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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is a crucial author to explore the works of when looking at London as a literary setting. Ackroyd is an English biographer and author with a vast interest in the history and culture of London. A few of his works alongside Hawksmoor – the novel in question here - include: The Great Fire of London – his debut novel and his first about the city in which told the story of the eponymous event. London: The Biography – vital for anyone reading about the capital - an extensive non-fiction book providing a history of the city. London – a three-part documentary television programme released by the BBC also chronicling the history of London. Alongside these select works, Ackroyd has written about numerous prominent events that have occurred in the city – many of which have been monumental moments in the history of the United Kingdom - including the above Great Fire of London he has also told stories about The Peasants Revolt, The Plague and The Blitz. Characters – along with events – have also been prominent in Ackroyd’s work – Charles Dickens, T.S Eliot and Thomas De Quincy among the many that have been under the thumb of Ackroyd. Notable figures that have also appeared in my own research and studies throughout my PhD – and no doubt will continue to do so over the next three years. It can therefore not be debated that Ackroyd is a vital source of knowledge when concerned with London – so his work was always going to be crucial to supplement my own.

Hawksmoor – released in 1985 and only Ackroyd’s third fictional novel – is the first piece of Ackroyd’s impressive catalogue that I have delved into - as to strengthen my London literary knowledge. Akin to Ballard’s Crash and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – I found Hawksmoor to have a dystopian feel to it – despite being set in the 18th century. I also found that I experienced vibes of Jack the Ripper London era stories whilst reading the novel – no doubt due to its narrative and setting. To me, I felt that Hawksmoor was a postmodernist novel, one that tells the parallel stories of Nicholas Dyer (whose supervisor is Sir Christopher Wren), who builds seven churches in 18th-century London for human sacrifices, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, a latter-day detective in the 1980s, who investigates murders committed in the same churches. Ackroyd uses historical characters, sites and incidents throughout the story – but it is not completely 100% historically accurate – which I have no problem with. After all the story in the modern day is of course a fictional narrative – so bending time and history works successfully in Hawksmoor. For example, Nicholas Dyer, the architect of the seven churches, is modelled on Nicholas Hawksmoor – a real life architect in the 18th-century and confusingly - but I’m sure deliberately - shares the name of the detective in the modern era of Ackroyd’s book. Six of the seven churches in the novel were indeed built by Hawksmoor - Christ Church in Spitalfields, St George's in Bloomsbury, St Mary in Langbourn, St George in Stepney, St Anne's in Limehouse and St Alfege Church in Greenwich. The seventh and final church in the novel - Little St Hugh is fictional.

Occultism is one of the major themes throughout the book, I found the novel fascinating in general, Ackroyd creates a sense of doom and darkness throughout that made me really feel the dread in the story. But it is the novel’s links to psychogeography which make it of vital importance to me. Both the lead characters in the book can be likened to “wanderers” or “flaneurs” and the book’s themes of postmodernism, the urban environment and architecture all frequent psychogeographic theory. The churches in the novel to me represent how a place can in a strange kind of way can create a sense of time travel when visiting them. When Hawksmoor is investigating these crimes, the influence of the events centuries before him are affecting his sense of the time and space within these churches. He is taken out of current day and made to feel the dark acts that happened within the walls of these buildings. Dyer – the character – may have been dead for several decades, but his life and terrible beliefs are preserved within the churches. Hawksmoor, being a psychogeographer of sorts, can relate this to what is happening in the current day. Therefore, it can easily be seen how this links to psychogeography, Hawksmoor is aided by his ability to tap into this type of practice.

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