Peter Ackroyd's Englishness: A Continental View

By Neagu, Adriana | Contemporary Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Peter Ackroyd's Englishness: A Continental View


Neagu, Adriana, Contemporary Review


IN recent years it has become fashionable in Britain for politicians and writers to ask what it means to be 'English'. Some of this has been stirred by the effects of Britain becoming part, albeit a questioning part, of the EU and, even more, by the effects of devolution of Scotland and Wales. At the start of this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, tried to promote a debate about Britishness and establish a 'British Day' to encourage people to fly the national flag. This to some extent was a Scottish politician's (and one who hopes to become Prime Minister) need to promote Britishness over Englishness. Yet beyond the temporary needs of a politician there is the serious question of what it is to be English, and what it means to be an 'English' writer and imbue an 'indigenously' English imagination. These are questions that resonate throughout the work of Peter Ackroyd, a contemporary Englishman whose polymathic range of achievement elicits superlatives one would have thought only appropriate for the regretfully departed.

An accomplished poet, novelist, and literary critic, and one of England's foremost biographers, Ackroyd is the author of an impressive body of work, ranking as one of the most prolific English writers of all times. Lately he has also become a popular figure on television with a series of his own works; in recent months he has been presenting the political ideas of the great Romantic poets. Having established himself as a distinctive presence in literary history through radical biographical innovation, Ackroyd has in the latter years become indispensable for an informed discussion of English cultural identity. With 35 books to his name, he is one of the most influential and enduring figures in contemporary literature and, as one enthusiastic reviewer of The Life of Thomas More intimated, he is probably among the few contemporary English writers to be read in a hundred years' time. While this may not necessarily be a staple of 'greatness guaranteed', it is clearly a reflection of the manner in which Ackroyd's dense and passionately articulate prose engages notions of national and international appreciation, the English and the continental imagination, acting as an agent provocateur and inviting value judgements along with a timely rethinking of the question of English identity. And whereas it is arguable whether Ackroyd is a 'good' writer, it is beyond dispute that he is an important writer, one whose impact on redefining national culture is yet to come to the fore. The main argument that the present article advances is that in the local-universal, personal-collective, inside-outside dynamics that it forges, Ackroyd's writing of Englishness can be viewed as a catalyst to an integrative examination of English identity in the trans-national context of the new Europe. I would also suggest that whereas in England Ackroyd's vision of national culture may appear utopian, in a European framework of interpretation it confers to his writing a compelling timelessness, that may, in the long run, prove more in tune with the values of the post-secular world.

Stature, expanse and the encyclopaedic formation are not the only respects in which Ackroyd cuts a singular figure in the current scene of writing. A 'man of the books' in the fullest and least contemporary of fashions, Ackroyd interests himself in all the non-voguish, tabooed or contentious subjects, writing with the stamina and authority of someone with little use for relativism, apologia and famous English understatements. A 'litterateur' at home in the contrived recherche style, he is high-spirited and single-minded, driven by something of a tunnel vision, looking unaffected by the harrowing pressures of the publishing industry, public or critical expectations, formulating strong uncompromising statements. Thinking ahead bigger and bigger every time, Ackroyd goes for the most extravagant of projects. His desire for grand design is matched only by his zeal for writing. …

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