Friday, September 02, 2011

Book Review: "Chatterton"

A complicated meditation on literary reality and originality, forgery and fakery, Peter Ackoyd's Chatterton (Grove Press, 1996) combines a trio of narratives: in the present day, failed poet Charles Lutwyche finds a portrait and papers suggesting Thomas Chatterton might not have actually killed himself in 1770; in the 1850s, painter Henry Wallis uses poet George Meredith as his model for Chatterton's death scene; and Chatterton himself, over the course of his short (or was it?) life.

As Lutwyche investigates his discoveries, he accidentally finds that his sometime employer, novelist Harriet Scrope, might have done a little "borrowing" in a couple of his own novels, adding another dimension to Ackroyd's treatment.

While many of the characters are rather forgettable, and the Wallis/Meredith section doesn't work quite as well as it might, overall I liked the playful complexity of the novel, and one of the sub-plots (featuring Lutwyche's sometime employer, novelist Harriet Scrope) was great fun.


Catherine said...

I read this book in London last year - it ended up being a complement to my visit to the Tate where the Wallis painting is. I thought the story was okay, but I'm more surprised more novels weren't written about Chatterton: at least none I've heard of.

JBD said...

I agree; it certainly does seem like fruitful ground!