel concerns a modern and frequently comic quest by a young poet and a much older woman novelist to discover the truth about Chatterton's death. An eighteenth-century manuscript provides these literary detectives with clues suggesting that Chatterton's suicide was itself faked and that he survived under another name. Interwoven with the eighteenth-century and twentieth-century narratives are sections set in Victorian England dealing with Henry Wallis's famous and highly romanticised painting of Chatterton's death (1856), for which the model was George Meredith, then himself a young poet. In this intricately structured novel about the reality of literature and art and the fictionality of reality, Ackroyd continues to explore the main themes of Hawksmoor, but the pervasive issues of plagiarism and faking focus particular attention on the ambiguity of art ("a lie that tells the truth") and its relationship with life, which is no less ambiguous.
Ackroyd's 1989 novel, First Light, is his longest and arguably his most ambitious, but after Hawksmoor and Chatterton it seems disappointing. This is not because First Light is any less readable then its two predecessors. Again there is a mystery to be investigated—an archaeological one—and this provides a strong narrative drive. The problem arises from the task Ackroyd sets himself—to resuscitate pastoral romance by writing a modern version of it. Iris Murdoch is another writer who has attempted to revivify pastoral and romance, and First Light is more Murdochian than Ackroyd's earlier novels, but both novelists experience considerable difficulty in reconciling pastoral conventions with the contemporary world without being fey. The excavation of a Neolithic passage grave in a rural backwater of the West Country—indeed of Hardy's Wessex—is what brings a fairly large and diverse cast of characters together in a lavishly textured story of intrigue, comedy, and pathos. A further dimension is added by the astronomical investigation of a giant star at a nearby observatory, which parallels the archaeological probe into the past. Literary allusions, especially to Hardy's fiction, abound in Ackroyd's imaginative exploration of time, history, space, and landscape, yet the total effect is more precious and etiolated than in the two city novels that preceded First Light.
Ackroyd has said that he is not interested in realism in the novel, and has further developed in his next two novels, English Music and The House of Doctor Dee, a genre in which fact and fiction are equally intertwined. This choice suggests that the traditional confines of fiction are inadequate to express what Ackroyd wants to say. In both novels Ackroyd has incorporated historically "dead" people, who talk to the living fictional characters with the purpose of giving meaning to some quest of his "living" characters. As a writer who particularly projects what he has to say through other voices, he has been likened to a ventriloquist, or a "polyquilivist." The Music of England refers to composed music, but also to landmarks in the whole of English literature, painting, and architecture. The novel provides an idiosyncratic survey of these arts, brought together in a total harmony through the imagination of Timothy Harcombe, an old bachelor, who recalls his boyhood life in the early 1920s. At night in alternating chapters, Timothy in either sleep or dream or trance, talks to historical and fictional characters and interacts with them as real people. The historical figures represent an unbroken link in "the great tradition" in English artistic creativity. Blake, for example, has him "write" a Song of Albion, naming English poets up to the end of the nineteenth century who have been conscious of this English heritage. Ackroyd's choice of those who defend the ancient springs is of course a subjective one, and few would include the very minor Ernest Dowson, nor really expect Blake (if he could have read him) to admire him at all.
Pastiche is again a strong feature in The House of Doctor Dee, set, like English Music, in Clerkenwell, London, where the area is at least as important as the characters. At times Ackroyd seems to have made it more so, letting the atmosphere of shady back streets block the light that would develop his characters more fully. The discovery by Matthew Palmer, a historical researcher, that a house he has inherited from his father once belonged to the Elizabethan astrologer, Dr. John Dee, is only the loose framework of the novel. Yet the framework, as in all Ackroyd's novels, is not limited to a simple structure or time scale and depends on a cumulative effect of rapid change of scene, period, and minutiae of often apparently irrelevant detail for the total effect. It is the means for informing the reader, amongst much else, about Dr. Dee, black magic, and Palmer's father, who it transpires had a sexual relationship with a transvestite. Matthew as a character hardly matters, but what he explores does.
Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem was publicised as a departure for Ackroyd and described by the publisher as "a ground-breaking commercial entertainment." If it is taken at face value as an imitation of the Victorian crime novel, it indeed succeeds very well, with its search for the perpetrator of horrifically detailed serial killings. Inexact clues point suspicion at all of the main characters, but deliberately Ackroyd provides no solution. Many of the characters are not what they seem to be and have double identities. Lambeth Lizzie, hanged for the murder of her husband, may or may not have been guilty, but she wore men's clothes, while the eponymous Dan Lemo, a rather repulsive music-hall artist, is a female impersonator. The whole question of reality and appearance is raised by the use of "golem" of the title, a "mythical creature able to dissolve in thin air" but which takes its identity by absorbing the souls of others. Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem is a wild theatrical extravaganza, but Ackroyd justifies his insistence that the reader question everything in it by quoting from Oscar Wilde's The Truth of Masks: "Truth is independent of facts always, inventing or selecting them at pleasure. The true dramatist shows us life under the condition of art, not art in the form of life."
Except for The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Milton in America is the only one of Ackroyd's novels to take place in a setting other than England. Milton in America is a novel predicated on the possibility that John Milton, the English poet, fled England near the end of the Commonwealth, and ended up in New England. Divided into two sections, "Eden," and "Fall," the novel employs an extended metaphor of Milton himself enacting the role of Lucifer the fallen angel in the historical Milton's Paradise Lost: forced to leave heavenly England, and make his way in the savage hell of New England. The novel traces John Milton's ascendancy as the leader of a settlement named New Milton, whose population evinces all the worst characteristics of the Puritanism, including the burning of suspected witches, overt hatred of Catholics, racism, sexism, homophobia, among others. Ackroyd brilliantly utilizes the American genre of the utopian-community novel (one thinks of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and Morrison's Paradise ) to his own ends. Here, religious hypocrisy, embodied in the character of Milton, is shown to lead to horrific ends.
Returning to his setting of choice, London, Ackroyd's latest novel, The Plato Papers, once again breaks new ground. Instead of his usual trope of seeing the past mirrored in the present, Ackroyd sets his new novel in a London of the very distant future, circa A.D. 3700. In this London, angels are everyday members of society, and people have ancient Roman-and Greek-sounding names like Ornatus, as well as Sparkler and Madrigal, that might come from the Victorian music hall stage. The plot in this shortest of Ackroyd's novels revolves around a character named Plato, who is the chief orator of the city of London. Plato's job is to explain to the citizens of London their past. It has always been difficult to see Ackroyd directly in his characters, but with Plato, we are finally able to see the author writing himself directly into a character. Plato, whose hilarious misreadings of canonical writers of the distant past like Dickens (claimed as author of Darwin's Origin of the Species ) and Freud (claimed as a stand-up comedian) are good examples of the literary technique of defamiliarization. Re-writing the story of Plato (the philosopher) and the Cave, Ackroyd has his future-Plato visit another cave, which turns out to be the earth as we know it, circa 1999. Like Milton in Milton in America (who goes off for six weeks into the wilderness), The Plato Papers ends with Plato self-banished from his beloved London, accused by his society of corrupting young people by teaching that there is an alternate reality. Readers of Ackroyd's ten novels have come to know and appreciate the nuances of this alternate reality.
—Peter Lewis, revisions by
BORN: 1949, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983)
T. S. Eliot: A Life (1984)
The Life of Thomas More (1998)
London: The Biography (2000)
Considered an accomplished, versatile writer, Peter Ackroyd has authored works ranging from poems to novels, criticism to biography. Ackroyd came to literary prominence as a biographer, and his well-received volumes on literary giants T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens were complemented by his novels that frequently fictionalize the lives of famous historical personalities, such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas Chatterton. In addition to fusing history and fiction, Ackroyd's novels also consider the nature of time and art, often involving the protagonist in situations that transcend time and space.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Working-class Upbringing Peter Ackroyd was born in Paddington Hospital on October 5, 1949, the only son of Graham Ackroyd and Audrey Whiteside. His parents separated a short time after his birth, and he settled with his mother in East Acton, where he lived in a council house near Wormwood Scrubs jail until the age of seventeen. Very little is known about Graham Ackroyd. Audrey Whiteside worked as a personnel officer for a firm that made metal boxes. Their son was educated by Benedictine monks at Saint Benedict's School in the Borough of Ealing, on the western edge of Greater London, at the end of the District Line on the London underground railway system. His interest in the geography of London began at an early age. As he told Francis Gilbert in 1999, “My grandmother would often take me into the city and show me things like the Old Curiosity Shop in Portsmouth Street, Holborn—which isn't actually the original shop that Dickens based his novel upon. This was something I found out when I was researching my biography of Dickens.”
Difficult Transition to Life at Cambridge In 1968, Ackroyd enrolled at Clare College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in English in 1971. As a working-class student funded by a local authority grant, Ackroyd found the transition to Cambridge life difficult at first. According to Gilbert, Ackroyd tried to disguise his London accent when he arrived at the university: “I spent hours trying to get certain vowel sounds right. I still sometimes get them wrong and slip into Cockney.” After graduation, Ackroyd was awarded a Mellon Fellowship at Yale University, where he spent two years doing graduate work. He returned to England in 1973 as literary editor of The Spectator, a right-wing weekly political magazine. In 1978, he became joint managing editor at The Spectator, a post he held until 1982, when he resigned to write full time. By then he had completed one novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), an interpolation of historical and present day narratives.
Ackroyd used the pattern he established in The Great Fire of London (1982) for a number of his later novels, including Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993). This strategy proved successful and Hawksmoor won both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Likewise, Chatterton (1987) is a complex exploration of forgery.
Career as a Novelist Ackroyd's other novels include First Light (1989), a creative distillation of English history; English Music (1992), which views English history through the lens of myths and traditions; The House of Doctor Dee (1993), which explores the lesser seen aspects of London's history. The book employs a dual narrative form, told in turns by Matthew Palmer, a contemporary researcher, and John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, both inhabitants of the same house in Clerkenwell; Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) combines murder with the arena of a Victorian music hall; and in Milton in America (1996), Ackroyd creates “New Milton,” a Puritan community founded and governed by a poet.
A Private Life Ackroyd is reticent about the details of his private life, but it is known that for many years he shared a house with his partner, Brian Kuhn. After Ackroyd won several lucrative literary prizes, he and Kuhn moved in 1990 to a cottage in Lyme Regis and then, in 1993, to a large house in north Devon, with a swimming pool, lake, and park. When Kuhn died from an
AIDS-related illness in 1994, Ackroyd sold his Devon property and moved back to London.
Expansion into Other Genres Ackroyd's other literary efforts include poetry, short stories, literary criticism, a variety of non-fiction works, and a play. London: The Biography (2000) was awarded the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature. The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001) collates essays on literature and film. Illustrated London (2003) was short-listed for the 2003 British Book Awards Illustrated Book of the Year. Ackroyd's most recent book about London is Thames: Sacred River (2007). Ackroyd's first play, The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2000), was directed by Patrick Garland and Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion (2002) was accompanied by a three-part BBC TV series. The Plato Papers (1999) is set 2000 years in the future where the citizens of London remember a dark historical era, 1500–2300 c.e.. The Clerkenwell Tales, a story of adventure and suspense set in the late medieval world, was published in 2003, followed by The Lambs of London, in 2004, and The Fall of Troy (2006). Most recently, Ackroyd has published Poe: A Life Cut Short (2008).
Peter Ackroyd continues to write from his home in London.
Works in Literary Context
In his fiction, Ackroyd focuses upon the interaction between artifice and reality. He emphasizes the ways in which contemporary art and life are profoundly influenced by events and creations of the past. Often described as pastiches—collages of literary elements—Ackroyd's novels blend historical and invented material, parody, multiple narratives, and self-reflexive techniques to explore the lives and writings of such noted personages as Oscar Wilde, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Thomas Chatterton.
The Great Fire of London: A Paradigm for Understanding Ackroyd's Writing Many of the elements of Ackroyd's later fiction are present in his first published novel, The Great Fire of London: the intersection of past and present, the detailed London urban setting, strong echoes of the works of Dickens, a talent for mimicry, and a concern with recording everyday speech. The Great Fire of London was respectfully reviewed as a good Dickensian pastiche, but it did not generate the level of excitement that greeted Ackroyd's more-mature novels.
There is an element of deception in the title of Ackroyd's novels, especially as the first four, The Great Fire of London, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Hawksmoor, and Chatterton could be the titles of historical or biographical studies rather than works of fiction. The fire in The Great Fire of London is not that of 1666, an event referred to in Hawksmoor, but an apocalyptic fictional one that begins with the burning of a film set for a screen adaptation of Little Dorrit (1855–1857) by Charles Dickens. As if to substantiate his theoretical point that writing emerges from other writing rather than from life, Ackroyd draws on Dickens's novel in many ways, thus emphasizing the fictionality of his own fictional world, however realistic it may appear in some respects. Indeed, Ackroyd's novel is centrally concerned with the human drive to create fictions in life as well as in art. The short opening section of The Great Fire of London, “the story so far,” outlines the plot of Little Dorrit and ends: “although it could not be described as a true story, certain events have certain consequences”—including, of course, the writing of Ackroyd's novel. Dickens's eponymous heroine and the novel itself feature prominently in the minds of many of Ackroyd's characters. The setting of much of Little Dorrit, the Marshalsea Prison, also provides a link between the two novels because its site is visited by several of Ackroyd's characters. With its panorama of London in the 1980s from left-wing activists to gay bars, The Great Fire of London is at least as much a London novel as Little Dorrit. Ackroyd's narrative structure, in which several strands begin in parallel and gradually intertwine and coalesce, is itself derived from Dickens's methods and techniques, especially in his later novels such as Little Dorrit.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ackroyd's famous contemporaries include:
Karen Tei Yamashita (1951–): Japanese-American author whose works emphasize the necessity of multicultural communities in a globalized age.
Mo Yan (1955–): Chinese novelist whose work has frequently been banned by the Chinese government.
Bob Marley (1945–1981): Jamaican singer and songwriter whose songs include “I Shot the Sherriff,” “Jamming,” and “One Love.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948–): Russian-born ballet dancer, often cited as one of the best of the twentieth century.
Woflgang Puck (1949–): Austrian chef and restaurant owner.
Alan Rickman (19467#x2013;): Winner of a number of acting awards, this English actor plays Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.
Mock Biography Ackroyd's second novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), is his first mock autobiography. The book is presented as a journal that Oscar Wilde kept secretly between his arrival in Paris after being released from Reading Gaol, where he had served a sentence of hard labor for acts of gross indecency, and his death on November 30, 1900. The novel is a richly
imaginative blend of recorded fact and Wildean epigrams, demonstrating Ackroyd's ability to enter into the language and mindset of his historical subject.
Works in Critical Context
By the time Ackroyd published his first novel in 1982, he was already well known in the literary world as a poet, critic, literary theorist, and cultural historian. He was published first as a poet; his first book, London Lickpenny, prompted a Times Literary Supplement reviewer to deem him “a delicate and insistent stylist” whose words “[make] not only an odd poetry, but a poetry out of the oddness of the world.” Since his début as a novelist, he has further enhanced his reputation as a non-fiction writer, first with his award-winning biography of T.S. Eliot and more recently with his imaginatively daring biography of Charles Dickens. Glen M. Johnson, explains that “as his career has developed, Ackroyd has sought ‘a new way to interanimate’ biography and fiction.” Before the appearance of his first novel, it seemed that his writing career was likely to develop in the fields of literary criticism and biography, but with five novels in quick succession between 1982 and 1989 he established himself as one of the most gifted and imaginative English novelists to have emerged during the recent past. Critical opinion differs about whether his strikingly original talent is taking the right direction, but there is little disagreement about his potential.
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde Ackroyd's The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, a novel purporting to be Wilde's autobiography, was supposedly written during the final months of Wilde's life when he was living 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 notorious Irish writer. Toronto Globe and Mail critic William French, for instance, commented 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 Ackroyd for fashioning a well-rounded portrait of Wilde. Cosh writes, “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.” Although the novel sustains a voice approximating that of the Irish playwright for nearly two hundred pages, some critics assert that Ackroyd's Wilde never quite matches the epigrammatic wit of the original. Writing for TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (April 28, 1989), critic Claude Rawson estimated that the fictional Wilde “strikes me as being about 70 per cent convincing to knowing readers and probably more to others.” Andrew Hislop, also writing in TLS (April 15, 1983) went further to claim that The Last Testament was “consummate ventriloquism, so Wildean that it was easy to forget that it was make-believe and the result of research, hard work and a brilliant ear.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Ackroyd is often classed as historical fiction. Many authors and filmmakers have worked on historical fiction. Here are some recent examples:
The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), a novel by author Philippa Gregory. This work concerns itself with the sister of Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and analyzes the treatment of women in sixteenth-century England.
Marie Antoinette (2006), a film directed by Sofia Coppola. In this work, Coppola attempts to humanize the reviled historical figure Marie Antoinette by portraying the loneliness of her life as a French queen.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a film directed by Andrew Dominik. Based on the actual assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford, this work (adapted from a novel of the same name) imagines a fictional relationship between the two men, and in so doing, offers a painful portrayal of fame and infamy.
T. S. Eliot: A Life When The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde was published in 1983, Ackroyd was already working on the biography T. S. Eliot: A Life. In researching the poet's life, 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 writes 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 of 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 to Contemporary Authors that his inability to quote Eliot's letters or work made for a better book because “I had to be much more inventive about how I brought him to life,” T. S. Eliot: A Life won both the Whitbread Biography Award and the Heinemann Award.
Responses to Literature
- How does Ackroyd's use of historical figures and details differ from other authors of historical fiction? Do you believe that these distinctions justify Ackroyd's insistence that he does not write historical fiction? Why or why not? In your response, make sure to cite specific examples from your chosen texts.
- Read Ackroyd's The Great Fire of London and Dickens's Little Dorrit. It has been argued that Ackroyd's text is a kind of continuation of the Dickens novel. After having read both, why do you think Ackroyd featured Little Dorrit so prominently in his own novel? Would the novel stand without all the references to the Dickens text? Support your response with passages from each novel.
- Give historical fiction a shot. Choose an important historical person or event, research it—using the library and the Internet—and then write a short story or film that incorporates both historical fact and imaginary elements. Then, in a short essay, describe the choices you made and your experience of writing historical fiction.
- Using the Internet and the library, research the life and writings of Oscar Wilde. Then, read Ackroyd's The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. Some feel Ackroyd truly captures the voice of Wilde in this text, while others are not so sure. After having researched Oscar Wilde and having read Ackroyd's novel, how well do you think Ackroyd represents his main character—in terms of voice and character?
Gibson, Jeremy and Julian Wolfreys. Peter Ackroyd: The Ludic and Labyrinthine Text. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Jaen, Susana Onega. Metafiction and Myth in the Novels of Peter Ackroyd. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1999.
Finney, Brian. “Peter Ackroyd, Postmodernist Play and Chatterton.” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal (1992).
Leivick, Laura. “Following the Ghost of Dickens.” English New York Times Magazine (December 22, 1991).
Peck, John. “The Novels of Peter Ackroyd.”. English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature (1994).
Smith, Amanda. “Peter Ackroyd.” Publishers Weekly (December 25, 1987).
ACKROYD, Peter. British, b. 1949. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Literary criticism and history. Career: Social Commentary. Chief Book Reviewer, The Times, London, since 1986. Literary Ed., The Spectator, London, 1973-77; television critic, The Times, London, 1977-81. Publications: London Lick-penny (poetry), 1973; Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, 1976; Country Life (poetry), 1978; Dressing up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession, 1979; Ezra Pound and His World, 1981; The Great Fire of London (novel), 1982; The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (novel), 1983; T.S. Eliot, 1984; Hawksmoor (novel), 1985; Chatterton (novel), 1987; The Diversions of Purley (poetry), 1987; First Light (novel), 1989; Dickens (biography), 1990; English Music (novel), 1992; The House of Doctor Dee (novel), 1993; Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (novel), 1994; The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, 1995; Blake, 1996; The Life of Sir Thomas More, 1998; The Plato Papers, 2000. Address: c/o Anthony Sheil Assocs. Ltd, 43 Doughty St, London WC1N 2LF, England.