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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
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.