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Little Guignol

History, for Peter Ackroyd, is a puzzle for which the novel is a solution. The puzzle, broadly speaking, is coincidence; the solution, that there is no such thing as coincidence. For “Everything is part of everything…Everything is part of the pattern,” as a character in his novel First Light puts it. His novels tend to follow the outline of a sensational historical mystery or secret—that Sir Christopher Wren’s chief architect was a devil-worshiper and murderer who embedded corpses in the foundations of his new churches; or that Thomas Chatterton, the doomed eighteenth-century poet, did not die at seventeen, but faked his death and lived into middle age. The historical mystery is central to a present-day situation which mimics it. In Hawksmoor, a detective investigates a series of murders, all at seventeenth-century London churches built by the architect and friend of Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor. In Chatterton, a struggling contemporary poet is haunted by Chatterton’s ghost when he buys a portrait of the writer in an antiques shop. In Ackroyd’s recent novel, English Music, a boy sets out to explore the mysteries of English literature by going back in time to meet Dickens and Defoe. These books are filled with shifting historical atmospheres, strange parallels, and long-standing curses.

His new novel is another puzzle, and perhaps his most ingenious yet. But it depends heavily on unlikely connections and coincidences, and one is relieved to emerge from it into a world of accident and contingency. The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is set in Limehouse and Wapping, London’s old East End, in the autumn of 1880. A number of vicious murders have prompted inhabitants and police to cast around for a suspect. The locals imagine a spirit or even a golem responsible (one of the murders is in a largely Jewish neighborhood). The police have their eye on Karl Marx, because he is seen leaving the house of Solomon Weil, one of the victims. But Marx does not remain a suspect for long. They then turn their attention to the novelist George Gissing, after he is seen leaving another victim, a prostitute called Alice Stanton, shortly before her murder. Dan Leno, the celebrated Victorian pantomime artist and Cockney comic, is questioned by police because the shirt Alice Stanton is found wearing bears a label inside it marked “Mr. Leno.”

The two characters most obviously implicated—as far as the reader can tell—are never suspected by the police: they are the book’s two chief narrators, John Cree, whose diary serves to tell part of the story, and his wife, Elizabeth, a former actress who is eventually tried and convicted for poisoning her husband.

These are only some of the characters who could be the Limehouse murderer, and Ackroyd, like any other crime writer, dupes his readers with false leads until the final disclosure comes in John Cree’s diary. But the book is not so much a historical thriller as a postmodern exercise whose purpose is less to build suspense than to display textual ingenuity. For Ackroyd’s characters here are linked not only by place and time but by texts. Most of them have sat next to one another in the Reading Room of the British Museum, though they are ignorant of this. Marx, in his retirement, is exploring literary London and reading Bleak House in preparation for a long poem “which was to be set in the turbulent streets of Limehouse and entitled The Secret Sorrows of London.” The others have been reading the essays of Thomas De Quincey. John and Elizabeth Cree both stumble upon De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Gissing, who is writing about Romanticism and murder for the Pall Mall Review, reads the same essay. And when the police arrive at Dan Leno’s house, they find a book of De Quincey’s writing open at the first page of “On Murder.”

This is hardly subtle; but the point of these contrived encounters is evidently to undermine rational assumptions about cause and effect with a display of artifice. All of Ackroyd’s books blur the separation of the real and unreal; all of them whip us toward skepticism about the distinction between the two. In Hawksmoor, the devil-worshiping architect tells the scientifically minded Sir Christopher Wren that “Your World and your Universe are but Philosophicall Romances.” Ackroyd enacts this belief by turning the world of his fiction into that of philosophical romance, with explicit homilies and sermons about the provisional nature of the real. “But didn’t you know?” asks the forger in Chatterton. “Everything is made up…. Who’s to say what is real and what is unreal?”

Conveniently, Gissing remarks at the end of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, “It is not that human beings cannot bear too much reality, it is that human beings cannot bear too much artifice.” This rather literal way with unreality is at its most extreme in Ackroyd’s loaf-sized biography of Dickens, which seeks to turn the historical Dickens into a fictional character. The fictional Dickens interrupts the historical narrative to wander through London chatting with his creations. “I knew this place as a boy. There was a pie-shop, Berry’s it was called,” Dickens confides to Little Dorritt. Dickens solemnly converses with Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Chatterton (all of them subjects of Ackroyd’s fiction or biography).

One of the elements of this artifice is that the historical atmosphere is derived from literature. The East End of London—also the setting of Hawksmoor—is the ideal place for Ackroyd’s hauntings and spectral coincidences. This is partly to do with its antiquity and its strangely alluring but also menacing history. When Ackroyd talked recently, in a London Weekend Television lecture, about the presence of the past in London, he meant the East End:

Is it not also possible that within this city and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond? Does the passage of the city through time create its own energies that exert a pressure upon our perceptions and our understandings, which is all the more powerful for being normally overlooked?

The East End is useful for Ackroyd because it is a part of London that figures in so much English literature, and it is also the place best suited for the creation of Ackroyd’s vaguely Dickensian city. In The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Gissing refers to De Quincey’s London as “a sinister, crepuscular London, a haven for strange powers, a city of footsteps and flaring lights, of houses packed close together, of lachrymose alleys and false doors.” But this is Ackroyd’s own London, unchanged since his earliest books. And it is the London of many other writers, from Swift to the “slimy aquarium” and city of “marvels and mud” of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Ackroyd takes this dark London—shadowed by literature and blackened with history—and hangs over it a big Dickensian cloud.

There is a power to this, but it is a derivative power. De Quincey, in a famous passage from his Confessions of an English Opium Eater not quoted by Ackroyd, wanders dazed around the back streets off Oxford Street,

such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares…I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted, whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.

De Quincey’s London is ancient but he acts as if he is its “first discoverer,” making a fresh literary charting. Ackroyd, by contrast, writes as a last guest. Doubtless he would sniff at the philosophical naiveté of first discovery. But De Quincey did not turn London into a library.

Generally, Ackroyd’s pastiche—his mimicry of a seventeenth-century diary, or of Chatterton’s journals, his Dickensian atmosphere—is stronger, more vivid, than his contemporary evocation of late-twentieth-century London. But even the pastiche, though assured, is often both archival and puzzling. Hawksmoor alternates passages from the seventeenth-century diaries of the diabolic architect with contemporary narrative, the account of the detective Nicholas Hawksmoor and his investigation of murders committed at churches built by his namesake. Just what we are to think of the relation between the two periods is not clear. For all its energy, the pastiche offers an essentially literary notion of the seventeenth century, and a familiar one at that. For example, the seventeenth century is taken to be a time—at least in its literary language—of extreme frankness about physical functions. This idea has the dust beaten out of it: “Then he began to spew soundly”; “Sir Chris. took out his Linnen and blew a Piece of Jelly from his Nose into it”; “having need to Shit I used the House of Office”; “then he seemed to have a need to Make Water and unbutton’d his Breeches in sight of us.”

The point is not whether Ackroyd is historically accurate here, but whether a writer is likely to produce anything interesting if he is merely exhausting the possibilities of the known. Necessarily, the people in these novels are frozen in historical attitudes. They act not as human beings might but as historical reconstruction would expect them to. Thus Karl Marx, in the new novel, when questioned about the murders, complains: “If I may say so, sir, murder is a bourgeois preoccupation.” This is what Henry James meant in his celebrated letter to Sara Orne Jewett, by the “fatal cheapness” of the historical novel—that the work of original literary creation is consumed by archaeology.

Lacking a convincing literary texture, Ackroyd’s novels surrender the suggestive for the explicit. They are machines for manufacturing connections, coincidences, linkages, and lessons. One senses this most strongly in their enthusiasm for the theatrical. Ackroyd admires Dickensian melodrama and pantomime, and has said that it is the true expression of the English character. In his London Weekend Television lecture, he linked Victorian pantomime artists such as Dan Leno with Fielding, Dickens, and Blake as “cockney visionaries” who “tend to favor spectacle and melodrama.” These artists were the possessors of what he called “the London genius” and “a particular London sensibility that derives its energy from variety, from spectacle, and from display.”

This is not a fresh idea about London; V.S. Pritchett said much the same thing, more subtly, years ago, notably in his Clark Lectures on George Meredith. But Pritchett’s fiction and Ackroyd’s are very different. Pritchett’s use of Dickensian theatricality is instinctive and natural; his characters are eccentric, mysteriously melancholy, softly theatrical in their Englishness. Ackroyd takes the suggestive notion of theatricality and makes it explicit when he writes about theater people, actors, singers, stage comedians. In English Music, the hero’s father is a turn-of-the-century stage-spiritualist. Much of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree is set in the theater. As in Angela Carter’s novels about puppeteers, magicians, and circus performers, the novel is about the theatrical world and the prose itself has a theatrical quality. Elizabeth Cree secretly completes John Cree’s half-finished play Misery Junction (“I will never be able to forgive you Elizabeth”) and performs in it before a derisive Limehouse audience (“all my efforts at pathos and grandeur were wasted on them”).

The effect of so much talk about the theater is to make the work itself less theatrical. The determination to be lively is merely determined. Much is made, for instance, of Dan Leno, “the Whipper-Snapper, Contortionist and Posturer,” “Great Little Leno, the Quintessence of Cockney Comedians.” We are told that Max Beerbohm thought him the funniest man in the world. Ackroyd invents a meeting between Leno and Charlie Chaplin’s father. But Dan Leno never really has an independent life because he is one of the ants in Ackroyd’s thematic colony: he is put to work. He is there only to suggest the stagyness of this late-Victorian world and to remind us, again, of Ackroyd’s message that reality and unreality cannot be easily separated. Dan Leno is a cross-dresser, and Ackroyd tells us that De Quincey, in his essay on murder, notes that a notorious London murderer of the early nineteenth century, John Williams, dressed up as a woman before hunting for victims, “as if he were going upon the stage.” The Limehouse murderer, who is also revealed to be a cross-dresser, murders a family on the site of one of John Williams’s killings.

Ackroyd’s novels are natural teachers; very little else comes naturally to them. But what, besides giving us a tutorial in postmodern skepticism, does Ackroyd want us to learn? It is, apparently, that history is a process of eternal recurrence. History renews itself but remains essentially the same. The dark wheel goes on turning. We can only update our ancestors’ malevolences (he has much less to say about the longevity of benevolence). He batters us with this in every book he writes. In The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Gissing recalls Charles Babbage’s apprehension that “the air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” Hawksmoor expresses this in the way it shows the past haunting the present, ancient evil revisiting the same ground centuries later. In that book, the architect speculates that “now, now is the Hour, every Hour, every part of an Hour, every Moment, which in its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending.”

This theme received its crudest formulation in English Music. In it, the young Timothy Harcombe is excited into reading books by his spiritualist father, who tells his son about “what he used to call ‘English music,’ by which he meant not only music itself but also English history, English literature and English painting…as he talked, all these things comprised one world which I believed to be still living.” Credulous and vulnerable, Timothy spends the rest of the novel meeting famous English writers, composers, and fictional characters. As if in some bureaucratic hell, Timothy is told the same thing by virtually everyone he meets. Yet the sound of it is apparently sweet. Dickens tells him that houses are knocked down and rebuilt, but “one gives place to another…It is always the same. It is always renewed.” Defoe implores him to “fill your sails with English music…. It is always the same, and yet it must always be renewed; it is the same, and not the same. So this island is continually being recreated in other men’s words while its identity can never change.”

This mystical idea of renewal is curiously unaffecting, lacking as it does the soundless power of Proust’s involuntary memory, of Nabokov’s “democracy of ghosts,” or of the anthroposophical leap in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In Ackroyd’s work the mystical mainly assumes sensational and simpleminded forms—murders, ghosts, spiritualists, the lurid telepathy of history. For Proust, Nabokov, and Bellow, the mystical is not the screech of a ghost but the whisper of memory and its entreaties. Someone in Chatterton refers to “Chatterton’s curse.” But this is not Chatterton’s curse; it is closer, in its crudeness, to the curse of the Pharaohs.

Ackroyd’s eternal recurrence is translated into literal appearances, and it is thus no more mystical to us than what goes on in banks after closing hours. The past exists for Ackroyd as an uncomplicated presence. This is at odds with his modish philosophical uncertainties about the nature of reality. Ackroyd seems to want to be like young Timothy Harcombe in English Music. He treats the past as if it were the food on someone else’s plate, always more interesting than one’s own. He does not want just to make use of the past; he tries to be in it, and without irony about the oddity of doing so. He does not merely make use of Dickens, he tries to be Dickens. (In his London Weekend Television lecture, he noted that he had been accused of “treating fiction as if it were some kind of intellectual or cultural pantomime…. Now, at last, I know why it happened. I was coming into my inheritance.”) Ackroyd consumes history sacramentally, longing to be one with it. He advises the reader that our reality is ungrounded while reverently presenting his own reconstructions as if they were the most real of all. For he is a religious postmodernist—happy to reconcile belief and unbelief, faith and skepticism.

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