The Modern English Visionary: Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor and Angela Carter's the Passion of New Eve

By Ahearn, Edward J. | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Modern English Visionary: Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor and Angela Carter's the Passion of New Eve


Ahearn, Edward J., Twentieth Century Literature


The popularity of Peter Ackroyd and Angela Carter, and the (sometimes puzzled) critical acclaim accorded their work, attest to the ways in which the protean novel form has absorbed visionary and apocalyptic impulses. It has been shown that alongside the nineteenth-century literature of realism there is a persistent current of visionary writing--that is, writing that explodes the stabilities of world and person, time and space, consciousness and sexual identity, and with them religious and ideological certainties concerning society and history. The events of the twentieth century have led philosophers and critics to perceive apocalyptic writing as a central genre, and the postapocalyptic as the essential human condition. Indeed, visionary writers like William Blake, while tending to apocalyptic or millennial climaxes, continually undermine our sense of the reality of the world and of ourselves in ways that are both archaic and postapocalyptic. [1]

Along with their characteristic subversions, on the one hand of the historical novel and detective story, on the other of feminist and futuristic constructions, Hawksmoor (1985) and The Passion of New Eve (1977) are rooted in visionary traditions. This is visible in a dense network of references to occult and apocryphal traditions, surprisingly convergent in the two texts, largely heretical in Hawksmoor, archaic, mythic, and alchemical in New Eve. Both in fact are related to Blake, discreetly in the novel by the future biographer of that great creator, blatantly, although apparently unconsciously, in Carter's work. The narrative tactics variously deployed by Ackroyd and Carter exploit a precise or stereotypical geography to produce an extreme dislocation of the temporal order. Both novels, though in different ways, are harrowing in linking the pursuit of an ecstatic experience of being to sexual mutilation and murder. At their conclusions, as we will see, both suggest an entry into unknown realms through int imations of impossible, or at least inexpressible, experiences.

In Hawksmoor Ackroyd creates first an alternation then an intense confusion between eighteenth- and twentieth-century London. A brief prologue draws the reader into a sense of a past existence: "This is the vision we still see and yet now, for a moment, there is only his heavy breathing as he bends over his papers and the noise of the fire which suddenly flares up and throws deep shadows across the room. "Then the first-person narrative of Nicholas Dyer, architect, religious fanatic, and murderer, is interspersed with a seemingly omniscient recounting concerning murders at the sites of seven London churches. In part 2 of the novel, the detective Nicholas Hawksmoor tries unsuccessfully to solve the crimes. In acknowledgments given at the end, Ackroyd admits that "this version of history is my own invention." For the benefit of those who have not read the book or explored its historical background, I omit reference to which of the seven churches are real and who designed them. [2] Suffice it to say that in a de tective story whose strange outcome is reincarnation, fiction and history fuse so thoroughly that an abolition of time, space, and person is, one might say, inflicted on the reader.

As the reader adapts to Dyer's version of eighteenth-century writing, [3] his story and its significance come strikingly to life. The horrible death of his parents in the plague, the Great Fire, the savagery of street life in early modern London, the precariousness of his existence as a young vagrant, and his affinity with roving societies of beggars provoke Dyer's reflections on the indifference and hypocrisy of the well-to-do and the religious. (In the twentieth-century chapters Hawksmoor seems deprived of such awareness, but a sense of vast alienation, loneliness, family fragmentation, homelessness, and sordid crime is nonetheless conveyed.) Rescued by an aunt from his life with the "Orphans in the Plague" (49), Dyer rises from apprentice mason to self-taught architect to principal deputy of Christopher Wren, who in his work of rebuilding London is represented as the embodiment of science and Enlightenment reason. …

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