The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

24/07/04, The Times

London, 1795, the last years of a gilded, histrionic century. Twenty-year old Charles Lamb, dreaming of a career as a writer, is stuck in a dead-end job as a lowly clerk in the East India Company offices. His sister, Mary, eleven years older, is confined at their home in Laystall Street, looking after their demented father and equally plagued by dreams of escape into a giddy, glittering world of learning, letters, drama. She does not even have the consolation or the safety valve of drinking with friends after work at the Salutation and Cat, as Charles does.

Into their cramped lives enters seventeen-year old William Ireland, son of a bookseller, incandescent with the ambition to prove his worth to his inveterate self-publicist of a father. Ireland starts by discovering documents written in Shakespeare’s hand, then a love-letter to Anne Hathaway, complete with a lock of the bard’s hair, finally a ‘lost’ play, Vortigern. Almost overnight, Ireland becomes a sensation – Edmond Malone, the great eighteenth-century Shakespeare scholar and editor, testifies to the genuineness of the documents, Sheridan mounts a production of the new play in Drury Lane Theatre with Kemble and Mrs Siddons in the central roles. But all is not what it appears to be and there are unguessed, more sinister depths in William Ireland. As Mary Lamb’s life is galvanised and ultimately transformed, to devastating effect, by the conjunction of Shakespeare and this mysterious, intense, red-haired young man, the final unravelling is not hers alone.

The Lambs of London, Peter Ackroyd’s twelfth novel, displays his characteristic trademarks on almost every page – fiction that takes off like a madly inventive fugue from the base of real, historical figures; lean, tight, pitch-perfect prose; an intricately textured and calibrated psychogeography of London; themes of literary forgery and ventriloquism, so central to his earlier The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and Chatterton. A great deal of the pleasure in reading Ackroyd is savouring the contrapuntal arrangement of the historical and the fictional, so imaginatively intertwined. Here, too, words and lines from other writers and other texts – Shakespeare’s, Charles Lamb’s own essays and letters – dance seamlessly in and out of Ackroyd’s own. Then there are the physical details of London – names of wharves, the mean backstreets of Southwark in 1796, the atmospheres of streets in Holborn and the City, the buzz of Drury Lane theatreland – that are insinuated into the prose with such subtlety that even to use that cliché, ‘wearing his learning lightly’, would seem club-footed and heavy.

And yet, two-thirds of the way through a gripping story, the novel peters out, giving the disappointing impression that this is more like a five-finger exercise, the sort of thing Ackroyd can do standing on his head, than a properly developed novel. It implodes towards the end into a hurried and half-hearted telling of real and fictive events and feels as though Ackroyd lost interest in taking it any further.

I don’t want to give away Ackroyd’s ending but for a book that, above all, is about the love of books and the double-edged salvation literature provides, it lacks the electricity of the intertextual haunting of, say, Coetzee’s Foe or even his own Chatterton. Readers who want historical truth, as a contrast to the imaginative project of Ackroyd, might want to read Kathy Watson’s sensitive and sympathetic new biography of Mary, The Devil Kissed Her. In The Lambs of London, Ackroyd seems to adduce a different order of truth through ventriloquism: unscramble that anagram of Charles Lamb’s writing persona, Elia, to ‘a lie’, and you have Ackroyd’s triumphant vindication of imaginative fiction over the constraining truths of the archive.