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Thomas Love Peacock: Irony and British Common Sense

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) is not as famous as other nineteenth-century British writers, but his fame rests on his conversational novels: the central part of the action is taken up by conversations around a table, where characters discuss (and satirise)

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Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) is not as famous as other nineteenth-century British writers, but his fame rests on his conversational novels: the central part of the action is taken up by conversations around a table, where characters discuss (and satirise) fashionable opinions of the day.

In his works he could inventively and wittily mix up irony and the typical British common sense, when addressing abstruse and obscure philosophical and literary topics, so fashionable during the Romantic Age.
 

A masterly parody of the Gothic novel, which was on the decline by the time Peacock had started to write, is Nightmare Abbey (1818). It was not the first time Gothic fiction had been satirised (Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey bears evidence to it), but Peacock does it in a very enjoyable and different way: the author introduces stereotypical figures acting as mouthpieces for transcendental, obscure and abstruse philosophy; thus, Mr Flosky is a parody of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Manichean millenarian Mr Toobad, who recites time and again the same verses from the Revelations, stands for J.N. Newton, a friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mr Cypress is Byron in disguise.

 

Apart from making fun of the Gothic novel, it is clear how Peacock constructs his works: his characters are stereotypes, deprived of any psychological profile, taking the view of this real-life character or the other. They all gather around a table and, by doing so, discuss diverse topics.

 

His last work, Gryll Grange (1861), satirises bridal quest narratives. Gregory Gryll is desperately seeking the right suitor for her niece and sole heiress Morgana and the best candidate is the recluse Algernon Falconer. Notwithstanding this, the whole story is complicated by stories-within-the story, upon which Reverend Opimian (Peacock’s stand-in) drily and dourly comments, revealing his conservative stances.

 

Peacock ostensibly managed to tease the intellectual conventions and the fashions of his age, but, as an Italian living in post-Brexit Europe, I wonder how the author would have commented upon his country being out of the European Union if he were with us.

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2 COMMENTS
  • Roger 04:58 PM

    Didn’t see that last sentence coming. Would you hazard a guess as to whether Peacock would have been for or against Britannia (then a great empire, of course) being subsumed into a Continental bureaucracy with a background in Roman law rather than the English Common Law?

    • Andrea Di Carlo
      Andrea Di Carlo 01:36 PM

      Roger, thank you very much for raising such a thought-provoking issue. I contend that Peacock, had he been granted the possibility to choose, would have been against Britannia (or the British Empire) being part of a European society regulated by Civil Law. Even though I am not a legal scholar, I am under the impression that the English cherish their legal system much because it allowed them to establish the first constitutional democracy in Europe. Thus, I think Peacock would have voted against it for this reason. Again, thank you so much for such an interesting question and I hope I have provided you with a sensible answer.

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