– The Breaking Of The Timeline In Chatterton Essay, Research Paper
Time strips our illusions of their hues
And one by one in turn, some grand mistake
Casts off its bright skin yearly like a snake.
Lord Byron, Don Juan, 5.21
In most detective stories, time plays a major factor in the deciphering of
the puzzle for both the reader and for the narrator. Through the use of time, the
characters are able to recreate the events of the mystery surrounding them in
order to hopefully solve this mystery. But time plays a different role in Peter
Ackroyd’s novel Chatterton. On one hand, time is one of the causes of the
mystery in the story; on the other, Ackroyd uses it anachonistically in order to
unite different periods in his novel as well as different characters, specifically
Charles Wynchwood, Thomas Chatterton and George Meredith. This essay will
attempt to demonstrate how Ackroyd accomplishes this anachronistic merging of
three time periods through his narrative.
The novel is divided into three distinct parts. The first part consists of
Charles’ discovery of a painting of Chatterton, supposedly at the age of fifty,
along with a number of manuscripts of his. Through these discoveries, Charles
becomes enamored with the idea of uncovering the truth behind Chatterton’s
death, since it was believed that he had died at the age of eighteen. The second
part of the story is used to confirm many of Charles’ beliefs and discoveries. He
discovers that Chatterton was forging works under the names of other authors,
and selling them as their own masterpieces. The final part of the story
“ingeniously deconstructs the whole concept of authenticity.” (Finney, p. 256)
The painting of Chatterton is found out to be a forgery, the other characters in
the novel discover that Chatterton’s works were forgeries, and Philip begins to
write the book that Charles was going to write before his death which proposes
the imagined assumption that Chatterton’s works are indeed authentic.
But the story is also divided into three parts chronologically. The first part
takes place in the eighteenth century, where we learn the story of Thomas
Chatterton’s life, his writings, and his death. The second part consists of the
nineteenth century painter Henry Wallis painting a portrait of Chatterton’s death,
using George Meredith as his model. This takes place some 80 years after
Chatterton’s death. The third and final part is located in the twentieth century.
This story consists of Charles Wynchwood’s discovery and investigation of the
painting and of Chatterton’s manuscripts. But while these three story-lines are
separated in time, they appear to have some consequence upon each other and
merge on a few occasions into one another. “Ackroyd’s vision is essentially
atemporal; past and present interact in the moment.” (Finney, p. 257)
Keeping with this theme, Ackroyd juxtaposes these time periods in a
bizarre manner throughout the novel. The story opens with Charles, in the
present, discovering the painting of Chatterton. Throughout the novel, we are
returned to the past, to the nineteenth century, where Wallis is painting the
portrait; and the book ends with Chatterton’s death in the eighteenth century.
The book presents the series of events in a reverse sequence. Chatterton’s
death occurs long before Wallis paints the portrait, and even longer before
Charles finds this portrait. Within the frame of the novel, Chatterton’s death
occurs only after Charles’ death.
This historical anachronism is not unique in the novel. The painting which
Wallis paints depicts Chatterton’s deathbed scene. The portrait was entirely a
work of fiction, since Chatterton died some 80 years before the painting was
produced. No one knew with certainty how Chatterton had died, or in what
condition he was found. But the details of the painting are reflected in the end of
the novel in Chatterton’s actual deathbed scene. And these very same details
are again presented in Charles’ deathbed scene.
His right arm fell away and his hand trailed upon the ground, the
fingers clenched tightly together; his head slumped to the right
also, so that it was about to slide off the hospital bed. His body
arched once in a final spasm, quivered, and then became still.
‘Chatterton’ was finished. (p. 170)
This passage describes Charles’ death. The last line quoted ties together the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Charles dies, Wallis finished his portrait
of Chatterton’s death. It is almost as though it was Charles’ death that Wallis is
portraying, not Chatterton’s. Charles’ death somehow completes the painting
which was created 130 years earlier. To corroborate this argument, shortly after
Charles’ death, his son Edward visits the Tate Gallery. When he looks at the
picture of the deathbed scene, he “sees his father lying on the bed in place of
Chatterton (who at any rate is Meredith).” (Finney, p. 258) Here Edward realizes
that his father will never wholly die, because he will live on in this painting.
Nevertheless, Chatterton’s death still echoes the portrait left by Wallis. He has
the same pose, and characteristics as bestowed upon him by Wallis. He ends
up “dying not with the grimace produced by the effects of arsenic but with the
smile that both Wallis and now Ackroyd bestow on him.” (Finney, p. 258)
Throughout the novel, the past plays an important role on the present. All
of the writers presented in this novel (Charles, Harriet Scrope, Philip, Andrew
Flint) are influenced by the past. Charles tries to write a book about Chatterton
and his forgeries; Harriet plagiarizes plots from obscure nineteenth century
novels; Philip wants to write the book on Chatterton which Charles had begun
before his death; Andrew peppers his language with quotations from past works
and classic authors.
But at the same time, the present seems to influence the past. As we
have already shown, Wallis’ portrait is only completed upon Charles’ death, and
the elements of this painting come to reflect what has happened in the past, at
Chatterton’s death, as well as those in the present during Charles’ death. Upon
his death, Chatterton’s face has the smile which was given to him by Wallis in
his painting. Had he not painted his death this way, would Chatterton have had
a grimace of pain due to the horrific death he encountered rather than a smile?
During the nineteenth century narrative, Meredith tells Wallis that “I
dreamed of Chatterton the other night. I was passing him on some old stairs.”
(p. 139) Charles also had a vision of Chatterton while sitting in the park.
“Charles looked down again in despair and, when he glanced up, the figure of
Thomas Chatterton had disappeared.” (p. 3) Here we find one of the
anachronisms which Ackroyd has used in the novel. As he dies, Chatterton sees
Wallis and Charles. “I will not wholly die, then. Two others have joined him – the
young man who passes him on the stairs and the young man who sits with
bowed head by the fountain – and they stand silently beside him. I will live for
ever, he tells them.” (p. 234) In seeing these visions on his deathbed,
Chatterton realizes that he will live on through the eyes and lives of others after
him. Ackroyd is thus merging the three time periods together. In so doing, he is
forcing the reader to perceive the three time periods at once. The time
continuum is shattered, and all time becomes one. The end of the story is
timeless, since Chatterton dies and is united with both Wallis and Charles, who
will only live long after his death.
In forcing the reader to question the one element which is usually
constant in a novel, time, Ackroyd is unsettling his audience. They are forced to
accept what is being presented to them even if in their own rational mind it is
impossible. The reader usually tries to identify secure elements in a novel to
hold on to. In this case, many of the characters are plagiarists and time has no
real meaning. What is there left for the reader to hold on to? By bending the
rules and boundaries of time, Ackroyd can create a world in which Charles
Wynchwood, Henry Wallis and Thomas Chatterton can all be together for a brief
Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1993.
Finney, Brian. “Peter Ackroyd, Postmodernist Play and Chatterton.” Twentieth
Century Literature, 38, 2 (1992): 240 – 261.