“I believe both Macpherson and Chatterton that what they say is ancient, is so.”*

*William Blake


From: Bohemia in London (1907), by Arthur Ransome:

“People who by some misfortune of nature are unable to risk dishonesty by borrowing without having certain means of repayment are reduced to all kinds of unhappy expedients, and sometimes even to dying, like poor Chatterton, (in Brook Street, Holborn) in order to make both ends meet. Of him Johnson could say, “This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things,” and yet, after three months’ fight among the papers, living on almost nothing, and writing home to his people brave proud letters about his success, to keep them from anxiety, he spent three days without food, and then killed himself with arsenic, rather than accept from a landlady the food for which he doubted his ability to repay her. The most terrible detail in the tragedy was the memorandum that lay near him when he died, and showed that over ten pounds were owed him by his publishers. Ah me, in the days when I read that story ten pounds seemed opulence for a lifetime. It seemed a cruel and impossible thing, as all cruelty seems when we are young, that one who was owed so much should yet starve into suicide.”

From Wikipedia:

Emma Christina Tennant FRSL (20 October 1937 – 21 January 2017) was an English novelist and editor of Scottish extraction, known for a post-modern approach to her fiction, often imbued with fantasy or magic. Several of her novels give a feminist or dreamlike twist to classic stories, such as Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde (from Robert Louis Stevenson‘s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). She also published under the name Catherine Aydy.”

Emma Tennant reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s “Chatterton” for The Guardian of 11 Sep 1987:

“England is a land of jokesters and rhymesters, where nothing is ever quite as it seems, even the weather managing to pull off a daily fast one, with double bluffs making for foggy conditions where none had been forecast, and low fronts wrecking mariners in a sudden squall.

Some of this uncertainty, indeed, is retailed by the Ancient Mariner himself; and the vagaries of the weather occupy much of the mood of the Romantic movement in poetry: it is Peter Ackroyd’s achievement that he has shown that pseudonymous medieval monk, Thomas Rowley (who was in fact the young Thomas Chatterton in disguise) as the precursor of all those curses of the English modern age – climate, scenery and heritage.

The structure of the book is as complex and doubling-back as the subject demands, with Charles Wychwood, the bewitched poet of our times, haunted by henna-haired Chatterton (himself best known, since the demise of interest in his middle-ages forgeries, as a beautiful suicide, painted by Henry Wallis in 1856 with George Meredith as the model for ‘the marvellous boy’). 

Many of the characters in Wychwood’s quest for the truth about Chatterton, after the almost accidental acquiring of a portrait of what purports to be the poet in his own middle age, have an other-worldly air, as if to show that 16th century London, nearly all obscured though it may be, lives on in fact; the effect, strangely, as with the grotesque booksellers Mr and Mrs Leno, who supply Wychwood with the picture; and the Bristol ‘friend’ of Mr Joynson, printer and bookseller, is as if Angus Wilson’s characters had come startlingly to life. 

The most successful grotesque in this gallery of dolls is Harriet Scrope, a novelist who is herself discovered to be a plagiarist, and her relationship with Miss Sarah Tilt, a blocked scribbler of a book on the art of Death, Tilt bringing in another angle of fakery in the art gallery where Wychwood’s wife, a colourless and oppressed character works. Scrope, indeed, with her outrageous gin-supping, swearing and Cockney imitations, seems more of a man than Wychwood himself; and it’s tempting to wonder whether every single element in the book isn’t really its reverse, so that Chatterton stays alive and poems said to be Blake are written by the brilliant forger; and all this to prove that the portrayal of the real takes more invention than any make-believe. 

Chatterton suffers, if anything, from the somewhat deadly voices of the living. Scenes between the artist Wallis and the about-to-abscond Ellen Meredith, have the greatest power and imagination in the book. But then, to the English, the past does always sound more real.”


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