In Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Charles Wychwood, a young 20th century poet, becomes obsessed with discovering the true history of another poet, Thomas Chatterton who supposedly committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 18. In an antique shop, Wychwood discovers a painting he believes to be a depiction of Chatterton in later life – much older than the age at which he is supposed to have died. Charles’s interest in the painting leads him to a further discovery – a stash of Chatterton’s manuscripts and papers still in existence in Bristol.
The tale of Charles and how his fascination with Chatterton affects both his professional and private lives is the main story in the novel. But there are also flashbacks to Chatterton himself, and the story of his rise to fame as a teenaged poet who faked a whole body of poetry supposedly written by a medieval monk. Then there’s the story of the Victorian artist Henry Wallis who created a well-known painting showing Chatterton lying dead in an attic room. Wallis uses his friend, the poet George Meredith, as his model and is attracted to Meredith’s wife Mary. And there’s the elderly novelist Harriet Scrope, who employs Charles to help her write the memoirs she hopes will prevent her well-kept secrets from being revealed and ruining her reputation.
And all of these plots intertwine around the central core of Chatterton’s suicide, and weave back and forth between past and present, and fantasy and reality, using both fictional and real-life characters and incidents.
Admittedly, that’s an extremely abbreviated synopsis of a very intricate novel. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “inventive” and “larky,” and those are good descriptions. At first meeting, most of the characters appear eccentric to the point of lunacy. But gradually they come to seem almost too disturbingly real and familiar. I was particularly taken with the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend, “the famous art critic” Sarah Tilt. It’s worth reading the whole book just to get glimpses of their exchanges and brief escapades.
Chatterton was a bestseller in England when it first appeared in 1987, and was short-listed for that year’s Man-Booker Prize. Even so, I had a little trouble finding a copy of it. Apparently it hasn’t achieved the lasting popularity of the author’s Hawksmoor. At least, not in the U.S. But it’s definitely worth seeking out.