Anachronisms In Ackroyd

– 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.

– 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.



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