Dan Leo and the Limehouse Golem – Peter Ackroyd (US title: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree)

DLLG(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Many in our group enjoyed the author’s ‘Hawksmoor’. This novel was written nine years later and follows many of the same themes and fascinations, one might almost say obsessions.

This is a kaleidoscope of fragments which builds up the story by extracts from a (made up) diary, a trial transcript and the main character’s early history.  It begins at both ends and works towards the solution in the middle. There are surprises at the end of chapters, little hints all along so you wonder why a suspected a murderer reads Tennyson to his wife,  but it is not until you get to the end that they sink in so it maybe worth reading the book a second time to appreciate its clever crafting. No linear narrative here then, just like Ackroyd’s other London books.

These fragments come from all over the place and the author makes sense of them, just as we try to make sense out of the many events which make up out lives. One important fragment, woven into the story, is the main character, Lambeth Marsh Lizzie (Elizabeth Cree after her marriage) who is reminiscent of the title of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Liza of Lambeth. Maybe Ackroyd based his character on her because there are parallels: both are young women who have gone astray; both are the only child of a religious, hypocritical mother who mistreats them; both oppose their mother’s will; and both have lived all their childhood in poverty in Lambeth approximately in the same period. Both novels, deal with popular theatre influencing the lives and behaviour of the urban masses. Leno says, “We never do dirty – but double-entendres.”

Typically post-modern, the novel muses on the self. Who am I? Are we a consistent, integrated person or am I a series of different selves, reacting to the different people I meet, as it were a selection of stage personas. Poststructuralists tend to see the ‘self’ not as a fixed unity but more like a flux or a process which adapts to different situations and discourses it encounters. Elizabeth Cree does six acts a night, moving from theatre to theatre. She can be a girl, boy, man or woman. And Dan Leno “played so many parts that he hardly had time to be himself. And yet, somehow, he was always himself. He was the Indian squaw, the waiter, the milkmaid, or the train driver, but it was always Dan conjuring people out of thin air. …..suddenly he was the sour-faced spinster on the look-out for a man.” This Dan Leno is the master of masks and poses,  “He is endless” (But the real Dan Leno had a mental breakdown – his character(s) disintegrated.)

Where do we and the people in the book get our ‘characters’ from? Dan Leno wished to “understand the conditions which had, in a sense, created him”  He reads The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi as well as Thomas De Quincey’s essay on the famous clown, identified with him and saw parallels between Grimaldi’s and his own life. He, as it were, becomes him: when he lays sick and dying he repeats, word for word, Grimaldi’s farewell speech, “while those around his deathbed believed he was delirious.”  So Ackroyd emphasizes that we are products of our culture, and no more than that.  Our thoughts, dreams, and behaviour reflect our cultural and textual experience. We are what we read; everything we do or say has its complex origins in textual or cultural sources. “Sometimes I believe that I am made of ink and paper”, says Karl Marx.

Ackroyd’s interest in literary criticism is reflected here. Most of the characters are involved with texts, either reading, writing or stage acting. His characters read De Quincey’s essays. Karl Marx takes down from the shelf Dialogues of Three Templars on Political Economy by Thomas De Quincey, Dan Leno reads De Quincey’s essay on pantomime, ‘Laugh, Scream and Speech’. George Gissing writes his first public essay, ‘Romanticism and Crime’, and extols Thomas De Quincey’s impassionate prose. Most obviously, Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, an essay which evokes a sinister London, “a city of footsteps and flaring lights, of houses packed close together, of lacrymose alleys and false doors.” is surely where the author borrowed the crime plot, the ominous atmosphere of approaching doom; narrating from the murderer’s point of view, the access to the killer’s disturbed mind, the parallels between murder and acting, and the theatrical imagery which depicts the murderer very much like an artist in crime. Ackroyd even goes so far as to use the same setting (two houses on the Ratcliffe Highway, East London) and the same method of murder (the use of a mallet and a razor to crush the victims’ skulls and cut their throats).

The story, like the masks we wear in life, are all borrowed. John Cree plans to write a novel about urban poverty and “the crime and disease which it engendered” He does not go to the streets to collect his material but, instead, his first place of study is the Reading Room of the British Museum. “He had reserved a copy of Plumstead’s History of the London Poor and Molton’s A Few Sighs From Hell. Both books were concerned with the life of the indigent and the vagrant in the capital, and for that reason they were of especial interest to him.” So too, Ackroyd imitates the work of others: Dickens, Gaskell or George Gissing.

Where is integration to be found? The Reading Room of the British Museum becomes a place of almost mystical quality in this novel, the meeting point between various texts and discourses; this is where the roots of all the events in the book derive from; this is a giant library which can “be said to have affected the course of human history”. For George Gissing, who shares the author’s sense of place and identification of a spiritual home. Gissing lived ‘in the valley of the shadow of books’.

However, close to the centre of spirituality comes the occult, another of Ackroyd’s interests. Black and white go hand in hand.  Occult shops are to be found near the British Museum. And Gissing wonders about the invention of the calculating machine that may be draining away life, with souls trapped within it, maybe prefiguring computers and the alternative ‘reality’ of the online persona in social networking sites as an evasion of ‘real life’?

For a gay author, there are only two gay characters, the detective and his engineer boyfriend.

There are some strange terms used to describe people, probably commonly use at that time: Romanist, Hebrew.

Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in a house where the wallpaper was pages from the bible. Her Bible references are accurate, like Dot Cotton in East Enders. Her death bed confession shows her feistiness: “And I will fry eternally? I am surprised at you, father, for such childish notions. I cannot think of hell as some fish-shop. ….A sole may be fried, too.”, but also her mixing up of reality with pretence. She regarded the Mass as ‘such fun’, rather like the music hall where she had spent most of her working life.

So everything about us is created. But we should beware what we create. It could be a Frankenstein or a golem.

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