Book Review: Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd

Death of Chatterton

Who was Chatterton? Thomas Chatterton, while a teenager in the 1760s, sold his poetry as that of a medieval monk. Despite his precocious talent, he was unable to make his way in London. He chose to die by arsenic rather than starvation in 1770, at the age of 18. Posthumously, his forgery was discovered. Chatterton became celebrated as a key Romantic figure, which is why in 1856 George Meredith posed as the young poet for the famous Death of Chatterton done by Henry Wallis, immediately before Mrs. Meredith left him for Wallis. These things are true.

Peter Ackroyd’s contemporary plot takes these stories in hand, and tells them in his own way, as they intertwine with the tale of idealistic poet Charles Wychwood, who ignores his sickness to his wife and young son in order to follow a “wild goose chase,” as his wife puts it. Charles believes that a painting he had found of a middle-aged man was of a middle-aged Chatterton, meaning that Chatterton had faked his own death and written most of the English canon of the mid-1700s. Soon he has his acquaintances believing it. With Chatterton as a lodestone for the plot and for Charles, the characters each digress into this diaspora of quirks and questions.

To anyone who delights in whim and eccentricity, these characters are a hoot, from the energy of the slightly mad, narcisstic bulldozer Harriet Scrope to the elderly bickering queers who originally owned the painting. Similarly, the gallery owners with their backhanded insults make for an enjoyable madness, and the uncanny air of the antique shop extends to its owners. The oddball characters are classically British.

To increase the madness, the theme of reality and fakeness comes up so often and in so many contexts it is dizzying. The incidents of the plot suggest that either nothing or everything is real. In a way, we are denied an answer when the portrait bubbles up without revealing its secrets, as if possessed qualities akin to that of Dorian Grey. Ackroyd does suggest that through art we continue to live beyond death. Reality, as we experience it in Chatterton, seems bound together by a series of coincidences that links people between time and place. Thus, the deaths of Chatterton and Charles run parallel, and the reader finds the two together as the books closes.

Ackroyd is such an accomplished, humorous post-Modern writer who displays each of his characters with fondness that the reader ends up sharing. Like screwball comedies that transcends their genre, Ackroyd’s intellect is an octopus that stretches the tentacles of a story to each corner to display the connectedness he finds in life. Ackroyd seems to be under read in America. Until I picked up this old book again, I had almost forgotten one of my favorite contemporary authors. His work includes The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, and, as you can imagine, I’ll read that soon.

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