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.
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.
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.