Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]

The House of Doctor Dee
By Peter Ackroyd
Hamish Hamilton, 1996

Reviewed by Steven E. Alford

A man gazing into a crystal ball can see many things, depending on the angle of his vision. Analogously, the reader delving into Peter Ackroyd's excellent The House of Doctor Dee will discover an elaborate ghost story, a portrait of London, an investigation into psychological aberration, and a reflection on the nature of time itself. Dee remains Ackroyd's most compelling novel to date.

Matthew Palmer is a twenty-nine-year-old only child living in London. His parents are estranged, and his mother has a lover, Geoffrey, "the surveyor." On the death of his father Matthew learns that he has inherited a house in Clerkenwell, a section of central London. As the novel opens we see Matthew deciding to occupy the Clerkenwell house. On moving in, however, he begins to disintegrate psychologically as he slowly learns the awful and unbelievable secret of his paternity.

Interwoven with this modern story, in alternate chapters, is the fictionalized narrative of Doctor John Dee (1527-1608), polymath, mathematician, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, and a professed Hermetic scholar. We encounter Dee at the approximate age of 40, sometime between 1566 and 1570. In telling us his life story, he wrestles with a professional interloper, Edward Kelley, and the devastating death of his wife, Katherine. As the narrative unfolds, we realize that, unbeknownst to him, Matthew Palmer has inherited from his father the house of Doctor Dee.

Both characters, Matthew Palmer and John Dee, become obsessed with the past: Dee with recreating an ancient, undiscovered and glorious London, and Palmer, with uncovering clues to his own increasingly disordered mind. In a fascinating way, Ackroyd dramatizes these two quests for historical and psychological knowledge as interpenetrating one another. Although some view the novel as a ghost story, its characters' influences travel in both temporal directions, suggesting that far from being simply a tale of a haunting, The House of Doctor Dee plays for much higher stakes. This novel explores how space prefigures our temporal experiences, and how this spatial prefiguration is ultimately linguistic.

Matthew Palmer is a professional researcher, and he realizes that researchers "are at odds with the world":
. . . [W]e are traveling backwards, while all those around us are still moving forward. . . . I would look up from the books or documents I was reading, and find that the immediate world around me had become both more distant and more distinct. It had become part of the continuing historical process, as mysterious and unapproachable as any other period . . .

He says that "If my work means that I had often viewed the past as my present, so in turn the present moment became part of the past." He realizes that just as historical time is a consequence of language, the same could be said of psychic time:"I can't bear to look at myself. Or look into myself. I really don't believe that there's anything there, just a space out of which a few words emerge from time to time." Palmer realizes that psychically and globally, his own sense of self, and of time and the space time inhabits, is constituted and effected through words. In Palmer's research the present and past commingle. Unfortunately for his mental stability, when he moves into his deceased father's house, his interior world begins to disintegrate, through a similar commingling. He has dreams and visions; he hears voices both in his head and in the house, which lead him to believe that there is a spirit in the house that is invading his consciousness.

Dee, a 16th Century magus, has a different view of time and space. Dee inhabits a cosmos that consists of three parts, elemental (or material), intellectual, and celestial. He believes that, given the proper linguistic tools, the magus can experience these contemporaneous worlds. The world of dreams for him is not the arena for revealing the repressed contents of waking consciousness, but a mental space integrated with his waking consciousness, a potential link to the realms beyond the elemental. In his waking life, he seeks the magic words that will evoke the true world hidden behind the world of appearances.

In one of his dreams, he says, "I look down at myself, and find myself with letters and words all upon me, and I know that I have been turned into a book . . ." The spirit of his dead wife instructs him late in the book that Nature herself is a book inscribed with knowledge of the world, that awaits only the proper skill in reading. For Dee, both the self and the world are part of a Book of Nature inscribed with transcendent meaning:
The stars do live and, through the spiritus mundi, influence us; there is sympathy or disharmony between all living things, and to gain mastery over this point is to exercise control over the entire world. There is nothing done in the lower world which is not controlled by the powers above, nothing moved or changed in the sublunary sphere except with the aid of the incorruptible heavens whose emblems and messengers are the planets and the stars.

Both Dee and Palmer experience the eerie interpenetration of each of their minds by the other. Dee hears voices and sees spirits. Aided by the mountebank Edward Kelley, Dee sees visions of Palmer in his crystal ball, and hears his voice within the house. Despite their different views of the ontological status of space and time, Dee and Palmer both experience the other in the house of Doctor Dee.

This, of course, sounds like a ghost story. And Palmer himself wonders if the voices and people are real or if they are ghosts. He considers whether psychologically ghosts reflect sexual unease. By definition, the ghost has successfully transcended the definition of its own being, a mortal, and has chosen to return to that definitive mortal space and haunt it. However, in The House of Doctor Dee, the beings and voices are not dead when they undertake their activity, and interpenetrate one another's spaces without leaving their own times. Hence, these are not ghosts, but what one might call "magical" elements of the story that embody Ackroyd's thematic intentions with regard to space and time.

Dee's great intellectual quest is to create a homunculus, the subject of his Liber Mysteriorum and the secret that Edward Kelley wishes to steal from him.
[A homunculus] can be taught like any other child; it will grow and prosper with all its intellect and faculties, until its thirtieth year when it will fall asleep and return to its first unformed state. One of the generation of the Inspirati must then cherish it, and place it again within glass, so that this secret and wonderful being may grow once again and walk upon the world. If you speak to it the sacred words it will prophesy about future events most cunningly, but its chief glory is that with proper care and reverence it will be constantly regenerated and so live forever.

The twenty-nine-year-old Matthew Palmer slowly learns, to his horror, that he is not the only child of his parents, but was "found" by his father. Reading over some papers left by his father he found little of significance, "except for the fact that my father had bought the house from Mr. Abraham Crowley on 27 September 1963 -- that date aroused fresh speculation in my mind, since it was the one we had always celebrated as my birthday." And a homunculus, he learns, "remembers nothing about its past or future until it returns home at the end of its thirty years, but it always does return home." Palmer's father, one of the generation of Inspirati, has sustained Matthew's existence as a homunculus, and, Palmer's father, dying, has returned Matthew to where he was created by Dee and Kelley.

Palmer's inheritance of the house at Clerkenwell was no accident; his was a return to his home, one he had occupied since the middle of the sixteenth century. The space of the house, then, has become the space of significance for his self -- its very spatial character is infused with the meaning of his nature. As an homunculus, his being itself was generated by the linguistic invocations of John Dee. The magus Dee constituted him from words, the words that held the secret of life's creation, contained in Dee's Liber Mysteriorum. Palmer's psyche is not, as he assumed, a Cartesian interiority independent of the outside. Nor does his body inhabit a neutral space which itself is understood solely as a container for objects, among them his body. Instead, his psyche finds itself "always already" within the space of his house, suggesting that spaces don't simply influence our psyche, but constitute it. Thematically, the novel suggests that the space of the psyche is not interior, but exterior, constituted by the meaning -- conferring activity of language on space.

In seeking the truth about his own self, Matthew Palmer decides to uncover the past-both that of his familial past, his father, and the history of the house of Doctor Dee. In the linguistic act of discovery, he misunderstands the spatiality of the past, as well as its temporality. Spatially, it's not back there, in some ontologically other-space, but is rather brought forth in its being to Palmer's consciousness through the linguistic act of writing, of research. Temporally, the past is not in the past, but constituted as the past through its link to Palmer's present. The past only becomes the past, qua past, through a link with a present event that lends the past event significance.

The significance of the past in this case is that it would solve the mystery of Palmer's identity. Given that his identity is ultimately linguistic, the text of the past engenders the text of the present through the arbitrary privilege of the past as having a unilateral influence on making the present present. However, as we have said, the past is made past through its connection to the present. The past and the present depend on one another for their respective self-constitutions. This insight is illustrated imaginatively in the book when the past and present are destroyed, so to speak, when they begin to inhabit the same space, a space that could be understood simultaneously as mental, elemental, and linguistic. This event, the simultaneity of the past with the present, is rendered as either a transcendental, epiphantic experience, or madness.

While the homunculus functions symbolically as the confluence of space and language, in the novel it serves a further role as a negative index of our analysis thus far. Ackroyd suggests that the existence engendered by linguistic magic -- whether it be the magic of Doctor Dee, or that of Matthew Palmer, researcher, in linking the past and present -- this existence is one, in Matthew Palmer's words, of "illusion, and trickery, and nonsense." Something is missing, something which we Romantics will be delighted to learn, is love.

Katherine Dee, John Dee's dying wife, says to him, "This was a vision of the world without love, John Dee, but one you yourself have fashioned. You hoped to create life, but instead you have made images of death." For Katherine Dee, creating the homunculus suggests an erroneous understanding of past and present, transcendent and immanent, an attempt at physical mastery that goes wrong. The homunculus is at once a Faustian and Frankensteinian creation, one that attempts to transcend the requirements of mortality and master the rules of nature, the very embodiment of the hubris of the magus. The product of pure intellect, of language, the homunculus is quite literally life without love.

Matthew Palmer thinks the same:
I had grown up in a world without love -- a world of magic, of money, of possession-and so I had none for myself or for others. That was why I had seen ghosts rather than real people. That was why I was haunted by voices from the past and not my own time. That was why I had dreamed of being imprisoned in glass, cold and apart. The myth of the homunculus was just another aspect of my father's loveless existence -- such an image of sterility and false innocence could have come from no other source.

And yet, and yet. The final chapter of this novel, entitled "The Vision," suggests that the visions of London given to Dee and Palmer, of the "mystical city universal," are not simply the delusions of the hyper-linguistic, but real, if we understand the real as Katherine Dee does. "It is true," she rejoiced," that the imagination is immortal, and that thereby we each create our own eternity." Along with Ackroyd, she arrives at the clearly Blakean conclusion that the imagination, infused with love, engenders not only the world properly seen, but a type of immortality available to us all.

[This review was adapted from a lecture presented in Germany by Professor Alford and titled "The Space of the Psyche in Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee. " ]


Steven E. Alford lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he is a professor of Humanities at Nova Southeastern University. His book reviews have been variously published in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Houston Chronicle, and Escape magazine. A wide selection of Professor Alford's book reviews, essays, and lectures are available online and can be accessed at:

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