- Charles Hopkinson
Novelist, biographer and poet Peter Ackroyd was born in London on 5 October 1949.
He graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, and studied at Yale University as a Mellon Fellow, where he completed Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, published in 1976. On his return from Yale, he worked for The Spectator magazine in London as literary editor (1973-7), then as joint managing editor (1978-82) and film critic. He was chief book reviewer for The Times newspaper, and is a regular broadcaster on radio. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1984. Equally acclaimed for both his inventive biographies and his formally diverse fiction, Peter Ackroyd blends past and present, fact and fiction in his writing. Much of his work revolves around the city of London, evoked as both a powerful physical presence and as a sinister brooding metaphor, haunted and animated by its past and its characters, both real and imaginary.
He also displays a genius for literary impersonation, both in his biography and fiction, notably in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), written as Wilde's autobiography and winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. Similarly, Ackroyd was forced to employ new methods of writing biography in T. S. Eliot (1984), winner of the Whitbread Biography Award and the Heinemann Award, when he was prevented from quoting extensively from Eliot's poetry and unpublished correspondence. His mammoth and controversial biography of Charles Dickens was published in 1990, while his biography of William Blake, published in 1995, avoided the two traditional views of Blake as either a madman or enlightened visionary. His biography of Henry VIII's friend and chancellor, Thomas More, whose refusal to ratify Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn led to his own execution, was published in 1998. Ackroyd's first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), is a reworking of Dickens' Little Dorrit. The book set a formal pattern for many of his later novels, including Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993), by interpolating historical segments with present-day narratives. Hawksmoor, winner of both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, was inspired in part by Iain Sinclair's poem 'Lud Heat', written in 1975, which inferred a mystical power from the positioning of the six churches which the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor built in the East End of London during the reign of Queen Anne. The novel gives Hawksmoor a diabolical motive in the siting of his buildings, and creates a modern namesake, a policeman investigating a series of child murders, a seeming consequence of Hawksmoor's work. Chatterton (1987), is a complex, layered novel which explores plagiarism and forgery. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008) is written in the voice of Victor Frankenstein himself. His other novels include First Light (1989), an original distillation of English landscape and history; English Music (1992), which shifts dramatically in time to focus on events in English history seen through its myths and traditions; and The House of Doctor Dee (1993), which epitomises Ackroyd's fascination for the sense of history and place which lurk in the hidden corners of London, in this case Clerkenwell in the east of the old city. The book repeats the dual narrative form, narrated in turns by Matthew Palmer, a contemporary researcher, and John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, both inhabitants of the same house in Clerkenwell, separated and connected through several centuries. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) brings together a series of grisly East End murders and the world of Victorian music hall, with a cast of real and imagined characters, from music hall performer Dan Leno to Karl Marx and George Gissing; and in Milton in America (1996), Ackroyd creates an imaginary life for the poet, who travels to New England and founds a Puritan community ("New Milton"), which he rules. The Plato Papers (1999) is set 2,000 years in the future where the citizens of London look back on the Mouldwarp era, a dismal time in history which spanned 1500 to 2300 A.D. 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). Peter Ackroyd's published poetry consists of three collections, and he is also the author of works of literary criticism, as well as a book about the history of transvestism. London: The Biography (2000), is a history of the city that has exerted a powerful influence on his writing, and was awarded the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature. The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001), brings together essays on literature and film. His television series on London for the BBC was screened in autumn 2003, accompanied by the tie-in book, Illustrated London (2003), which was shortlisted for the 2003 British Book Awards Illustrated Book of the Year.
His has written several books about London, including Thames: Sacred River (2007), London Under (2011) and Queer City: Gay London from Romans to the present day (2017). Peter Ackroyd's first play, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, was performed in London in 2000 by the actor Simon Callow, in a production directed by Patrick Garland, and Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion, was published in spring 2002 to accompany a three-part BBC TV series. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, a cultural history of England from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, was published in September 2002. Peter Ackroyd is also working on a series of biographies for Chatto & Windus entitled Brief Lives, the first of which - Chaucer - was published in 2004. He has also written books about Charlie Chaplin (2014) and Alfred Hitchcock (2015). He is also writing a series of non-fiction children's books for Dorling Kindersley entitled Voyages through Time.
Recent works include The English Ghost (2010); The Death of King Arthur (2010); Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 (2011); Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors (2012); Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I (2013) and Rebellion: The History of England from James 1 to the Glorious Revolution (2014). In 2012 his biography, Wilkie Collins, was published.
Peter Ackroyd lives in London. He was awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2003.
In both his fiction and non-fiction writing, Peter Ackroyd places a particular emphasis on exploring and chronicling the city of London, its history, literature, culture and people. He often does this through depicting the city's writers and artists as either fictional characters or biographical subjects. Consequently, Ackroyd is often defined as a 'London writer', and in this he follows in the footsteps of other London literary figures, many of whom feature in both his fiction and his non-fiction: Charles Dickens, William Blake, Thomas More, Thomas Chatterton, John Milton, Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot. Ackroyd comments: "London has always provided the landscape for my imagination. It becomes a character - a living being - within each of my books" (Peter Ackroyd profile, Guardian online: guardian.co.uk, 22 July 2008).
In his varied and prolific output, Ackroyd has attained both critical acclaim and popularity amongst the reading public: whether he is writing fiction or non-fiction he undertakes extensive, meticulous research, producing work that is extremely knowledgeable and scholarly, yet he combines this intellectualism with a lively imaginative flair, and an ability to present complex information and multi-faceted stories in an accessible, entertaining style. Ackroyd is particularly acclaimed for his long sequence of London novels, from The Great Fire of London (1982) to the more recent works, The Clerkenwell Tales (2003) and The Lambs of London (2004). In these and other works he writes in a postmodern style which blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, often writing fictionalised stories about real-life historical figures, particularly London figures. In his multi-layered stories, Ackroyd also blurs and overlaps the past and the present, for he is a master of the dual narrative: many of these novels begin with a present-day discovery of a historical item or piece of information, and then go on to intertwine the present-day narrative with a story from the past. As such, Ackroyd highlights the continuous interaction between past and present, and the way in which the two inform and influence each other, suggesting that historical 'fact' is merely a subjective narrative which is always open to interpretation. The award-winning Hawksmoor (1985) was inspired by Iain Sinclair's 1975 poem, 'Lud Heat', about 18th Century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Sir Christopher Wren. In Ackroyd's novel, the architect - though based on Hawksmoor - is named Nicholas Dyer, while, rather confusingly, the modern-day narrative comes in the form of a 20th-century detective named Nicholas Hawksmoor (for everything overlaps in this novel) who is investigating several murders which have taken place at the churches designed by the architect. Hawksmoor is a brilliant and ingenious work, in which the two narratives sit comfortably together, overlapping smoothly and enhancing each other, as the grisly, macabre story is uncovered: in Ackroyd's dark and sinister version of events (which he stresses is his own invention), Dyer is a secret Satanist who dedicates his church buildings to the devil by arranging human sacrifices, while the present-day murders investigated by Detective Hawksmoor seem to be connected to the churches' disturbing past. The House of Doctor Dee (1993), featuring Elizabethan alchemist John Dee, follows in a similar style, with another dual narrative in which the past is explored through a present-day character: this time, instead of a detective, the historical story is uncovered by a researcher, Matthew Palmer, who lives in the same house in Clerkenwell that was once inhabited by Dr Dee. Again, the two narratives intertwine smoothly, creating a complex but coherent novel, while Ackroyd's acute attention to detail paints a vivid portrait of Dr Dee's fascinating life, along with London in both Elizabethan times and 20th-century society, and the relationship between past and present, people and place.
The city of London and its culture also feature strongly in Ackroyd's inventive and imaginative biographies, including T.S. Eliot (1984); Dickens (1990), which became a best-seller; Blake (995) and The Life of Thomas More (1998). He then devoted an entire book to the city in his acclaimed masterpiece, London: The Biography (2000), a cultural and sociological history which is regarded as the definitive work on England's capital city (it was followed by several companion volumes, including Thames: Sacred River (2007) and London Under (2011)). Ackroyd has also written fictional (or pseudo) biographies and autobiographies of real historical figures, again demonstrating the lack of clear division between factual and imaginative writing. Chatterton (1987) uses fictional autobiographical material to posit the suggestion that the 18th Century poet may not have committed suicide. It also explores plagiarism, forgery and imitation - Chatterton himself was a master of pastiche - and the novel is a complex and deeply thought-provoking contemplation of the subjectivity and ambiguity of literature, art and reality. Two other works are written in a similar vein: The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), a fictional confessional journal purportedly written during Wilde's last few months, and Milton in America (1996), in which Ackroyd imagines what might have happened if the poet had left England after the restoration of the monarchy. Ackroyd's output also includes several re-tellings and re-workings of classic works of literature - this is yet another way in which he interacts with history and his literary predecessors. His first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), is a re-working of Dickens' Little Dorritt, while First Light (1989) re-writes Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower. More recently, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008) is an ingenious work written in the voice of Victor Frankenstein and featuring Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and even Mary Shelley, author of the original novel, as characters. Victor and Bysshe Shelley meet at Oxford University, and their impassioned debates about science and religion form the intellectual and philosophical foundations of the novel, which traces Victor's thought processes as he goes on to construct his gruesome creation. The Clerkenwell Tales (2003), set in medieval London, draws on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and features many well-known characters - the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, the Miller - although Ackroyd creates his own story and personality for each one. The thriller plot, involving religious heresy, a plot to overthrow Richard II and a prophetic nun, is an effective vehicle through which to explore the culture, society and politics of 14th Century London: as always, Ackroyd has undertaken extensive research, yet brings it all together into a clear, succinct narrative which is informative, imaginative and entertaining. Ackroyd then went on to produce a more direct re-write of Chaucer's classic poem, The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling (2009). It has been praised particularly for its accessibility, written in a vernacular prose that appeals to today's general readership while still capturing the essence of Chaucer's work, particularly its mischievous humour. Robert McCrum comments: "Much of [The Canterbury Tales] has the narrative verve we associate with Ackroyd. Some passages come up as fresh as new paint ... Ackroyd's 're-telling' is compulsive, bold and rare and will surely become a vital crib for generations of students to come" (The Observer, 29 March 2009).
Elizabeth O'Reilly, 2012.