A writer with strong intelligence but weak invention is not likely to become a novelist. His or her talents would seem to be most serviceable elsewhere in the literary realm. Even so, the example of Thomas Love Peacock suggests that such a deficiency need not be fatal to a writer of fiction. True, his plots are often insignificant or implausible, and his characters tend to be sketches rather than rounded likenesses or, if three-dimensional, to have more opinions than emotions. His novels are nevertheless readable and rereadable, for he excels in anatomizing the follies, philosophies, and fashions that the age presents to his satiric eye. It is not enough for Peacock to make clear the inconsistencies and absurdities of pre-Reform Toryism, Byronic misanthropy, or the modern educational system: His talent for phrase-making ensures that even the bores and halfwits he creates spout golden epigrams.
Clear thinking and stylish writing are not the rarest of Peacock’s gifts, though. Perhaps his distinctive excellence is his ability to embrace limitation without accepting diminution. He revels in ideas and delights in the good things of the world. A thoroughgoing classicist in his own views, he accurately understands most of the contemporary opinions and ideas he attacks (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s transcendentalism is a notable exception). He is opinionated without being ill humored. His erudition does not preclude strong practicality. The narrow range of emotions he articulates is the result of a positive rather than a negative quality, of brave stoicism rather than heartlessness. Although Peacock’s novels are for the most part slender, they never seem the productions of a small mind.
Headlong Hall, Peacock’s first novel, is far from being his finest piece, but it is a mature work in which the characteristic devices of Peacock’s career are effectively, if not perfectly, deployed. One finds charming description of picturesque countryside, in this case Wales, where Peacock had happily traveled in 1809. One finds a rich rural lover of good conversation, Squire Headlong of the Hall, who, to gratify his taste, assembles a diverse set of wise and foolish talkers. Most important, one finds the talkers themselves.
In this novel, as in several of the later ones, Peacock’s satire is general; his own perspective is not to be precisely identified with that of any one character. The principal way of grouping the speakers at Squire Headlong’s symposium is to distinguish the philosophers, who genuinely seek to discover truth via Socratic dialogue, from the cranks, who find in conversation a chance to ride forth on their particular intellectual hobbyhorses, and who would rather lecture than learn. When Peacock wrote Headlong Hall in 1815, he was in daily contact with the Shelley circle, and the novel’s three philosophers reason from stances that Shelley, Peacock, and their friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg adopted in their intellectual discussions. Peacock’s naming of the three characters indicates their respective positions. Foster the perfectabilian articulates a position that Shelley sometimes took, that the human race is improving largely through technological advances. At the other pole is Escot the deteriorationist, who takes the Jean-Jacques Rousseau-derived view that humankind has fallen from pristine excellence largely because, as Shelley’s friend J. F. Newton argued, humans eat meat. Balancing these opposites is Jenkinson, the embracer of the status quo, who gives voice to Hogg’s skepticism.
To fan the flames of intellectual discourse, Peacock provides an assortment of windy enthusiasts and eccentrics, none so finely drawn as later incarnations were to be, but none failing to amuse. The Reverend Mr. Gaster begins Peacock’s series of gormandizing clergymen; Panscope is his first and thinnest burlesque of Coleridge’s transcendentalism. Marmaduke Milestone speaks for the Reptonian school of picturesque gardening, a taste Peacock deplored. The phrenologist Mr. Cranium leads off the series of freakish scientists that continues down through Gryll Grange. Representing literary enterprises, if not strictly speaking literature, are the poets Nightshade and Maclaurel, the reviewers Gall and Treacle, and Miss Philomela Poppyseed, a writer of feminine novels and one of the few stupid women in Peacock’s gallery. Lest the fine arts be neglected, Peacock supplies Sir Patrick O’Prism, a painting dilettante, and Cornelius Chromatic, an amateur violinist.
The characters feast, drink, talk, sing. Having served their host’s (and their author’s) purposes, they are paired in the ordering dance of marriage, an inevitable conclusion according to the systems of both Foster and Escot, and an empirical state in which one suspects the two philosophers’ theories will prove of precisely equal value.
Peacock’s second and longest novel, Melincourt, is generally considered his weakest. At the time of its composition, Peacock’s principal association was with Shelley, and in this novel Peacock drops the objectivity of the “laughing philosopher” and presents political views he shared with the poet, who was even then giving them poetic form in what was to be Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818). Melincourt sincerely satirizes the Tory government and, as Lord Byron’s The Vision of Judgment (1822) would later do, former liberals such as the Lake Poets—Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge (Feathernest, Paperstamp, and Mystic in the novel)—who had grown less critical of the establishment as their places in that order grew more comfortable.
Certain episodes in Melincourt are memorable. The election at Onevote presents a marvelous empirical case for parliamentary reform, and the Anti-Saccharine Fête celebrates Peacock’s belief that sugar, because its production permitted the West Indian slave trade to prosper, was a morally and politically abominable commodity to be abjured by all true philanthropists “till it were sent them by freemen.” For the most part, though, this sort of candor makes Melincourt shrill rather than forceful.
The romantic thread on which the beads of satiric incident are strung is likewise not among Peacock’s strongest. The heroine of the piece and owner of its principal location is Anthelia Melincourt, “at the age of 21, mistress of herself and of ten thousand a year, and of a very ancient and venerable castle in one of the wildest valleys of Westmoreland.” More than one critic has noticed that the assets mentioned and the rhetoric employed in this, Melincourt’s opening passage, call to mind the famous first sentence of Austen’s Emma (1816). Unlike Austen’s charming and self-deluded Miss Woodhouse, Miss Melincourt is an earnest and judicious lady, a fit match for Mr. Sylvan Forester, the second Peacock hero to embody Shelley’s intellectual idealism.
These two young people, so obviously suited for each other, lose no time in discovering their mutual regard. The novel’s complications and the lovers’ tribulations must come from without: Anthelia is abducted to Alga Castle by the enamored Lord Anophel Achthar. Having lost his bride-to-be, Forester, ostensibly seeking her, wanders about England’s Lake District and calls on poets and reviewers at Mainchance Villa and Cimmerian Lodge. His dilatory pursuit gives Lord Anophel time to tire of waiting for Anthelia to yield to his repeated proposals. He threatens to compromise her, and, even though the lady is too strong minded to think that his wickedness will be her disgrace, she is nevertheless grateful enough to be rescued from a test of her theory by Forester and his companion Sir Oran Hautton, who is barely prevented from administering “natural justice” by throwing Lord Anophel out the window.
The fierce, faithful, mute Sir Oran is, most readers agree, the book’s chief delight, curious though it might seem for a speechless character to be the chief excellence in a book by a writer noted largely for his characters’ conversations. In Sir Oran, who plays the flute, goes out in society, and gains a parliamentary seat, Peacock presents with only slight exaggerations a theory of the Scottish jurist Lord Monboddo that the orangutan is a “noble savage” distinguished from the rest of the human race only by its inability to speak. In the world of literature at least, Monboddo’s argument may have more validity than readers might expect: A literary Charles Darwin examining popular fiction might well be tempted to see in the still thriving breed of strong, silent, active heroes Sir Oran’s not-too-distant descendants.
Peacock began writing his third novel, Nightmare Abbey, after Shelley and Godwin departed England for Italy in March of 1818....
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