Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Lambs of London

Peter Ackroyd prefaces The Lambs of London with a disclaimer:
"This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters, and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative." Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, the characters he invented were too insignificant and the factual changes too pointless for this to be considered a real work of fiction. I feel like the little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes when I say this looked to me like a badly-written biography that should never have made it to the printer, except for the beautiful cover.

I have read and admired Ackroyd's biographies of Dickens, Thomas More and T.S Eliot and his books about London. I have also read several of his novels: Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. I found them compelling but not enjoyable. He writes with no sympathy for his characters, for him "the larger narrative" is all important but, as a reader, I need to feel engaged with the people as well as the events in a story.

The Lambs of London didn't work at any level for me. The characters were so thinly drawn that I frankly didn't care what happened to any of them. Even if I hadn't known William Ireland's story, I could have guessed it from the outset, so there was no mystery to hold my interest. The factual details were changed for no literary purpose: Mary's knife is changed to a fork; she dies before Charles does according to this story; Malone's role is changed from William's denouncer to his supporter. I found these changes irritating and they added nothing to the story.

There are some flashes of Ackroyd brilliance in the book in his sketches of early nineteenth century London life. No-one but Dickens has his ability to take the reader inside the theatre, shop or inn and there is a convincing encounter with the people who live along the river. And the book cover is beautiful.


  1. Gosh, well I think my copy may well take a trip back down the TBR mountain on the strength of this, M. I have enjoyed and not enjoyed Ackroyd's books about 50:50 - I found Hawksmoor and Chatterton utterly compelling and brilliant but felt decidedly short-changed by some of the others, to the point where I didn't finish them. I shall read Kathy Watson’s biography of Mary, The Devil Kissed her, first, so I have a clearer idea of the truth of the matter before delving into Ackroyd's 'larger narrative'. Agree about the cover, though - it's wonderful!

  2. If you are going to read 'The Lambs of London', J, I would recommend that you don't read the biography first.I found the pointless changing of facts really irritating, had I not known something of the real events I possibly would have enjoyed the book more. The same inner voice which tutted and gasped in outrage throughout the Lark Rise episodes was at work again!

  3. Now, I know there's nothing more tedious than a comment along the lines 'I totally agree' but M's description of 'compelling but not enjoyable' is spot on. And I think that reading Ackroyd is always accompanied by a certain amount of discomfort ... That said, I thought that his huge tome about my old home town, London: The Biography, was a truly accomplished work and I rather enjoyed the TV series too. However that really just skimmed the surface of the book.

    I can put ticks and crosses against his novels too: Hawksmoor (tick), The Clerkenwell Tales (X) and so on. But your comments about The Lambs have now got me wondering whether his biographies that I have enjoyed (Dickens, T S Eliot and so on) were fundamentally flawed. Hmm.

  4. It does make you wonder, doesn't it, D?


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!