Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall is certainly prose fiction, but it is less than one hundred pages long and therefore much shorter than most novels. It has a plot of sorts, but not one to be taken seriously, and the course of events in the work is clearly fortuitous rather than causal. No central character emerges other than the narrator, of whom readers know nothing. Of the other characters, four are perhaps more central than others, but none of them stands out and none shows any kind of development. Readers do not at any time enter into the private thinking of any character. Large portions of Headlong Hall consist only of labeled dialogue among the various speakers and are solely concerned with their conflicting ideas. If Peacock’s book is to be called a novel at all, it should be specifically identified as a Romantic novel, so as not to confuse it with a Victorian or later one.
Another tradition of prose fiction influential in the early years of the nineteenth century was that of the romance, an originally poetic form dating from the Middle Ages and consisting mostly of chivalric tales, in which scene and incident are extravagantly imaginative and remote from those of everyday life. From this tradition arose Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), which in turn revived the long tradition of gothic fiction, which emphasizes fear and suspense. Headlong Hall does not fit into either of these traditions.
The two greatest novelists of Peacock’s own time were Jane Austen (from whom he stole nothing) and Sir Walter Scott, who combined the romance and novel traditions to fictionalize real incidents in Scottish, English, and eventually French history from the Middle Ages to contemporary times. Peacock, like everyone else in his day, read Scott’s novels and thought well of them. Peacock’s lush treatment of natural scenery in Headlong Hall may be seen as an imitation of Scott’s descriptions, and the sensible opinions of Mr. Mac Laurel, a Scots-speaking poet and critic, may be a more deliberate tribute. Known to be a successful poet, Scott had not, as of 1816, acknowledged his own authorship of his novels. Following Scott’s example, Peacock also published his novels anonymously. Headlong Hall was the first, and the others were labeled “by the author of Headlong Hall.”
Peacock’s novels, then, are in no sense conventional. They are akin to others written in his own times only in various inconsequential ways. Peacock looked beyond traditions of prose fiction to include drama and satire. Before writing Headlong Hall in 1815, Peacock had already written some not-very-successful longer poems and some dramas. Portions of the latter are reused in Headlong Hall, and the influence of the stage is evident throughout....
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