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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Peter Ackroyd

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Chaucer

Title: Chaucer
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Genre: Biography
Written: 2004
Length: 174 pages
Availability: Chaucer - US
Chaucer - UK
Chaucer - Canada
  • Includes 21 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B- : intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph D 29/3/2004 Jonathan Bate
Entertainment Weekly B- 4/2/2005 Troy Patterson
The Guardian . 2/4/2005 John Dugdale
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/1/2005 William Grimes
The Spectator . 24/4/2004 Stephen Abell
Sunday Telegraph . 27/3/2005 Stephen Butler
TLS . 19/11/2004 Ad Putter

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but not exactly overwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • " Geoffrey Chaucer is a figure who eludes the biographer's grasp even more fully than Shakespeare. (...) The tools for understanding Chaucer are literary history, philology and the history of patronage and court politics in the 14th century. None of these disciplines is Ackroyd's strong suit. (...) Paradoxically, the very brevity of this book makes it seem tired. (...) Here, the writing is sloppy and the thinking slack." - Jonathan Bate, Daily Telegraph

  • "Ackroyd's brief survey is measured, dutiful, and frequently dull -- too sketchy to be useful to the initiated and too dry to captivate the novice." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Ackroyd is thoroughly at home in the medieval period, and his hunches about the cruxes of Chaucer's life are as persuasive as his literary judgments" - John Dugdale, The Guardian

  • "The alarmingly prolific Mr. Ackroyd can be casual to the point of carelessness, tossing off random observations right and left, some of them penetrating, others inane." - William Grimes, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is not a grand literary experiment in the manner of Dickens (1990) but a Life that cheerfully admits the intervening centuries have rendered the great 14th-century poet somewhat wraithlike." - Stephen Butler, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer weaves the life records into a lively biography that will amuse the general reader with its story, and the experts with the gaffes that reveal he is not a subject specialist." - Ad Putter, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer -- the first in what is apparently meant to be an 'Ackroyd's brief lives'-series -- is a slim, manageable biography of the great poet. It offers a decent overview and introduction -- but unfortunately not much of a life-story.
       The fault lies largely in the fact that 14th-century poet Chaucer didn't leave much of a paper trail, beyond his work. Ackroyd tries his damnedest to piece together what Chaucer did and where he went, but, again and again, he is reduced to mentioning the lawsuits Chaucer was involved in -- the only documentation that seems even moderately well-preserved. (Unfortunately, even these aren't very interesting: beyond mentioning the parties and amounts involved there's little to these records.)
       Ackroyd sets the context and the scene -- what life in England of those times was like -- well, and suggests Chaucer's role in and reaction to the major events of the times (the political upheavals, the plague). Chaucer was close to the court (as was his wife -- their generally long-distance relationship being one of the many, many mysteries Ackroyd mentions but can only hypothesise about) and held some significant positions, both as diplomat abroad and in England. Ackroyd does his best to suggest what Chaucer's responsibilities might have been and what he might have been faced with, but almost all is little more than speculation.
       Ackroyd is on a bit more solid ground in tracing Chaucer's career as poet, here at least having considerable more material to work with. He offers some interesting thoughts on possible influences -- and personal contacts -- and the like, but avoids making the poetry the centre of the book, trying to focus on the life. Unfortunately, he also gets carried away with some broad pronouncements, such as the preposterous:

The Canterbury Tales is so inclusive a poem that fictional characters become real and real people become fictional.
       (Yes, it's clear what he means, but it's poorly expressed, especially since Ackroyd doesn't allow himself the space to adequately elaborate on the poem (and this and other ideas about it).)
       There are some juicy titbits -- Chaucer's money-woes, the rape-charge against him -- but with so little certainty about anything (a fact Ackroyd at least never tries to hide from the reader) it feels very threadbare. A longer study, looking at all this little evidence more thoroughly, would have been preferable -- or, even more so, an entirely fictional take.
       A reasonably useful overview, Chaucer sits uncomfortably between full-fledged biography and an encyclopaedia entry -- either of which would likely prove more satisfactory.

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Chaucer: Reviews: Chaucer: Peter Ackroyd: Other books by Peter Ackroyd under review: Other books under review of interest:

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About the Author:

       English author Peter Ackroyd was born in 1949. He has written numerous novels and several literary biographies.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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