Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd (2008)

frankenstein

This book pushes Peter Ackroyd above Charles Dickens to become my second most read author of the last 25 years. (Christopher Fowler is a few books ahead of these). Ackroyd’s work spans both fiction and non-fiction.  His best as far as I am concerned is his mammoth, superbly researched “London: A Biography” (2000) (My Book Of The Year in 2002) with other titles “Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem” (1994), “The House Of Doctor Dee” (1993) and non-fiction works such as “The Life Of Thomas More” (1998) and “Albion” (2004) all featuring strongly in my end of year Top 10’s in the year I read them.  I do tend to favour him as a non-fiction writer as some of his novels haven’t really blown me away.  In fact the one I liked the least was the work which made his name “Hawksmoor” which I was disappointed in when I read it in 1998.

“The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein” is a reimagining of the classic horror story.  The titular narrator is Swiss who comes to Oxford to study and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley whom he follows to London.  It’s a time of scientific study and intellectual debate and Frankenstein becomes obsessed by the possibility of reanimating a corpse.  This mixture of a fictional character amongst real lives feels a little odd on this occasion.  At one point Frankenstein is staying with Lord Byron, and both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley (his actual creator) at the time when they decide to tell each other ghost stories from which the seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel were sown.

Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward horror-tinged thriller which will seem familiar to readers because of its strong place in our popular culture.  I’ve never actually got round to reading “Frankenstein” so I’m not sure how close to the source material this goes but all of us will know about the experimentation and that if a corpse is actually brought back to life it is not going to be happy and it is not going to end well.

I think it’s the concept of this novel rather than its actual story-telling which stopped me being totally captivated by it.  Frankenstein’s account is well written and it’s a pacy narrative.  The sense of dread is conveyed well and London, as in a number of Ackroyd’s works, is a fairly vibrant character in itself.  It has whetted my appetite to wanting to find out more about Mr & Mrs Shelley and when I get round to the original novel (this is something I have always planned to do) this may be worth re-reading to compare the two.  On this reading it just misses out on being something special.

threestars

The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein was published by Chatto & Windus in 2008.  I read the 2009 Vintage paperback edition.

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

realivesqueercity

With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

fourstars

Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.