Thomas Love Peacock Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Before turning his talents to the satiric novel, Thomas Love Peacock wrote poetry. His early works include Palmyra, and Other Poems (1806), The Genius of the Thames (1810), The Philosophy of Melancholy (1812), and Sir Proteus: A Satirical Ballad (1814). When his principal efforts turned to prose, Peacock continued to produce the occasional elegant lyric or rousing song, many of them incorporated into his novels. His longnarrative poem Rhododaphne (1818), “a nympholeptic tale,” attracted considerable contemporary attention and has retained a measure of continued critical esteem; his satiric Paper Money Lyrics (1837), topical and crochety, is largely ignored.

Early in his literary career Peacock also wrote two farces, “The Dilettanti” and “The Three Doctors,” both of which were unpublished. Throughout his life, and particularly during the periods when his responsibilities at the East India Company precluded sustained literary projects, Peacock wrote essays and reviews, the most famous being his unfinished but incisive “Essay on Fashionable Literature,” in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), the satiric critique of contemporary poetry’s debasement that provoked Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry (1840) and Peacock’s four-part Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1858-1862), which the reserved and fastidious Peacock, who deplored the publication of private matters, wrote grudgingly, as a corrective to the muddled enthusiasms and posthumous scandal-retailing that admirers and acquaintances of Shelley were offering as literary biography.

Thomas Love Peacock Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From the beginning of his career as a satiric novelist, Thomas Love Peacock always had an attentive audience but never a wide one. His career in several ways has invited comparison with that of his contemporary Jane Austen. Both writers set out to please themselves, uninfluenced by desire for fame or gold. Both swam against the Romantic mainstream. Each produced a slim shelf of novels distinguished by elegance, irony, and—detractors might add—limited scope. Whereas Austen limited herself to matters suitable to the notice of a lady, Peacock restricted himself yet more narrowly. Except for Maid Marian and The Misfortunes of Elphin, respectively set in the picturesque past of “Merrie England” and Arthurian Wales, Peacock’s novels take place in an idyllic country-house world where conversation—varied by singing, dining, drinking, flirtation, and sightseeing—is the chief activity. Even so, in this Pavonian realm, the reader who is able to read the signs aright can find, as critic Marilyn Butler reveals, serious and well-grounded discussion of moral, political, aesthetic, economic, and scientific concerns.

The dense if oblique topicality of these conversations is something of an obstacle for the twentieth century reader. Another hurdle for the general public in any age is Peacock’s learning: Only those who share Peacock’s passion for the past, especially classical antiquity, can enjoy the novels’ esoterica and allusions, and only readers nurtured in Greek and Latin (or possessing editions whose annotations compensate for such deficiency) can smile at the puns and scholarly jokes Peacock presents in the names and adventures of his characters. Writing for a few congenial spirits, Peacock attained in his own time the respect of Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Cam Hobhouse. He has retained the appreciative but limited audience Shelley’s lines from Letter to Maria Gisbourne (1820) seem to prophesy: “his fine wit/ Makes such a wound, the knife is lost in it;/ A strain too learned for a shallow age,/ Too wise for selfish bigots.”

Thomas Love Peacock Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Butler, Marilyn. Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. A first-rate study of Peacock which focuses not only on him as an individual but also on the society in which he lived and worked and his satiric abilities.

Prance, Claude A. The Characters in the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866): With Bibliographical Lists. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1992. An excellent dictionary of characters in Peacock’s works. Indispensable for the student of Peacock.

Kiernan, Robert F. Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel. New York: Continuum, 1990. Examines Peacock in the company of Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, E. F. Benson, P. G. Wodehouse, and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

McKay, Margaret. Peacock’s Progress: Aspects of Artistic Development in the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1992. Chapters on Peacock’s poems and plays as well as on his novels. Provides good background information on the literary figures and movements Peacock satirized.

Mulvihill, James. Thomas Love Peacock. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An excellent short sourcebook on Peacock, providing biographical background and sound context for each of his major works, as well as his essays and reviews.

Sage, Lorna, ed. Peacock—The Satirical Novels: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1976. A collection of essays focusing on Peacock as a humorous writer.

Schmid, Thomas H. Humor and Transgression in Peacock, Shelley, and Byron: A Cold Carnival. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1992. A study that focuses on the shared themes in Peacock and his Romantic friends, rather than their more usually emphasized differences.

Tomkinson, Neil. The Christian Faith and Practice of Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Love Peacock. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1992. Examines the religious literature of Peacock, Johnson, and De Quincey. Includes bibliographical references and an index.