Peter Ackroyd CBE (born 5 October 1949, East Acton, Middlesex) is an English biographer, novelist and critic with a particular interest in the history and culture of London. For his novels about English history and culture and his biographies of, among others, Charles Dickens, T. S. Eliot and Sir Thomas More he won the Somerset Maugham Award and two Whitbread Awards. He was awarded a CBE in 2003.
Life and work
Peter Ackroyd was educated at St. Benedict's, Ealing and at Clare College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a double first in English literature. In 1972, he was a Mellon Fellow at Yale University. The result of this fellowship was Notes for a New Culture, written when Ackroyd was only 22 and eventually published in 1976. The title, an echo of T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was an early indication of Ackroyd's penchant for exploring and reexamining the works of other London-based writers.
Ackroyd worked at The Spectator magazine between 1973 and 1977 and became joint managing editor in 1978. He worked as chief book reviewer for The Times and a regular broadcaster on radio. Since 1984 he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Ackroyd's literary career began with poetry, including such works as London Lickpenny (1973) and The Diversions of Purley (1987). In 1982 he published The Great Fire of London, his first novel which is a reworking of Charles Dickens's novel Little Dorrit. The novel set the stage for the long sequence of novels Ackroyd has produced since, all of which deal in some way with the complex interaction of time and space and what Ackroyd calls "the spirit of place". In his novels he often contrasts historical segments with segments set in the present-day (e.g. The Great Fire of London, Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee). Many of Ackroyd's novels play in London and deal with the ever changing, but at the same time stubbornly consistent nature of the city.
Often this theme is explored through the city's artists, especially its writers: Oscar Wilde in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), a fake autobiography of Wilde; Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh in Hawksmoor (1985); Thomas Chatterton and George Meredith in Chatterton (1987); John Dee in The House of Dr Dee (1993); Dan Leno, Karl Marx, George Gissing and Thomas de Quincey in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994); John Milton in Milton in America (1996); Charles Lamb in The Lambs of London.
Hawksmoor, winner of both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, was inspired by Iain Sinclair's poem 'Lud Heat' (1975), which speculated on a mystical power from the positioning of the six churches Nicholas Hawksmoor built. The novel gives Hawksmoor a Satanical motive for the siting of his buildings, and creates a modern namesake, a policeman investigating a series of murders. Chatterton (1987), a similarly layered novel explores plagiarism and forgery and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
One of Ackroyd's best known works, London: The Biography, is an extensive and thorough discussion of London through the ages. In 1994 he was interviewed about the London Psychogeographical Association in an article for The Observer where he remarked:
"I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks . . . Just as it seems possible to me that a street or dwelling can materially affect the character and behaviour of the people who dwell in them, is it not also possible that within this city (London) and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond?"
In the sequence London: The Biography (2000), Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), and Thames: Sacred River (2007), Ackroyd has produced works of what he considers historical sociology. These books trace themes in London and English culture from the ancient past to the present, drawing again on his favoured notion of almost spiritual lines of connection rooted in place and stretching across time.
His fascination with London literary and artistic figures is also displayed in the sequence of biographies he has produced of Ezra Pound (1980), T. S. Eliot (1984), Charles Dickens (1990), William Blake (1995), Thomas More (1998), Chaucer (2004), William Shakespeare(2005), and J. M. W. Turner. The city itself stands astride all these works, as it does in the fiction. Ackroyd was forced to think of new methods of biography writing in T. S. Eliot when he was told he couldn't quote extensively from Eliot's poetry and unpublished letters.
From 2003 to 2005, Ackroyd wrote a six-book non-fiction series (Voyages Through Time), intended for readers as young as eight, his first work for children. The critically acclaimed series ("Not just sound-bite snacks for short attention spans, but unfolding feasts that leave you with a sense of wonder", The Sunday Times) is an extensive narrative of key periods in world history.
- 1971 Ouch
- 1973 Lickpenny
- 1982 The Great Fire of London
- 1983 The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
- 1985 Hawksmoor
- 1987 The Diversions of Purley and Other Poems
- 1987 Chatterton
- 1989 First Light
- 1992 English Music
- 1993 The House of Doctor Dee
- 1994 Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (also published as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree)
- 1996 Milton in America
- 1999 The Plato Papers
- 2000 The Mystery of Charles Dickens
- 2003 The Clerkenwell Tales
- 2004 The Lambs of London
- 2006 The Fall of Troy
- 2008 The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
- 2009 The Canterbury Tales – A Retelling
- 1976 Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism
- 1978 Country Life
- 1979 Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag, the History of an Obsession
- 1980 Ezra Pound and His World
- 1984 T. S. Eliot
- 1987 Dickens' London: An Imaginative Vision
- 1989 Ezra Pound and his World (1989)
- 1990 Dickens
- 1991 Introduction to Dickens
- 1995 Blake
- 1998 The Life of Thomas More
- 2000 London: The Biography
- 2001 The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures
- 2002 Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion
- 2002 Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination
- 2003 The Beginning
- 2003 Illustrated London
- 2004 Escape From Earth
- 2004 Ancient Egypt
- 2004 Chaucer
- 2004 Shakespeare: A Biography
- 2005 Ancient Greece
- 2005 Ancient Rome
- 2005 Turner
- 2007 Thames: Sacred River
- 2008 Coffee with Dickens (with Paul Schlicke)
- 2008 Newton
- 2008 Poe: A Life Cut Short
- 2009 Venice: Pure City
- 2010 The English Ghost
- 2011 London Under
- 2002 Dickens (BBC)
- 2004 London (BBC)
- 2006 The Romantics (BBC)
- 2007 London Visions (BBC)
- 2008 Peter Ackroyd's Thames (ITV)
- 2009 Peter Ackroyd's Venice (BBC)
Honours and Awards
- 1984 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- 1984 Heinemann Award (joint winner) for T. S. Eliot
- 1984 Somerset Maugham Award for The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
- 1984 Whitbread Biography Award for T. S. Eliot
- 1985 Guardian Fiction Prize for Hawksmoor
- 1985 Whitbread Novel Award for Hawksmoor
- 1988 Booker Prize for Fiction-Nomination (shortlist) for Chatterton
- 1998 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography) for The Life of Thomas More
- 2001 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature for London: The Biography
- 2003 British Book Awards Illustrated Book of the Year-Nomination (shortlist) for Illustrated London
- 2003 CBE
- 2006 Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences