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Albion - the Origins of the English Imagination Hardcover – 3 Oct 2002


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 516 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus; First Edition edition (3 Oct 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1856197212
  • ISBN-13: 978-1856197212
  • Product Dimensions: 16.4 x 4.4 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 307,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Ackroyd is the author of biographies of Dickens, Blake and Thomas More and of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River. Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the South Bank Prize for Literature. He holds a CBE for services to literature.

Product Description

Amazon Review

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

Review

How does he do it? In the space of a few years we've had accessible interpretations of London and of Dickens. Now Peter Ackroyd is tackling a subject even more broad in scope - the origins of English culture - but with the thoroughness of research and liveliness of style common to all his non-fiction. The main thread of this 500-page work, as he phrases it, is with 'beginnings rather than endings'. However, Ackroyd still manages to make the most curious and playful of connections throughout the ages, whether it be Beowulf's intimidating influence on Dryden, or the Carry On films' debt to medieval mystery plays and their penchant for lines such as 'Com kis myne ars!'

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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 17 July 2004
Format: Paperback
Ackroyd has achieved wide popular appeal with his literate brand of historical fiction so you would expect this to be a lively, readable and interesting run through this huge subject -and it is. The short chapters, each neatly encapsulating an often weighty idea, make it a real page turner packed with fascinating observations. Unfortunately, scholarly it is not. Ackroyd makes great claims for the seamless progression of cultural motifs unique to the English, and yet never demonstrates they ARE unique by comparisons with other countries. Are we, for example, to believe the study of German history over the centuries has been a disspasionate scholarly exercise that does not seek to construct national myth and identity, as have the English? Of course not! He is also very selective with his evidence: often a single 20th century example is cited to demonstrate that a certain preoccupation of the Saxon mind is alive and well. Perhaps much of what he says on literature is valid despite the rather hurried approach and he clearly has great passion for the subject. He falls down, however, on painting and music which are given scarce coverage while the architecture sections are full of inaccuracies and misconceptions (possibly a result of the very superficial reading the bibliography suggests) as is his one chapter on garden design. Having said all this, its immensely enjoyable and gives much food for thought.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jon Chambers VINE VOICE on 27 April 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this book, Ackroyd seeks to do something very ambitious - namely, to identify the nature of the English artistic sensibility. He is not trying to define the 'Englishness' of English art (we are, as he says, a hybrid culture after all). Ackroyd is more interested in exploring the idea of the 'genius loci' (the spirit of place). Accordingly, artistic patterns and repetitions recur, sometimes centuries apart, with no obvious or conscious link to explain the parallels. This is terrain, of course, that Ackroyd has already charted to haunting effect in his novel, Hawksmoor.

But is it reasonable to talk about distinctively English imaginative traits? Ackroyd thinks so, and enumerates some of them: a love of antiquity; a tendency to melancholy; a habit of translating and borrowing from abroad; an appetite for heterogeneity and variety; a love of flat and intricate surface design; a preference for the practical over the theoretical; a distrust of intellectualism; and so on.

Albion doesn't pretend to be a work of scholarship. As with Shakespeare: the Biography, the book provides just so many footnotes as are needed to lend his ideas substance. In any case, what Ackroyd is good at here is making observations and connections, rather than providing absolute, forensic proof. Occasionally, his arguments aren't at all convincing - the idea that the English love of miniature painting might be explained by the fact that 'those who live on a small island take a delight in small things' is flimsy. But in making the link between the illuminators of medieval manuscripts, Nicholas Hillyard and the C17 school of limners, Ackroyd is absorbing. As elsewhere in his work, we sense a deep affinity with those he writes about.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 20 Dec 2003
Format: Hardcover
I'm not much of areader of pop history but I love Peter Ackroyd. He is a novelist who writes like a history professor and an historian who writes like a novelist. I must admit I mostly prefer his non-fiction. I first came across him when he was recommending Michael Moorcock's work in a review in the Sunday Times and it's odd how the two men resonate so closely.
Moorcock wrote about Albion and Doctor Dee, British musical hall and Mother London and all these themes are taken up by Ackroyd, whose sympathy with the great visionaries (and Moorcock is without doubt one of the great English visionaries) is well known. After reading Albion I found myself reaching for Moorcock's Gloriana again (this is set in a Platonic London, capital of Albion) and knowing the two men to be friends was fascinated to see how one takes a particular ball and runs with it, throwing it back to the other. If you enjoyed Albion, which is a fanciful, fantastic history of Old England, you'll certainly love Gloriana and vice versa. Yes, there is a modern school of English letters and Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Alan Wall,
M.J.Harrison and a few others are at the core of it. If you don't believe me, try them for yourself!
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By Fernden on 1 July 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Another great book from one of our most amazing living authors.
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I am a university student in Belgium and this year we are looking and trying to understand literature in the UK from the Middle Ages to the Modern Times.I love this book. It is simple and I enjoy reading it.
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Format: Paperback
How to describe this extraordinary book? Crammed with discoveries and delights, this is very much a book that begs you invent your own course, jumping back and forth between sections, not reading from start to finish. Peter Ackroyd's "Albion" is a rich lively cornucopia of enjoyments. The author guides us through what he has come to enjoy, showing how he enjoys and deeply appreciates, sharing his love of English writing from before the word `english' was even coined. This is criticism as it most enticing and finest, an individual imagination giving his escorted tour of what he values. And along the way we come to share in that love.

The nearest comparison to this book I can think of is Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, because like that remarkable work it is more a lengthy collection of essays, thoughts and musings that lead one on almost countless mental journeys into so many aspects of the English literary imagination. And yes, the book may be organised historically, and the essays are presented as successive "chapters". But they are closer to those chapters in Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, for they are really explorations of a theme, showing how a motif, idea or disposition will be manifested in different works or authors.

To read "Albion" as literary history is the misconstrue the book: it is literary criticism and appreciation, and of a very high order, too.
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