The Lambs Of London, by Peter Ackroyd (Random House)

 “This is not a biography,” Peter Ackroyd announces at the outset, “but a work of fiction. I have invented characters, and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative.”

Damn right he has. The difference between biographies and novels is that biographies are about real people and the things that happened to them; novels, on the other hand, are about invented people and things that never happened at all. A naïve distinction, no doubt, but when the two get mixed up, the result is, well, mixed.

Peter Ackroyd has made a living out of mixing the two up. His biographies (for example, that of Dickens) have fictional elements; and his novels often revolve around and take liberties with historical characters who once lived and breathed (for example, Chatterton). The Lambs in The Lambs of London are brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb, chiefly famous for their collaboration, in the early nineteenth century, on Tales from Shakespeare, a book still in print today. Mary achieved fame of a different kind when, in a fit of insanity, she killed their mother (in Ackroyd’s version of events, the murder is achieved by means of a crumpet fork, an instrument that sounds only slightly more dangerous than a toothbrush). Mary is committed and then released into her brother’s care, and dies shortly afterwards while watching him perform amateur theatricals (from the scanty description given of the play, this is entirely plausible).

Except it wasn’t really like that. Mary lived over 40 years more than Ackroyd allows her here, and she outlived her brother by over a decade. But facts, here, are an inconvenience: in Ackroyd’s novel, Mary has been broken and driven mad by a revelation concerning a young man with whom she has fallen in love; forty more years of life would make for a long epilogue.

In any case, the novel is only passingly about Mary, and even more passingly about Charles (who is fictionally a much less likeable and engaging character than his essays would suggest). The protagonist of the novel is William Ireland, a seventeen-year-old antiquarian and bookseller. Ireland is also a historical figure: the discoverer of various Shakespearean manuscripts, including a lost play, Vortigern. This play was performed at Drury Lane with the most distinguished actors of the day, but right from the start there were doubts about the manuscripts’ provenance. Rumours of forgery circled about the head of William’s father, and these rumours became accusations following the publication of a cogently argued written “Inquiry” into the documents’ authenticity by the Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, a few days before the play opened. (Malone is characterized, most unfairly, by Ackroyd as a credulous dupe.)

Were the finds authentic? Those with knowledge of some of the byways of literary history will know the answer to that question already, but most other readers will, too, and quite a few chapters before they are supposed to. The suspense of the book, which even at its utmost is of a cerebral kind, slackens long before the denouement.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets