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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)

IN his preface to Cole’s edition of Peacock’s works, Lord Houghton describes the author of ‘Headlong Hall’ and ‘Nightmare Abbey’ as a man who belonged in all his tastes, sentiments, and aspects of life, to the eighteenth century. This characterization of Peacock is to a degree justifiable. In his indifference to the mysteries of existence, in his commonsense spirit, in his delicate epicureanism, in his love of ancient and well-established institutions of government and society, he exhibits the temper of the age of Pope. Yet he is thoroughly modern in his exquisite humor, in his skill in pricking the South Sea bubbles devised by the individual or by humanity at large, in his sense of proportion, in his fine carelessness. He may not have belonged to the enthusiastic, tempestuous, striving age which produced Byron and Shelley in the world of letters, and led to the Oxford Revival in the domain of religion; but he may be classed with end-of-the-century pagans as properly as with those of the preceding century.

Ben Jonson has been spoken of as the prototype of Peacock, because he dealt in “humors.” The points of resemblance between the Elizabethan dramatist and the satirist of English life three hundred years later, are not few. The characters of Peacock’s novels, like the persons of Jonson’s dramas, are less human beings than abstractions of certain intellectual eccentricities. Although Lady Clarinda of ‘Crotchet Castle’ and the Rev. Dr. Opimian of ‘Gryll Grange’ are warm, lifelike creations, the majority of their associates are shadowy mouthpieces, through which Peacock directs the shafts of his inimitable irony against the clergy, against the universities, against the politicians, against the innovationists, against the whimsies of his contemporaries of every creed and party.

His satirical temper, his fashion of ridiculing everything but good dinners and a country life, his insight into the foibles of his time, were manifest in his first novel, ‘Headlong Hall.’ Squire Headlong, a hunter and a lover of old wines, has been seized with a violent passion to be thought a philosopher and a man of taste: so he sets off to Oxford to inquire for other varieties of the same genera,—namely, men of taste and philosophy; but being assured by a learned professor that there were no such things in the university, he pursues his search in London, where he makes the acquaintance of Mr. Foster the perfectibilian, Mr. Escot the deteriorationist, Mr. Jenkinson the statu-quo-ite, and the Rev. Dr. Gaster, who has gained fame by a learned dissertation on the art of stuffing a turkey. These four worthies spend Christmas at Headlong Hall, where each discourses in season and out of season on his particular conception of the universe. In Dr. Gaster, Peacock satirizes the English clergy; but he makes amends for his fun at their expense by drawing the charming Dr. Folliott in ‘Crotchet Castle,’ and Dr. Opimian in ‘Gryll Grange.’ These are clergymen of the old school, Tories, whose knowledge of Greek is only equaled by their knowledge of fish-sauces and old Madeira. Peacock was too much of an epicurean and Grecian himself not to recognize and pay tribute to such merits.

His most biting satire is directed rather against the chimeras of contemporary poets and philosophers. Although he was a true friend of Shelley, he caricatures him, in a kindly enough spirit, in the hero of ‘Nightmare Abbey,’ young Sycthrop, who is in love with two women at once. Byron is held up to ridicule as Mr. Cypress, and Coleridge as Mr. Flosky. For the dreamy mystical poet of the ‘Ancient Mariner,’ Peacock could have little sympathy. He introduces him into ‘Crotchet Castle’ as Mr. Skionar, “a great dreamer who always dreams with his eyes open, or with one eye open at any rate, which is an eye to gain,”—a palpable injustice to Coleridge, who never knew how to take care of himself. Southey was, however, Peacock’s pet detestation. As Sackput, he makes of the poet a monument to his ironical contempt.

His own life is in part explanatory of his peculiar aversion to certain contemporary institutions and classes of people. He was born October 1785, at Weymouth, England, the only child of Samuel Peacock, a merchant of London. His mother, Sarah Love, had several relatives in the English navy, from whom Peacock gained his knowledge of shipping, which he afterwards turned to good account in the service of the East India Company. He was sent to a private school at eight years of age, remaining there until he was thirteen. After that time his education was carried on by himself. A residence in London enabled him to do an enormous amount of classical reading in the British Museum. How wide that reading was, is shown by the variety and number of the classical quotations sown through his novels. As a self-educated man, he had an unbounded contempt for the universities, and he lost no opportunity of expressing it.

From 1808 to 1809 he was under-secretary to Sir Home Popham, on board H. M. S. Venerable; but the occupation was not congenial to him, and he resigned his position. Later he took up his residence in Wales. At Nant Gwillt, near Rhaydar, in 1812, he made the acquaintance of Shelley and his child-wife Harriet. By some contradiction of his nature, he formed a close and lasting friendship with the ethereal poet, of whom he has left a very just though sympathetic biography. In this biography he draws what is perhaps the most authentic portrait of the unfortunate Harriet. He does justice to her physical charms, and to her purity of character. In 1816 he published ‘Headlong Hall’; in 1817 ‘Melincourt’; in 1818 ‘Nightmare Abbey’; in 1822 ‘Maid Marian’; in 1829 ‘The Misfortunes of Elplim’; and in 1831 ‘Crotchet Castle.’ In 1819 Peacock had obtained a clerkship in the examiner’s office of the East India Company. He continued in its employ until 1856, when he retired on a pension, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill. From 1831 to 1852 he published nothing. His last novel, ‘Gryll Grange,’ was published when he was an old man in the seventies. He died in 1866.

During the long period of his life he stood apart from the world of his contemporaries. He was not in sympathy with it, although he understood it. Peacock was in sympathy with nothing which took itself seriously. For this reason he hated the Scotch reviewers, especially Jeffrey and his school; he hated the universities; he hated reformers, who are always intense and literal. Peacock’s works, aside from their literary value, are important for the light they throw upon the intellectual peculiarities of Englishmen in the first half of this century. The historical value of satire has been apparent since the days of Aristophanes. As Lucian lets the reader into the highly colored intellectual world of the second century, so Peacock reveals the colors of nineteenth-century thought in his ironical novels. He himself is a pagan of the decadence. He takes the world with exquisite nonchalance, and prefers a well-ordered dinner to a dissertation on the immortality of the soul. His bacchanalian songs, interspersed through his novels, are Elizabethan in their mellowness of fancy; they have the quality of fine wine itself. They, rather than his occasional pieces on conventional subjects, establish his claim as a poet. Peacock’s love of the country, and of an unrestrained life, finds its most perfect expression in ‘Maid Marian,’ an airy tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It is redolent of the greenwood, but the odor of delicately roasted venison and the fragrance of canary wine are always discernible through the sweet smell of the turf.

Peacock’s works are of a rare vintage, but the reader must be an epicurean in literature to enjoy them. He must lay aside his feverish nineteenth-century prejudices and opinions if he would enjoy the whimsicalities of this writer, who takes his ease in the world’s inn, while he laughs at the perspiring crowd in the highway.