Chaucer is the first book in Peter Ackroyd’s new series of Brief Lives and was the other purchase I made in the English-language bookshop in Bucharest last month. I admit to having something of a love/hate relationship with Ackroyd. I absolutely loved Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and I also enjoyed The Lambs of London, but I struggled to get into Hawksmoor a number of years ago and gave up on it. Whatever one thinks of Ackroyd, though (and his writing can be a little heavy at times), he is an amazingly prolific, eclectic and thoughful writer and the Brief Lives project seems to be one entirely suited to him and his scholarly approach.
Chaucer is exactly the kind of biography I like. At only 160 pages it gives me enough detail about the subject without my getting bogged down in the minutiae of the matter. If I want to read 500 pages on Chaucer, I’m sure there are books that I can turn to for that, but if I want a well-written and authoritative introduction to the man, his life and times, then this will do very well indeed. But Ackroyd has written something more than a simple account of one of the great figures of English literature. He places Chaucer very firmly within his historical context and a very significant context it is too. Thankfully, due to Chaucer’s job (or jobs) as a senior public official, we know a fair amount about him and his life (his name is mentioned in various official documents). Ackroyd places Chaucer at the centre of a period of great cultural, social and political change. It is a time when the English language is beginning to assert itself over Norman French (England was still very much a bilingual society at the time) and Chaucer is the first poet to predominantly use English as his medium of choice. The English language itself is changing; literacy is growing (Chaucer’s writing bridges the gap between oral traditions of recitation and literary traditions of private reading); the medieval Feudal system is beginning to wither (Chaucer was very nearly caught up in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381); Chaucer was also nearly a victim in the usurping of Richard II and installation of Henry IV on the throne of England. Given our own changing times regarding digital technology and its impact upon our literary and cultural lives, this makes Chaucer’s story all the more interesting in the telling.
Towards the beginning of the year I read another ‘biography’ of one of our great literary figures – Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare – and they make an interesting comparison. Ackroyd’s book is everything that Bryson’s isn’t. Whilst Bryson relies on his journalistic flair for carrying the narrative, I found myself quickly losing confidence in his authority of the subject. With Ackroyd the opposite is true. Chaucer may not be the witty romp that Bryson’s book is, but it is well-researched, carefully considered, informative and erudite. It is a leisurely, contemplative journey, rather than an exciting rollercoaster of a read. I’m looking forward to the others in the series.