Thomas Love Peacock

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3657

A writer with strong intelligence but weak invention is not likely to become a novelist. His or her talents would seem to be most serviceable elsewhere in the literary realm. Even so, the example of Thomas Love Peacock suggests that such a deficiency need not be fatal to a writer of fiction. True, his plots are often insignificant or implausible, and his characters tend to be sketches rather than rounded likenesses or, if three-dimensional, to have more opinions than emotions. His novels are nevertheless readable and rereadable, for he excels in anatomizing the follies, philosophies, and fashions that the age presents to his satiric eye. It is not enough for Peacock to make clear the inconsistencies and absurdities of pre-Reform Toryism, Byronic misanthropy, or the modern educational system: His talent for phrase-making ensures that even the bores and halfwits he creates spout golden epigrams.

Clear thinking and stylish writing are not the rarest of Peacock’s gifts, though. Perhaps his distinctive excellence is his ability to embrace limitation without accepting diminution. He revels in ideas and delights in the good things of the world. A thoroughgoing classicist in his own views, he accurately understands most of the contemporary opinions and ideas he attacks (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s transcendentalism is a notable exception). He is opinionated without being ill humored. His erudition does not preclude strong practicality. The narrow range of emotions he articulates is the result of a positive rather than a negative quality, of brave stoicism rather than heartlessness. Although Peacock’s novels are for the most part slender, they never seem the productions of a small mind.

Headlong Hall

Headlong Hall, Peacock’s first novel, is far from being his finest piece, but it is a mature work in which the characteristic devices of Peacock’s career are effectively, if not perfectly, deployed. One finds charming description of picturesque countryside, in this case Wales, where Peacock had happily traveled in 1809. One finds a rich rural lover of good conversation, Squire Headlong of the Hall, who, to gratify his taste, assembles a diverse set of wise and foolish talkers. Most important, one finds the talkers themselves.

In this novel, as in several of the later ones, Peacock’s satire is general; his own perspective is not to be precisely identified with that of any one character. The principal way of grouping the speakers at Squire Headlong’s symposium is to distinguish the philosophers, who genuinely seek to discover truth via Socratic dialogue, from the cranks, who find in conversation a chance to ride forth on their particular intellectual hobbyhorses, and who would rather lecture than learn. When Peacock wrote Headlong Hall in 1815, he was in daily contact with the Shelley circle, and the novel’s three philosophers reason from stances that Shelley, Peacock, and their friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg adopted in their intellectual discussions. Peacock’s naming of the three characters indicates their respective positions. Foster the perfectabilian articulates a position that Shelley sometimes took, that the human race is improving largely through technological advances. At the other pole is Escot the deteriorationist, who takes the Jean-Jacques Rousseau-derived view that humankind has fallen from pristine excellence largely because, as Shelley’s friend J. F. Newton argued, humans eat meat. Balancing these opposites is Jenkinson, the embracer of the status quo, who gives voice to Hogg’s skepticism.

To fan the flames of intellectual discourse, Peacock provides an assortment of windy enthusiasts and eccentrics, none so finely drawn as later incarnations were to be, but none failing to amuse. The Reverend Mr. Gaster begins Peacock’s series of gormandizing clergymen; Panscope is his first and thinnest burlesque of Coleridge’s transcendentalism. Marmaduke Milestone speaks for the Reptonian school of picturesque gardening, a taste Peacock deplored. The phrenologist Mr. Cranium leads off the series of freakish scientists that continues down through Gryll Grange. Representing literary enterprises, if not strictly speaking literature, are the poets Nightshade and Maclaurel, the reviewers Gall and Treacle, and Miss Philomela Poppyseed, a writer of feminine novels and one of the few stupid women in Peacock’s gallery. Lest the fine arts be neglected, Peacock supplies Sir Patrick O’Prism, a painting dilettante, and Cornelius Chromatic, an amateur violinist.

The characters feast, drink, talk, sing. Having served their host’s (and their author’s) purposes, they are paired in the ordering dance of marriage, an inevitable conclusion according to the systems of both Foster and Escot, and an empirical state in which one suspects the two philosophers’ theories will prove of precisely equal value.


Peacock’s second and longest novel, Melincourt, is generally considered his weakest. At the time of its composition, Peacock’s principal association was with Shelley, and in this novel Peacock drops the objectivity of the “laughing philosopher” and presents political views he shared with the poet, who was even then giving them poetic form in what was to be Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818). Melincourt sincerely satirizes the Tory government and, as Lord Byron’s The Vision of Judgment (1822) would later do, former liberals such as the Lake Poets—Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge (Feathernest, Paperstamp, and Mystic in the novel)—who had grown less critical of the establishment as their places in that order grew more comfortable.

Certain episodes in Melincourt are memorable. The election at Onevote presents a marvelous empirical case for parliamentary reform, and the Anti-Saccharine Fête celebrates Peacock’s belief that sugar, because its production permitted the West Indian slave trade to prosper, was a morally and politically abominable commodity to be abjured by all true philanthropists “till it were sent them by freemen.” For the most part, though, this sort of candor makes Melincourt shrill rather than forceful.

The romantic thread on which the beads of satiric incident are strung is likewise not among Peacock’s strongest. The heroine of the piece and owner of its principal location is Anthelia Melincourt, “at the age of 21, mistress of herself and of ten thousand a year, and of a very ancient and venerable castle in one of the wildest valleys of Westmoreland.” More than one critic has noticed that the assets mentioned and the rhetoric employed in this, Melincourt’s opening passage, call to mind the famous first sentence of Austen’s Emma (1816). Unlike Austen’s charming and self-deluded Miss Woodhouse, Miss Melincourt is an earnest and judicious lady, a fit match for Mr. Sylvan Forester, the second Peacock hero to embody Shelley’s intellectual idealism.

These two young people, so obviously suited for each other, lose no time in discovering their mutual regard. The novel’s complications and the lovers’ tribulations must come from without: Anthelia is abducted to Alga Castle by the enamored Lord Anophel Achthar. Having lost his bride-to-be, Forester, ostensibly seeking her, wanders about England’s Lake District and calls on poets and reviewers at Mainchance Villa and Cimmerian Lodge. His dilatory pursuit gives Lord Anophel time to tire of waiting for Anthelia to yield to his repeated proposals. He threatens to compromise her, and, even though the lady is too strong minded to think that his wickedness will be her disgrace, she is nevertheless grateful enough to be rescued from a test of her theory by Forester and his companion Sir Oran Hautton, who is barely prevented from administering “natural justice” by throwing Lord Anophel out the window.

The fierce, faithful, mute Sir Oran is, most readers agree, the book’s chief delight, curious though it might seem for a speechless character to be the chief excellence in a book by a writer noted largely for his characters’ conversations. In Sir Oran, who plays the flute, goes out in society, and gains a parliamentary seat, Peacock presents with only slight exaggerations a theory of the Scottish jurist Lord Monboddo that the orangutan is a “noble savage” distinguished from the rest of the human race only by its inability to speak. In the world of literature at least, Monboddo’s argument may have more validity than readers might expect: A literary Charles Darwin examining popular fiction might well be tempted to see in the still thriving breed of strong, silent, active heroes Sir Oran’s not-too-distant descendants.

Nightmare Abbey

Peacock began writing his third novel, Nightmare Abbey, after Shelley and Godwin departed England for Italy in March of 1818. The book is arguably his finest, certainly his best-focused and plotted, and easily his most controversial. In this novel, Peacock, one of the great English admirers of Aristophanes, lays himself open to the same sort of unfair criticisms that have been heaped on the Greek dramatist for his comedy The Clouds (423 b.c.e.). Just as Aristophanes was censured by various critics, from Plato on, for inaccurately and irresponsibly portraying Socrates, so Peacock has been condemned for faithlessness and poor taste by readers who consider Nightmare Abbey an unseemly depiction of one of the less commendable interludes in Shelley’s life—his period of wanting to have Godwin without giving up his wife, Harriet.

There are indeed resemblances between Shelley and the novelist’sprotagonist Scythrop—part romantic idealist, part misanthrope, part would-be reformer. Marionetta O’Carroll, the sprightly coquettish cousin Scythrop professes to love, is like Harriet Shelley in spirit and appearance. Scythrop’s other love, the heiress Celinda Toobad (known to him as Stella) is tall and raven-haired, the physical opposite of Godwin, but very like Peacock’s impression of that grave lady in her passion for philosophical speculation, political discussion, and transcendental romantic literature. Invention of detail was at no time Peacock’s strong suit; he was obliged to borrow from real life.

Yet, despite having drawn certain details of his novel from Shelley’s situation in 1814, Peacock was neither so tasteless nor so unkind as to write a book centering on his friend’s romantic and domestic difficulties. The surest sign of Peacock’s goodwill is Shelley’s own admiration of the novel: “I am delighted with Nightmare Abbey,” he wrote from Italy. “I think Scythrop a character admirably conceived and executed; and I know not how to praise sufficiently the lightness, chastity, and strength of the language of the whole.” Rather than personalities, Peacock’s targets were the dark gloom of modern literature, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), and such other determinedly dismal works, and the black bile and blue devils introduced by this literature into the lives of its readers.

Nightmare Abbey is the only Peacock novel to take place at one scene only, namely, the dreary and dilapidated seat of Christopher Glowry, a gentleman “naturally of an atrabilarious temperament, and much troubled with those phantoms of indigestion which are commonly called blue devils.” Disappointed in love and marriage, the gloomy squire of the Abbey surrounds himself with owls, ivy, water weeds, and servants with the most dismal names: Raven, Crow, Graves, Deathshead. His son, Scythrop, a reader of gothic novels and transcendental philosophies, stalks the Abbey like a grand inquisitor. The young man is ruled by two passions: reforming the world by repairing the “crazy fabric of human nature” and drinking Madeira. These preoccupations alter materially when Mr. Glowry’s sister and brother-in-law, their niece and ward Marionetta, and a host of other guests arrive for an extended taste of what hospitality the Abbey can afford.

Among the house guests are a particularly fine array of representative embodiments of morbid romanticism. The Honorable Mr. Listless, who spends whole days on a sofa, has perfected ennui. Mr. Flosky, who “plunged into the central opacity of Kantian metaphysics, and lay perdu several years in transcendental darkness, till the common daylight of common sense became intolerable to his eyes,” is one of Peacock’s more successful sketches of Coleridge. Mr. Toobad is a Manichaean Millenarian, the Byronic Mr. Cypress, a poet who, having quarreled with his wife, feels absolved from all duty and is about to set off on his travels.

Finely drawn though the gentlemen may be, as Marilyn Butler has noted in her treatment of Nightmare Abbey, Scythrop’s two ladies divide the book between themselves. Scythrop’s attraction to the volatile Marionetta, who playfully spurns him when he seems devoted and charms him when he seems distant, dominates the first half of the book, while his fascination for the mysterious and brilliant Stella, a creature of veils and conspiracies, overshadows lesser matters in the second half of the story. Scythrop can bring himself to dispense with neither lady: “I am doomed to be the victim of eternal disappointment,” he laments in the tone of German high tragedy, “and I have no resource but a pistol.” The two unrenounceable ladies, however, find it possible to renounce their suitor. Wishing Scythrop joy of Miss O’Carroll, Celinda/Stella turns to the metaphysical Mr. Flosky. Wishing him all happiness with Miss Toobad, Marionetta engages herself to Mr. Listless. His disappointment validated, his misanthropy doubly confirmed, Scythrop thinks himself unlikely to make a figure in the world. His story ends not with a gunshot but with a sound more familiar in the Peacock world: “Bring some Madeira.”

Peacock’s next two novels, Maid Marian and The Misfortunes of Elphin, depart from the prevailing “country-house conversation” pattern. Both works are generally labeled “satiric romances,” being set in the picturesque past but laying out oblique observations on present-day situations.

Maid Marian

The first of these romances is perhaps Peacock’s most widely known story, primarily because it forms the basis for a popular operetta by J. R. Planché (Maid Marian: Or, The Huntress of Arlingford, 1822). Peacock was sometimes considered to have borrowed portions of his novel from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), but actually Scott and Peacock, who wrote most of his novel in 1818, shared their primary source: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood, a collection of ancient poems, songs, and ballads about that hero.

Like Scott’s work, Peacock’s novel is no plausible portrait of medieval life. Robin Hood is not a responsible steward of the wealth he commandeers; his superiority lies in being less hypocritical than his adversaries, the sheriff and Prince John. Friar Tuck is one in Peacock’s long gallery of wine-loving clergymen; Maid Marian, whose swordsmanship and archery are commendable, and who decides in liberated fashion at the novel’s end to retain her virginal title “though the appellation was then as much a misnomer as that of Little John,” is one of Peacock’s admirably independent heroines. The satiric object of the forest idyll? To mock the repressive and reactionary Holy Alliance, on which Byron, too, was then turning his sights in his Don Juan (1819-1824).

The Misfortunes of Elphin

As a perennial wandering woodsman, particularly in Windsor Forest, which had recently been enclosed, Peacock might have grown up with an interest in the Robin Hood material. His interest in the legendary past presented in The Misfortunes of Elphin dates to a more specific series of events. In 1820, Peacock married Jane Gryffydh, the young woman he had met on his travels in Wales ten years before, and her fluency in Welsh reawakened his interest in the Celtic legends of Elphin, Taliesin, and Arthur on which his story is based. Peacock’s pastiche of Welsh myths is notable for its rousing songs and its depiction of the splendidly amoral inebriate Seithenyn. Its political satire is particularly effective. The crumbling of the ruinous seawall and castle administered by the drunken Seithenyn could be an apt allegory for any self-indulgent, backward-looking ruling class blind to imminent revolution and indifferent to public responsibility. The situation and the speeches of Seithenyn, however, superbly transmuted from those of the nineteenth century politician George Canning, are particularly relevant to an England on the brink of parliamentary reform.

Crotchet Castle

Crotchet Castle, written two years after The Misfortunes of Elphin, returns to the Pavonian mainstream. Here the mansion is a glorified villa; the owner, a rich and recently retired Scottish stockbroker; the target, progressive hypocrisy, represented in real life by Henry Brougham and in the novel by the “March of Mind.” The novel divides into three parts. A house party at Crotchet Castle, carefully designed by its host to pit “the sentimental against the rational, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical,” is followed by a floating caravan proceeding up the Thames to the rural depths of Wales. The novel concludes with a Christmas gathering, more than a little Pickwickian, at the quasi-medieval residence of Mr. Chainmail, a sturdy but sensitive anachronist patterned, as critic David Garnett has observed, on Sir Edward Strachey.

This tale of past and present—that is, the past as it should have been and the future that the present shows all too much promise of becoming—sets Mr. Chainmail and the Reverend Dr. Folliot, one of Peacock’s fiercer Tory clergymen, against the liberal utilitarians of the March of Mind school, preeminent among them one Mr. MacQuedy (“Mac Q.E.D., son of a demonstration,” as Peacock annotates his own pun). Two pairs of lovers require proper pairing as well. Mr. Chainmail, by story’s end, overcomes his excessive regard for old names and blood and marries Susannah Touchandgo, a financier’s daughter once engaged to the prospering speculator Crochet, Jr. Having lost her fiancé when her father lost his fortune and decamped for America, Miss Touchandgo has withdrawn to a salubrious Welsh seclusion of music, country cream, fresh air, and exercise, in which charming situation Mr. Chainmail comes upon her.

If old names must be foresworn, so must new money; in the romance dovetailed with the Chainmail-Touchandgo one, Lady Clarinda Bossnowl, generally acclaimed as the most delectable of Peacock’s exceptionally pleasing heroines, breaks her engagement to young Crotchet and commits herself to the poor, pedigreed, and talented Captain Fitzchrome. Perhaps the best philosopher in the Crotchet Castle party, Lady Clarinda begins by playing at utilitarianism, intent on not giving her heart away when she can sell it. The journey from the stockbroker’s villa to romantic Wales, however, gives her judgment time to concur with what her feelings long have suggested: that love in a cottage—and not even a cottage ornée—with the Captain is better than comfort at the Castle. Lady Clarinda’s raillery, Folliot’s prejudices, and Chainmail’s enthusiasms make the novel’s conversation particularly fine, and the climax, a spirited defense of Chainmail Hall against “Captain Swing” and that “coming race,” the mob, is perhaps Peacock’s most active.

Gryll Grange

Peacock, preoccupied with official duties and family concerns, did not write another novel for thirty years, but Gryll Grange, his last one, is of a vintage worth waiting for. Few readers would suspect that the author of this suave and mellow production was well acquainted with sorrow and disappointment. The satire here is less incisive and the development of character richer than in the earlier books—in part because the people portrayed have feelings as well as opinions, in part because Peacock’s wit plays not on the characters but on the world outside Gryll Grange, the modern England of scientific advance, technological development, competitive examinations, and spiritualism—a society mocked by the Gryll Grange house party in their own satiric comedy “Aristophanes in London.”

For the plot of Gryll Grange, Peacock harks back to the situation of Melincourt. Morgana, the niece and heiress of Gregory Gryll (the family, we learn, is descended from that Gryllus who alone among Ulysses’ crewmen declined being released from the spell by which Circe has turned him into a pig), needs a fit husband who will take her name. Squire Gryll’s friend the Reverend Dr. Opimian, a hearty man much like Peacock in his relish for “a good library, a good dinner, a pleasant garden, and rural walks,” finds just such a suitor in Mr. Falconer, the new resident of a nearby tower significantly called the “Duke’s Folly” by the neighborhood. Falconer, the last of Peacock’s fictional projections of the young Shelley, is an idealistic recluse who lives a comfortable, scholarly life with seven beautiful sisters who manage his household and make his music. Once juxtaposed by the well-tried divine machine of a thunderstorm, Miss Gryll and Falconer are mutually attracted: The subsequent story in large measure centers on the hero’s vacillations. Should he renounce his monastic retreat and the seven maidens who have been his companions since childhood, or should he forswear the social world so fetchingly represented by Gryll Grange and the one lady he loves?

Also staying at the Grange are Lord Curryfin, a lively, inventive, and engagingly ridiculous fellow, and the serenely beautiful Miss Niphet. Their presence further complicates the romantic dilemma. Lord Curryfin, at first drawn to Miss Gryll, finds himself increasingly enamored of the other charmer and knows not where to offer his heart and title. Miss Niphet, a good friend to Morgana, loves the young lord but hesitates to bag a bird on whom she believes her friend’s sights to be trained. Miss Gryll, who knows she loves Falconer but doubts whether she can get him, believes she can get Lord Curryfin but wonders whether she could truly love him. This tangled web of love, honor, and jealousy, so mild that it never becomes a vice, is straightened out by an event yet more providential than the convenient thunderstorm: the appearance and acceptance of seven stalwart rustics who want to marry the maidens of the tower and who thereby free Falconer from his reservations. The novel ends with all the lovers properly betrothed, a multiple wedding, and, as is fitting in the Peacock world, a salute. Addressing the wedding party, Dr. Opimian concludes, Let all the corks, when I give the signal, be discharged simultaneously; and we will receive it as a peal of Bacchic ordnance, in honor of the Power of the Joyful Event, whom we may assume to be presiding on this auspicious occasion.

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