Chatterton is a curious novel about a curious subject. Born in Bristol in 1752, Thomas Chatterton was a poet and forger who killed himself at age 17. He died in almost complete obscurity, but as posthumously published works began to surface he made a name for himself and gained praise from many poets in the Romantic period and beyond, not least Keats and Coleridge. Yet I doubt many people today have heard of him. I spent three years reading English at university and his name didn’t come up once.
Ackroyd’s novel uses Chatterton’s life and death as its starting point for a general exploration into the lines that are drawn between real and fake, and the idea that art is capable of immortalising its subjects and its creators. It sets itself in the present-day and the past. Charles Wychwood, a modern poet, discovers a painting of Chatterton in a shop in Bristol showing the poet to be older than 17. He begins investigating Chatterton’s life and works, and in so doing engages with a wide cast of peripheral characters who themselves are engaged in mysteries and deceit. While this story unfolds, Ackroyd also tells the story of Chatterton’s life, giving us increasing levels of knowledge about the man and resolving in a surprising but fitting way.
The story is entertaining and the book is clever structurally. It’s actually far more complex than its modest page count and reputation might suggest. Ackroyd’s intelligent blending of ideas across time works well, and I felt a key idea behind the novel is that histories (and truth generally) are always obscured, no matter their proximity to the enquirer. The writing is a little over-blown at times, and there are slightly surreal moments which I thought did more to detract than develop the story, but I enjoyed reading the book overall. And I was pleased to come away interested in a poet whose work was previously unknown to me.