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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, October 03, 2004

English Music by Peter Ackroyd

English Music by Peter Ackroyd. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 0-679-40968-8

This is certainly an unusual book. I was attracted by its title, since I am interested in fiction with a musical theme or musical story elements. The "English Music" spoken of here, however, is more than just music in the traditional sense. The author, through his characters, uses the term to refer to all of English artistic endeavor: literature, poetry, art and yes, music too.

Ackroyd states, in his "Acknowledgements," that "The first inspiration for this novel came from the Victorian medium, Daniel Home, and the short account of his son in Incidents of My Life." Unfortunately, he does not provide us with that "short account." My local library doesn't own a copy of that book; even Amazon.com only lists one copy, a used edition for sale by an individual, not by Amazon itself. Powells lists a trade paperback, currently out of stock, but on order.

But back to the book at hand. It is the story of a young boy, Timothy by name, who grows up first with his father, a spiritualistic medium, then later with his grandparents, in an apparent attempt to give him a more "normal" life. For as we gradually learn, it appears that his father's ability to perform physical healings come more through some power of his son, than through his own innate abilities.

But the more interesting aspect of this book by far, is the series of visions or enchantments into which Timothy falls. Each one introduced by a particular exemplar of British cultural or artistic achievement. Timothy's father reads to him at night, often from such works as Alice in Wonderland or The Pilgrim's Progress. The first of Timothy's dreams, then, is a weirdly wonderful and wacky admixture of those two works, in which Tim finds himself experiencing a combination of those two books, with Alice and Christian each exerting their unique influence upon events. The book is worth taking up just for this episode alone!

Unfortunately, none of the subsequent visions quite measure up to this first one, although each has its own unique charm. By turn we find ourselves inside the world of Dickens's Great Expectations, then an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery with a Sherlock Holmes act-alike character inexplicably named Austin Smallwood. Next Tim finds himself abandoned on Robinson Crusoe's island, mixed about with the musical influences of Henry Purcell, then on to some fairly lengthy dissertations on music by that great master, William Byrd, followed by a visit to Bedlam and much of London in the company of master engraver and illustrator William Hogarth. After a kaleidoscopic and chiaroscuro stroll through the paintings of English artists from Gainsborough, Constable, Whistler and others, a romp in verse through English poetry from Beowulf, Chaucer, Blake, Milton, Donne, and all the rest, we end these rambles with an excursion into Mallory where we encounter Merlin and the Maimed King (reminiscent of the Fisher King).

These dreams, visions, or whatever they are, take place over a period of time extending from Timothy's childhood all the way up until his father's death many years later. His real life is considerably more prosaic, although not entirely devoid of interest. But it's the visions that really make the book.

All in all, quite a virtuoso performance, a tour de force of imagination focusing on English cultural influences. Not your ordinary kind of book by any means. One that brings its own rewards, however, to the person willing to stick with it. Recommended primarily for bona fide lovers of "English Music," as defined by the author.


  • Hi Do not quite understand what is at stake.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:00 AM  

  • Thank you for your comment. However, I don't quite understand your question.

    Thanks again,


    By Blogger Will, at 8:25 PM  

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