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Raison de Mourir

Peter Ackroyd, 21 January 1982

The Mad Bad Line 
by Brian Roberts.
Hamish Hamilton, 319 pp., £15, July 1981, 0 241 10637 0
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... The Douglas were interesting only in death: the book opens with a suicide, and closes with the glimpse of a putative heaven in which Lord Alfred Douglas and his father are reconciled, like Belial and Mammon. In life, they were a family of sportsmen whose only sport was self-interest, who made up in neuroses what they lacked in achievement, who relied upon ferocity rather than feeling ...

What the doctor saw

Peter Ackroyd, 5 March 1981

The Horror of Life 
by Roger Williams.
Weidenfeld, 381 pp., £15, February 1981, 0 297 77883 8
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... The title hints at something extravagant and strange: five 19th-century French writers – Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert, Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet – are enrolled here because of their ‘unremitting pessimism and disgust toward life’. As it turns out, the book is more Marie Curie than Mario Praz. Roger Williams, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wyoming, has supped his full of horror ...

Looking away

Michael Wood, 18 May 1989

First Light 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 328 pp., £12.95, April 1989, 0 241 12498 0
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The Chymical Wedding 
by Lindsay Clarke.
Cape, 542 pp., £12.95, April 1989, 0 224 02537 6
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The Northern Lights 
by Howard Norman.
Faber, 236 pp., £4.99, April 1989, 0 571 15474 3
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... The dead writers,’ Eliot said, ‘are that which we know.’ They are also, Peter Ackroyd might want to add, that which we don’t know we know or wish we knew better, agents of prodigious but incomplete hauntings. From The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde to Chatterton, Ackroyd has shown himself an adept in the speech of such ghosts ...

The Braver Thing

Christopher Ricks, 1 November 1984

T.S. Eliot 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 241 11349 0
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Recollections Mainly of Artists and Writers 
by Geoffrey Grigson.
Chatto, 195 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 7011 2791 0
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... Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal. Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book. It has none of the sleazy sanctimony of Robert Sencourt’s biography, or the vanity of T.S. Matthews’. That it is a feat to be without spite is coincidentally manifested by the appearance of Geoffrey Grigson’s Recollections ...

At Tate Britain

Frank Kermode: William Blake, 14 December 2000

... provides an audio commentary. And there are lots of educational backups, some, like lectures by Peter Ackroyd and Tom Paulin, now over, others, including various conferences and courses, still to come. The most visible, and in some ways the most instructive of the exhibits are those which demonstrate Blake’s technical innovations. Only one of his ...

Pretty Letters

Megan Marshall: The Death of Edgar Allan Poe, 21 February 2008

Poe: A Life Cut Short 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Chatto, 170 pp., £15.99, February 2008, 978 0 7011 6988 6
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... elude that soporific ‘and then’? So, it is little surprise to find the prolific genre-bender Peter Ackroyd beginning his brief biography of Edgar Allan Poe with a recounting of his subject’s final days. Never mind that Paul Strathern’s recent biographical study, Poe in 90 Minutes, and a new novel by Matthew Pearl, The Poe Shadow, made the same ...

Poor Toms

Karl Miller, 3 September 1987

Chatterton 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 234 pp., £10.95, September 1987, 0 241 12348 8
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... Peter Ackroyd’s new novel has been caught in the Gadarene rush of fiction brought out in time for the Booker Prize deadline. It won’t be lost in this year’s profusion of titles, and it won’t be harmed by the published assurance of a colleague of his on the Times that it is ‘a sure contender’ for the prize ...

A Terrible Bad Cold

John Sutherland, 27 September 1990

Dickens 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 1195 pp., £19.95, September 1990, 1 85619 000 5
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... of literary remains and interviewable eye-witnesses. No Aspern papers, no Aspern biography. Ackroyd, who is not an academic, thinks otherwise. His life of Dickens opens with the great man dead, lying on the green sofa in the dining-room of Gad’s Hill Place. But Ackroyd does not regard his subject across any ...

Street Wise

Pat Rogers, 3 October 1985

Hawksmoor 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp., £8.95, September 1985, 0 241 11664 3
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Paradise Postponed 
by John Mortimer.
Viking, 374 pp., £9.95, September 1985, 0 670 80094 5
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High Ground 
by John McGahern.
Faber, 156 pp., £8.95, September 1985, 0 571 13681 8
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... It takes no time to see that Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is a book wrought with extreme cunning. A slower discovery arrives, that this virtuosity on the surface goes with imaginative density and profundity of inquiry. Inquiry into many related topics: the vagrancy of youth, the corruption of obsession, the permanence of evil ...

After-Lives

John Sutherland, 5 November 1992

Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography 
by Ian Hamilton.
Hutchinson, 344 pp., £18.99, October 1992, 0 09 174263 3
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Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy 
by Michael Millgate.
Oxford, 273 pp., £27.50, June 1992, 0 19 811276 9
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The Last Laugh 
by Michael Holroyd.
Chatto, 131 pp., £10.99, December 1991, 0 7011 4583 8
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Trollope 
by Victoria Glendinning.
Hutchinson, 551 pp., £20, September 1992, 0 09 173896 2
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... Dickens biography that descends through Thomas Wright and Katherine Longley to our contemporaries Peter Ackroyd and Claire Tomalin. In his chapter on James Joyce Hamilton dwells exclusively on the author’s ‘patron saint’, Harriet Weaver. Surprisingly – for a study whose main concern is the suppression or revelation of intimate materials – he ...

Giacometti and Bacon

David Sylvester, 19 March 1987

Giacometti: A Biography 
by James Lord.
Faber, 592 pp., £25, June 1986, 0 571 13138 7
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... Another recent biography of a leading modern artist was composed under similar restrictions. Peter Ackroyd says he was ‘forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’. As it happens, the two ...

Oscar and Constance

Tom Paulin, 17 November 1983

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 185 pp., £7.95, April 1983, 0 241 10964 7
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The Importance of Being Constance: A Biography of Oscar Wilde’s Wife 
by Joyce Bentley.
Hale, 160 pp., £8.75, May 1983, 0 7090 0538 5
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Mrs Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance 
by Anne Clark Amor.
Sidgwick, 249 pp., £8.95, June 1983, 9780283989674
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... prose, his idea of freedom ceases to be urbane and becomes temporarily romantic and Wordsworthian. Peter Ackroyd is aware of Wilde’s relation to the Young Ireland movement, and in his fictional account of Wilde’s last months in Paris he makes a courageous attempt to align his subject with the Irish libertarian tradition. Wilde’s enemies ‘mocked me ...

Customising Biography

Iain Sinclair, 22 February 1996

Blake 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 399 pp., £20, September 1995, 1 85619 278 4
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol I: Jerusalem 
editor David Bindman, edited by Morton D. Paley.
Tate Gallery, 304 pp., £48, August 1991, 1 85437 066 9
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. II: Songs of Innocence and Experience 
series editor David Bindman, edited by Andrew Lincoln.
Tate Gallery, 210 pp., £39.50, August 1991, 1 85437 068 5
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol III: The Early Illuminated Books 
series editor David Bindman, edited by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi.
Tate Gallery, 288 pp., £48, August 1993, 1 85437 119 3
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. IV: The Continental Prophecies: America, Europe, The Song of Los 
editor David Bindman, edited by D.W. Dörbecker.
Tate Gallery, 368 pp., £50, May 1995, 1 85437 154 1
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. V: Milton, a Poem 
series editor David Bindman, edited by Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi.
Tate Gallery, 224 pp., £48, November 1993, 1 85437 121 5
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Collected Edition of William Blake’s Illuminated Books: Vol. VI: The Urizen Books 
 editor David Bindman, edited by David Worrall.
Tate Gallery, 232 pp., £39.50, May 1995, 9781854371553
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... reading matter, the titles she was happy to display. Alan Bennett’s Diaries and, of course, Peter Ackroyd’s gold-brick biography of Blake. Bennett, Ackroyd and Jonathan Miller – these were the figures who mattered most. The Christmas parcels of English literature. Enough of threadbare bohemia, paranoid ...

What a shocking bad hat!

Christopher Tayler: Ackroyd’s ‘London’, 22 February 2001

London: The Biography 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Chatto, 822 pp., £25, October 2000, 1 85619 716 6
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... Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is as much a history of characterisations of the city as a history of London itself. And although Ackroyd is most concerned with character in the sense of ‘a personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist’, readers of his previous writings will not be surprised to hear that many other meanings of the word also come into play – ‘distinctive features’, ‘essential peculiarity’, ‘nature, style’, certainly; but also ‘distinctive mark, evidence, or token’; ‘a cipher for secret correspondence’; and even ‘a cabbalistic or magical sign or emblem ...

Generations

John Sutherland, 4 March 1982

The Survivors 
by Elaine Feinstein.
Hutchinson, 316 pp., £7.95, February 1982, 0 09 145850 1
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Helliconia Spring 
by Brian Aldiss.
Cape, 361 pp., £6.95, February 1982, 0 224 01843 4
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The Great Fire of London 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 169 pp., £7.95, January 1982, 0 241 10704 0
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A Loss of Heart 
by Robert McCrum.
Hamish Hamilton, 282 pp., £7.95, February 1982, 0 241 10705 9
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... sentimental climax. Dickens’s novel, and his fiction generally, echo disconcertingly through Ackroyd’s. The main character, Spenser Spender (a poet manqué, what else?), struggles to get a film version of Little Dorrit off the ground. His Circumlocution Office is found in the Film Finance Board. Various Dickensian look-alikes cross Spender’s ...

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