Friday, May 20, 2011

Peacock's joyful elegy for literature, Gryll Grange

Thomas Love Peacock has a few champions, readers of exquisite taste and refined sensibility blahbity blah blah.  Michael Dirda, of The Washington Post, is one of them, as Jenny of Shelf Love tells me.  He pointed me to another, the “minor prose stylist” Guy Davenport, who, Dirda says, “spent his last days rereading Peacock” – too good to check, that bit.

Why would Davenport do such a peculiar thing?  I found the answer in Peacock's final novel, Gryll Grange (1860), published when the author was seventy-five years old.  The world of Romanticism, Byronism, and Gothic foofaraw depicted in Nightmare Abbey, forty-two years earlier, must have looked so distant.

Gryll Grange is an elegy for culture and learning, for literature, but also a celebration of the renewal of literature.  Peacock had me worried, for a while, that his curmudgeonliness, a necessary trait in a decent satirist, had swallowed him whole, that the novel would be nothing but a complaint, that Peacock’s critique of progress had become desiccated.  The old, though, continues in the new in Peacock’s fantasy.  Gryll Grange is a variation of The Tempest.  Peacock breaks his staff with the knowledge that life will go on without him.

A young aesthete has established a shrine to Beauty, devoted to music, art, literature, elegance, and chastity.  He has chosen to live in an allegory.  A wise, happy clergyman, sharing his love of Greek learning and English elegance, introduces him to an elegant, beautiful, learned etc. etc. woman.  Another couple is dropped in to create a love rectangle, which works out the way it must.  Should the aesthete preserve his arid but beautiful fantasy world or live in the complex and imperfect real world?  This also works out the way it must.  Peacock is actually arguing against himself, against his own narrowness, and mine.

The keystones of the novel are literary.  The climax is the performance of an Aristophanic play.  Chapter headings are packed with Greek, Italian, and French quotations, translated by Peacock, and there are plenty more in the text of the novel.  Rabelais is a presiding spirit, as is the Shakespeare of forest fantasies like As You Like It.  Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato plays a central role in the romantic plot – shy lovers communicate by leaving Boiardo open to meaningful passages.  The choice of Boiardo is doubly meaningful – it does not matter that Boiardo was not able to finish his epic of Orlando.  Someone else, someone better, even, will take care of it later.

What is valuable will survive.  The novel ends with songs, and ghost stories (Gryll Grange is actually a Christmas novel), and weddings, and champagne.  Peacock, an old man, looks backs, but also forward.

I fear I have made a hash of this one.  Gryll Grange looks a lot like Peacock’s earlier novels, and passage by passage sounds like them.  Its mood is different, though, and its argument has shifted.  When I reread it during my last days, or perhaps before, I will try again.


  1. A little challenged these days, can't even think about starting on Peacock: fine work by you, as always. Intrigued by seeing Butcher's Crossing up on the board. Are you reading it first, before reading Stoner? I keep meaning to get to Augustus myself, but it appears that I've been on a general hiatus. Very curious about the choice, and what you might think of Williams and BC. If I had any mojo right now I would read Augustus and I Claudius side by side. But I got nothing.

  2. I am reading Butcher's Crossing as an example of a historical novel set in the American West.

    Stoner sounds great, but someone will have to organize a Kampus Novel challenge for me to get to it anytime soon.

  3. "What is valuable will survive."

    I hope you're right.

  4. Shelley - "hope" is right! The aged Peacock is making an optimistic argument. But he has one more piece - the character's in the novel are actively preserving what is valuable. We can do the same.

  5. My only good resolution for the New year was to read Thomas Love Peacock, one of those classical, established English authors whose reputation are invulnerable and whom nobody reads. So I got a set of his works at once, but not without difficulty. Curious that I could not get a set in a uniform cloth binding! The first bookseller whom I approached had apparently never heard of the author of "Crotchet Castle", etc. I chose "Gryll Grange" to read, and I read it in the odd moments of two days. Well, Peacock had no gift for plot; a considerable gift for the narration of an episode, but little gift for joining his episodes together. As with so many English novelists, he had not taken the trouble to learn his job. the thing is the wildest fantasy. Young hero living in a tower with seven lovely serving-maids, sisters, each of whom has a plain, bucolic, ultimately successful swain. Everything beautifully pure. An audacious modern novelist handling such a theme would certainly have got himself into trouble.

    I should not be surprised if "Gryll Grange" is the most learned novel in the English language. The elderly hero, Dr. Opimian, is a great man and a great scholar. the very numerous quotations from the Greek, Latin, French and Italian are admirably translated, and the general style of the story is admirable. The book is mature, mellow, urbane, civilised, and ironic without bitterness. I kept saying to myself: "This book is ridiculous, but ridiculous with nobility." Peacock must have been a distinguished character, if excessively odd. George Meredith married his daughter. (He ought not to have done so.) One hears that the father-in-law influenced the son-in-law. I did not see any potential Meredith in "Crotchet Castle" when I read it many years ago. But I see potential Meredith in "Gryll Grange". Dr. Opimian is the spiritual ancestor of Meredith's Dr. Middleton, but finer - and possibly even more erudite. "Gryll Grange" is richly suffused with learning - learning carried with what elegance and with what ease, displayed with what readableness! The most prodigious scholar might read it without humiliation.

  6. Welcome and thank you for the erudite comment, Mr. Bennett.