greatest literary casualty, Thomas Chatterton. A precocious youth obsessed with the medieval past, Chatterton wrote a series of poems in the voice of a 15th centruy monk he called Rowley. These poems were initially hailed by literary society as great and genuine discoveries; when Chatterton's hand was revealed, he was ruined. Distraught, he committed suicide. He was seventeen. In time, great figures such as Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge hailed him as a victim of an unfeeling age. In the story set in the present day, a minor character discovers that the works of the celebrated and eccentric writer Harriet Scrope have been plagiarised from a long-forgotten 19th century novelist.
In Ackroyd's recent The Lambs of London, in this instance set entirely in the late 18th century, he writes about that other misguided forger, William Ireland. Another precocious youth, Ireland took to forging 'lost' letters and manuscripts written by Shakespeare, eforts which were entirely convincing to the literary establishment, until a public performance of a play Ireland claimed was Shakespeare's lost Vortigern, was laughed off the stage. By writing about these people, Ackroyd is demonstrating how those who see the past as contiguous with the present can see no problem with taking what they need from it. Over a century later, this would be called modernism. Back then, it was just fraud.
The malleability of literature is another theme that runs thorugh Ackroyd's fiction. In The Great Fire of London characters from Dickens' Little Dorrit wander into the story. In English Music, Ackroyd's lengthy novel about the beauty and durability of English art and culture, young Timothy Harcombe experiences a series of dreams and visions where he is led through a landscape familiar to him from his reading, by characters such as Alice and Dickens himself. At one point he intervenes to help Pip from Great Expectations escape the clutches of Orlick. Dreams and reality, history and the present, reading and living, all intersect and feed into each other.
With such a broad and capacious imagination, and with such themes to explore, it seems surprising that Ackroyd frequently claims that his work comes out of no internal impulse. He has spoken of having no particular feelings to express, and that he believes writing should be viewed as a craft rather than as a means of emotional expression. Typically, he relates this craft of writing to the craft of the medieval stonemasons, who would construct buildings but leave no personal mark on their work. In his recent biography of Shakespeare, Ackroyd is keen to stress that the playwright was a pragmatic professional as much as he was an artist, and that this notion of the self being revealed through literature did not exist until the work of the Romantic poets. The work should speak for itself, and the artist should remain invisible.
In Peter Ackroyd's case, the work speaks loudly.