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Post Road Magazine #32

J *HED: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

Dylan Hicks


*HED: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

Dylan Hicks

It would be stunting and perverse to prefer minor books to major ones as a hard-and-fast rule, but there are understandable reasons for doing so much, let's say a majority, of the time. You might be suspicious of ambition, averse to pomposity, greedy for signs that your own talents, so obviously short of genius, might nonetheless produce quietly distinguished—even enduring—works of the second tier. Cynthia Ozick, quoted by Phillip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay, wrote that "a delectable preciousness (not inevitably a pejorative, if you consider Max Beerbohm), or a calculated smallness, or an unstoppable scheme of idiosyncrasy, comic or other—or simply the persnickety insistence on being minor—can claim permanence as easily as the more capacious qualities of a Proust or a Joyce." That seems right, if too defensive; part of the allure of minor books is that their claims, to permanence and everything, are by definition humbler than those of the great. Another part of that allure is that minor books mitigate the problem of readerly obligation and disappointment: if you're hunting for works of compellingly uneven modesty rather than canonical life changers, you're less likely to walk away unsatisfied, and if you do, you can safely blame the book's defects rather than your own.

Thomas Love Peacock's satirical roman á clef Nightmare Abbey is a great—which is to say, a very good—minor novel. Published in 1818, it takes gentle aim at fashionably dour romanticism, assembling fictional surrogates of some of the movement's leading figures at the melancholy Christopher Glowry's country house, "a venerable family-mansion, in a highly picturesque state of semi-dilapidation." The book's brooding protagonist, Mr. Glowry's heir Scythrop, is patterned after Shelley, a good friend of Peacock who received the book with thick-skinned enthusiasm. Now in the early stages of a writing career, Scythrop has recently published a treatise "in which his meanings were carefully wrapt up in the monk's hood of transcendental technology, but filled with hints of matter deep and dangerous, which he thought would set the nation in a ferment." He's not discouraged that the book has instead sold a modest seven copies, seeing in the number a mystically favorable auspice.

Nightmare Abbey 's plot, of secondary interest to Peacock, sets up a love triangle of Scythrop and two women: his poor cousin Marionetta, said by herself and others to be simple though she speaks and acts quite cleverly; and the learned, sable-eyed beauty Stella, who enters the scene with an air of spectral mystery. This material is wittily handled and yields fun surprises, though without pretensions to—to anything, really, but certainly not to the psychological depth and observational precision with which Austen contemporaneously treated courtship and class. Peacock is chiefly interested in skewering the ennui, supernaturalism, abstraction, and Germanicism dominating the literary in-crowd, ridiculing if not exorcising the blue devils that, as Byron had it in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sought their prey:

In melancholy bosoms, such as were

Of moody texture from their earliest day

And loved to dwell in darkness and dismay,

Deeming themselves predestined to a doom

Which is not of the pangs that pass away;

Making the sun like blood, the earth a tomb,

The tomb a hell, and hell itself a murkier gloom.

The stand-in for Coleridge, Mr. Flosky, is a poet of ceaseless vanity and a Kantian philosopher of dubious insight who stops in midsentence when he finds himself "unintentionally trespassing within the limits of common sense." A gross exaggeration, of course, though one that will likely find sympathizers in readers who've struggled through the more self-proud or recondite sections of Biographia Literaria. The Byron figure, Mr. Cypress, arrives relatively late in the book and isn't given Byronic charisma. Robert Southey takes offstage hits as Roderick Sackbut. Other characters either represent historical figures unremembered by nonscholars or are invented, such as odd-man-out Mr. Hilary, who by and large speaks for the author, though as Gore Vidal wrote in an essay on Peacock and the novel of ideas, Peacock "possessed negative capability to a high degree," and we can trust that even here he spread his own views among his disputants.

Nightmare Abbey is a delightfully hybrid book. Sometimes rendered in elegant novelistic prose, sometimes laid out like a play, it draws on Platonic and other philosophical dialogues, dialogic novels such as Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, as well as romances and farce, Rabelais and Voltaire. There are erudite debates, rakish French valets, original poems and songs, and slapstick tumbles into moats. Though not all the jokes have reached the twenty-first century in full luster, there are many sturdily inspired comic passages, including a precise and extended description of Scythrop settling into a pensive posture ("… crossed his left foot over his right knee, placed the hollow of his left hand on the interior ancle of his left leg, rested his right elbow on the elbow of the chair …,") that should appeal to fans of David Foster Wallace.

Peacock's references and allusions won't always leap to the current reader's mind (the book's two instances of anti-Semitism, alas, will be clear), but his satire is unusually durable, both because the romantics are still widely read, and because romanticism has informed so many subsequent artistic and intellectual vanguards. When one of the characters, Mr. Listless, finds in modern books a "consolatory and congenial" blight, "a delicious misanthropy and discontent, that demonstrates the nullity of virtue and energy, and puts me in good humour with myself and my sofa," one will perhaps be brought back to a youth of coffeehouse existentialism, or of Joy Division buttons, or whatever your age provides you. In times of personal despair or political fury, nothing can seem as insufferably bourgeois as happiness, but the artistic impulse to continually paint the world in somber tones, pursued either out of habit or in a sweating grasp for profundity, almost always misrepresents experience, obeying the silly first principle, as Mr. Hilary puts it, "to remember to forget that there are any such things as sunshine and music in the world." Or any such things as Thomas Love Peacock's strange little novels.

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