Albion : the origins of the English imagination

by Peter Ackroyd

Paper Book, 2003





New York : Nan A. Talese, 2003.


From Beowulf and the Venerable Bede through King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to Tolkein's LORD OF THE RINGS; from Chaucer through Shakespeare to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; from Purcell to Vaughan Williams, Hogarth to Turner; from mystery plays and lives of the saints through music hall to pantomime - Peter Ackroyd's favourite themes are there- visionary poetry, theatrical novels, fantastical travel books; English paths in the English landscape, the sound of the sea in English music; the overlapping of myth with reality, fiction with non-fiction - and there are also explorations of forgery and plagiarism; Romanticism and autobiography; translation and assimilation; ruins and antiquarianism.; the English love of miniatures, drag acts and eccentrics; and the English predilection for understatement and embarrassment. As he did in London, Peter Ackroyd leads the reader through a labyrinth. This will be one of the most exciting and exuberant books to be published in 2002.… (more)

Media reviews

Ackroyd's argumentative method is ... circular, and he too relies on such eternal returns to hold together a series of short and unconsecutive chapters.
2 more
What's modern about the Anglo-Saxons doesn't concern him; what's Anglo-Saxon about the moderns does.
As with so much of his recent output, one is continually charmed and instructed, while suspecting that the whole amounts to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

User reviews

LibraryThing member yarb
The major failing of Albion is its falling between two structual stools. It's loosely chronological and loosely thematic, so that in the early Anglo-Saxon chapters we're frequently yo-yoed far into the future, following the breadcrumb trail of some governing English trait. This is fine, but the same referents then appear again later on, when the chronological narrative has caught up, and we're in turn catapulted back into the mists of the middle ages to check back in with Langland or Julian of Norwich. So everything shows up at least twice. I'm sure this was Ackroyd's design, and it certainly reinforces his thesis that English art and thought is cyclical and there's nothing new under the sun, but I found it pretty irritating.

Another irritant is the extent to which Ackroyd's past studies dominate the book. Chatterton, Blake and Dickens are lavishly treated, but there are only passing mentions for less famous but arguably more English writers like Clare, Crabbe and Cowper. There is a chapter on "English Music" which is really just about Vaughan-Williams - Purcell and Elgar are mentioned once or twice in passing. Of course it's inevitable that a subject of such massive scope will result in an uneven book, but one has the impression that much of Albion is cobbled together out of notes and clippings left over from Ackroyd's previous research efforts. See also London, which gets a very good chapter to itself but without any explanation of how the capital has influenced the national imagination, as opposed to expressing its own.

Some excellent mini-essays that could stand alone: ghosts and the gothic, the English Bible, Samuel Johnson.

Ackroyd identifies all the big themes, albeit none of them are new - melancholy, pragmatism, the pastoral, etc etc., and as a miscellany there will be something here for everyone - but as a unified thesis it doesn't hang together. Still a fun read, though.
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LibraryThing member bhowell
This book is a must have for anyone studying English literature and its history. Should be used with first year English classes-impeccable British writing and teaches fundementals of each movement.
LibraryThing member mbmackay
What a dreadful book. A mountain of snippets of information, some of it possibly very interesting, but with no structure, no sense of connectivity between all the data. Must have been published on the basis of the author’s reputation from his other books, because this one is a shocker. Read February 2008
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Quicker (and infinitely more enjoyable) to read Christopher Hitchens' review of this book in The Atlantic, rather than the book itself.

Three problems, admirably summarised by Hitchens:
1. "Ackroyd's unresolved difficulty [...] is his frequent inability to identify as "English" anything that could not be attributed as well to other nations."
2. "To say, as Ackroyd airily does, that this cosmopolitanism "corresponds to the English archetype" is to say too much and prove too little."
3. "His own Albion [...] overlooks the way in which Englishness was imposed upon others [...] and in general reviews the pageant while omitting the elements of tragedy.

To compound this, the book is not particularly well written. It's full of real "Pseud's Corner" stuff, which - when you are straining for credulity at the point Ackroyd is trying to make (ref point 2 above) - makes for very irritating reading.
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LibraryThing member turtlesleap
An excellent choice for the student of English literature, its referents and its development.
LibraryThing member bibliothecarivs
Albion traces ideas, images and patterns across the centuries to consider what it means to be English. Any Anglophile will enjoy the many and varied cultural references linked within Ackroyd's dense but fascinating text. Beginning and ending with Englishmen I admire (historian the Venerable Bede (d. 735) and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (d. 1958)), these two disparate personalities were brought together in one memorable statement: "The embrace of present and past time, in which English antiquarianism becomes a form of alchemy, engenders a strange timelessness. It is as if the little bird which flew through the Anglo-Saxon banqueting hall, in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, gained the outer air and became the lark ascending in Vaughan Williams's orchestral setting. The unbroken chain is that of English music itself." To me, reading this book was like examining the contents of an ancient attic trunk, ruminating on the people, places, and things that made you who you are. When you come to the end of your literary pilgrimage, you're better for having experienced it.… (more)


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