Poor Toms

Karl Miller

  • Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 234 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12348 8

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. But it will also have to contend for the admiration of Ackroyd’s readers with its predecessor of 1985, Hawksmoor.[*] These are books which do much to explain one another. Both books mingle old times and new times, and both give expression to fantasies of replication, with Hawksmoor a hard act to follow.

Its old times are brilliantly rendered, and its appeal is in part generic. The biographer of T.S. Eliot, who was himself to speak of the ‘dark’ experience, of the ‘rude unknown psychic material’, incorporated in his poem The Waste Land, can be seen to contribute to the tradition of romantic fabulation which began with the Gothic novel – a tradition in which darkness is privileged, in which a paranoid distrust is evident, in which can be read the evergreen message that the deprived may turn out to be depraved, and in which there can be two of someone.

Hawksmoor speaks the words of romantic duality, and is in a number of ways a double book. It consists of two alternating narratives, one of which is set in the 18th century and the other in the present, with the earlier delivered in the first person. Each of the two principal actors glimpses his double in passing, as a reflection in a glass, and each stands to the other in the same relation – a relation which presupposes, as in many other Gothic texts, some sort of metempsychosis or rebirth. Both of these men are disturbed or mad. Nicholas Dyer is imagined as the builder of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches in the East End of London: the enlightened edifices of a rational Christianity are thereby ascribed to a devil-worshipper, while the name ‘Hawksmoor’ is assigned to the Detective Chief Superintendent who, in the later narrative, frets himself into a delirium over a series of stranglings which take place in the vicinity of the churches. The later crimes duplicate those committed by Dyer, who has wished to baptise his churches with the blood of young victims.

Dyer thinks of himself as ‘a stranger to mankind’; his life is led apart, ‘in a Corner’. He has grown up as one of ‘the orphans of the plague’ who roam the streets of the city in the aftermath of the plague and of the fire that followed it. The romantic equation of orphan and monster makes a Satanist of this forlorn Dyer: ‘nor can we but by doing Evil avoid the rage of evil Spirits.’ His is a theology in which Adam is unredeemed, and life itself a plague. London is a necropolis, its every corner the site of a murder, its soil a pudding of blood and tears. Out of this soil soar elegant churches, each of which encodes the symbols of an alien religion: the St So-and-So’s which Dyer has been commissioned to build are so many secret temples of Moloch. The experiments, proofs and improvements espoused by such scientists as Christopher Wren, Dyer’s patron in the building trade, Dyer pisses on. The homicides and post-mortems in the book permit the new religion of science to exercise its power: but they also occasion the necrophile broodings which exude from Dyer. Much of this material – this archaic London, the Hawksmoor churches, their magical meaning, and the tramps who haunt them – comes from the striking poem Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair, where the churches are taken to be geometrically interrelated in the form of a pentacle, the sorcerer’s five-pointed star. The poem is dark, dense and learned – Yeatsian, and maybe also Yatesian, in inspiration, amid much else. Sinclair means his dark stuff, and makes it moving. The poem suggests itself as the work of a devotee; it is a different beast from Hawksmoor. The novel suggests itself as the work of a novelist intent on a gruesome entertainment. Both works, however, may be thought to share a secret, and a set of clues, which bear witness to the recrudescence of a hippy magic.

Peter Ackroyd is all of the formidable pasticheur that he is praised for being, and Dyer’s tale, which affects to be that of someone who lived in the 18th century, and in which the element of imitation, present in writing of every kind, is more obtrusive than it is in the other tale, is the livelier of the two. Pastiche is a dualistic activity, and it is an activity which can lend itself to the expression of paranoid feelings and unacted desires. A writer is copied by ‘someone other’ than himself, and that ‘someone other’ can in a manner of speaking become the writer he copies: the biter bit. The expression I am quoting is uttered by Dyer, and it is an expression which Ackroyd is given to using in his books. In pretending here to be someone other than himself who keeps murdering people, he does a tremendous job: this is a convincing argot for the age in question. The suffering and self-conscious first-person singular manifested in Dyer could be considered a creation of the Gothic novel that came after him, and Dyer can also bring to mind the magus of a time before. But there is no nagging sense of anachronism. How could there be? the novel seems to be saying. There is no such thing as anachronism. All ages are one.

The later stranglings look like a copy of what happened, at the hands of a sorcerer, in the loamy past, and Peter Ackroyd is very interested in copies. The present one is not exact, as indeed is usual in such cases. Dyer’s doings are the same as but also different from those investigated by the fretful man he resembles, just as Hawksmoor’s investigative Scotland Yard is the same as but also different from the architects’ department of that name attended by Dyer. Ackroyd has given some readers the impression that the modern narrative, the paler of the two, is paler on purpose – in obedience, presumably, to the doctrine of time, of its runnings-down and recurrences, which figures in the novel.

The pale Hawksmoor is an inhabitant of the present day who reminds one not only of Dyer but of P.D. James’s recurrent character Inspector Dalgliesh – one of her novels, A Taste for Death, published the following year, has a church murder in London, draped in the poses of this sensitive, cultivated policeman, and it also has, like Hawksmoor, a suspected tramp. Both inspectors are presented as more interesting than the colleagues and suspects they move among. With the James, we are told who did it; in the Ackroyd, the matted fellow who is the chief suspect is never very securely identified as the author of the crimes – it is almost as if the inspector could have done it: so that Ackroyd’s is an authorially uncertain work in which the authorship of its crimes is uncertain too. Meanwhile the interesting Hawksmoor is less interesting than Dyer, and may be meant to be. ‘Time will tell, sir,’ a colleague remarks, and Hawksmoor replies: ‘ “Time will not tell. Time never tells.” Once more he raised his arm involuntarily, as if in greeting.’ It is hard to think that the novelist intended the reader to find this even more gnomic and exasperating than the colleague seems to find it. But there may indeed be some such aim.

Can the author be detected in this novel – come upon in his dark corner? The attitude to time might tell us what he thinks, but it is the most inscrutable aspect of the novel. Hora e sempre – this motto is inscribed on the front of Hawksmoor’s, the real Hawksmoor’s, Classical house at Easton Neston in Northamptonshire: the reputed original of Mansfield Park, a house imagined by an opponent of the Gothic novel. The motto refers to a dynastic permanence: but it could be stolen for this novel, where a ‘now and always’ is on show. We may be meant to think that time is simultaneous, in a way that may owe something to the simultaneity propounded, ‘perhaps’, in Eliot’s Four Quartets; or that it is cyclical, a turning wheel, with human depravity paling into insignificance as the wheel turns into modern times.

Interpretation is allowed to copy what it finds, and to distort it, and it may be that the novel can be interpreted as an entertainment which conveys that doctrines of science and improvement can’t encompass what happens in a frightening world, where motive is dark and ill will ubiquitous. The Gothic novel was shaped to take account of such a world, and to do so, very often, in the guise of entertainment. Since its arrival in the 18th century, this is a literary mode which has recurrently been pronounced dead but which has been capable of renewal, and now Ackroyd has given a further turn to the wheel. Once again, a sufferer is seen to be mad, and his fearful sense of what he is up to can be seen to dominate the book in which it is in the end defeated or controverted. Such a book has to be divided – between hope and fear, improvement and depravity. It will be the work both of one hand and of the other. And one of these hands may wield the instrument of pastiche.

Hawksmoor was preceded by the Eliot biography of 1984, which was preceded by The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde of the year before, and now these annual events have been pressed upon by the new novel, Chatterton. All four books reveal a steady concern with imitation and interpretation, and to read them together is to be clearer about what it is that the writer intends us to think that he thinks about things. He would appear to believe in an invented truth, an invented reality – a Rortyan reality, one might be inclined to call it at times. He believes that a writer will often find himself through exposure to some other writer. And it is apparent that Ackroyd has found himself in this manner – through exposure to Wilde, Eliot, and now Chatterton. This brings with it the corollary that it is not always apparent whether the beliefs he expresses are Ackroyd’s or those of the writer to whom he is exposed, or both. Interpreters must therefore beware.

All four books speak of a ‘someone other’. In Hawksmoor Ned the tramp encounters a ‘someone other’ in his double, and in Chatterton Charles Wychwood’s double is another ‘someone other’. Eliot was able to ‘recognise himself through someone other’ – a changeable other, but at one point it was the Frenchman Laforgue. ‘The first law of the imagination,’ states Ackroyd’s Wilde, is that ‘in his work the artist is someone other than himself.’ Greek love is virtuous, Wilde is also represented as saying, because ‘men can live in perfect equality, each finding in the other the image of his own soul.’

It is plain that there are many ways of being and of imagining a someone other. Art may imagine one, and Greek love may. Paranoia imagines one, and so does pastiche. And Ackroyd comes to vivid life as a pasticheur. ‘The truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry,’ claims Thomas Chatterton, warming to Ackroyd’s theme, and perhaps overdoing it, along with Ackroyd’s Wilde, who had been able to believe that ‘almost all the methods and conventions of art and life found their highest expression in parody.’ Still, such claims do seem to have force when fitted to the case of the writer who is making or mediating them: Ackroyd’s truest prose occurs when he applies himself to the imitation of ancient writers. This is, of course, what Chatterton, Wordsworth’s ‘marvellous boy’, did in the plagiaristic 18th century. Like Chatterton, Ackroyd is a ‘great Parodist’, a ‘great Plagiarist’.

It is deemed to follow from such claims that human history is ‘a succession of interpretations’, a piling-up of imitations, an accumulation of metaphor which will be perceived as reality. And literature will amount to the same thing: all writers are copycats. Those who prefer to believe in an indivisible single self capable of originality will be sceptical of the Ackroyd scepticism. They will make less than he does of that part of Eliot which was a ‘good ventriloquist’. And they will undoubtedly object to the more unbridled formulations that enter the three fictions (the biography of Eliot maintains a comparative, and suitable, reserve on the subject). They won’t accept with Charles Wychwood that ‘everything is copied,’ and won’t accept his opinion of Chatterton: ‘Thomas Chatterton believed that he could explain the entire material and spiritual world in terms of imitation and forgery, and so sure was he of his own genius that he allowed it to flourish under other names.’ The second half of this, however, happens to coincide with the opinion of Chatterton which is expressed by Ackroyd’s Wilde: ‘a strange, slight boy who was so prodigal of his genius that he attached the names of others to it’. Peter Ackroyd has here performed the rare feat of plagiarising himself – while leaving the reader in doubt as to whether the writer shares this implausible estimate of Chatterton’s marvellous buoyancy.

As Ackroyd’s ventriloquised Wilde makes clear, Wilde was a great exaggerator and, like his friend Whitman, a great contradictor of himself; and he is certainly a great source of dualistic formulations, in all their slippery bliss. He is the artist’s friend, and the friend of the mimic and poseur, in a world of masks, multiplicities, contraries and successive interpretations. The Wilde apocrypha contains a joke which says it all – or a fair part of it. Some good thing had been voiced, and Wilde had remarked that he wished that he had said it – and was then told: ‘You will, Oscar, you will.’ The Marquis of Queensberry may be judged, in this context, to have made an involuntary and uncharacteristic joke in accusing Wilde of ‘posing as a sodomite’: a phrase that smells of the multiple self and of the uncertainty of interpretation (Ackroyd, as it happens, interprets him as something other than that). Ackroyd’s Wilde complains of the ‘sordid’ interpretations of his conduct which had influenced the outcome of his trial, while himself interpreting it as sordid on other occasions. He also confounds his own dualistic zeal by recalling the wise words (as one may truly think them) of the dualistic mage Paracelsus: ‘Be not another, if thou canst be thyself.’

In the literature of duality it is the outcast or victim who has dealings with a double, and in the new novel Charles Wychwood is an outcast whose condition copies that of Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 17, having invented a medieval monk, Rowley, and written poems for him. Romantic poets were keen to vindicate Chatterton, and to cherish his untimely death as that of a sacrificial victim: here was a spilling of young blood that might have watered the purlieus of a church. Charles belongs, moreover, to a cast of outcasts, monsters, hustlers and impostors which composes a literary London reminiscent of the early novels of Muriel Spark, and far from brutally inauthentic. The queen is Harriet Scrope, novelist, plot-stealer and ferocious egotist, whose war against the world she inhabits extends to her best friend and her cat. As a comic portrait of the artist, Harriet scores high. She is estranged and she is hostile. She is a bit like Dyer.

‘Tho’ I was young Thomas Chatterton to those I met, I was a very Proteus to those who read my Works’: Chatterton’s story is mostly told by himself, and with a felicity of cadence and of reference which can be caught in the sentence I have just quoted. His story is interwoven with, and is replicated by, a modern tale, in which Charles Wychwood’s comet-like career is featured. He, too, dies the early death of romance – en poète, as the poet Burns put it with reference to his own fate – and his end is enveloped in the consequences of his supposing that he has lit upon some Chatterton manuscripts. Charles is touchingly done – a frail unpublished poet kept going by his wife and son (the wife is called Vivien, presumably by design, though she is no copy of the first Mrs Eliot), their household a breath of fresh air in the conniving, phrase-making milieu to which Charles clings. Then there is a third story. Chatterton is as much as anything the famous painting of his death in a Holborn attic done in the 1850s by Henry Wallis – with the poet lying, across the bed in a kind of frozen entrechat. It looks like an enlargement of the postcard which, in an age of mechanical reproduction, it was to become, commemorating the tourist attraction which it was also to become. The third narrative tells how George Meredith modelled for the corpse in the painting and how his wife then ran away with the painter (see also the sonnets in Modern Love). The three tales are deftly assembled and get on very well together.

Chatterton is represented in the novel as an accidental suicide – slain by a cocktail of arsenic and laudanum swallowed for a venereal infection. Poor Charles brings him to life again, however, for some further plagiarisms: a nest of antique-dealers, of antic disposition, in Chatterton’s native Bristol, have passed to Charles a cache of papers which, together with the discovery of what seems to be the portrait of an adult Chatterton, persuades him that the poet lived on. The portraits of Chatterton have something of the importance to the novel that the living and ageing likeness has in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Like Hawksmoor and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, this novel is a tour de force. And it could be said that not only is it about imitation – it is also, as are other tours de force, itself an imitation of something. Like other tours de force, it is done in a spirit of play and of emulation. It is a contender. It observes one of Wilde’s principles of literature in responding to the importance of not being ‘serious’. It shows what the writer can do rather than tells what he thinks. In order to find out more of what this writer thinks about imitation, we can consult a work where a treatise on the subject is developed at intervals and where he writes in propria persona. In Ackroyd’s life of Eliot we read about a major poet who was a good ventriloquist; a man of multiple personality who swore by a principle of impersonality in art, and whose art bears the indelible signature of that distinctive protean character of his; a man who led a miserable and tormented life. The book says Eliot’s truest poetry was a form of plagiarism, in the benign sense that ‘it was only in response to other poetry that Eliot could express his own deepest feelings.’ A little earlier, a view of Eliot’s has been paraphrased: that ‘there is no “truth” to be found’ in the world, ‘only a number of styles and interpretations – one laid upon the other in an endless and apparently meaningless process’. Ackroyd notices that the Eliot who had once called poetry a ‘mug’s game’ was eventually, in his play The Elder Statesman, to use the same expression for forgery. Ackroyd warns us not to jump to a conflation here, but he is intrigued by the coincidence, and it might almost serve as an emblem of his concern throughout the biography with the connection between poetry and feigning, and with the potency of parody.

The biography suggests that Eliot was never to lose the divided sense of his youth that human life is futile and meaningless – that man is ‘a finite piece of reasonable misery’, in the words of William Drummond of Hawthornden, a good poet who was also a great plagiarist, and a great seeker of shelter in books – but that an absolute order might be felt for, or invented. That order was eventually discovered in the teachings of Christianity. When he turned to God it was to someone other: he was surrendering to ‘something outside oneself’.

The book depicts Eliot as a parodist, a plagiarist, a responder to other people’s poems, and as a seeker of shelter. And yet in its closing passages we learn that as a poet he had ‘no real predecessors’. He was his own man, after all. The book is cursory in its treatment of Eliot’s literary background: there is no mention, for instance, of Wallace Stevens, Ivy Compton-Burnett, of Empson or Leavis, and no adequate picture of what Eliot meant to later generations of intellectuals in Britain. In other respects, however, this is a cogent and sensible account (which was constrained by a barbarous embargo on quotation). I don’t think that its readers can have had much trouble in finding in the life and work the responsiveness Ackroyd finds in them. But perhaps it is the paradox conveyed by that closing glimpse of a parodic but unprecedented Eliot which carries the sharpest conviction of any feature of the book.

Eliot comes across as the sad man who sees double, as a living embodiment of the proposition that the double has to do with pain and with relief from pain, with the search, in such circumstances, for someone other. From the ordeal of his first marriage to the late happiness of the second, the book locks, at one level, into a recital of misfortunes and a medical record. Influenza after influenza. Constant debilitating ‘work’, in publishing and public life, and a constant invocation of the claims of such work. Lecture after lecture, accompanied by complaints about the futility of lectures and his reluctance to give them. The book makes one conscious of Eliot in the sarcophagus of his upper-class eminence; of a sad face of clerical cut – once the face of a delightful shy child – bleakly sprouting from a sartorial apparatus that resembles the mourning clothes of a cabinet minister; of a masterly poseur, an honoured invalid and recluse, of someone snobbish and sometimes unkind, who sought relief in literature and in imitation, and who also embodied the opposite of these qualities.

It is almost as if we are confronted here by a replication of the poor Tom described in Ackroyd’s novel by another poor Tom of later times. And perhaps we might imagine that they are the same but different. Eliot was to tell the poet F.T. Prince: ‘Not everything you write is very interesting.’ This could be said with some emphasis of Chatterton, but not of Eliot himself, who moreover survived, who grew to be famous, who did not kill himself, though he was to wonder how one might set about dying. As the tradition might have it, as romance might have it, Chatterton died the early death of the divided, the invaded man, while Eliot did not.

It isn’t that Ackroyd asks us to compare these two poor Toms, in pursuit of a theory alleging the importance of imitation. But they are brought together, in successive books, by the force of this preoccupation, and the reader has to make what he can of the resemblance between two figures quite remote from one another in any coarser understanding of the matter, to do this while adjusting his sight to a vista of copycats, impostors and successive interpretations – a vista which is not, however, unfamiliar now and can be glimpsed, for instance, in the productions and reproductions of contemporary literary theory.

Imposture is shown in Ackroyd’s new novel, in this burlesque of the literary life, to be an interesting business, and the result may be that Chatterton’s reputation will climb back towards what it was in the retrospects of the Romantic period. He was worshipped then for his talent and untimely death – perhaps a little as Eliot was to be worshipped, in the 1940s and 50s, for his saintly abstention from the world. Keats placed him among the stars, where Keats himself, for similar reasons, was to be placed by Shelley. Chatterton became a topos, and the numbers lisped: ‘O Chatterton, how very sad thy fate,’ ‘Flow gently, sweet Chatterton,’ ‘Good for you, Chatterton.’ Readers can be expected to spot which of these quotations are forgeries, and they must also have doubted in their time whether this writer was as good as the early tributes made out.

Chatterton needn’t have had prodigious talent for the talent expended in the novel to take effect. It is a novel which communicates the notion that the talented and untalented meet in that country of the mind where everyone copies and steals from everyone else, where everything is reproductive or reminiscent of everything else, where one thing leads to another and this person passes into that. It plays with such ideas, to a Shavian pitch of exaggeration: but it is not a novel of ideas, any more than it is a heartless game. It has people in it, with lives to live. It has Charles in it, whose plight is more touching than anything in the 19th-century retrospects of Chatterton. It has its predecessors in the romantic tradition – a tradition which includes the self-important single self nevertheless prone to dispersal and division, invasion and impersonation, which includes the victim and his alter ego. At the same time, both here and in Hawksmoor, Ackroyd, too, is his own man. For all his standard procedures, I don’t think he is actually imitating anybody.

[*] Hawksmoor, reprinted in 1986: Sphere Books, £3.95.