Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Lambs of London, by Peter Ackroyd

As previously stated, I’m a philistine who doesn’t understand the global appreciation for Shakespeare’s writings.  I do, however, appreciate the impact he had on western literary tradition, and the global literary zeitgeist.  When I picked up The Lambs of London, by Peter Ackroyd, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, other than something of a love letter to the Bard himself.  And I was right – Ackroyd is obviously a fan, as his appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing pervades every page of the book.

First, an overview of the plot.  The Lambs of London is a series of stories that overlap and intermingle.  There are, however, two main story lines.  The first centers on Mary and her brother, Charles Lamb.  The names might sound familiar to some of you – their claim to fame was a series of children’s tales, based on Shakespeare’s works that were published in the early 19th century.  When the story begins, however, Charles and Mary are living at home – Charles is working as a clerk for the East India Company and is gaining some notoriety for being published in the weeklies; Mary, however, is stagnating – as intelligent as Charles (maybe more so), she’s stuck at home helping to keep the house in an era where educating women was not common practice.  The second main story focuses on William Ireland – another name that may be familiar to those in the historical know.  Ireland is famous for having ‘discovered’ a cache of previously unknown documents authored by Shakespeare, including a new play.  William, Mary and Charles develop an odd set of relationships and rivalries amongst themselves which carries all the other sub-plots.

The book, overall, is interesting.  The reader is treated to a fictionalization of the early lives of the Lambs, and to the events surrounding the discovery made by Ireland.  The characters, however, are hit and miss.  William is interesting and dynamic – his personal drive, intelligence and interactions with his over-bearing father all make for an interesting read.  Charles is slightly less interesting – he’s a young man about town with no real sense of responsibility for those in his life, and Ackroyd almost skims over any character development concerning him until the last chapter.  As for Mary… well, Ackroyd gave her short shrift.  On paper, her story should be the most interesting and well developed by far, and yet Ackroyd alludes to character development without giving us any real sense of the whys and wherefores.  Her end is startling in that it’s abruptly presented and poorly explained.  

Where Ackroyd does excel, however, is in the history.  You can’t read through a history about London (and many about English society) during all periods without coming across Ackroyd’s name in a bibliography.  Ackroyd is a prolific author on English history, and is especially noted for London: A Biography and Albion.  Both are expertly researched and presented, and both are widely acclaimed.  Before seeing The Lambs of London, I was unaware that Ackroyd was also a fiction writer, but he’s apparently prolific in that arena as well.  While his plot and characters may leave something to be desired in this work, the backdrop he paints for them is stunningly rich with historic detail.

Final verdict?  If you’re interested in London, early 19th century British history, Shakespeare, and/or the Elizabethan age, then I would recommend this book.  Somehow, Ackroyd manages to meld all of them together in this fictionalization of various truths.  While I found Ackroyd’s tale interesting, it wasn’t a barn burner; and while he presents some new arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s genius, I still find the Bard to be overrated.  

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