Even a writer as popular, prolific and inventive as Ackroyd can concoct a bore. Nevertheless, Albion is likely to succeed on his considerable reputation and the success of his bestselling London: The Biography. Here Ackroyd seeks to define and describe what he sees as distinctive qualities of the English imagination as they have developed since the country's beginnings. Quoting the 17th-century Richard Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, he claims a cultural continuity-"we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again." But the Englishman, as Daniel Defoe remarked, and Ackroyd concedes, remained infinitely adaptable, having already assimilated waves of invasion and conquest-and become "Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman-English." Explaining that "mungrell" mingling in 53 thematic chapters, Ackroyd appropriates nearly every quality in literature and the arts for England (largely ignoring Ireland and downplaying Scotland). He cites love of gardens, worship of trees, cultivation of dream-visionaries, affection for eccentricity, affinity for morbid sensationalism, attraction to understatement, pleasure in alliteration, fondness for cross-dressing, passion for antiquarianism, ease with an empirical temper, relish for detective and ghost stories, penchant for portrait miniatures, creative adaptation of folksong. It is a sentimental stretch. Where London was animated by a brilliant exploitation of anecdote, Albion lacks its verve. Rather, it is armed with a goodly-and defensive-helping of "It has often been said," "it might even be said," "It is no surprise, either, that," and often bogs down in bland thesis and empty persuasion. Yet vastly learned and frequently engaging, it may prove good bedtime reading-a veritable night school. B&w and color illus. not seen by PW. (On sale Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
How does he do it? In the space of a few years we've had accessible interpretations of London and of Dickens. Now Peter Ackroyd is tackling a subject even more broad in scope - the origins of English culture - but with the thoroughness of research and liveliness of style common to all his non-fiction. The main thread of this 500-page work, as he phrases it, is with 'beginnings rather than endings'. However, Ackroyd still manages to make the most curious and playful of connections throughout the ages, whether it be Beowulf's intimidating influence on Dryden, or the Carry On films' debt to medieval mystery plays and their penchant for lines such as 'Com kis myne ars!'
In this impressive study, novelist, biographer, and poet Ackroyd (London: The Biography) traces the roots of the uniquely English imagination as manifested in literature, music, the visual arts, philosophy, and science. This imagination, he maintains, is an endless circle that moves both backward and forward; no art can be viewed in isolation since all the arts are part of the same continuum going back to Anglo-Saxon times. Ackroyd explores such elements of the English imagination as a strong sense of place ("territorial imperative"), a sentimental attachment to the past, the habit of assimilating and appropriating elements from other cultures, a preference for empiricism and pragmatism over intellectualism, a predilection for the motley by combining disparate elements, and tendencies to understatement and irony. Factors influencing the English imagination examined here include Arthurian legend, Britain's Catholic heritage, Gothic literature, the love of spectacle and melodrama, and a passion for gardening. Entertaining as well as informative, this work is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/03.]-Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.