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Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination [Paperback]

Peter Ackroyd
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 Aug 2004

Highly original and magnificent in scope, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination discovers the roots of English cultural history in the Anglo-Saxon period, and traces it through the centuries.

What does it mean to be English? This dazzling book demonstrates that a quintessentially English quality can be discovered in all forms of English culture, not only in literature but also in painting, music, architecture, philosophy and science.

Just as London: The Biography guided the reader through the capital city with a mixture of narrative and theme, so Albion, employing the same techniques, engages the reader with stories and surprises - From Beowulf to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, via Chaucer and Shakespeare, to the Bronte sisters, Alice through the Looking Glass and Lord of the Rings

Witty, provocative and anecdotal, this is Peter Ackroyd at his most brilliant and exuberant.

Frequently Bought Together

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination + Foundation: The History of England Volume 1 (History of England Vol 1) + Tudors: A History of England Volume II (History of England Vol 2)
Price For All Three: 33.98

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (5 Aug 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099438070
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099438076
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 14 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 261,635 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"This is much more than history; it is a tapestry of inspiration and love" (The Guardian)

"One cannot but marvel at Ackroyd's erudition, his energy in marshallin g minutiae, his ear for quotation, his flair for dazzling juxtapositions, his vibrant imagination and sheer exuberance" (The Times)

"Ackroyd covers not only literature but art, architecture, music and almost everything else that has passed through the minds of the English...just one damn interesting thing after another" (Sunday Times)

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sense on sensibility 27 April 2008
By Jon Chambers VINE VOICE
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining as ever 20 Dec 2003
By A Customer
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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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 1 July 2014
By Fernden
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Another great book from one of our most amazing living authors.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Perferct for my English course 23 Oct 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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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