A tour de force in the tradition of Hawksmoor and Chatterton, Peter Ackroyd's new novel of deceit and betrayal is a witty reimagining of a great nineteenth-century Shakespeare forgery.
Charles and Mary Lamb, who will achieve lasting fame as the authors of Tales from Shakespeare for children, are still living at their parents' home. Charles, an aspiring writer bored stiff by his job as a clerk at the East India Company, enjoys a drink or three too many each night at the local pub. His sister, Mary, is trapped in domesticity, caring for her ailing, dotty father and her maddening mother. The siblings' enchantment with Shakespeare provides a much-needed escape, and they delight in reading and quoting the great bard. When William Ireland, an ambitious young antiquarian bookseller, comes into their lives claiming to possess a "lost" Shakespearean play, the Lambs can barely contain their excitement. As word of the amazing find spreads, scholars and actors alike beat a path to Ireland's door, and soon all of London is eagerly anticipating opening night of a star-studded production of the play.
The perfect, lighthearted follow-up to Ackroyd's magnificent biography of Shakespeare, The Lambs of London transforms the real-life literary hoax into an ingenious, intriguing drama that will keep readers guessing right to the end.
Following up on his recent nonfiction Shakespeare: The Biography, Ackroyd brings readers forward to London at the turn of the 19th century, and to denizens who are preoccupied with the Shakespearean past. The plot is a lightly fictionalized story about real-life essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, both passionate devotees of the Bard, and their fraught friendship with William Henry Ireland, a bookseller who unearths a trove of Shakespeare documents, including what seems to be an unknown play. The mystery of the play's origin shapes an enchanting, slightly melancholy, exploration of Regency society. The young characters struggle with the constraints of their day--the brilliant, fragile Mary feels suffocated by the strictures of feminine domesticity; William chafes against his father's domination--but they do so without craning their necks toward modernity as an escape route: Ackroyd knows that the past is another country; there his characters live, and there they stay. Steeping readers in revealing but unobtrusive period detail, Ackroyd once again delivers a psychologically rich evocation of a vanished time. (June 20)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 10, 2007
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Excerpt from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
'I loathe the stench of horses.' Mary Lamb walked over to the window, and touched very lightly the faded lace fringe of her dress. It was a dress of the former period that she wore unembarrassed, as if it were of no consequence how she chose to cover herself. 'The city is a great jakes.' There was no one in the drawing-room with her, so she put her face upwards, towards the sun. Her skin was marked by the scars of smallpox, suffered by her six years before; so she held her face to the light, and imagined it to be the pitted moon.
'I have found it, dear. It was hiding in All's Well.' Charles Lamb rushed into the room with a thin green volume in his hand.
She turned round, smiling. She did not resist her brother's enthusiasm; it cleared her head of the moon. 'And is it?'
'Is it what, dear?'
'All's well that ends well?'
'I very much hope so.' The top buttons of his linen shirt were undone, and his stock only loosely knotted. 'May I read it to you?' He dropped into an armchair, and swiftly crossed his legs. It was a rapid and economical movement, to which his sister had become accustomed. He held out the volume at arm's length, and recited a passage. ' "They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make things supernatural and causeless seem modern and familiar. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear." Lafew to Parolles. That is exactly the thought of Hobbes.'
Mary generally read what her brother read, but she did so more slowly. She was more thoroughly absorbed; she would sit by the window, where the light had touched her a few moments before, and contemplate the sensations that her reading had aroused in her. She felt then, as she had told her brother, part of the world's spirit. She read so that she might keep up these conversations with Charles which had become the great solace of her life. They talked on those evenings when he returned, sober, from the East India House. They confided in each other, seeing the same soul shining in each other's face.
'What was that phrase, "seeming knowledge"? You enunciate so well, Charles. I would be glad to have your gift.' She admired her brother precisely to the extent that she did not admire herself.
'Words, words, words.'
'But would that apply to the people whom we know?' she asked him.
'Would what, dear?'
'Seeming knowledge and unknown fear?'
'I seem to know Pa, but should I submit to an unknown fear concerning him?'