Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983

Thomas Love Peacock, a satirical novelist, never had a wide audience. His ambition was not fame or fortune but merely to please himself. His concerns were not those of most writers within the Romantic movement. Still, the author gained the respect of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in his...

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Thomas Love Peacock, a satirical novelist, never had a wide audience. His ambition was not fame or fortune but merely to please himself. His concerns were not those of most writers within the Romantic movement. Still, the author gained the respect of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron in his own times. Peacock’s novels are generally set in idyllic country homes in which drinking and flirting seem to be the major activity of the day. Reading between the lines, however, especially in the case of the satirical Nightmare Abbey, reveals serious discussions of moral, political, economic, scientific, and aesthetic concerns.

As with most satire, critical evaluations of the writer’s work tend to be somewhat negative. Satiric plots, as is true of Peacock’s, tend to be insignificant if not implausible. He sketches characters rather than writing rounded characters. Those characters who are more well rounded tend to be polemic in their opinions rather than deep, as they should be in a novel, in their emotions. What Peacock’s writing lacks in plot and character he makes up for in wit and epigrams. A classicist at heart, Peacock uses his fine understanding of the contemporary ideas he attacks to show opinion, not ill humor.

Scythrop Glowry, the son of Christopher Glowry, a Lincolnshire landed gentleman of gloomy disposition who presides over the family castle, Nightmare Abbey, is the hero of Peacock’s satire, a witty spoof of gothic fiction and of Romantic attitudes. The reader soon learns that Scythrop was named for an ancestor who committed suicide and whose skull is being used as a punchbowl. A student of Immanuel Kant, Scythrop falls madly in love with Marionetta Celestina O’Carroll, who more or less loves him too. The elder Glowry, however, has in mind a better match: Celinda Toobad, who has been educated abroad and is the heir to a considerable fortune. Scythrop banishes himself to the tower room of Nightmare Abbey and reads gothic fiction and dreams of “venerable eleutherarchs”—chiefs of a secret society called The Eleutheri—“and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves.” The novel ends with a scene that burlesques Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779): Scythrop, armed with a pistol and an ample supply of Madeira, waits for the fatal hour he has appointed for his death. Before the novel comes to an end, however, a “ghost” and Scythrop yield to reason.

Peacock’s targets for his satire are the exalted attitude of the prose and poetry of the Romantic movement (with a special emphasis on Byron) and the coincidences and confusion that are endemic to gothic fiction. Nightmare Abbey is the most literary of Peacock’s satires. It targets the gloom affecting contemporary literature, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s German transcendentalism, Byron’s self-dramatizing, and Shelley’s esotericism. The book opens in imitation of William Godwin’s novel Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England (1817). Nightmare Abbey is staffed by servants with long, skull-like faces and names like Diggory Deathshead. The senior Glowry gives a party attended by the millenarian pessimist Mr. Toobad; by Mr. Flosky, who is based on Coleridge; by Mr. Cypress, who is based on Byron; and by Mr. Listless, drawn to represent the common reader. The Younger Scythrop, a writer, is based on Shelley because he cannot decide which hand to take in marriage: that of Marionetta, his frivolous cousin, or that of Stella/Celinda, Mr. Toobad’s sibylline daughter. Other guests include the uncommonly cheerful Mr. Asterias, a scientist, and Mr. Hilary, whose literary tastes come from the Greeks. “Peacock seems to have intended to present, in amusing contemporary terms, the dilemma facing the young Milton in ’L’Allegro’ and ’Il Penseroso.’” The novel ends with the unfinished Werther-style suicide in a comic denouement.

Nightmare Abbey targets both gothicism and Romanticism, specifically the Byronic hero. Mr. Flosky, Peacock’s portrait of Coleridge, observes the change: “the ghosts . . . have been laid . . . and now the delight of our spirits is to dwell on all the vices and blackest passions of our nature, tricked out in a masquerade dress of heroism and disappointed benevolence.” Coleridge is depicted as a philosopher of transcendentalism and as a self-appointed leader of the counterculture. As represented by Mr. Flosky, Coleridge, according to Peacock, claims rights to divining the taste of the reading public.

The dramatic appearance of Byron (in the guise of Mr. Cypress) in the second half of Nightmare Abbey is a tour de force; Peacock uses quotations from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and mixes them with parody of the fourth canto. When Mr. Cypress departs the abbey, he veers from misanthropic generalization to navel-peering self-observation in a speech about quarreling with his wife, which absolves him of any duty to his country.

The self-destructive Scythrop, caught between two women, is based on Shelley and his elopement with Mary Godwin. Scythrop’s esotericism (only seven copies of his pamphlet, “Philosophical Gas,” were sold) sheds light on the gap between literary exponents of liberty and the reading public at large. Scythrop’s self-immersion in his private dilemma, likely to be judged by the public-at-large as merely scandalous, adds depth to the critique of solipsism, which underlies this literary parody. As the novel comes to an end, Scythrop cannot bring himself to dispose of either lady: “I am doomed to be the victim of eternal disappointment and I have no resource but a pistol.” The ladies, however, will have none of this nonsense and reject Scythrop. His disappointment validated and his misanthropy confirmed by both women, Scythrop decides against suicide. His story ends not with a gunshot, but with a cry more familiar in Peacock’s world: “Bring some Madeira.” With Nightmare Abbey as his vehicle, Peacock acts as an active, liberating force, sounding the death knell of self-indulgent Romanticism with his Nightmare Abbey.

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