Peter Ackroyd Biography
Nationality: British. Born: London, 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 Great Fire of London. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
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.
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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
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