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Albion: The History of The English Imagination [Hardcover]

Peter Ackroyd
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Dec 10 2002
An exciting new book from the acclaimed author of the magnificent London: The Biography.

This book covers the whole of English cultural history from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day -- from the Venerable Bede through English myths such as the legends about King Arthur and Albion to C.S. Lewis; from Chaucer through Spencer to George Eliot; from the English mystics through the philosopher Locke to Iris Murdoch; from Purcell through Elgar to Michael Tippett; from Hogarth through Constable to Turner; from mystery plays through Shakespeare to music hall.

Peter Ackroyd’s favourite themes are here: the visionary poetry of Blake, the theatrical novels of Dickens, the humanism of Thomas More -- and there are also explorations of forgery and plagiarism, Romanticism, artificiality, farce and pantomime, assimilation and energy. The author leads the reader through a labyrinth in one of the most exuberant books to be published this year.

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Nobody is better equipped to write a book about the roots of the English imagination than the award-winning novelist, biographer, poet and critic Peter Ackroyd, and in Albion he has distilled a lifetime's work into a book of monumental proportions. This is a dense, poetic book about the origins of the English literary imagination, stretching from Beowulf through Shakespeare to the novels of Virginia Woolf and the music of Vaughan Williams.

Ackroyd confesses that "there is no certain description" of the English imagination. As a result the structure of this massive, learned book shares affinities with his recent bestselling biography of London. Specific themes and preoccupations are repeatedly weaved through short, sometimes allusive chapters as Ackroyd traces "the conflation of biography, or history, and the novel" across the evolution of "a mixed language comprised of many different elements and a mixed culture comprised of many different races". The result is a rich poetic tapestry that moves from an exploration of the cadences of Old English poetry to the creation of the modern English language in the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe and the great novelists of the 18th century. Ackroyd resists polemical definitions, but repeatedly returns to themes that for him create a quintessentially English imagination. These include a fascination with "the local and the circumstantial", "the English genius for assimilation and adaptation", and the recurrent interest in biography and landscape.

Ackroyd is at his best when establishing poetic connections and continuities between modern and medieval writers, but at times his reflections on the national spirit uncomfortably evoke the conservative nationalist historians of the 19th century. His inclusive vision of what he sees as the English imagination's "placism, as an antidote to racism" is unconvincing, as are his comments on his awkward formulation "femality and fiction". It would have been fascinating to see him develop these ideas through late 20th century transformations in the English imagination, but even without this (and at over 500 pages, the book is weighty enough already), Albion will delight many who regard Ackroyd as one of the most quintessentially English writers of his time. --Jerry Brotton

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and memorable but trying April 22 2003
Format:Hardcover
This was the third Peter Ackroyd book I tried to read. First was his biography of Thomas Moore C which I finished and enjoyed. The second was ¡°London - a Biography¡± C which I loved to distraction at the outset but didn¡¯t finish because it exhausted me with its cyclical (I won¡¯t say repetitious) structure.
¡°London¡± and ¡°Albion¡± share the trait of collecting many aspects of their subject with little chronological progression C so that the reader is lead along with ¡°another aspect, another aspect, one after another..¡±
In the case of London I was finally exhausted and gave up C although I had started with an excitement and love for the subject that was (I assume) all that Ackroyd had wanted to induce. But it just didn¡¯t sustain in the face of continuing new aspects C again and again C with no apparent development or other sequencing to provide an over-riding structure. In fact the lack of development was for me so intense it ate away at my interest, energy and finally my patience. When I was reading it, I had visited London several times and was en-route again C so interest was high and the subject was not unknown C but I am not an intimate of London. It is not my city.
¡°Albion¡± takes a loosely chronological approach. Not strict C but enough for the reader to sense progression as it unfolds. This is a major difference but not the key one I think.
Ackroyd¡¯s subject here is ¡°the English Imagination¡± C but really the whole spectrum of art, literature experience and thought.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An erudite scrapbook Aug. 22 2004
By MartinP - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Though I'm almost worryingly Anglophile, I did not find this an all too easy read. The book's structure is unclear - it seems to start out chronologically, but halfway through continues thematically. It is also rather fragmented, though this has the advantage of offering something for everyone; it's like picking through trinkets at some bric-a-brac store. Ackroyd's massive erudition is never in doubt, but it is a pity he seems more concerned with showing it off rather than curtailing it within the confines of a coherent argument. At times the author lapses into mere namedropping that struck me as rather random. Nor is his argument always consistent. E.g., he notes that English gardening is suffused with territorial and warlike thinking and terminology; yet, two pages on he states that English gardens are characterised by meandering lines that bespeak of a "distaste for regimentation."

Be aware also that Ackroyd's interpretation of "imagination" veers very much towards literature; architecture, landscape gardening, painting and music are treated cursorily at best - there is a final chapter on music, but it covers only a few pages and deals almost exclusively with Vaughan Williams.

In general I'm not at all convinced that Ackroyd succeeds in making a case for the specificity of English imagination. He cites many examples for which equivalents could, it seems to me, with equal ease be found in French or German art. Just a glance at a Caspar David Friedrich painting will be enough to show you that there is nothing peculiarly English about a melancholy obsession with the transience of things. Parts of this book are thought-provoking, parts are entertaining, and all of it is definitely well-written. But in the final reckoning it does no more than vaguely delineate the outlines of a hypothesis; it certainly does not prove it. The essence of the undeniably peculiar Englishness that suffuses works by Gainsborough, Turner, Britten, Elgar, Shakespeare, Dickens, "Capability" Brown and Vanbrugh alike (to name just a very few) simply eludes these pages. What you are left with is an erudite scrapbook.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Enlgish (read Anglo-Saxon) Imagination Nov. 28 2003
By Ricky Hunter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Peter Ackroyd is never at a loss for words and he uses a great many of them to trace the origins and progression of the English imagination from its very early Anglo-Saxon beginnings until the twentienth century in his new massive tome, Albion. Along the way, he covers music, art, religion, philosophy, history, and biography, as well as, of course, literature, and merges them together in quite insightful ways. The book is strongest in the early Anglo-Saxon and medieval sections that set up the author's thesis and it can grow a tad bit repetitious in theme in the later chapters as he pounds home his ideas. Overall though, the reader should be fascinated by the vast number of examples from primary (and some interesting secondary) sources that pepper the book. The author's knowledge is vast and his selection of sources is unimpeccable. A frequently interesting read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Albion Betrayed May 7 2012
By Randaal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The idea of this book is what attracted me to it, leading to the purchase and subsequent ill-fated adventure through its pages. The idea is that the English imagination, the thought-paradigm that governs the English speaking worlds' collective consciousness has roots and branches that can be assessed and appreciated. Perhaps even all of these arts through time might be brought together and some general, profound, notions of the English imagination can be divined. Perhaps it was a little too rosy to expect as much from this book, but any enthusiasm I had for the mission of this book was quickly replaced with dissatisfaction and sincere angst at the execution and direction of the book.

P.A. seems to want to shove as many references as he can into each paragraph--a fantastic indicator of his intelligence and breadth of reading--but instead of serving to show the full body of English canon, he stifles any evaluative or critical thought making each paragraph a limb to a series Frankenstein-like chapters made of the disembodied quotes from English masters. Instead of focusing on a few highly-influential concepts, figures or works, he goes the other way; Ackroyd sprinkes shallow references and quotes that only superficially connect to what he's talking about. The problem with this is that there are a lot of genuinely enjoyable concepts that the author tries to address, but his style and execution get in the way. He maintains a scholarly tone without any real scholarship, where he might have had better luck approaching the subject with a more light-hearted prose and down the pretention-level a bit. The reason this book has such a low grade from me is because it had the conceptual potential to be a fantastic read with some real profound observations. Instead, what one gets is a patchwork, a scrapbook of references without real context. Simply put, look elsewhere if you're trying to delve into the magic and grace of English art and literature.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What makes an Englishman? April 20 2011
By Iosephus Bibliothecarius - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Albion traces ideas, images and patterns across the centuries to consider what it means to be English. Any Anglophile will enjoy the many and varied cultural references linked within Ackroyd's dense but fascinating text. Beginning and ending with Englishmen I admire (historian the Venerable Bede (d. 735) and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (d. 1958)), these two disparate personalities were brought together in one memorable statement: "The embrace of present and past time, in which English antiquarianism becomes a form of alchemy, engenders a strange timelessness. It is as if the little bird which flew through the Anglo-Saxon banqueting hall, in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, gained the outer air and became the lark ascending in Vaughan Williams's orchestral setting. The unbroken chain is that of English music itself." To me, reading this book was like examining the contents of an ancient attic trunk, ruminating on the people, places, and things that made you who you are. When you come to the end of your literary pilgrimage, you're better for having experienced it.
5.0 out of 5 stars Second purchase, I moved and missed this when left behind. Sept. 11 2013
By Roberta R. Hilliger - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have a Peter Ackroyd book collection that I go back to over and over again.
I give copies to interested relatives and have to replace mine. This book is my favorite, but they all are.
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