I vacillated a lot before deciding on my re-reading for this month. My list of “books read” for 1984, the year I had to choose from, gave me 27 possibilities: the short list included Ford Madox Ford (the middle two of his Tietjens tetralogy: maybe too much hard work?); John Cheever (not another American after last month’s Anne Tyler? Could be read later); R.K. Narayan (relevant book not in local library); Ross Macdonald (another interesting American, could also be kept for another year); PG Wodehouse … and so on.
In the end I opted for the rather obscure: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock, in a paperback that had been on our shelves since the 1980s. I must have bought it second-hand, as it is a 1967 edition, T31 of Pan Books’ Bestsellers of Literature, which was, according to the back cover, “A new series of ever-popular and compellingly readable novels by the world’s great authors … [with] an authoritative and analytical introduction, in many cases by a famous author of today”. The volume in question, original price 7s 6d, contained four of Peacock’s short novels: Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. And the famous author of the day introducing the collection was none other than J.B. Priestley, who presents a straightforward ten-page account of Peacock’s life (1785-1866) and appreciation of his “odd but delicious novels”. “[W]hat must not be missed,” Priestley concludes, “is the constant undercurrent of irony in him, the faint mockery in the very neatness and crispness of his dialogue, the grave mischief in the style itself”.
Once again, I have to say I have no memory of reading anything by Peacock, and so this re-reading was in effect a first reading. Did I enjoy it? Yes, once I’d got used to the style. Priestley is right to call Peacock’s novels “odd”, by the standards not only of the present day but also his of contemporaries. You won’t find much plot or character development: Nightmare Abbey can offer you a little bit of will-he-won’t-he with regard to the love life of Scythrop Glowry, the young heir to Nightmare Abbey, but that’s hardly the point. Scythrop – derived from the Greek skuthropos, “of a sad countenance” – is apparently based on the poet Shelley, a friend of Peacock’s, and there are other disguised portraits: Mr Flosky, “a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman, of some note in the literary world” is based on Coleridge, and Byron appears in the guise of Mr Cypress. What chapter after (short) chapter consists of mainly is dialogue, with a variety of characters – not only the above mentioned but also Mr Toobad (“the Manichean Millenarian”), the Reverend Mr Larynx, the “fashionable” Mr Listless, Mr Asterias the ichthyologist in search of a mermaid, and others – arguing about a variety of matters.
MARIONETTA. I must apologize for intruding on you, Mr Flosky; but the interest which I – you – take in my cousin Scythrop –
MR FLOSKY. Pardon me, Miss O’Carroll; I do not take any interest in any person or thing on the face of the earth; which sentiment, if you analyse it, you will find to be the quintessence of the most refined philanthropy.
MARIONETTA. I will take it for granted that it is so, Mr Flosky; I am not conversant with metaphysical subtleties, but —
MR FLOSKY. Subtleties! my dear Miss O’Carroll. I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public, to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.
I went on from Nightmare Abbey (1818) to Crotchet Hall (1831), which Priestley preferred but which to my mind lacked the compactness of the earlier novel. Its characters – some of whom appear without introduction – wander all over the place, from the Thames Valley, where Crotchet Hall is said to be located, to North Wales (Peacock’s wife Jane was Welsh). It may, though, be the first novel whose characters travel by canal: they ascend from the Thames “by many locks” and then descend “through the valley of Stroud into the Severn”, finally, via the Ellesmere canal, “moor[ing] their pinnaces in the Vale of Llangollen by the aqueduct of Pontycysyllty” [Pontycysyllte aqueduct was built in 1805].
As it happens, while coming to the end of my Peacock readathon I was in a house that contained a book of Gore Vidal’s essays. This included his 1980 review of Marilyn Butler’s biography of Peacock. Using this, and Mary McCarthy’s Ideas and the Novel, he argued that the satirical narrative as exemplified by Aristophanes, Lucian, Swift, Voltaire and Peacock lost out in the nineteenth century to a different kind of novel: “In the half century between Peacock’s first work and his last [Gryll Grange], the novel was transformed by Dickens and the comedy of character replaced the comedy of ideas.” This, in Vidal’s view, is a loss: his typically opinionated essay, which also has things to say about the “dead end of the Serious Novel”, is worth seeking out.
(Incidentally, I note that Peacock’s novels aren’t available in either Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics these days. A pity. On the other hand, you could get a recently published scholarly edition of Nightmare Abbey from Cambridge University Press for £84.99 if you really – really – wanted. This version has 430 pages, I gather, as opposed to the 70-odd pages plus three pages of notes it occupies in my little Pan edition.)
I read most of the Peacock in Ireland, and mostly while travelling on trains in the Republic and the North. Earlier in the month I read The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (too long, but an amusing take on the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’), Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy (late but not great Greene, still worth reading), some of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (not easy to read except in short bursts) and also some of Edging the Estuary, Peter Finch’s account of walking the shores of the Severn Estuary (recommended).