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Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
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A-Lambs of LondonThis novel, by the author of Shakespeare: The Biography (2005), takes place in the 19th century, a few months before real-life Mary Lamb murdered her mother and a decade before her brother, English essayist Charles Lamb, published Tales from Shakespeare. Charles, a young writer working as a clerk at London’s East India Company, and Mary, constrained by domesticity, escape their lives by reading the Bard. Then William Ireland, a young bookseller, discovers a "lost" Shakespearean play and other Shakespearean documents. He seduces the siblings with his find as they struggle to understand the play’s origins. But is William’s manuscript authentic—or is it a fantastic hoax?
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 213 pages. $23. ISBN: 0385514611

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"I can’t remember a novel that wears its erudition so graciously, so lightly. … How delicately, how cleverly Ackroyd follows the acceleration of William’s scheme and its energizing effect on him and Mary." Ron Charles

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Gothic and wry, with a sweet-and-sour mix of tragedy and comedy worthy of a Romantic-period Shakespeare forgery, The Lambs of London builds to an artificial yet moving crescendo. … Everything about this carefully constructed novel is beautifully ambiguous, right down to Mary’s fate: Is she a heroine or a victim?" Polly Shulman

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Immortal Bard, dead 200 years at the time of this tale, looms like a beckoning phantom over the heads of many who live in a town where old Will’s past is in some ways still present. … True and fake, life and art, madness and sanity take turns together in this accelerating gavotte, a dance of wills and wants." Tom Nolan

Columbus Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The mystery—are the documents forgeries?—sustains the plot, although the outcome of the novel is never really in doubt. … Ackroyd manages to raise most of the ongoing debates about Shakespeare, often subtly, often humorously." Bill Eichenberger

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Few writers are more adept than Ackroyd at evoking and explaining the lure of the historical past. … But there’s a difference between invented characters and events which might possibly have existed and which illuminate hidden motives and inventions blatantly at odds with generally known facts." Merle Rubin

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ackroyd’s thinking on this subject is pretty superficial, and he treats his characters, even those who come to grief, with clinical detachment. Still, The Lambs of London is a clever and enthralling piece of entertainment in which the city—with its strollers, beggars, peddlers and thieves—plays a lively role." Brigitte Frase

Critical Summary

Peter Ackroyd, author of London: The Biography and other historical novels, imbues his newest work, based on real people in 19th-century London, with Elizabethan flair. Filled with colorful characters, suspense, ambiguity, and wit, this tragicomedy offers a rich appreciation of literature and history. The only debate centered on the novel’s historical accuracy. The Los Angeles Times faulted Ackroyd for presenting inaccuracies that contradict known history, despite the author’s admitted fictional bent (Mary falls for the real-life forgerer William, for example). But most critics praised Ackroyd’s "intriguing adjustments" to history (Newsday).

Further Reading

Tales from Shakespeare | Charles and Mary Lamb (1807; modern editions): Intended for younger readers, Tales paraphrases 20 of Shakespeare’s plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice.