On his return to London Ackroyd worked at The Spectator magazine. He also provided book reviews for The Times. He also published two volumes of poetry Ouch! (1971) and London Lickpenny (1973). He later recalled: "I never wanted to be a novelist. I can’t bear fiction. I hate it... I don’t think I even read a novel till I was about 26 or 27.” Despite this he wrote several novels with historical themes such as The Great Fire of London (1982), The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), Hawksmoor (1985), winner of both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and Chatterton (1987).
Ackroyd has written a series of biographies. This has included books about Ezra Pound, (Ezra Pound and His World, 1980), T. S. Eliot (T. S. Eliot, 1984), Charles Dickens (Dickens, 1990 and Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion (1992), William Blake (Blake, 1995), Thomas More (The Life of Thomas More), London (London: The Biography, 2000), Geoffrey Chaucer (Chaucer, 2004), William Shakespeare (Shakespeare: A Biography, 2004), J. M. W. Turner (Turner, 2005), Isaac Newton (Newton, 2008), Edgar Allan Poe (Poe: A Life Cut Short, 2008) and Wilkie Collins (Wilkie Collins, 2012).
Novels by Ackroyd include Milton in America (1996), The Plato Papers (1999), The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2000), The Clerkenwell Tales (2003), The Lambs of London (2004), The Fall of Troy (2006) and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008).
It cannot be said that John Dickens was a lazy man, even though he was an improvident one. At some point in this period - and the likelihood is that it was very soon after his retirement from Somerset House - he began what was for him a new career as a journalist... He was now entering his forties, and it is a sign of his undaunted spirit that he should so quickly embark upon a quite new career; if, as seems probable, he also undertook to learn the difficult art of shorthand then his application and industry have to be admired.
In this period he was educated with his slightly older sister, Fanny, and those who seek reasons for the ubiquity of that name in his fiction might start their search here (the name itself might have been given added resonance by the presence of Aunt Fanny living in the house with them). On that criterion alone his response to the name is, to say the least, somewhat ambiguous; there is Fanny Dombey, the doomed mother of little Paul who dies in childbirth, but then of course there is also Fanny Squeers, the grotesque and ugly daughter of the famous Yorkshire schoolmaster. And then - in between, as it were - there is Fanny Dorrit, the imperious and petulant elder sister of Little Dorrit.
There are also eight other characters who bear the same name. Now there is no doubt that Dickens did use Christian names which for some reason were emblematic for him - that is why the names of his father and sister crop up so often-and there is no doubt, too, that this was on
occasions a deliberate device. But the range of Fannies in his fiction is so great that it suggests at the very least a most complicated relationship with his sibling. But we know also that, for Dickens himself, the relationship between brother and sister became the paradigm for human relationships in general; that loving sexless union of siblings is commemorated again and again in his novels, whether it is in an idealised bond such as that between Ruth Pinch and Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit, or whether it is as an element in those childish relationships which Dickens loved to describe. There are times when he becomes almost maudlin on the subject, and throughout his prose one hears as if in echo the words of one brother left behind on earth after his young sister has died: "Oh, sister, I am here! Take me!" It would not be going too far to say, then, that this image of the platonic bond between brother and sister - truly platonic, in the sense that for Dickens it seems to mirror some heavenly unity and harmony - is the dominant image of beneficence in his account of the relations between the sexes. And we will come to see its presence, too, in the relationships which he himself formed in his adult years.