Ackroyd has woven together a fiction based on the true stories of two families who were briefly notorious in the middle of the 1790s. As the Lambs provide the minor story I'm not sure why they get to provide the title.
William Ireland, through the auspices of a mysterious benefactor, has access to a collection of antiquarian papers, among which he finds documents supposedly by Willian Shakespeare. He presents these to his father as gifts, and Samuel Ireland shows them to a noted Shakespeare scholar, who pronounces them genuine. Further documents turn up, including a completely new play, 'Vortigern', which Sheriden stages at Drury Lane. It is a flop, and this heralds an enquiry into the validity of the authorship.
Ackroyd fabricates a friendship between William Ireland and Mary Lamb, and hints that Mary has romantic feelings for William (without revealing that she was actually 13years his senior). This attatchment is seen as one of the symptoms of a mental/emotional instability brought about by her restricted home life. She keeps house for her mother and demented elderly father, and relies on her younger, often drunken, brother Charles to provide mental stimulus. Eventually she loses control, and attacks her mother with a table fork (why change the real knife to a fictional fork?). She is declared insane, and goes to a private mad-house. When her father dies she goes to live with her brother, and together they write their 'Tales from Shakespeare' for children. Charles takes responsibility for her care until (according to the story) she drops down dead.
In the last couple of chapters of the book the writing style seemed to change, and the period from the murder to Mary's death is disposed of in a rather bald and abbreviated manner, which was most unsatisfactiry, and didn't improve my opinion of the book.
I don't normally have too much of a problem with fictionalised versions of real lives, but I do get irritated by seemingly arbitrary changes to facts. Apart from the murder weapon, and the date of Mary's death (given as 2 years before they wrote the Tales), why drag in Thomas de Quincy (who was only 11 when Vortigen was staged and Mary skewered her mother), and allot him the authorship of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's letters to Charles?
Am I being too picky? Is there a genuine need within the book for these changes?
Those of you who have been here for a while may remember that I am not keen on Ackroyd and his London-centric books. This is the novel that set off that dislike!
The story of Little Dorritt being made into a film, against the background of 1990s London seems a good idea. Sadly, it didn't work out that way.
The book is peopled by a variety of odd characters (á la Dickens?), who are unfortunately not sufficiently developed to make them actually interesting, and who are somewhat loosely connected.
Various plot lines are started, but are not taken very far. It comes to a pretty obvious ending, but an obscure conclusion.
Disappointing...and I don't think David could make much of it, either?
My experience with Peter Ackroyd has been rather mixed. I've enjoyed several of his novels: Chatterton, First Light, Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem with its clever twist, the decidedly weird and wonderful Hawksmoor especially... but I found I only enjoyed dipping into London: The Biography, and totally failed to engage with Albion: The Origins Of The English Imagination.
While writing a "biography" of London was doubtless a sufficiently original approach to warrant the use of the definite article, it was perhaps just a teeny-weeny bit presumptuous, in such a heavily populated area of scholarship, to entitle this work Shakespeare: The Biography. After all, Ackroyd's biographies of Dickens and Blake are just called Dickens and Blake. And, at the beginning of his hefty bibliography, the author himself confesses to his lack of particular expertise in matters Shakespearean:
It would be interesting to know what the specialists have made of this. I certainly found it as readable as most biographies (not my own preferred area, and by a long chalk...), but it ironically confirmed for me what I have always thought, namely that Shakespeare's works are such that any information about his life simply does not stand comparison. And I concluded, once again, that Shakespeare is so much in a quasi-mythical class of his own that any attempt at writing about the man is perilous at best, and perhaps, in the end, simply irrelevant...
Having said all that, I found a lot to ponder here, and had no difficulty at all in keeping reading. But time and time again I found myself saying "Yes, must read that bit in Hamlet/Twelfth Night/whatever... again." (And it also made me want to read the plays I confess to never having read: Pericles/Coriolanus/All's Well That Ends Well/whatever... )
Ackroyd clearly knows the complete Shakespearean canon extremely well indeed. His observations about individual plays are often extremely interesting, if occasionally rather idiosyncratic (not to say debatable...) On the other hand, he is not always convincing in what he imagines about the period:
Except that the audience wouldn't have been reading the stage-directions, they'd have been watching the play, and consequently wouldn't have needed to actually picture anything...
Then there are bits of information that are given twice in different parts of the book, such as the one about Shakespeare rewriting the character of Emilia in Othello to make her more sympathetic to the audience. There are disappointments (in my view) too, such as Ackroyd having much more to say about the history plays than about the tragedies.
To his credit, Ackroyd gives an extremely vivid picture of London life in Elizabethan England. But then he'd already "done" London in another book...
So... good, if occasionally controversial, on the plays. Very good on London (again). And on Shakespeare the man... well, so-so. But does anybody really care?
I'm quite a fan of Ackroyd. My head is very much amongst classic fiction and particularly the Victorian era, though modern 'straight' historical novels don't appeal so much. Ackroyd's journeys through this territory are far more unconventional and strange, trading on the mystical and outlandish, which is right up my street.
I was spellbound by Hawksmoor, which interweaves a modern narrative with the 1700s. As usual with Ackroyd, he draws his story around real historical figures - here Nicholas Dyer (who in real life was Nicholas Hawksmoor), an architect working under Christopher Wren. The occult story spun into the very fabric of familiar London churches and the enigmatic murder investigation in modern times was inspired. Ackroyd constructs a sinister and unsettling atmosphere masterfully and he brings his love of the dark intricacies of London to vivid life, but I felt very let down by the ending, which for me utterly failed to deliver on all the tension so painstakingly built up throughout the book.
Chatterton is also much admired, and I have also enjoyed many of his others, particularly Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Sometimes I do feel I'm not quite connecting with his full meaning; this was particularly so with The Great Fire of London, which was working to make significant connections with Dickens' Little Dorrit, but I felt frustrated that some of this seemed to be going over my head. I was searching for more than I was able to find.
He was on a TV documentary strand several years ago and I couldn't believe the speed at which he was typing his latest book. I don't know if it was slightly contrived for the camera, but anyone who can create quality literature at that speed deserves knighthood/canonisation/deification in my books!
What do other people who've read Ackroyd think?
Edit - Should have noted, of course, that he also has a considerable reputation for biographies. His Dickens is still on my shelf unread, I'm ashamed to say. It's a mighty tome and I always seem to opt for something that will take a little less time. Awful excuse! I've just borrowed Blake from the library for some research, so I'll see what that's like.
I couldn't get through Hawksmoor or Chatterton, but found Ackroyd's Dickens superb. Of course as a Londoner who is obsessed by Dickens, Ackroyd is to some extent pre-programmed. The same themes keep coming up - mystery,nightwalking, dreams, nightmares, spiritualism etc, but always with a new slant. He's certainly an acquired taste and those who love him will love him. Not sure I could ever be one of their number.
However, I picked up English Music at a charity stall a few weeks ago, and remembering the reviews from way back - and particularly a ferociously panning one by Peter Kemp on Radio 3 - I determined to be fair to the man and give it a go. The verdict? Well, as always with Ackroyd's novels, I was fascinated at the beginning, charmed along the way but not exactly panting to get to the end of the road 400 pages later.
English Music is, as Ackroyd addicts would expect, 'a literary novel,' meaning one written in elegant prose and not produced to formula. It aims above all and like all such literary novels to reveal the consciouness of a central character. Ackroyd, however, unlike, say, Henry James, is quirky and bizarre, mixing genres - farce, melodrama, philosophical ramblings, sermon and pastiche with straight narrative that tells a story. English Music recalled for me a totally different kind of fictional mish-mash - Melville's Moby Dick. Each new chapter seems to embark on a fresh track, often dipping into our (i.e. English) literary heritage, to show the reader how much life is a dream, a recurring fiction whose forms change but whose message is always the same - that life is a dream etc. For Eng Lit students this is often quite fun, but for the common reader - well, he or she will probably agree with Peter Kemp that enough is enough and too much is way too much.
However, I'm a lit crit waller and hence found a certain fascination in having Alice, Miss Havisham, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe himself, Purcell, Byrd, and even Friday (a dog in this case) as my companions as I wandered with Tim (surely a reincarnation of Tiny Tim) to try to find his spiritual (and spiritualist) father (Yes, Joyce is never far away) amongst English Literature and English music.
So the story's no good but what about the elegant prose, then, and the 'philosophy'? Sometimes Ackroyd will hit upon a truism of staggering banality, such as 'even in childhood, it is possible to entertain two opposite sides of consciousness at the same time.' What is the reader to do with this - underline it? Mark, note and inwardly digest it? We are treated to such gems of wisdom throughout the 'story.' The themes are banged home: The Eternal Return. Son seeking Father. Language flowing like music, like ideas, like life. Spirits merely inhabit bodies for a time and other neo-Platonic fantasies. Here characters pop out of fiction at the drop of a hat; they have walk-on parts in Tim's fantasies, are archetypes or prototypes. With Tim (and Time - yes, Ackroyd is not above the obvious pun) we are conducted through the streets of London, where every man is a child and every body a walking spirit. Someone has read too much Dickens. Me, I prefer Dickens.