Peacock’s Progress

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The ups and downs of literary reputations are often slightly mysterious. I still find it strange, though, that although we pay ample homage to most of the heavyweights of the nineteenth century, one of the best and liveliest of them all has been allowed to fade from view. Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) deserves much better than that. I find his writings – sceptical, dry and sparkling with wit – as rewarding today as when I first read them many years ago.

Perhaps a present-day reader coming fresh to his novels should be warned that they resemble those of no other writer. Peacock pretty well invented a form new to English literature, the ‘Peacockian novel’, a kind of hybrid between conversation and narrative. He also invented a private world: an attractive and comfortable world it is too, where a continuous intellectual comedy takes place in a setting of Arcadian landscape.

Peacock’s method is to assemble a gaggle of opinionated characters at a country house, supply them with a more or less preposterous plot, and then let them indulge in a feast of disputatious talk. They eat and drink merrily, take walks to admire the scenery, make expeditions by boat – but the talk is the main thing. Each participant has his own crotchet (‘a whimsical fancy, a perverse conceit’ – OED) and propounds it with vigour. In this genial way Peacock satirizes the crazes and trendy notions of his time (not essentially unlike those of today). He has influenced some later writers. Aldous Huxley called Crome Yellow his Peacockian novel, choosing the thinly disguised Garsington Manor of Lady Ottoline Morrell for its setting.

Peacock was sometimes called the court jester of the Romantic movement, and some of his characters bear a mocking resemblance to the leading Romantics. Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth are to be spotted among the caricatures. But although Peacock wrote for and about his own times, human folly does not date. My fav

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About the contributor

J. W. M. Thompson now lives in rural Norfolk, but he thinks his years in Fleet Street (ten of them as Editor of the Sunday Telegraph) helped him to appreciate Peacock’s interest in the dottier aspects of human nature.

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