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The Lambs of London By Peter Ackroyd

Like a cliff’s Notes for the 17th century, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales Of Shakespeare adapted 20 of the Bard’s best-known plays into a condensed, easy-to-read form that was accessible to children and indeed the general population.
Peter Ackroyd should perhaps have borne this in mind with his fictionalised account of the events that not only inspired the siblings to write the classic Lambs’ Tales but also drove Mary to murder her mother.

Unfortunately, Ackroyd’s prose is dry and stilted, and some knowledge of the Georgian times and its language would also make for an easier read.
The novel opens with Charles and Mary meeting William Ireland, the ambitious, 18-year-old son of an antiquarian bookseller. Ireland does not want merely to follow in the footsteps of his father Samuel but is determined to make a name for himself, which he proceeds to do by discovering a lost trove of Shakespeare treasures, first stumbling upon a simple signature and seal, before unearthing a love poem to Anne Hathaway and finally a complete play, Vortigern.
His finds are eagerly embraced by the Shakespeare-mad scholars of the day, even though he stubbornly refuses to reveal the identity of his mysterious benefactor.
Meanwhile Mary, already scarred from a bout of smallpox, falls hopelessly in love with the charming Ireland before plunging headlong into the polluted Thames during a fateful trip.
As with his previous work, Ackroyd vividly depicts the London of the era, right down to the exact street. The Lambs and the little-known Ireland are not the only real-life figures here: Thomas de Quincey, Richard Sheridan and even the Prince of Wales of the period play a part. And, while it may be a difficult read, The Lambs Of London is an intriguing literary thriller which, like William Ireland’s best work, cleverly blends fact with fiction.
* Stephen Jewell is an Auckland journalist


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