Peter Ackroyd: Chatterton
Thomas Chatterton was an English poet who, when he was sixteen, wrote a series of poems allegedly by a 15th century monk called Thomas Rowley which he claimed to have found in a trunk. He tried, without success, to get them published. He wrote other pieces under his own name but, at the age of seventeen, poisoned himself with arsenic in his London garret, probably because of his poverty. However, poets as diverse as Wordsworth (who called him”the marvellous boy”), Keats and Browning wrote about him. The French playwright Alfred de Vigny and the American playwright Ernest Lacy both wrote plays about him. The German novelist, Ernst Penzoldt, wrote a fictional biography of him way back in 1928. And, of course, there is this novel by Ackroyd. Amazingly enough, his works are generally out of print or only available in obscure editions, while there is no worthwhile biography available (the Louise Kaplan biography, the most recent, is one of the worst biographies I have ever read).
It’s Ackroyd, so we know what to expect. The past and the present intertwine in London. This one is about Chatterton and a very good story it is too. Charles Wychwood, a youngish poet, and Harriet Scrope, an older novelist, are both on the trail of Chatterton, ably abetted by friends and family. Of course, it seems that Chatterton, at least in spirit and maybe in body, is still around. The past and present intertwine with the usual dramatic consequences and Chatterton once more lives in English literature.
First published 1987 by Hamish Hamilton