Written by Peter Ackroyd
(Vintage, 2005), 175 pages.
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
I didn’t really like this book. I was kind of disappointed. After having read Dante by R. W. B. Lewis (reviewed in the forth-coming Summer 2015 issue), and Maguire and Smith’s 30 Myths about Shakespeare (planned for inclusion in the Fall 2015 issue), I was ready for yet another biography that would shed a lot of light on an interesting writer about whom I know too little. I didn’t feel that this was accomplished here, at least to the degree that these two other books managed it.
Lewis was able to use Dante’s writings to reveal so much about him; why was Ackroyd not able to do this for Chaucer? If the problem is intrinsic to Chaucer’s writing – that he’s simply not that self-revealing in his poetry – which I find hard to believe of the writer of Canterbury Tales (the content of which, from an ethical standpoint anyway, I am by no means ready to defend!) there yet remains the problem of Ackroyd’s writing style. From such a well-known writer I was expecting more. He was uninteresting. His failure to translate his quotes from Chaucer into modern English was part of the problem, but only a part.
Sure, I know more about Chaucer now than I did a few weeks ago, but much less than I wanted to. Ackroyd provides very little inspiration to want to continue to read more about Chaucer. Nevertheless, I will likely someday read one of the fuller biographies he includes in his “Selected Reading” list. No thanks so him.