Thursday, May 19, 2011

You may as well dine first, and be miserable afterwards.

The last fifteen pages or so of Nightmare Abbey – that title is from Chapter XIV (Peacock’s chapters, like his books, are short) – move away from the dinner table and wine cellar to turn into something rare in the Peacock I have read, a meaningful story, complete with complications and plot twists and a genuine resolution, a comic one, of course, a parody of Gothic and Romantic nonsense.  Much of it involves an argument about an overheard noise (the father believes his son is concealing a woman, while his son is, in fact, concealing a woman) that would not be out of place in Young Frankenstein or an episode of Frasier (“But, sir,” said Scythrop, “a key-hole may be so constructed as to act like an acoustic tube, and an acoustic tube, sir, will modify sound in a very remarkable manner” etc. etc.).

Otherwise, novelistic conventions of plot and story are playthings for Peacock.  In Crotchet Castle, the conventional romantic leads are simply abandoned for an entirely different story.  The characters are all sufficiently unreal that I doubt many readers ever cared – why would I prefer to watch the courtship of these puppets rather than those?  Peacock is not exactly Jane Austen.  Crotchet Castle ends with dancing and the singing of ballads and “[a]n immense bowl of spiced wine, with roasted apples hissing on its surface,…  borne into the hall by four men, followed by an empty bowl of the same dimensions, with all the materials of arrack punch” (Ch. XVIII)  The party, and the novel, too, only ends when the punch bowl is empty.

A true satirist, Peacock has his prejudices and hatreds, but his novels are in the end jolly, friendly places.  He is suspicious of progress, but defends knowledge.  He laughs at manias, but respects ideas.  He prefers over-indulged pleasure to healthy but dry abstention.  He is a happy satirist.  The plashy fens and furry broods of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1937) are spiritual children of the Peacock spirit.

Nightmare Abbey is actually an argument against unhappiness of the Gothic and Romantic variety, against the pose of unhappiness, whether it is found in Wetherism, Byronism, or transcendentalism.  “Let us all be unhappy together,” declares a character, just before he and his companions roar through a drunken rendition of Seamen Three: “And our ballast is old wine; \ And your ballast is old wine.”  I begin to doubt that the misery of these characters is genuine.


  1. I will absolutely own up to skimming and skipping these Peacock posts until just now, which was a bad to terrible idea but one remedied by the fact that I just read them all in an increasingly greater fit of excitement. I will be hunting down one of these novels in the near future I believe, as they sound like too much fun. Thanks for blowing the dust off one more obscure writer!

  2. Own up, oh no need. I worry more about people who don't skip and skim. Sk&Sk is wise, even necessary.

    I'm so glad you are enjoying the Peacock pieces. He's obviously not for everyone (defining everyone narrowly, as knowledgeable and careful readers). But for readers with the right sensibility, he's a great treat.

  3. I enjoyed Nightmare Abbey, and I confess that my knowledge of the Romantics is pretty limited. One thing noticeable about Scythrop is that he is not a poet. So Peacock satirises Shelley's attitudes and opinions but not his poetry.

  4. Ed - just as I thought, really. Scythrop is Shelleyish, but he is not Shelley. The Byron-like character is not Byron, but a Byronist - just as you say, Peacock laughs at Byronism much more than at Byron's poetry.

  5. Thomas Love Peacock is one of my favourite authors. I love Nightmare Abbey! That quote about having dinner first and being miserable later is my favourite from the book. Another one of my favourites is this one, "When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head: having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college,..." Actually, I could go on quoting the whole book. It is hilarious!

    Enjoyed reading his Headlong Hall too.

  6. One of your favorite authors! That's so wonderful! And so rare!

    I should give Headlong Hall a try. That would be a good excuse to return to Peacock.

    By the way, thanks for visiting, and best wishes with the new blog. I agree, Sheridan is one of the greats.

  7. Thank you for visiting my blog too! Since I write mostly about Vintage Mysteries and Classics, I have not had that many visitors yet.

    I discovered Peacock last year while reading an interesting book called The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. It had a passage from Nightmare Abbey and I thought that passage was the funniest thing ever!

    I love Richard Brinsley Sheridan! Another one of my favourites. His The Rivals is one of my all time favourite plays.