Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)
 
[Thomas Love Peacock, a species of novelist in himself, was born at Weymouth, on 18th October 1785. His father was a merchant, his mother’s relations, the Loves, were chiefly naval, and his grandfather had a leg shot off in Rodney’s great action near Dominica. His father died when he was three years old, and he was brought up by his mother, going to no school (except a private one at Englefield Green) and to no University. Notwithstanding this irregular education, he was a more than competent classical scholar, and a man of great general reading and knowledge. He began in literature with poetry, but his more ambitious efforts in verse (though the songs scattered in and out of his novels are of the very first class) are not extremely good. After a disappointment in love, he served for a short time as under-secretary to Admiral Sir Home Popham, on board the Venerable; but gave this up very soon, and returned to poetry and pedestrianism. He sojourned much in Wales, and there met his future wife (whom, however, he did not marry for some time). There, too, he made the acquaintance of Shelley, of whom he has left by far the best and most trustworthy accounts at first hand that we possess. Headlong Hall, his first novel, with a Welsh subject, was published in 1816; and in each of the next two years he published another—Melincourt in 1817, Nightmare Abbey in 1818. In 1819 he was offered and accepted a clerkship in the East India Company, which became a very valuable appointment, and after thirty-six years’ service gave him freedom and a competent pension. He married in 1820, published Maid Marian in 1822, the Misfortunes of Elphin in 1829, and Crotchet Castle in 1831. Then, till nearly the close of his service with the East India Company, he wrote nothing at all, and never produced more than one other book, the last of his novels, Gryll Grange, which appeared in 1860. Between 1850 and this date, however, he wrote a good many essays and articles. He died on 13th January 1866 at Halliford, where he had lived for many years. After being long difficult to obtain, his novels, with his poems and a certain number of miscellanies, were collected in 1875, in three vols. More recently (1891–2) there has appeared a very pretty edition of the novels, edited by Dr. Garnett, without the poems, but with a slightly different selection of prose miscellanies, and with the fragments of what might have been a very interesting fantasy-novel entitled Calidore.]  1
 
FOR some years past, since owing to the effects of divers critics Peacock’s very remarkable novels have recovered public attention, and especially since the two collected editions of him above referred to have been venal at the stall, there has been a kind of quarrel, not by any means wholly amicable, as to his and their merits. And this is not surprising. For if he has, in some respects to a very eminent degree, the qualities which suit a period of not altogether genuine “culture,” he has others which expose their possessor to the risk of offending more than he attracts. There is no obscurity in Peacock; there is no gush; and there is a great deal of very active and poignant ridicule of gush, of obscurity, and of affectation. Accordingly it is found that more than a few persons altogether decline to give him welcome. “It may be possible,” they say in effect and sometimes in almost textual expression, “for literary critics to enjoy him; but the great heart of the people cannot away with him.” This is very possible; and it is at least creditable to the great heart of the people that it should not pretend to away with him when it cannot. But in such a notice as the present, it is clearly impossible to deal with the very abundant and very peculiar idiosyncrasy of Peacock’s matter. He was, from a certain point of view—limited, occasionally unfair, distinctly Voltairian, but still elevated and unique—the satirist of many of the small vulgarities (to adopt the old distinction between the great vulgar and the small) of his time. And he accompanied his satire with such an exquisite adaptation of the attitude of similar satirists of old—Aristophanes, Lucian, and in a softened and milder degree Rabelais—as could not but appeal to all kindred spirits, and revolt all spirits not kindred. He began by making fun of the times of our grandfathers, he ended by making fun of times which are almost, if not quite our own; and if, as perhaps he did, he showed himself rather obstinately blind to many of the higher aspects of life in general, he saw what he did see with an unmatched clearness of vision, and expressed the ironic results of his sight with wonderful distinction and scholarship.  2
  I have never yet seen noticed, though it must certainly have struck others besides myself, the following extraordinary parallelism, or as some, with whom I would have nothing to do, say, plagiarism. Here are two passages which the reader may compare:—
          In one of those beautiful valleys through which the Thames, not yet polluted with the tide, the scouring of cities, or even the minor defilement of the sandy streams of Surrey, rolls a clear flood through flowery meadows and under the shade of old beech woods, and the smooth glossy greensward of the chalk hills.
  That beautiful valley through which the Thames, not yet defiled by the precincts of a great capital, nor rising and flowing with the ebb of the sea, rolls under woods of beech round the gentle hills of Berkshire.
The first of these occurs in the opening chapter of Peacock’s Crochet Castle, the second in a chapter of Macaulay’s History published some twenty years later. Now Macaulay has never, many as are the faults charged on him, been accused of plagiarism, and it is certain that the resemblance, which cannot possibly be accidental, must have come from unconscious remembrance. But that a man with such a memory as Macaulay’s should have been deceived into fancying the sentence his own, is in itself a very curious and a very interesting thing; for, though the differences of the pair are more likely to strike the not very curious considerer than their resemblances, these resemblances are strong. Peacock had a more poetical, a more ironic, and a less popular temperament than Macaulay’s: but there was a good deal in him which might be called Macaulayish, on the negative side. He was nearly as knock-down in his depreciation as Macaulay was in his eulogism of progress and reform; he was, also like Macaulay, an omnivorous reader, and he had to a great extent the same clear, emphatic, unshadowed, and unclouded cast of thought. Being, as has been said, an unpopular Macaulay he never pushes his positiveness even in the negative direction to the extent of Philistinism; but he is open to the charge of being as hard if not as hollow as Macaulay at his worst.
  3
  His special merits however, will always, while they indispose towards him those whom Macaulay fully satisfies, enchant those who, while they fully admit the merits of Macaulay, are half disgusted by his demerits. To adopt a French word to which Mr. Arnold gave letters of English naturalisation, Peacock is frequently unreasonable, but he is never bête; Macaulay, though he generally has some sort of a reason to render, does occasionally deserve this term of reproach. How Peacock escapes it is indeed a marvel. He is extremely prejudiced, he is anything but consistent in his prejudices; he shuts his eyes obstinately to whatsoever he does not choose to see; and he does not choose to see some things which are of the first importance. But he is saved and more than saved by three things—his perfect appreciation and constant memory of the best literature, the exquisite and quintessential humour of his critical observation both of letters and of life, and lastly a certain consummate quietness of phrase and style.  4
  It is in this last respect that he is specially noticeable here. We have been told in the latest reminiscences of him—those of Sir Edward Strachey—that he had the strongest objection to writing even a letter in a hurry, lest he should be led into carelessness of style. Scruples of this kind are not unapt to consort with, and even to bring about, a kind of sterile and finikin nicety which does not allow the possessor of it to do anything great. In Peacock’s case the check only operated by preventing him from doing anything small. For all his intense literary quality, scarcely any writer smells less of the lamp than he; yet no writer is so hard to detect in any negligence. It is true that he had everything in his favour. He was never obliged to write for bread; and after his youth was past he had sufficient occupation, not unpleasant and very far indeed from unlucrative, to make it unnecessary for him to write for pastime. Yet had this gift of fortune not coincided with a consummate literary faculty, it had hardly given us such work of his as we now possess—work in which the most distinct and characteristic flavour of matter is helped and set off by the most regular and classical, though the least featureless or insipid correctness of style.  5
 
 
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