Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161

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.

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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. In some cases, however, the drama imitated is Greek, for Peacock was particularly fond of classical Greek authors. He was also well read in the philosophical dialogues of Plato but found himself unable to accept their manipulative logic and facile conclusiveness. Unlike his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, the great Romantic poet, Peacock was also unable to accept the idealism of the Greeks and their complacent reliance on the sufficiency of human reason.

In reflection of its author’s skepticism, Headlong Hall is above all else a satire. It documents the diversity (etymologically, the word “satire” refers to a “mixed plate”) of opinions current in Peacock’s time and assumes the reader’s inability to resolve intellectual differences through any kind of rational procedure. These differences are inherent in human nature and can never be resolved, Peacock implies. As Mac Laurel says at one point, “Noo, ye ken, sir, every mon is the centre of his ain system, an’ endaivours as much as possible to adapt everything aroond him to his ain parteecular views.”

The four principal viewpoints, as described in the book’s first chapter, are those of Mr. Foster, the perfectibilian, for whom the world and human society are inexorably improving; Mr. Escot, the deteriorationist, for whom the world and human society are inexorably worsening; Mr. Jenkison, for whom both are staying the same; and the Reverend Doctor Gaster, a comic clergyman intended to demonstrate the irrelevance of traditional Christianity to modern times. None of the speakers ever alludes to the just-concluded Napoleonic Wars or to advancements in either science or medicine.

Each of these four has been identified with one or more actual persons. Foster, for example, sometimes echoes opinions very similar to Shelley’s. Escot partially derives from the eighteenth century French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Scottish follower James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. Jenkison has been identified with Peacock’s friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, but the opinion he expresses—that the world is basically unchanged throughout human existence—is also Peacock’s, as he states in his preface to a reprinting of Headlong Hall in 1837. Peacock’s conviction of the social world’s essential stability led him to value Greek authors in particular as being among those who saw the foibles of humanity earliest and most clearly. For him, it was Christianity that fundamentally obscured the truth about humanity from itself, and therefore he felt the need to present Gaster as a comic figure. The plot (such as it is) of Headlong Hall revolves around a Christmas party, but there is never a meaningful religious observance of any kind within it. With all the eating and drinking that goes on, it is more like a Roman saturnalia than a serious Christian holiday.

Foster, Escot, Jenkison, and perhaps Gaster are perennial types to be found in any civilization at any time. The new characters introduced in chapter 3 are of a more specialized sort and are meaningful primarily to those readers who have some familiarity with the literature of Peacock’s time. They include Mr. Milestone, a famous landscape gardener who is utterly opposed to leaving the beauty of nature in its unaltered state and who seeks to replace it by manipulations or grotesques of various kinds. Mr. Cranium is a phrenologist—that is, one who believes that traits of human character are inherited and can be ascertained through examination of the bumps on a person’s skull, these being supposedly indicative of specialized brain development beneath. Although entirely discredited now, phrenology was both popular and influential in Peacock’s time, with implications for comparative anatomy, anthropology, and physical psychology, as well as for literature. Among those who thought themselves well endowed with bumps of intelligence were the influential reviewers of books for widely read periodicals, of whom the Headlong Hall characters Mr. Gall and Mr. Treacle (bitter and sweet, respectively) are typical examples. Also guests at Headlong Hall are two voluminous poets, a musician, a painter, a polymath dilettante (Mr. Panscope, probably based on the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and a group of young ladies, all of whom prove irresistible to the learned gentlemen in the end. The world, it seems, will go on its biological way irrespective of philosophy.

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