Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978

Crotchet Castle is something of a historical novel, not because it attempts to re-create the past but because it reflects so clearly the life and times of its author. Published in 1831, the work was written during the preceding year or two. The setting of the novel extends from the valley of the Thames to Oxford, through a canal to the Severn, and from there to northern Wales. These areas were well known to Thomas Love Peacock, who undertook a walking journey upriver from the Thames valley in 1809 and then wrote a long poem about it, The Genius of the Thames (1810). In 1815, accompanied by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and some other friends, Peacock made a boat trip up the Thames from Windsor that included visits to Oxford and Lechlade. The same itinerary appears in chapters 9 and 10 of Crotchet Castle, except that in the novel the group is able to afford passage through the canal, an economic hurdle that in 1815 forced Shelley and Peacock to change their plans.

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Peacock’s first trip to northern Wales was in the winter of 1808-1809. During that visit he went on long walks to enjoy the mountain scenery, and he met Jane Gryffydh, the well-educated daughter of a Welsh clergyman, with whom he discussed books. Peacock himself was a prodigious reader, as is apparent in his works, and it is surprising to learn that he attended school only from the age of six to thirteen. However, he read not only English literature but also Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, all in the original languages. Predictably, he was scornful of the university education he never had, an attitude that appears in several of his novels but never more prominently so than in the Oxford portion, chapter 9, of Crotchet Castle.

Peacock lacked not only formal education (for which he more than compensated) but also significant vocational experience. Only in 1819 did he apply for and attain a position in the Examiner’s Department of the East India Company. Now financially secure and at age thirty-four in want of a wife, he proposed by mail to Jane Gryffydh (whom he did not see for years) and was accepted. Though the marriage was not entirely a success, Jane’s knowledge of Wales and of its language and literature influenced several of Peacock’s novels. She was almost certainly the original of Susannah Touchandgo, the nymph of Merionethshire. Peacock writes meaningfully in chapter 14 that her favorite author was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the radical eighteenth century Swiss philosopher and novelist who taught his readers to appreciate the society of children, the beauty of nature, and the pleasure of mountain solitude. Peacock shared these tastes.

Like several of Peacock’s other novels, Crotchet Castle has a full cast of ideologically committed characters, some of whom reflect actual persons known to the author. These include friends of Shelley, a poet of unconventional ideas whom Peacock knew since the autumn of 1812. (Shelley left England in 1818 but corresponded regularly with Peacock until his death four years later in Italy.) It was largely through his association with Shelley that the more conservative Peacock came to learn of, and sometimes to mock, the various utopian schemes for worldwide reformation. These appear throughout his novels in dialogue, most prominently in chapter 6 (“Theories”) of Crotchet Castle. As the author declares there, all such reforms are doomed to failure, among other reasons for want of money.

At the time Peacock was writing Crotchet Castle, money and reform were issues that aroused extreme public agitation. Though spared the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848 (and already rocked the French monarchy in 1830), England was wracked in 1831 by riots and incendiary vandalism. Masses of unenfranchised laborers, whose traditional occupations were destroyed by technological advances (weavers put out of work by power looms, for example), had no other means of expressing their discontent than through violence, mob action, and burnings.

Peacock describes such a group in chapter 18 as they attempt to storm Chainmail Hall under their mythical leader, Captain Swing. A preliminary reform bill finally achieved passage through Parliament in 1832. It was followed by other legislation that alleviated the working conditions of women and children in particular, extended the franchise, and eventually established public schools. Peacock, who did not write of such issues in any of his previous novels, deals only briefly with the workers’ discontent in Crotchet Castle.

Although Peacock may well be charged with being cold or imperceptive toward the social and intellectual changes of his own century—a criticism that is largely valid—in this regard Crotchet Castle does not entirely conform to the author’s other works. The novel reflects Peacock’s awareness of the importance of earned money in achieving and maintaining position not only in British society but in British thought as well. Political and economic power was shifting from the aristocracy to the middle class, which explains the shift to the more concrete taste of mercantilists that dominated the Victorian period.

As the establishment realigned itself to some extent, the position of women within society and within the power structure as a whole remained controversial. Like Shelley, Peacock favored a greater degree of female intellectual freedom than was commonly vouchsafed to women in his time. He expressed his belief in women’s intelligence and potential by creating a series of unusually perceptive heroines, of whom Lady Clarinda in Crotchet Castle is the most outstanding example. Even so, however, the specter of marriage as a primarily commercial transaction haunts the novel throughout and is not altogether resolved at the end.

The dominant theme of Crotchet Castle is money and the fact that all aspects of society and thought ultimately depend upon it. Peacock’s awareness of the pound’s importance no doubt made him a valuable employee of the East India Company, even as his kind of literary education based on classical and foreign languages slipped into obscurity.

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