Marilyn Butler , whose Peacock Displayed was published in 1979, wasn’t the first to connect Peacock’s name with the showy wit of his satires. It started with Shelley, his friend and patron, who joked in 1820 about ‘the Pavonian Psyche’ (pavo: peacock), as though Peacock himself had the kind of name that he specialised in giving to his characters. In the seven novels he produced between Headlong Hall (1815) and Gryll Grange (1860), names are rarely hard to decode. Anyside Antijack is a time-serving Tory politician; Cephalis Cranium, a phrenologist’s brainy daughter; the Revd Mr Grovelgrub, a sycophantic tutor; Dr Harry Killquick, a hit-or-miss physician; Sir Bonus MacScrip, venal member for the borough of Threevotes; Peter Paypaul Paperstamp, the sinecure-seeking poet of Mainchance Villa; Sir Simon Steeltrap, scourge of poachers on his hunting estate at Spring-gun and Treadmill. Some of the names indicate real-life targets such as George Canning, the Tory statesman who started out as the attack dog of the Anti-Jacobin, and Wordsworth, whose acceptance of a government post as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland in 1813 confirmed his apostasy from radical politics. Other names aim at several targets, or are simply generalised types. Occasionally Peacock adds a twist. In his third and now best-known novel, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Mr Glowry, the ‘atrabilarious’ patriarch of the estate, employs only servants who reflect his melancholy by means of ‘a long face or a dismal name’: Raven, Crow, Skellet, Mattocks, Graves. When in need of a new footman, Glowry jumps at the opportunity to hire Diggory Deathshead. But Deathshead turns out to be ruddy-cheeked and cheerful, and is promptly fired.
Peacock was personally a poor match for his name: neglected in early life, with no talent at all for flamboyance. Born in Weymouth in 1785, he came from West Country Puritan stock on both sides of the family (the Peacocks were Somerset Independents; the Loves were Devon Presbyterians). His mother uprooted him in early childhood, just as George III’s summer visits were turning Weymouth into a fashionable resort, and he was schooled in Surrey until the money ran out when he was 12. A dedicated autodidact for the rest of his life (Peacock’s death in 1866 was reportedly hastened, if only by shock, when he refused to abandon his library during a house fire), he made sporadic attempts at the publication of his verse throughout his twenties. But nothing attracted much popular or critical attention, and there’s little sign of the brio of Peacock’s later writing in conventional poems like ‘Palmyra’ (‘Man, and the works of man, are only born to die!’) or the equally routine ‘The Philosophy of Melancholy’ (‘The contemplation of the universal mutability of things prepares the mind to encounter the vicissitudes of life’). He spent a year at sea as secretary to the captain of HMS Venerable (an opportunity ‘conducing to advantage’ that in fact led nowhere), and otherwise occupied himself with solitary walking tours (Wales, the Isle of Wight, Scotland) and doomed projects (unperformed farces for the London stage, a planned school in the Lake District). Small family annuities expired. He so inhabited his dour poetic persona that his friend and publisher Edward Hookham, writing to the Literary Fund, ‘had but too just reason to dread that the Fate of Chatterton might be that of Peacock’. The committee awarded him £30.
Numerous failed courtships intensified the gloom. Peacock was, his cousin remembered, ‘a sort of universal lover, making half-declarations to half the young women he knew’; sometimes these were outright proposals, but none came good. There was Lucretia Oldham, the recipient of his early love poems; Fanny Falkner, who accepted a proposal of marriage but changed her mind; Jane Gryffydh, ‘the Caernarvonshire nymph’ of his first tour to Wales, and hot on her heels another unidentified ‘Caernarvonshire charmer’; the sisters Clarinda and Cecilia Knowles, who both received and rejected proposals in short order; an ‘heiress’ named Charlotte who in fact had nothing (this episode landed Peacock in a Liverpool debtor’s jail); Marianne de St Croix, with whom he hoped to elope to Canada after the heiress debacle; ambitiously, Claire Clairmont, the glamorous young mother of Byron’s daughter, who liked Peacock but thought him feckless and idle. His oddest courtship was aimed at Jane Gryffydh, to whom he abruptly proposed by letter in 1819 after failing to make contact at all over the previous eight years. The marriage took place in 1820, and there were four children (one of whom was to become the femme fatale of George Meredith’s poetic sequence Modern Love, when she traumatised Meredith by leaving him for their artist friend Henry Wallis). Jane died in 1851, and Peacock’s record as a widower confirms the sense of desperation. The following year – emboldened at this point in his career by financial security – he proposed marriage to Claire Clairmont’s niece, a 27-year-old who, as Claire put it in a letter, ‘looked daggers at the dear old man’.
Others saw more in Peacock. Shelley met him through Hookham in 1812, and brought him into his social circle: a circle united by religious scepticism and political radicalism, though each member had ‘nevertheless some predominant crotchet of his or her own, which left a number of open questions for earnest and not always temperate discussion’, Peacock recalled decades later. He became a confidant for Shelley during his marital crisis of 1814-16, and though also personally loyal to Harriet, he advised Shelley, on Harriet’s suicide, to marry Mary Godwin without delay. Shelley made him his business agent in the same period, and the annual pension of £120 this brought him, along with the creative energy he drew from the Shelley circle, allowed him to find his feet, in particular as a satirist. Two of Peacock’s later novels (Maid Marian of 1822; The Misfortunes of Elphin of 1829) were ironic exercises in historical romance, but the first, Headlong Hall, was the first of the ‘conversation novels’ he is remembered for. Rapidly reprinted in London and Philadelphia, Headlong Hall was Peacock’s best-known work in his own lifetime; all the later novels were billed on their title pages as ‘BY THE AUTHOR OF HEADLONG HALL.
More obscure than Shelley, though no less consequential as a benefactor, was an old schoolfriend, Peter Aubey, whose job as assistant secretary of the East India Company led to Peacock’s employment (having first aced an exam about land revenue collection) at India House. Ineffectual Charles Lamb was already there, his essayist persona ‘Elia’ having already written about what working in the adjacent South Sea House was like decades before. The East India Company was a powerhouse of idealistic utilitarianism. Peacock began in the examiner’s office in 1819, working under the Scots economist James Mill and alongside John Stuart Mill (who had been brought into the company by his father in 1823) on a starting salary of £600, which rose with various promotions. It reached £2000 when Peacock succeeded James Mill as examiner (one of the company’s most senior roles) in 1836, and he received two-thirds of that as a pension on handing over to John Stuart Mill in 1856. In the run-up to his sixth novel, Crotchet Castle (1831), he breathed in the Benthamite air, becoming close to Bentham himself among other philosophical radicals, and spearheading the company’s push to adopt the new steamship technology (an initiative spurred partly by fears that Russia would get there first). His 1829 ‘Memorandum Respecting the Application of Steam Navigation to the Internal and External Communication of India’ became a guide for the industrialisation of transport across the empire, and in the following decade he supervised projects for steam navigation along the Ganges, Euphrates, Indus and Tigris, and on the voyage from England to India via the Red Sea.
In time Peacock lost faith with the utilitarian rationale for empire. When starting out at India House, he thought it ‘possible to be of great service, not only to the company, but to the millions under their dominion’. In the mid-1820s he prudently suppressed a series of verse satires about corruption and dysfunction in the financial markets for fear of offending his superiors (he published them the year after he became examiner as Paper Money Lyrics). Mill might not have minded Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey being portrayed as covetous political turncoats, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed Peacock’s lyric about
the miller, a Quaker in verity,
Rigid of limb and complacent of face,
And behind him a Scotchman was singing ‘Prosperity’,
And picking his pocket with infinite grace.
An off-the-cuff remark Peacock made in 1837 while testifying to a parliamentary committee on steam navigation makes clear how far his thinking was from the company line: ‘I am not sure that it would be any benefit to the people of India to send Europeans amongst them.’
From the title alone, Nightmare Abbey sounds like yet another Romantic-era satire on Gothic fiction, and has features in common with Northanger Abbey, published a year before. Like Austen, Peacock makes fun of the Gothic craze of the 1790s, and one of the superannuated shockers he sends up, Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), came straight from the reading list that Austen compiled for her heroine. There are jokes scattered elsewhere about other 1790s works, including the ‘philosophical novels’ of William Godwin and his school. Nightmare Abbey’s isolated coastal setting draws on Godwin’s Mandeville (published in 1817, when Peacock probably read it with the Shelleys), a work caricatured in the novel as ‘Devilman, a novel’, all ‘Hatred – revenge – misanthropy – and quotations from the Bible’. Characters speak with reverence about the Burkean sublime, and descriptive passages burlesque the hallmarks of Gothic fiction: ruined battlements, ivy-clad towers, ubiquitous owls; ‘venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves’. Perhaps it was the common ground with Northanger Abbey that made R.W. Chapman turn to Peacock after completing his uniform Austen of 1923, though his efforts yielded only an Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Misfortunes of Elphin, with Crotchet Castle as a makeweight.
In his meticulous edition, part of the complete novels now in progress with Cambridge under the editorship of Freya Johnston, Nicholas Joukovsky locates the fictional Nightmare Abbey in Lincolnshire, ‘somewhere near Skegness’. With nothing to see but ‘a long tract of level sea-coast, and a fine monotony of fens and windmills’, the gloom of the setting is Tennysonian, not Gothic. The resemblance to Northanger Abbey isn’t more than superficial. In keeping with a scattershot mode of intellectual satire that invokes multiple traditions, Peacock’s jabs at Gothic are just one component of a wide-ranging concern with literary and philosophical fashions. More important to his thinking were new publications like Biographia Literaria (1817) and Canto IV (1818) of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The Byronic figure of ‘Mr Cypress, the Poet’ declaims paraphrases of the poem’s grimmest passages (‘Our life is … an all-blasting upas, whose root is earth, and whose leaves are the skies which rain their poison-dews upon mankind’). Ferdinando Flosky is one of several caricatures of Coleridge in Peacock’s fiction, from Moley Mystic, Esq. in Melincourt to Mr Skionar in Crotchet Castle. Though he once wrote Gothic tales (‘ghosts, goblins, and skeletons … I and my friend, Mr. Sackbut, served up a few of the best’), Flosky now disdains them. He still enjoys pathos (‘No one could relate a dismal story with so many minutiae of supererogatory wretchedness’), but he now prefers Kantian metaphysics (‘at every step it strikes out into two branches, in a compound ration of ramification … keeping your mind in perfect health by the perpetual exercise of an interminable quest’), and reactionary politics. Society has been corrupted from its ideal state, but the worst of the causes are easily identified: ‘Tea, late dinners, and the French Revolution.’
Writing to Shelley while composing Nightmare Abbey, Peacock said his intention was ‘to bring to a sort of philosophical focus a few of the morbidities of modern literature and to let in a little daylight on its atrabilarious complexion’. But that makes the work sound more solemn than it really is. There was certainly an agenda, which reviewers noticed. But Peacock rarely used satire to attack or polemicise, and the novel blends ridicule with fun, even a degree of tenderness. His subtlest early readers were those who, like Mary Russell Mitford, recognised the broad critique (‘a very clever attack upon mystical metaphysics & misanthropical poetry’) and the takedown of Coleridge and Byron, yet also saw the dominant mood as a playful one: ‘Never was a more cheerful & amiable piece of persiflage – full of laughing raillerie & smiling philosophy – notwithstanding the gloomy title Nightmare Abbey.’ At a time of postwar unrest and government repression, Peacock was certainly dismayed by the distance separating Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey from their youthful idealism, and by their closeness to the Liverpool government (the once Jacobinical Southey, ‘Mr. Sackbut’, was now poet laureate). Yet Peacock was equally capable of defending the writers he satirised. In his ‘Essay on Fashionable Literature’, drafted a few months after Nightmare Abbey, he warmly praises Christabel and turns his fire, with a fierceness rarely seen in the fiction, on an attack on Coleridge which appeared in the Edinburgh Review. There is affection, too, in the figure of Scythrop Glowry, an ardent but impractical revolutionary who finds himself torn between competing lovers, and who (in the nearest Nightmare Abbey comes to a narrative crisis) in the penultimate chapter calls for ‘a pint of port and a pistol’, an allusion to the last request of Goethe’s suicidal Werther. Shelley recognised himself, but didn’t take offence.
Within minutes Scythrop changes his order to ‘boiled fowl and madeira’, Peacock’s favourite drink and so a shorthand for joy (he was distraught when blight killed most of Madeira’s vines in 1852). But only when revising the text for an omnibus edition of 1837 (with Headlong Hall, Maid Marian and Crotchet Castle) did Peacock settle on a life-affirming close. Scythrop rings once again for the butler: ‘Raven, still remembering the pistol, stood quaking in mute apprehension, till Scythrop, pointing significantly towards the dining-room, said, “Bring some Madeira.”’
In his preface to the omnibus, Peacock argues that his satires are timeless. A novel’s moment will pass, but in one shape or other ‘perfectibilians, deteriorationists, statu-quo-ites, phrenologists, transcendentalists, political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, morbid visionaries, romantic enthusiasts … will march for ever.’ Yet Peacock’s writing works when it is specific, and for this reason the Cambridge editors are right to favour first-edition texts over later revisions. The topicality appears to best effect in Crotchet Castle, a novel that shares the basic outcome of Nightmare Abbey: the intellectual fashions of the day are satirised through the medium of characters arguing with one another in a country-house setting. But this time it takes place on the banks of the Thames: a pastoral laced with menace (Woolf found in the opening sentence ‘something visually delightful, like a flowing wave or the lash of a whip vigorously flung’). He even sends his characters boating upriver, where they ‘glided over the face of the waters, discussing every thing and settling nothing’.
The poets and transcendentalists are still present, mocked if never really lashed. But the most interesting crotcheteer is Mr Mac Quedy, an amalgam of James Mill and the Ricardian economist John Ramsay McCulloch, who proclaims his expertise in ‘morals and metaphysics, politics and political economy, the way to make the most of all the modifications of smoke; steam, gas, and paper currency’. Steam is the novel’s symbol for cultural, commercial and industrial modernisation. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge becomes the Steam Intellect Society; the antiquary Chainmail deplores the ruin of the world by ‘gunpowder, steam, and fiscality’; the Owenite Mr Toogood ‘wants to parcel out the world into squares like a chess-board, with a community on each, raising every thing for one another, with a great steam-engine to serve them in common’. Then there’s the geographer Mr Philpot, who ‘would lie along for hours, listening to the gurgling of the water round the prow, and would occasionally edify the company with speculations on the great changes that would be effected in the world by the steam-navigation of rivers’.
This sounds like Peacock debating with himself – but it wasn’t a debate he would continue much longer in fiction. He published one more novel decades later, but Crotchet Castle was really his farewell to a genre that was industrialising like everything else, and in ways he found alien. In the age of steam-driven printing and railway literature, his cerebral novels of talk would never flourish. In Crotchet Castle he says he’ll leave the new realism craved by the public – exhaustive descriptions of rafters, utensils, buttons, ribbons – to be practised by more productive, efficient professionals: by ‘those whose brains are high-pressure steam engines for spinning prose by the furlong’.