How Ackroyd presents ideas of originality in the novel Chatterton

Length: 2619 words

Ackroyd demonstrates to us a number of examples of originality within the novel ‘Chatterton’. He presents to us characters that struggle to find true individual creativeness in their work and lives. He juggles ideas of plagiarism, borrowing, theft and forgery within his complex and rich novel whilst trying to define the capacity to act or think independently. Writing is a key concept in the novel that links the timelines together nicely as well as presenting ideas and problems of originality.

For example it is notable that when Philip discovers Harriet’s plagiarism of Harrison Bentley’s novels, he casts no blame on her, nor does Charles when he confronts her. This comes from Philip’s own past attempt to write a novel which he abandoned after some forty pages because they “seemed to him to be filled with images and phrases from the work of other writers whom he admired. ” He is obviously suffering from the anxiety of influence1 as he struggles to perceive whether or not his work is inspired or rather an imitation of other’s work.

His novel “had become a patchwork of other voices and other styles, and it was the overwhelming difficulty of recognizing his own voice among them that had led him to abandon the project”. In the library he has a nightmare vision of books that “seemed to expand as soon as they reached the shadows, creating some dark world where there was no beginning and no end, no story, no meaning” It takes Charles’s death and the exposure of the forgery of Chatterton’s papers to bring Philip to realize that “The important thing is what Charles imagined, and we can keep hold of that. That isn’t an illusion.

The imagination never dies. ” Even more important is Philip’s insistence that he must tell the story in his own way. “‘And you know,'” he adds, “‘I might discover that I had a style of my own, after all'” Style, the creative use of language, is ultimately the writer’s principal contribution to the world. Just as Ackroyd has found himself as a writer by exposing himself to the writings of Wilde, Eliot, and Dickens, so Philip finds himself by exposing himself to the real and forged writings of Chatterton. Charles Wychwood, one of our main characters, never actually plagiarises in the novel.

He finds a painting that he becomes convinced is real, but turns out to be a fake. He discovers manuscripts which confirm his suspicions of Chatterton living longer than recorded, but these also are exposed as fakes. It seems that he is more a victim in this novel, than we may first believe. He is also a victim to vivid hallucinations and excruciatingly real pain due to the ever growing presence of the brain tumour in the back of his head which creates such things as “the noises would not leave his head” and his meeting with the young man who “had red hair, brushed back”.

This we read as being Chatterton and understand that it is a vision as an independent party in the form of the park attendant informs us that he just witnessed Charles talking to himself. These hallucinations are however a motif of Ackroyd’s to emphasise the inter-connectivity of the novel. “Chatterton” has three distinct time periods which Ackroyd loves to play around with, much in the same way as he did in the two time periods of his third novel; Hawksmoor. In Hawksmoor for example he ends the chapter on a word or question, which is continued or answered in the next chapter.

What is interesting however is that the two chapters do not continue in the same timeline but rather alternate between the 18th century (1712 -1715) and the 20th century (1970s). The nature of time is one of the novel’s main themes: time both connects and separates the two strands of the novel. Again and again, the detective tries to reconstruct the timing of the killings which in this case seem to be a futile task because there are no fixed points from which to associate events.

The first of these consists of Chatterton’s short but important life and uses late eighteenth century speech to try to create a sense of age and place in history. Ackroyd also switches from what has been up until chapter six, a third person point of view, and employs a first person point of view. This helps the reader get into the mind of Chatterton, and maybe get a little more understanding of Chatterton’s character and what kind of a man he actually was, rather than feeling like somebody looking on at his life. The second timeline focuses on 1856 when Henry Wallis completed his portrait of a dead Chatterton.

Wallis uses the poet George Meredith as his model. Meredith’s wife, Mary, leaves him for Wallis after the portrait is completed leaving him distraught and alone in the world. The third is located in the year 1987 with another failed poet, Charles Wychwood, who we would probably recognise as the central character of the novel despite the novel’s title. Charles’ group of friends includes Harriet Scrope, a novelist who plagiarizes the novels of Harrison Bentley, and a character that the critic Susana Onega believes “is indeed Peter Ackroyd’s version of Dickens’s Miss Havisham”.

His friends also include Philip Slack, a failed novelist who Susana Onega believes to be a “more psychologically developed character”, and Andrew Flint, a novelist and biographer of Meredith are all important in their own way, and contribute to the outcome of the novel immensely. It is obvious that Ackroyd wants these three timelines to interact and generate meaning by reiteration beneath a surface difference. One of the most obvious ways this occurs is in the correlations he makes between the way Chatterton disappears into his writings and the way Wallis disappears into his paintings.

Charles seems to seek to make his name through the discovery of forged writings of a Chatterton who lived on after his own forged death. What is interesting is how Charles’ own name is only likely to survive through the writings of Philip who hopes to write about Charles’s theory of a resurrected Chatterton. Even Harriet loses herself in the web of intertextual literary theft. In every case the subject seems to always end up disappearing into the work of art and so this appears to become the centre piece of the entire novel.

The painting is a subject of reiteration that Ackroyd often brings up throughout the novel. Charles first discovers it in the antique shop of Mr. and Mrs. Leno. Ackroyd’s presentation of Charles’ first encounter with the painting is quite extraordinary; much like a writer may describe the first meeting of a pair of lovers. “He had the faintest and briefest sensation of being looked at…… caught the eyes of a middle-aged man who was watching him”. Ackroyd proceeds to describe in great detail the painting in which this middle aged man resides.

The painting is no great masterpiece; in fact it is as we find out at the end of the novel when Harriet takes it to be looked at in the Cumberland and Maitland gallery; it is indeed a patchwork of many pieces of previous artworks. It is “clumsily tacked upon a light wooden frame” showing no sign of the grandeur one may expect of a painting of a famous person. This may be because as Edward says upon first laying eyes upon the piece “It’s a fake. ” Ackroyd may have been describing the piece in such a detrimental way as to discourage the reader from actually believing that it could ever be of any value.

Ackroyd’s writing however causes us to accept Charles’ enthusiasm towards it and follow his path. When reading the novel a second time I must admit that it wasn’t as enjoyable as the first time due to my knowledge of the twists in the plot. This image as Ackroyd describes appears again later in the novel, but earlier in time. It crops up in Meredith’s timeline of over1300 years earlier than of Charles’ time. On this occasion it is found in a shop where in a corner there is a “number of old or dirty canvases”.

Meredith picks one up to show to his wife Mary and is said to be looking at “a middle-aged man, without a wig” sitting in exactly the same pose and composition as that of the piece Charles has. Meredith voices our thoughts as he says “this face is familiar… is it a poet, I wonder? ” I find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence. Ackroyd has deliberately placed this here to make a connection between time zones. Mary makes an observation that she “saw Meredith’s own face depicted ….. lined and furrowed in a desolate middle age”.

This isn’t actually true, it is her imagination, it isn’t actually Meredith, but she can see what he may be like in middle – age. The fact that there is a similarity, clarifies the fact that this face may well be Chatterton due to the fact that of recent he stated “My face, but not myself. I am to be Thomas Chatterton, not George Meredith” of course referring to the fact that he is posing for Wallis’ piece. Throughout the novel, motifs 2 continue to crop up in different lines of the story, and so this is another example of the way in which Ackroyd intertwines the time zones he creates.

The pose in which Chatterton dies is a description that appears regularly, often not in its complete form but more of a dropped hint of its intentional reference. These small reminders such as “he saw a man laying down upon a bed, with one arm trailing upon the floor”3 and “Wallis’s body lying on the bed, one arm trailing on the floor”4 give a sense of foreboding, as we all know the outcome of Chatterton thanks to Wallis’ very real depiction of Chatterton’s death5. These two references come from the timelines of Wallis, however what is the most interesting fact is how similar Ackroyd makes Charles’ death to Chatterton’s.

Not necessarily in the same manner of death but the final resting position of the bodies. “Charles reached down with his right hand and touched the bare wooden floor… His knuckles brushed against…. a piece of the rough writing paper he had been using”6. The whole of Charles’ death scene is so similar to that of Chatterton’s that I find it hard to believe that it is a mere chance or even fate that Charles comes to rest in this pose, as Ackroyd is clearly making a connection between the two characters, and how they are both similar in nature and spirit.

Ackroyd occasionally drops a hint of what is to come when it is least expected, or not even in context as seen when Mary, Meredith’s wife, was “examining her palm as she clenched and unclenched her right hand” much in the same vane as the death spasms of Chatterton. Henry Wallis is a prime example of somebody who finds it difficult to find originality. His piece on Chatterton was without a doubt a marvellous revelation and breakthrough in terms of his own work, but Ackroyd often presents us with small hints of the fact that Wallis needs to look to others for guidance and inspiration.

When admiring Mary’s beauty for example, he refers to her as “a giotto” by a great Italian painter prior to the renaissance. This he goes on to change into being an “Otto Runge”, a German painter. Interestingly Ackroyd decides to describe Wallis’ bookcase, a normal household object that is full of books by and about “Chacer, Boccaccio and Shakespeare”. It seems that Wallis needs to be surrounded by great men, or works by them to feel inspired enough to create his own work. This is no bad thing as Charles says “.. veryone copies”7 when comforting Harriet about her plagiarised novels. This idea of everybody copying is supported by Oscar Wilde’s declaration that “Life imitates art”. If life imitates art, then art must come from other art, especially art of the same kind. For example David Lodge said that “Poems are not made out of experience, they are made out of poetry… ” Wallis makes a critical observation of Meredith however, that he “lost his artificial manner when he was no longer in the presence of his wife”.

This is interesting, as Meredith is not being his original self. He is putting up a front, much like an actor would on a stage. Ackroyd continues this idea as Meredith is walking alone and begins to have slightly disturbing hallucinations of everything being blurred and refers to the people like they were in a theatre. Again this seems to me to be Ackroyd linking timelines as Meredith appears to be suffering in a similar way to Charles. Meredith also has a vision of Chatterton in a dream: “I was passing him on some old stairs…. hy was I showing him a puppet? “8 This is similar to Charles’ vision of Chatterton in the park. Ackroyd is showing maybe that these failing poets are visited by the ghost of Chatterton as a warning or to tell them some kind of message. This idea is acknowledged by when Philip is reading about Meredith in “a selection of literary remiscences, edited by the Dowager Lady Moynihan. ” In this Philip discovers that “the young George Meredith saved for literature by the intervention of the ghostly Thomas Chatterton.

Ackroyd brings the three stories together on the final page when speaking of Chatterton’s journey as a spirit. “Two others have joined him – the young man who passes him on the stairs” Meredith “and the young man who sits with bowed head by a fountain” Charles. This confirms our earlier suspicions of who may be the one who is in these visions. Even Ackroyd’s minor characters of the novel seem to suggest ideas of falsity. Sadleir for example is said to have “crocodile tears and crocodile shoes”.

Claire acts rather childish such as her referring to paintings of nudes as “rudies” and referring to her boss as “the headmaster”. This may be a front to distract attention from her possibly unstable-self, however this is of course only speculative and is only an idea that one could follow further. Ackroyd also gives us people that are so extraordinarily weird and wonderful in the make-up off their character such as Pat, that it makes the reader stop to think about whether anything in this novel is real or if it is all imitation.

It is difficult to find a conclusive argument about the point that the novel is getting across as many moral questions arise from the reading of the text. After thoroughly enjoying the examination of “Chatterton”, a lot of ideas have been placed in my mind with which I have tried to convey in this essay. Originality is a difficult subject to try to successfully tackle, and I believe Ackroyd has done a rather good job. Everyone fears through the anxiety of influence that when they are creating a new article or commodity, it is actually a copy or plagiarism of somebody else’s work elsewhere in the world. Check your essays on plagiarism

What Ackroyd is trying to say is that each and every person does it unwittingly as common themes will always appear, and everyone is influenced by an object or individual at some point in their lives. Throughout the centuries artists, poets and other creative geniuses have been touched by something they saw. The very first pieces of artwork were created by being influenced by nature, so ultimately the one true original creator is God.

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