23 June 2010

Book Review: The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

The Lambs of London In a small bookshop in Holborn, Charles Lamb makes a wondrous discovery: a book once owned by William Shakespeare. His mother isn’t much impressed, and his father is too mad to know or care, but his sister Mary shares in his delight. The siblings quickly become friends with William Ireland, the bookseller’s teenage son, who wants to step out from under his domineering father and publish his own papers on his windfall. Ireland senior, on the other hand, is dismissive of William’s scholarly ambitions and eager to gain as much money as possible from the Shakespearean documents that keep arriving at the store. Each new discovery fuels Samuel Ireland’s determination to get to his son’s mysterious benefactor, and each raises more questions in the minds of sceptics across London. When a long-lost Shakespearean drama is staged at Drury Lane, it’s only a matter of time before something happens.

There is a historical basis beneath all this, but by the author’s own admission it’s been altered as necessary to make a good story. Since it makes no attempt to pass itself off as history (unlike some novels....) I didn’t much mind. The fact that I have only a passing familiarity with the lives of Charles and Mary doubtless helped; a bit like tv adaptations of Agatha Christie, alterations bother me less when I can’t see the full scale of the damage. This is history as it wasn’t quite, but might have been, and very entertaining it is too.

For a novel without high drama, it’s a real page-turner. William Ireland wants the papers studied, Samuel Ireland wants them sold to the highest bidder, and that’s about the sum of the conflict. But the resulting tension is increased chapter after chapter, and the growing public attention raises the stakes that each stands to gain if he gets his way. It also increases the potential for calamity if the papers are proved to be fakes; and if they are, then the more they’re scrutinised, the likelier that fact is to be revealed.

And then there’s Mary Lamb, who attaches herself to William out of a common desire to escape from oppressive circumstances. For him, of course, it’s his father; for her it’s a stifling home life made bearable only by her conversations and studies with her brother. She’s also somewhat ... intense. A little unpredictable. And passionately convinced that the papers and the new play are genuine Shakespeare. Quite what she’ll do if they turn out to be forgeries is anyone’s guess. Psychologically balanced or not, she shows how constricted life could be for women of that time.

The use of the setting shows the author’s close acquaintance with London geography, from the streets around Holborn to the layout of Shakespeare’s Southwark and the late eighteenth-century one. Not that there is anything to specify precisely which century it is; I had to go to the encyclopaedia after finishing to date it. Which did annoy me; I think writers of historical fiction should start things off with a nice date in italics, so their readers know exactly when they are.

Does the absence of a date annoy you, too? Or am I the only one whose brain, if no date is provided, keeps distracting itself from the story by looking for chronological evidence?

Rating: B


  1. At least they should put the date and setting location of the book on the book jacket. That way if you are ever in doubt about it, you can flip to the book jacket and have your memory refreshed. I feel it's lax not to do this when it's so easy to slip it in in the middle of a complimentary phrase: "A rollicking epic of 1830s India" or "a tightly woven thriller set on the streets of Victorian London". Easy-peasy.

  2. I read a book recently that I couldn't place at all -- only to figure out half-way through that it was supposed to be in the 1980s! I would have guessed at least a couple of decades earlier. I blame the writer as well, though, for not establishing their setting very well.


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776