Sunday 21 October 2007

tales from Ackroyd

The Lambs of London
by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is an incredibly prolific writer. For the last 30 years he has averaged around a book a year (and that doesn't even include his children's books) and has made the recreation of history an area in which he dominates. After the huge success of London: The Biography he has come to be seen as one of the definitive sources for writing about the city and recently published a book about the source of the city itself Thames: Sacred River. His work is now often accompanied by a television series and with his distinctive moustache, swept back hair and soft r's he guides us through the past with an infectous enthusiasm.

The Lambs of London, set at the end of the eighteenth century, tells the story of Mary Lamb , who with her brother Charles wrote Tales From Shakespeare the famous story versions of Shakespeare's plays. Mary is also infamous for having murdered her mother with a kitchen knife, deemed to have been an act of lunacy for which she escaped punishment. Ackroyd shows how her mental state may have been agitated in the lead up to this matricide by her involvement with William Henry Ireland, a young clerk who was to become infamous himself. At the age of twenty he forged papers purportedly written by Shakespeare and even went as far as to write a 'lost' play which was performed in Drury Lane. It seems a strange decision to try and tell two such large stories in one relatively slim novel, and even to try and combine these two stories at all. Ackroyd admits that '
This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters, and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative'. It is in fact the story of the Shakespeare papers which dominates the narrative and as a result leaves the Lamb's struggling to keep the readers attention. Ackroyd has already written brilliantly about forgery in his novel Chatterton, which with its multi layered narrative is a far superior book. It is a shame that he couldn't have brought that kind of care and attention to one or other of the stories he tries to tell in this one.


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