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Fiction and fact entwine as a novelist tackles the life of Chatterton

Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd. New York: Grove Press. 240 pp. $17.95. Peter Ackroyd, author of an excellent biography of T.S. Eliot, has a penchant for weaving the strands of biography and history into his fiction. His latest novel, ``Chatterton,'' deftly entwines fiction and fact while operating on three historical stages.

The first (chronologically) is late 18th-century England, backdrop for the brief, brilliant life of Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), whose suicide in a London garret at age 17 fixed him in the Romantic imagination as the very type of the neglected young genius: ``Chatterton, the marvelous Boy,/ The sleepless soul that perished in his pride,'' as Wordsworth called him.

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The second is Victorian England (1856-57, to be exact), where poet and novelist George Meredith is posing for Henry Wallis's painting of ``The Death of Chatterton.'' This painting, which hangs in the Tate Gallery, is the only known portrait of Chatterton, and, of course, is not Chatterton but Meredith posing as Chatterton.

The third is contemporary England, where a young poet, Charles Wychwood, believes he has come on some startling evidence (papers and a portrait) that will revise the Chatterton legend. Like Chatterton so long ago, Charles is a struggling poet enthralled by the past, but his existence, unlike the solitary Chatterton's, is encumbered and enriched by his small family: his devoted wife, Vivien, and their engaging little boy, Edward.

Researching Chatterton, Charles enlists the aid of novelist Harriet Scrope (one of the unscrupulous, nasty old women who seem so prevalent in British fiction of the 1980s), in the hope she will help him get published. Harriet, meanwhile, is trying to write her memoirs but is unable to tell her own story. She hopes to feed Charles some dubious data about her past and have him invent a life story from that. Even Harriet's novels are fraudulent: As Charles's friend Philip Slack discovers by chance, she stole plots from another writer.

``Chatterton'' is a novel about the labyrinthine paths of literary influence. One character even alludes to critic Harold Bloom's phrase ``the anxiety of influence.'' Chatterton tried to pass off his writings as the work of an imaginary 15th-century monk named Thomas Rowley.

The motive for Chatterton's forgery, as Ackroyd presents it, is complicated. Of obscure background, Chatterton found the literary world more receptive to relics than to a new and unknown poet. Eventually, to be ``found out'' would be to have his genius (if not his probity) confirmed: If Thomas Rowley had not written those marvelous poems, then Thomas Chatterton had. But most of all, Ackroyd presents Chatterton as a boy inspired by the past - as all poets and readers of poetry must be. While still a boy, ``with trembling Fingers'' he lovingly transcribes the crumbling documents he's discovered in an old church: ``... my Imagination was all on Fire.... I was brought to such a Pitch that, when I left off transcribing, I found that I could continue in my own right; there was a pritty little Sentence, viz `And so they toke him by every parte of the body', to which I then added, `and bare hym into a chambir and leyde him a rych bedde'.''

In contrast to the pathos of the aspiring poets (Chatterton and Wychwood), Ackroyd has tried to provide a kind of comic relief, which does not quite come off. In wicked old Harriet and a whole circle of equally outr'e minor characters, he has attempted a gallery of Dickensian grotesques. But they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Perhaps this replication of identity is linked to the theme of plagiarism/forgery, but the result is monotonous nonetheless.

These flaws, finally, do not occlude the luster of this novel, which glints and gleams off many surfaces: from the poems of Meredith and Chatterton that seed the text to Chatterton's ``true story'' (invented by Ackroyd), to the astonishing flow of eloquence in which Wychwood defends poetry in a climactic scene in an Indian restaurant appropriately called the Kubla Khan:

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And if poetry doesn't matter ... why is it that there are people who find their only comfort on earth in reading it?... What is it that they find in books which nothing else in the world can show or tell them? ... And why is it ... that some people try all their lives to become writers or poets, even though they are too ashamed to show their work to anyone?... Why do they write and write, putting their poems and stories away as soon as they're finished? Where does their dream come from?

Those who enjoy this novel about Thomas Chatterton should know that his ``Selected Poems'' is available in paperback ($7.95) from Carcanet, New York.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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