Thames: A Biography
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 5/3/09
“Water is permanent; water is destructive; everything returns to its depths.” Such is probably the simplest way to sum up Peter Ackroyd’s non-fiction title: Thames: A Biography. In his new book, readers are given the opportunity to not just imagine a river, but also the idea of one. With his richly organized chapters rife with detail, Ackroyd provides insight on all things Thames: history, geology, mythology, hydrology and how this all pertains to the larger aspects of culture.
Readers might wonder, why the Thames? Ackroyd acknowledges this in his opening chapter titled “River as Fact.” In it he notes that the Thames, “must be the shortest river in the world to acquire such a famous history.” He argues that its 215 miles has “arrested the attention of the world” more so than the Mississippi River or the Amazon, even. One cannot argue the importance the Thames has had upon English culture, but perhaps some Americans might challenge his notion (we do have Mark Twain, after all).
Though Thames: A Biography is both an informative and pleasurable read, for its sections, as well as their individual chapters, are self-contained. In other words, one can skip about with ease, for even though this is untraditional “biography”, (who says the subject needs to be human) Ackroyd begins the book with the river’s birth and evolutionary years, to ultimately showing how it is a place of unchanging but also one of change. He documents the various battles that took place—notably the Danish who “concentrated on the Thames because they understood that control of the river would result in control of the surrounding country.”
So with the river came power. Yet also metaphor. Perhaps the most engaging chapters are those pertaining to the arts, specifically the painters and writers whose work has been shaped by the idea of river—evoking both dreamlike and classical narratives. The book includes a number of river paintings by artists like Richard Wilson, Canaletto, Whistler, and Constable, each illuminating perspectives varying from picturesque idealism and majesty to wartime.
And one cannot forget the myriad of poets and writers blossoming throughout the ages, poets and writers reflecting upon the river’s beauty, mystery and murder. From John Gower, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, and of course, Charles Dickens who Ackroyd argues, “The river runs through Dickens’s fiction just as it runs through the city itself.” He then adds, “It is hard to think of a single novel by Dickens where the Thames is not present, carrying the weight of the novelist’s obsession.”
Ackroyd also details how the river helped to create crime, and the various punishment options it offered over the centuries. There is a particularly grisly chapter discussing the many murders and suicides that have taken place, and how human skulls have since been dredged up over the years. Also, the diseases the river helped to spread, particularly the four epidemics of cholera in the nineteenth century, Ackroyd addresses in his chapter “Filthy River”. He begins it with, “The Thames has variously been described as a grey, dirty, smutty, sooty, smoky river. These are not nineteenth-century epithets. It has always been thus.” After reading, one will think twice about swimming. Yet despite its filth, the Thames was also believed to be a source of healing, containing the “nutritive element, the maternal fluid, the milk of nature.”
Although facts tread upon the pages, the sections are so well organized that one is never lost and the narrative thrives. Certain sections will no doubt appeal more than others, but thankfully Ackroyd has a skill with language. Never excessively sentimental, nor purple, he evokes positive aspects of both historical and nature writing. “It was the river of pleasure, and the river of spectacle. It was the stage upon which the rulers and principals of the kingdom could display themselves to the populace. It was the theatre of water.”
One cannot deny the beauty, myth, and wonder this river has, though with Romance comes history: the disease, death and crime. Ultimately civilization has been shaped by it, not the other way around. Thames: A Biography addresses it all, the pretty and the not so pretty, and does so thoroughly and without apology, leaving much to marvel afterwards.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.]
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