Albion: The History of The English Imagination Hardcover – Dec 10 2002
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
¡°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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.