I’ve been reading Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd, and it’s a hard book to put down.
On almost every page I’m reminded why Peter Ackroyd is one of my favorite authors. This isn’t just a history of England; Ackroyd doesn’t just “write history.” He tells stories, and provides little asides, making the narrative come alive. In his hands, you’re not simply reading a history; you’re living it.
My first introduction to his writing was his biography of Charles Dickens. I was writing speeches for a corporate executive, and expected to read everything he read. And he was on a Dickens kick, which put a severe strain on my reading time, although I did get to read a lot of Dickens. But I saw this big fat biography in the bookstore (this was in the early 1990s, when we still had bookstores), and I bought it and read it. I marveled at how well Ackroyd knew his subject, the astounding depth of his research and how he kept the biography fully engaging in spite of its length. It’s more than 1,000 pages; the hardcover weighs 3.6 pounds.
Foundation is about 40 percent of the length of Dickens, but it is packed with that same knowledge and depth of research.
I haven’t read everything Ackroyd has written; that would a challenge, because he is a wonderfully prolific writer. I have read London: A Biography and The Life of Thomas More. Last year, when we were in the shop at the National Gallery in London, my wife handed me his biography of the painter J.M.W. Turner, which I finished before we returned home. While we were there, we also saw the play The Mystery of Charles Dickens written by Ackroyd for Simon Callow.
Some years back, I read three of Ackroyd’s novels. Chatterton is about the poet Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself at 18 and turned out to be the author of a number of medieval poems he claimed to have discovered. The Clerkenwell Tales is about a nun in the 1300s who predicts a series of terrorist acts, which come to pass, and then the death of the king. Hawksmoor is a double, connected narrative, about a 20th century detective investigating crimes connected to several churches built in the Christopher Wren period.
As you might guess, the three novels are rather dark tales. Of the three, I liked Hawksmoor the best.
Apart from these, the only other Ackroyd work I’ve read is The Death of King Arthur. I just downloaded The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling to my Kindle. And the second volume in his history of England, Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, is scheduled to be published in Britain in October.
And even after reading those, I still have other Ackroyd works available: biographies of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Isaac Newton; and a biography of The Thames. And there are several others. (Fortunately, I read faster than he writes. Barely).
I’ve been reading Ackroyd over the last 20 years, and he’s become a favorite author. Nothing I’ve read of his has been disappointing. All the works are well worth the investment in time.
And now, back to reading Foundation. I’m just about at the part where Ackroyd describes the bubonic plague.
Photograph of Peter Ackroyd via El Nino Vampiro Lee.