Friday, 18 October 2013

A Good Egg: Thomas Love Peacock

The list of classic writers who seem to have been thoroughly decent good people, and who we sense would be enjoyable company, is not long. Keats and Chekhov for sure, Charles Lamb, probably Jane Austen... One who can be added to the list was born on this day in 1785 - Thomas Love Peacock.
  Peacock - friend of Shelley (and defender of his maligned first wife) and, for a while, father-in-law of George Meredith - worked, like Lamb, for the East India Company. He outlined a day's work there thus:

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven;
From eleven to noon, think you've come too soon;
From twelve to one, think what's to be done;
From one to two, find nothing to do;
From two to three, think it will be
A very great bore to stay till four.

But in fact Peacock worked hard and well, succeeding James Mill as Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence (and being succeeded by John Stuart Mill). He appeared often before parliamentary committees, and is even credited with designing the first armoured steamboats used by the Royal Navy.
  His novels - from Headlong Hall to Gryll Grange - are like nothing else in English literature. Hardly bothering with plot or character, he simply gathers together a group of people - often representative of particular ways of thinking - and lets them talk, with occasional interludes of often farcical action, and frequent songs and lyrics, mostly celebrating the pleasures of food and drink. One of his novels (Melincourt) features an orang-utan, Sir Auron Haut-Ton, who stands for Parliament; another (Nightmare Abbey) contains a humorous portrait of Shelley as Scythrop Glowry, author of Philosophical Gas; or, A Project for a General Illumination of the Human Mind. Written by a less deft hand, with the satire laid on more heavily, these novels would surely have sunk without trace, but they survive and are still - once you get used to Peacock's way of doing things - great fun to read. 
  The genial comic spirit that suffuses the novels seems to have come naturally to the man. His granddaughter remembered Peacock in old age as 'ever a welcome guest, his genial manner, hearty appreciation of wit and humour in others, and the amusing way in which he told stories made him a very delightful acquaintance; he was always so agreeable and so very witty that he was called by his most intimate friends the "Laughing Philosopher", and it seems to me that the term "Epicurean Philosopher", which I have often heard applied to him, describes him accurately and briefly. In public business my grandfather was upright and honourable; but as he advanced in years his detestation of anything disagreeable made him simply avoid whatever fretted him, laughing off all sorts of ordinary calls upon his leisure time.' [A sound policy for later life.]
  He's described elsewhere as 'a rare instance of a man improved by prosperity' and 'a kind-hearted, genial, friendly man, who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him, and self-indulgent without being selfish.' It would surely have been pleasant indeed to know Mr Peacock.


  1. He does sound lovely! I've never read him, but I might do now...

  2. Thanks to you, Nige, I've just gone and got Nightmare Abbey on my Kindle. One day (soon, I hope) I'll read it.