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Ashleigh Prosser

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The Ghosts of the Gothic in Peter Ackroyd's Literary London


This study explores what I propose to be a Gothic theory of the history of place at work within Peter Ackroyd’s fictional and non-fictional depictions of London, wherein the city, its literature, and its history, form a symbolic palimpsest of uncanny, haunting returns. It offers a new understanding of the commonalities between four of Ackroyd’s historiographic metafictions set in London: Hawksmoor (1985), The House of Doctor Dee (1993), Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008). It performs a close textual analysis of these novels alongside a selection of Ackroyd’s London writing, reading them through the framework of the Gothic mode.

The study is divided into two parts, each containing two chapters. Part One: Haunting Time, Haunting Space addresses how the conceptualisation of space and time contributes to an understanding of the construction of place and its history in Ackroyd’s writing on London, by exploring the specifically haunted and haunting connections that can be found when they are viewed through the lens of the Gothic mode. Part Two: Textual Hauntings and the Ghost(s) of the Gothic focuses on how specific tropes of the Gothic can be read within the literary London of Ackroyd’s creation, by examining the uncanny presence of Gothic doubling within the haunting returns of textual phantoms and monstrous doppelgängers in the four novels.

Chapter One, “The Abhuman City in Peter Ackroyd’s London Works: A Gothic Theory of the History of Place”, considers Ackroyd’s trilogy of London histories, London: The Biography (2000), Thames: Sacred River (2007), and London Under (2011), in conjunction with his London fiction more generally. I argue that within both sets of works, Ackroyd complicates the relationship between history and geography in the city by engaging with the language and tropes of the Gothic mode to explore what he believes is the city’s Gothic genius loci, or, ‘spirit of place’, anthropomorphically transforming London into something akin to an abhuman monster.

Chapter Two, “No Place Like Home: Urban Hauntings and The Haunted House Chronotope in The House of Doctor Dee”, argues that London’s city-space can be read to function chronotopically as a temporal conduit for its history in Ackroyd’s writing, in which specific architectural sites return the repressed of the past to the present through a character’s interactions within them, exemplified through The House of Doctor Dee. I demonstrate how the trope of the textual séance functions chronotopically within the visionary transcendental scenes that end some of Ackroyd’s historiographic metafictions, and through a close comparison of the conclusions of Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee.

Chapter Three, ““Here we are again!”: Textual Hauntings in Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein”, explores how the presence of textual hauntings, and the uncanny feelings of déjà vu that they generate, help to create the meta-textual séances at work in Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. I argue that Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), are reworked into these novels as textual revenants that come to retrospectively haunt the characteristically Urban Gothic Victorian London of Ackroyd’s novels in uncannily (re)doubled and self-reflexive ways.

Chapter Four, “Monsters, Ghosts, and Golems: The Doppelgänger in Peter Ackroyd’s Gothic Historiographic Metafictions”, proposes that in Ackroyd’s writing the trope of doubling is made Gothic when the uncanny appearance of the double becomes monstrous through the depiction of the doppelgänger as another twinned self, or, as the duplication and projection of the divided self. I analyse the twinned selves of Nicholas Dyer and Nicholas Hawksmoor in Hawksmoor alongside Matthew Palmer and Doctor Dee in The House of Doctor Dee, and the monstrous projection of the divided self in the character(s) of Elizabeth Cree and her ‘Limehouse Golem’ in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and Victor Frankenstein and his ‘Monster’ in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.

To conclude the study, I suggest that Ackroyd’s fictional London world could perhaps be read as the ‘real’ city’s monstrous doppelgänger, for its Gothic spirit of place is embodied within the abhuman city of Ackroyd’s literary creation. Finally, I address the potential significance of the arguments of this work for possible future research of Ackroyd’s writing.

Why my research is important

The specific aim of my doctoral research is to draw out of the writings of Peter Ackroyd his personal understanding of the uncanny haunting of English literature, of the city of London, and of its history. The goal of my thesis is to investigate, through close literary analysis of the selected critical and fictional texts, the ghosts of the Gothic in Ackroyd's writing.


  • Australian Postgraduate Award
  • UWA Safety Net Top-Up Scholarship
  • UWA Graduate Research School Travel Award
  • UWA Faculty of Arts Conference Travel Grant

Peter Ackroyd (1949 - )