There is a portrait of the poet Thomas Chatterton lying dead which was painted many years after the event by Henry Wallis. I have seen copies of the portrait before so I was interested in the book Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd which is about the life and death of the eighteenth century poet. I listened to this on audio read by Peter Wilby who I thought was excellent and really brought the characters to life for the listener.
I have read one previous book by this author about the Elizabethan magician Dr Dee but that was many years ago and I have also read his biography of Dickens in the past. My fleeting impression of him was of an author with a gothic air and a love for the seedier side of London. I have not changed that view substantially having read this book.
The main part of the story is set in more or less the present day with Charles Wychwood, an unsuccessful poet, buying a portrait which he likes from a pair of eccentric antiques dealers (everyone in this book turns out to be eccentric or camp, or both). The portrait is of a man who he recognises as Chatterton from the famous portrait of his death and who is posed next to copies of Chatterton’s works. Obviously the sitter isn’t Chatterton but the original model for the painting but Charles becomes obsessed with the idea that the new portrait he has found proves that Chatterton didn’t die young at all. He traces back the portrait to an eccentric seller in Bristol who also has fragments of an autobiographical work by Chatterton explaining how he didn’t die and lived his life faking the literary works of others. Charles teams up with an unpleasant but eccentric author Harriet Scrope and seeks to prove what he believes – as Harriet thinks that it will make her rich she schemes to remove the evidence from Charles and claim the fame for herself.
The book also gives us the Chatterton biography fragment and then follows Chatterton in the period of his life when he is living in London. In addition we also have a segment featuring the artist and his model at the time when the famous portrait was painted.
This is a book about fakery – Chatterton was known for faking medieval poetry and it is believed that the discovery of this led to his death by suicide. One character discovers that the plots of Harriet’s books have been copied from those of a now unknown author and the paintings at the gallery where Charles’ wife works are also suspected to be fake. The whole story is, of course, a fake too because there has never been a second portrait. Nothing is really what it seems but the author seems to be saying that if it’s art that doesn’t really matter.
Although my description makes the book seem convoluted it is really quite straightforward and the author weaves the various tales together very well. Very few of the characters are likeable, except perhaps for Charles’ friend Phillip, and most of them seem deluded or actually deliberately deceiving others. Harriet Scrope is a monster and as such she dominates the book when she appears although, in the end, she achieves nothing. I did find the ending just too convenient for everybody but it does tie up the loose ends nicely.
I was fascinated by this book and I wanted to know what the author would do with the story and characters. I found the eccentricity of the characters too much to take sometimes and there were a lot of events and conversations which I thought could have been lost without the book losing its sense. It is difficult to know what I felt about the experience of reading this book – there was a certain fascination and a desire to know what might happen next but I wouldn’t say that I actively enjoyed the story. It was interesting to read it though.