Eating the past? : Chatterton
If J.C. Oates finds Hawksmoor less a novel than a special treatise on evil, Chatterton appears to be seen in a different light altogether. Denis Donoghue finds the word novel insufficient for the new novel, this time: "Peter Ackroyd has written a superb novel - I call it a novel for want of a better word. .." Del Ivan Janik considers it a more convincing illustration of Ackroyd's fictional recipe than Hawksmoor, although he appears to deplore its "fantastic premise" and its "aura of doom":
Despite the novel's fantastic premise and its aura of doom, Ackroyd presents connections, parallels, and recurrences more convincingly here than in Hawksmoor, where the coincidence of the historical and contemporary murders is simply a given. In Chatterton events have consequences, even if they violate our usual assumptions about cause and effect.
Is the Ackroyd who created the almost angelic Chatterton the same author who breathed malevolent fire into Nicholas Dyer? The author is the same, but the central characters display no fascination with evil, although being highly imaginative figures as well. The 201h century central character, Charles Wychwood, will become absorbed in the past, particularly attracted by the literary figure that gives his name to the book.
Charles is a present-day poete manque who comes to think that the painting he has come across in an antique shop is very valuable. The novel seems to turn into a detective story, the aim being to discover the identity of the man in the portrait: "This is the mystery, Holmes. Once I've solved it, I'm a rich man!", Charles exuberantly exclaims.
His friend, Philip Slack, considers that the painting represents Chatterton in middle age. This would prove that the brilliant 18th-century forger faked his own death at eighteen and then went "underground", probably earning his livelihood by imitating other authors, cherishing the hope that one day he would become successful in his own artistic voice.
Before he finds out about Chatterton, alone with the portrait, Charles runs his index finger across its dusty surface. He thus unwittingly unveils the titles of the books that the mysterious painted figure has before him on the table. He will later make out the titles, which belong to Chatterton's own collections. As the man looks like a middle-aged version of the poet that died at eighteen, and as the collections of poems in the painting are unmistakably Chatterton's, it follows that the mysterious man is Chatterton himself. After running his finger over the painting, Charles licks it clean, telling his son, "I'm eating the past. I'm engaged in an act of research".
Later on, while travelling by train to Bristol, Chatterton's native town, in order to test his theory, Charles pops into his mouth small bits of pages torn off Dickens's Great Expectations. Again he eats the past (Dickens's book), but he also relishes the great prospects of his investigation. He will find out a manuscript which appears to have belonged to Chatterton and which bears out the theory the painting prompted: "the marvellous boy" did not die at eighteen.
The novel progresses with three interwoven narrative threads: to Charles's 20th century investigation are added the story of Meredith posing as Chatterton on his deathbed in 1856 and the narrative of Chatterton's last days in 1770, told from the perspective of the poet himself.
The reader eventually finds out that the young 18th-century poet did die at eighteen, being also given an alternative version of Chatterton's death: not suicide, but an accident whose circumstances mix the ridiculous with the sublime. It also turns out that the manuscript Charles finds, as well as the painting of middle-aged Chatterton, are fakes. An explanation is also provided for this apparently implausible conspiracy against the past that someone close to Chatterton hatched to take revenge on the poet (by disparaging his memory).
Charles never learns this. He himself dies young strongly believing in his theory about Chatterton. The two poets turn the deliberate or unwitting forging of the past into something more real than reality itself. In between them, a century away from both, Meredith comments on the process: "[Chatterton] invented an entire period and made its imagination his own: no one had properly understood the mediaeval world until Chatterton summoned it into existence"2 1.
The poet and the painter as "historians" do not recreate or describe the world or the past. They actually create it. However, creation has a problematic relationship with forgery and intertextuality. Chatterton and Charles create, devour, and are devoured by the past. They die as a result of their inability to cope with very down-to-earth aspects of reality. However, they defeat time by creating their own eternity of the imagination, in which they eventually meet.