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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 22. Thomas Love Peacock

We began with an eccentric and we must end with one, though of a very different class from Amory. After a not extensive, but, also, not inconsiderable, popularity during the period of his earlier production, the silence which Thomas Love Peacock imposed upon himself for thirty years, and the immense development of the novel during those same thirty, rather put him out of sight. But, first, the appearance of Gryll Grange, and then his death, followed, not long after, by a nearly complete edition of his works, brought him back; and, both before and after that publication, it became rather the fashion with critics to “discover” Peacock, while a certain number, long before, either by their own good fortune or their father’s wisdom, had been instructed in him. But he never was, is not even now, when fresh discoveries of his work have been made, and probably never will be, popular; and there have sometimes been almost violent recalcitrances against him, such as that made by Mrs. Oliphant in her book on English literature. Nor, in more favourable estimates, has it sometimes been difficult to discern a sort of hesitation—a “not knowing what to make of it.” The compound of satire and romance in him has puzzled many; just as it has in Heine and in Thackeray. There is also, it would seem, an additional difficulty in the fact that, though he wrote, besides the admirable songs in his fiction, and one or two estimable longer poems, criticism and miscellanea in prose, dramas long unpublished and not of much value and some other things, the bulk of his work, and almost the whole of his possible means of popular appeal, consists of a very peculiar kind (or, rather two kinds) of novel: one variety of which is repeated twice, and the other five times, in different material, certainly, but (in the more numerous class, especially) on an almost identical scheme and scale.

This more momentous and, perhaps, generally thought more characteristic division contains three novels, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817) and Nightmare Abbey (1818), published close together, a fourth, Crochtet Castle, which appeared a good deal later (1831), and a fifth, already mentioned between which and its immediate predecessor there was a gap of a generation, in more than the conventional sense of the word. Every one of these has the same skeleton plot—the assembling of a party in a country house, with more or less adventure, much more than less conviviality, no actual murders, but a liberal final allowance of marriages. Some differentia is, of course, provided—in Headlong Hall, with more than the contrasted presentation of caricatured types—optimist, pessimist, happy-mean man, professional man of letters and so forth, carried out with lively conversation, burlesque incident and a large interspersion of delightful songs, mainly convivial in character, but contenting itself with next to no plot. The next two are rather more substantial; the long and unequal, but, in parts, admirable, Melincourt, containing a good deal of political and personal satire on rotten boroughs, the Lake poets, political economy, perfectibilism and what not, with, for central figure, an amiable orang-outang, whom a young philosopher of wealth and position has taught to do everything but speak, and for whom he has bought a baronetcy and a rotten borough. Nightmare Abbey, one of the most amusing of all, turns on the unfortunate difficulty which a young man (who, in some ways, is very like Shelley) has in fixing his affections; and contains portraits, much more remote from the original, of Byron and Coleridge. Crotchet Castle takes up the scheme with much less exaggeration and burlesque, with little or no personal satire, with a marked change of political and social view, in the direction, if not exactly of conservatism, of something not unlike it, and with still more remarkable advance in personal characterisation; while Gryll Grange (1860) continues this still further, with adaptation to the changed circumstances of its own time.

The other two novels, Maid Marian (1822) and The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), though they could hardly have been written by any other author, are not merely on a quite different plan, but in what may look like, though it is not, a quite different vein. Both, as, indeed, the titles show, are actually romantic in subject; and, though both (and Elphin almost more than anywhere else) exhibit Peacock’s ironic-satirical treatment, it must be a very dull person who does not see that he is not shooting at the romance, but under cover of it. Peacock has been called a Voltairean: and, much in the form and manner of most of his tales derives, if not from Voltaire, from Voltaire’s master, our own countryman, Anthony Hamilton. He is, even in his later and more mellowed condition “Mr. Sarcastic” (the name of one of his characters) or nothing. His earlier attitude towards Anglican clergy, and his early personal lampoons on tory politicians and men of letters, are almost too extravagant to give much amusement to those who sympathise with them or any offence to those who do not. He maintained, even to the last, a purely crotchety dislike to Scott. Few people did more to spread the utterly unjust and unfounded notion of Southey and Wordsworth (he is, almost of necessity, rather more lenient to Coleridge) as profligate timeservers, who feathered their nests at the expense of their consciences. But, for all this, he was a romantic in his own despite, and his prose very commonly, his verse still oftener, betrays him.

Nor can the greatest admirer of the literature, the political views, or the ecclesiastical and academic institutions which—up to his last work, at any rate, though not there—Peacock satirises, resist, if he himself possesses any catholic love of letters and the genuine sense of humour, the heartiest and most unfailing enjoyment of Peacock’s work. Except in Melincourt, where there are some arid passages, the whole range of his novels yields nothing but refreshment. The plot so frankly abdicates, and leaves its place to be taken by amusing, if not very closely connected, incident, that nobody but a pedant can feel the want of it; the characters, if not deeply drawn, are sketched with a verve not easily to be outdone; the descriptions are always sufficient and sometimes very much more; and the dialogue, in its own way, is consummate. The present chapter has been occupied with the eccentric novel in more than one or two senses of that adjective. Peacock’s kind of eccentricity is certainly one of those which show the greatest idiosyncrasy, the imitation of which, though sometimes tried by persons of ability, has proved most difficult. But, in itself, it is likely to retain its faculty of pleasing perhaps as long as any kind, though never to any very large number of people. The first readers of Gryll Grange (even if young enough to be liable to the disease of thinking the last age obsolete) were astonished to find an almost octogenarian recluse, who had long given up writing, not in the least out of date. And the quality or gift which effected this—the quality which, fifty years later, makes the hundred year old manners and the hundred year old personages of Nightmare Abbey more alive than most personages of contemporary novels—is never very likely to lose its preserving or its refreshing power.