Thomas Love Peacock

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PEACOCK, Thomas Love

Nationality: English. Born: Weymouth, Dorset, 18 October 1785; moved with his mother to Chertsey, Surrey, 1788. Education: Mr. Wicks's school in Englefield Green, Surrey. Family: Married Jane Gryffydh in 1820 (died 1852); four children. Career: Moved to London, 1802, continued his studies on his own, and worked for merchants to support himself while writing; Secretary to Sir Home Riggs Popham, in Flushing, 1808-09; lived in North Wales, 1810-11; met Shelley in 1812, accompanied him on a visit to Edinburgh, 1813, and settled near him in Great Marlow, 1816; received a pension from Shelley and subsequently acted as the executor of Shelley's estate; staff member, East India Company, London, 1819-35; chief examiner, East India Company, London, 1836-56; contributed to Fraser's Magazine until 1860; lived in Halliford, near Shepperton, Middlesex. Died: 23 January 1866.



Works (Halliford Edition), edited by H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones. 10 vols., 1924-34.

The Novels, edited by David Garnett. 1948; as The Complete Peacock, 1989.

A Selection, edited by H. L. B. Moody. 1966.

Short Stories and Short Novels

Headlong Hall. 1816; revised editions, 1816, 1823, 1837; withGryll Grange, edited by Michael Baron and Michael Slater, 1987.

Nightmare Abbey. 1818; revised edition, 1837; edited RaymondWright, with Crotchet Castle, 1969.

Maid Marian. 1822; revised edition, 1837.

The Misfortunes of Elphin. 1829.


Melincourt. 1817.

Crotchet Castle. 1831; edited by Raymond Wright, with Nightmare Abbey, 1969.

Gryll Grange. 1861; with Headlong Hall, edited by Michael Baron and Michael Slater, 1987.


Plays (includes The Dilettanti, The Three Doctors, The Circle of Leda), edited by A. B. Young. 1910.


The Monks of St. Marks. 1804.

Palmyra and Other Poems. 1806.

The Genius of the Thames: A Lyrical Poem in Two Parts. 1810.

The Genius of the Thames, Palmyra, and Other Poems. 1812.

The Philosophy of Melancholy: A Poem in Four Parts, with a Mythological Ode. 1812.

Sir Hornbook; or, Childe Launcelot's Expedition: A Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad. 1813.

Sir Proteus: A Satirical Ballad. 1814.

The Round Table; or, King Arthur's Feast. 1817.

Rhododaphne; or, The Thessalian Spell. 1818.

The Stable Boy. 1820.

Paper Money Lyrics and Other Poems. 1837.

Songs from the Novels. 1902.

A Bill for the Better Promotion of Oppression on the Sabbath Day. 1926.


The Four Ages of Poetry. 1863; edited by J.E. Jordan, 1965.

A Whitebait Dinner at Lovegrove's at Blackwall (Greek and Latin text by Peacock, English version by John Cam Hobhouse). 1851.

Calidore and Miscellanea, edited by Richard Garnett. 1891.

Memoirs of Shelley, with Shelley's Letters to Peacock, edited by H.

F. B. Brett-Smith. 1909; edited by Humbert Wolfe, in The Life of Shelley by Peacock, Hogg, and Trelawny, 1933. Letters to Edward Hookham and Shelley, with Fragments of Unpublished Manuscripts, edited by Richard Garnett. 1910. Memoirs of Shelley and Other Essays and Reviews, edited by Howard Mills. 1970.

Translator, Gl'Ingannati, The Deceived: A Comedy Performed at Siena in 1531, and Aelia Laelia Crispis. 1862; edited by H. H. Furness, in New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, vol. 13, 1910.


Critical Studies:

The Life of Peacock by Carl Van Doren, 1911; Peacock by J. B. Priestley, 1927; The Critical Reputation of Peacock by Bill Read, 1959 (includes bibliography); Peacock by J. I. M. Stewart, 1963; Peacock by Lionel Madden, 1967; Peacock: His Circle and His Age by Howard Mills, 1968; His Fine Wit: A Study of Peacock by Carl Dawson, 1970; Peacock (biography) by Felix Felton, 1973; Peacock: The Satirical Novels: A Casebook edited by Lorna Sage, 1976; Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context by Marilyn Butler, 1979; The Novels of Peacock by Bryan Burns, 1985; Peacock by James Mulvihill, 1987.

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Thomas Love Peacock enjoys a secure, if not secondary place in the English literary canon as a writer of poetry and prose satires. He is perhaps best remembered today for his association with Percy Byshe Shelley and for his essay "The Four Ages of Poetry," which inspired Shelley's well-known "Defense of Poetry." Although Peacock has been the subject for a substantial amount of scholarly attention, it is certainly eclipsed by the number of loyal and enthusiastic readers who return again and again to his satiric fiction for entertaining and humorous portrayals of various intellectual figures and their particular brand of social, political, and literary philosophy.

One of Peacock's greatest strengths as a writer lies in his extraordinary awareness of the ideas and actions of his contemporaries that shaped his lifetime as one of the most revolutionary periods in English history. His short novels Headlong Hall, Melincourt, Nightmare Abbey, and Maid Marian all emerge from the years immediately following the Napoleonic wars with their revolutionary threats and subsequent suppression of civil liberties. The Misfortunes of Elphin, Crotchet Castle, and several articles were composed in the years immediately preceding the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832. But Peacock's contemporaries, as well as his audience during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, branded Peacock as an author lacking in serious intellectual commitment. His fiction, they argued, resists any commitment to a particular philosophy or aesthetic ideology. He has also been described as a novelist of character, but this too is misleading because Peacock fails to provide the reader with anything but superficial analysis of motive or action, tending instead to focus largely on description. Peacock himself stated that he cared little for the serious analysis of personality, and at least one of Peacock's contemporaries referred to him as "a laughing bystander," as a way of characterizing the author's relationship to the subject matter of his fiction.

Peacock's reputation also suffers as a result of shifting relationships between writer and reader during the early nineteenth century. At the time Peacock was developing the form he is most famous for, the prose satire, it was a common ploy of the literary marketplace to mount campaigns exposing the personal life of the artist to increase the public interest and consumption of the literary work. This is certainly one factor that lead to the vastly increased interest in literary biography during Peacock's lifetime. In short, if one's life could be made interesting, this interest might be profitably redirected to the author's works. Peacock, who was never concerned with the demands of the literary marketplace, maintained a high degree of privacy to the point of being accused of personal coldness and indifference, and he lived the last years of his life as a virtual recluse.

Serious discussion of Peacock's fiction remains limited by the practice continued well into the mid-twentieth century of identifying his fictional characters with their originals, a practice that began as early as 1840 with the identification of Shelley as the model for Scythrop Glowry in Nightmare Abbey. In Headlong Hall Miss Philomela Poppyseed is often identified with the novelist Amelia Opie, and Mr. Panscope as Coleridge. In Melincourt Robert Southy appears as Mr. Feathernest, Wordsworth as Mr. Paperstamp, and Shelley as Mr. Forester. Previously critics were content to rest on these discoveries and continued to clutter editions with footnotes identifying models for Peacock's characters. The result was a collection of wearisome, antiquated clutter that obscured any real critical insights into Peacock's work.

There is no denying that Peacock's characters are modeled after originals drawn from real life, but Peacock is not interested in the individual personality, despite the fact that they are humorously and even ridiculously portrayed. Instead Peacock portrays ideas and conversations of individuals in juxtaposition, which generally results in a widening gap between what they say and what they actually do. His characters are abstractions or personifications of ideas rather than individuals. With the exception of Melincourt and Gyrll Grange he rarely relies on sub-plot, we learn little of the outward appearance of characters, and the action of his stories are largely conversations. Peacock's earliest attempt at the prose satire, Headlong Hall, is an excellent case in point.

Headlong Hall came out of Peacock's discarded farces: The Dilettanti and The Three Doctors. Instead of characters, the story contains philosophers, good food, and conversation. The story begins with four individuals traveling in the Holyhead Mail. Mr. Escot is "a deteriorationist," Mr. Foster a "perfectibilian," Mr. Jenkison a "status-quo-ite," and Dr. Gastor a "worldly clergyman." In the opening scene the characters are identified by their philosophies as they are exposed in conversation. These four are not individuals but philosophers as Jonathan Swift defined them, "men of infinite systems" on their way to Headlong Hall, a Welsh castle now in the possession of Harry Headlong, a man named after a waterfall. In Headlong Hall the reader becomes no more acquainted with the narrator than he does with any of the characters who engage in conversation at all times and at any cost. Any action taking place in the story is there to create opportunities for conversation and for allowing the narrator to cut the speakers off.

Peacock's most famous work in fiction, Nightmare Abbey, falls between the two forms of satiric romance and the conversation novella, or novellas of talk. In Nightmare Abbey Coleridge returns as Mr. Flosky, who immerses himself in "transcendental darkness" and claims that "tea has shattered our nerves." Shelley appears as Scythrop Glowry, who after being disappointed in love secludes himself in Nightmare Abbey; reading German tragedies and transcendental philosophy, he is infected with a desire to reform the world. He is also the author of a book that has sold seven copies and he becomes obsessed with the mystic significance of that number.

Nightmare Abbey satirizes much of what will later be identified with romanticism in Britain, particularly the value of literature and its place in the world. The interest here, and in all of Peacock's fiction, is not the lampooning of individuals but a critique of ideas and their effect on contemporary culture. Peacock is especially concerned with the tendency of his contemporaries to respond only to ideas and literature rather than to life itself. Peacock exposes, through the conversations of his characters, the debilitating effect of an excess of ideas at the expense of personal feeling and the individual's experience in the world. The high achievement of Nightmare Abbey was not matched by Peacock again until Gyrll Grange, published serially in Fraser's Magazine between April and December 1860. Gyrll Grange also appeared in book form in 1861.

—Jeffrey D. Parker

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Thomas Love Peacock

The work of the English novelist and satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) is distinguished by its incisive penetration of the intellectual tendencies of his time. He ranks high as a comic novelist of ideas.

Thomas Love Peacock, the son of a London merchant, was educated for a business career and not for a life of artistic pursuits. Finding work in an office uncongenial, he was able to leave his job and to live for a while on his inherited income. During these years he began to write poetry, and he became a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley. After the poet's death, Peacock became his literary executor and edited a volume of memorials. Peacock married Jane Gryffydh, a lady mentioned in glowing terms in Shelley's poem "Letter to Maria Gisborne."

In this period Peacock also began to write the satirical novels on which his reputation rests. The first group includes Headlong Hall (1815), Melincourt (1817), and Nightmare Abbey (1818). His pattern in these works was to dispense with all but the most mechanical plotting and to devote his attention to extended conversations between the inhabitants and guests at characteristic English country houses. Headlong Hall includes Mr. Foster, an optimist; Mr. Escot, a pessimist; Mr. Jenkinson, an advocate of the status quo; and Dr. Gaster, a minister more distinguished by his worldliness than by his piety. Melincourt has a more integrated plot, centering on the wooing of a wealthy heiress. Its main interest lies, however, in its satirical portraits of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Thomas Malthus, and Lord Monboddo. Nightmare Abbey continues the satire of poets and philosophers of the day, including Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Shelley.

In 1819 Peacock joined the East India Company and became a competent and successful executive of colonial affairs. He continued his imaginative writing. In addition to poetry, he published two romance-novels dealing with fairy-tale plots and characters. Maid Marian (1822) is set in medieval England and concerns the legendary exploits of Robin Hood's band. The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) is a parody of the Arthurian legend in which King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Welsh bard Taliesin figure.

After these forays into the romance-novel, Peacock returned to his true métier with another satirical novel, Crotchet Castle (1831). Leading intellectual figures of the day satirized in this work include Coleridge, the rigorous school of Scottish economic thinkers, and those who joined in the period's growing tendency to glorify the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Peacock's career was, however, his production of another novel of the same type almost 30 years afterward. Gryll Grange (1860) shows the marks of age in its tendency to ramble from scholarly to domestic subjects and in its avoidance of personal satire of leading intellectual figures. Gryll Grange was Peacock's last novel. He was one of the most incisive commentators on the cultural life of England in the first half of the 19th century.

Further Reading

The most readable biography of Peacock is Carl Van Doren, The Life of Thomas Love Peacock (1911; repr. 1966). The best critical studies are Howard Mills, Peacock: His Circle and His Age (1968), and Carl Dawson, His Fine Wit (1970).

Additional Sources

Freeman, A. Martin (Alexander Martin), Thomas Love Peacock: a critical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. □

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Peacock, Thomas Love (1785–1866). Peacock had modest private means but earned his living as an official in the East India Company. He wrote essays, poetry, plays, and pamphlets, but is best known for his novels, Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817), Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860–1). Peacock was a friend of Shelley in his youth and radical in politics, but he grew increasingly independent, and his satirical victims included ardent Romantics as well as ‘march of mind’ men like Henry Brougham. The novels are quirky and an acquired taste, with little plot and much conversation, but offer vignettes of Peacock's contemporaries—Repton (Milestone in Headlong Hall), Malthus (Fax in Melincourt), Coleridge (Flosky in Nightmare Abbey), Shelley (Foster in Headlong Hall).

J. A. Cannon

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Peacock, Thomas Love (1785–1866) English novelist and poet. Peacock is chiefly remembered for his idiosyncratic satirical romances, such as Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860–61).

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