cover image CHAUCER


Peter Ackroyd, . . Doubleday/Talese, $19.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50797-4

Series of brief bios are old hat by now, but perhaps only the prolific novelist/historian Ackroyd would singlehandedly undertake an entire series—on English cultural figures—himself. This slim volume is not so much an account of the life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?–1400) as a consideration of his role in shaping England's national identity. The poet is hailed as the "progenitor of a national style," and deft literary analysis explicates Chaucer's innovations while acknowledging the influence of other poets. (Readers will also be glad to know that an appendix provides modern translations of Chaucer's extensively quoted Middle English.) Ackroyd doesn't ignore the biographical side of the story; much is made of Chaucer's position in the royal court, which provided the financial means to live comfortably while writing his verse—and indirectly introduced him to the work of Boccaccio, one of his most significant influences. Early vivid passages discuss how Chaucer's descriptions of medieval London can still resonate with modern readers, linking the poet to the "eternal vision" that has been a central theme in nearly all of Ackroyd's work. Thus the work can serve as an effective introduction to its author as well as its subject—and this series may be more approachable for many readers than Ackroyd's weighty histories London and Albion. 21 b&w illus. (Jan.)