The prolific Ackroyd (J.M.W. Turner, 2006, etc.) returns to fiction in his ongoing examination of English cultural history, this time involving Charles and Mary Lamb, in the discovery of previously unknown Shakespearean manuscripts.
In the mid-1890s, the Lamb siblings live unhappily with their nagging mother and senile father. Charles, a drudge at the East India House, dreams of literary fame and drinks too much. Mary feels trapped in domesticity; her only outlet is discussions about Shakespeare and other writers with her brother, who finds her intensity a bit overwhelming. Enter William Ireland, an ambitious teenager who works in the bookshop of his pompous, domineering father Samuel. When William courts the Lambs’ and Samuel’s favor with a series of documents supposedly in Shakespeare’s hand—first a deed, then a poem, then a previously unknown play—it’s evident to the reader that these are fakes. For one thing, the limping verse was obviously not penned by the Bard; for another, William is a historical figure, like the Lambs, who did in fact forge many Shakespearean manuscripts. But an “expert” declares them genuine, and at first, it seems that William will gain the renown he so desperately desires and one-up his father in their struggle for eminence beyond a life in trade. Ackroyd paints a marvelously atmospheric portrait of Victorian London, particularly in his vivid rendering of the Drury Lane premiere of Vortigern, the phony play. His narrative doesn’t aim for suspense—it’s clear that William will be found out—but rather for a slow unraveling of the young man’s deception, paralleled by Mary’s descent into a fit of madness that leads her to kill her mother. Because this material is so familiar to anyone with an interest in English culture, the novel has a slightly shopworn feel; you admire Ackroyd’s skill and intelligence without being particularly engaged by his characters.
Reasonable entertainment for serious Anglophiles.