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
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!'