by Peter Ackroyd
fiction | georgiana
I cracked. My careful attempt to read more books from the pile than I bought for it fell over with a outburst in the charity shops this weekend. Five novels, taking the pile back over 50 books. I did break into the pile and liberate The Lambs of London last month.
This is a new fiction work by Peter Ackroyd, whose arcane knowledge of London is reknown. I am a big fan of London: A Biography but had failed to really get to grips with his fiction before. I did start Hawksmoor which, with its discussion of pyschogeography and architecture (especially that of Hawksmoor, whose work is a heavy presence in the wonderful Alan Moore comic, From Hell), should have been right up my alley. Figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, it never fully grabbed me, perhaps because I had already encountered some of the ideas in From Hell and London: A Biography. I grabbed The Lambs of London in a 3 for 2 in Waterstones because the title recalled something to me, and the back blurb sounded interesting:
Mary Lamb is confined by the restrictions of domesticity: her father is losing his mind, her mother watchful and hostile. The great solace of her life is her brother Charles, an aspiring writer. It is no surprise when Mary falls for the bookseller's son, antiquarian William Ireland, from whom Charles has purchased a book. But this is no ordinary book - it once belonged to William Shakespeare himself. And William Ireland with his green eyes and his red hair, is no ordinary young man...The Lambs of London brilliantly creates an urban world of scholars and entrepreneurs, a world in which a clever son will stop at nothing to impress his showman father, and no one knows quite what to believe. Ingenious and vividly alive, The Lambs of London is a poignant, gripping novel of betrayal and deceit.
This time, I was caught up in the fiction. The year is never stated, but must be gathered from the references to famous people of the time (Pope, Sheridan etc). There are some of the many potential cliches of the London novel (commiting suicide by leaping into the Thames, fog, slums) which work within the context of the plot rather than as mere set-dressing. The Lambs - and it came back to me partway through that they were the siblings who created Tales from Shakespeare - are lambs in a Blakian sense: innocents who are willing to follow a trail towards their own potential destruction. To be gulled by fake Shakespearian work seems implausible - as modern readers we know that no-one has found the missing plays and that very very little exists in his own hand - but the novel is set in the Georgian period when the first real revival of Shakespeare began and it was believed possible that Vortigern would reappear. That Vortigern did, in fact, make it onto the stage at Drury Lane seems rather surprising now, when such works would be treated to huge amounts of cynicism and disbelief. The Lambs - eager Charles and inexperienced Mary - are easily pulled in by Ireland's deceit. But Ireland too, is unwise. Ackroyd posits that he intended only to fool his father and their friends, but his father's desire to make money from the works he thought his son was finding led to publicity and scandal. Ackroyd definitely positions the young people at the core of the story and emphasises their longing to escape their everyday lives. Mary, especially, disintegrates as the story continues.
I'm not sure about the switches in perspective throughout the novel, but there are scenes which are vividly painted and moments where you care about the protagonists and the obvious downfall ahead. This is a book with London at its heart: the city the characters walk in is still the city Shakespeare walked in, the Victorian Embankment is yet to be built, there are few bridges etc etc. This reads like a more assured work than Hawksmoor was, more confident in its ability to let the characters inhabit the city.