1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Peacock, Thomas Love
|←Peacock, George||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 21
Peacock, Thomas Love
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PEACOCK, THOMAS LOVE (1785-1866), English novelist and poet, was born at Weymouth on the 18th of October 1785. He was the only son of a London glass merchant, who died soon after the child's birth. Young Peacock was educated at a private school at Englefield Green, and after a brief experience of business determined to devote himself to literature, while living with his mother (daughter of Thomas Love, a naval man) on their private means. His first books were poetical, The Monks of St Mark (1804), Palmyra (1806), The Genius of the Thames (1810), The Philosophy of Melancholy (1812)—works of no great merit. He also made several dramatic attempts, which were never acted. He served for a short time as secretary to Sir Home Popham at Flushing, and paid several visits to Wales. In 1812 he became acquainted with Shelley. In 1815 he evinced his peculiar power by writing his novel Headlong Hall. It was published in 1816, and Melincourt followed in the ensuing year. During 1817 he lived at Great Marlow, enjoying the almost daily society of Shelley, and writing Nightmare Abbey and Rhododaphne, by far the best of his long poems. In 1819 he was appointed assistant examiner at the India House. Peacock's nomination appears to have been due to the influence of his old schoolfellow Peter Auber, secretary to the East India Company, and the papers he prepared as tests of his ability were returned with the comment, "Nothing superfluous and nothing wanting." This was characteristic of the whole of his intellectual work; and equally characteristic of the man was his marriage about this time to Jane Griffith, to whom he proposed by letter, not having seen her for eight years. They had four children, only one of whom, a son, survived his father; one daughter was the first wife of George Meredith. His novel Maid Marian appeared in 1822, The Misfortunes of Elphin in 1829, and Crotchet Castle in 1831; and he would probably have written more but for the death in 1833 of his mother. He also contributed to the Westminister Review and the Examiner. His services to the East India Company, outside the usual official routine, were considerable. He defended it successfully against the attacks of James Silk Buckingham and the Liverpool salt interest, and made the subject of steam navigation to India peculiarly his own. He represented the company before the various parliamentary committees on this question; and in 1839 and 1840 superintended the construction of iron steamers, which not only made the voyage round the Cape successfully, but proved very useful in the Chinese War. He also drew up the instructions for the Euphrates expedition of 1835, subsequently pronounced by its commander, General F. R. Chesney, to be models of sagacity. In 1836 he succeeded James Mill as chief examiner, and in 1856 he retired upon a pension. During his later years he contributed several papers to Fraser's Magazine, including reminiscences of Shelley, whose executor he was. He also wrote in the same magazine his last novel Gryll Grange (1860), inferior to his earlier writings in humour and vigour, but still a surprising effort for a man of his age. He died on the 23rd of January 1866 at Lower Halliford, near Chertsey, where, so far as his London occupations would allow him, he had resided for more than forty years.
Peacock's position in English literature is unique. There was nothing like his type of novel before his time; though there might have been if it had occurred to Swift to invent a story as a vehicle for the dialogue of his Polite Conversation. Peacock speaks as well in his own person as through his puppets; and his pithy wit, and sense, combined with remarkable grace and accuracy of natural description, atone for the primitive simplicity of plot and character. Of his seven fictions, Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle are perhaps on the whole the best, the former displaying the most vis comica of situation, the latter the fullest maturity of intellectual power and the most skilful grouping of the motley crowd of "perfectibilians, deteriorationists, statu-quo-ites, phrenologists, transcendentalists, political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, morbid visionaries, romantic enthusiasts, lovers of music, lovers of the picturesque and lovers of good dinners," who constitute the dramatis personae of the Peacockian novel. Maid Marian and The Misfortunes of Elphin are hardly less entertaining. Both contain descriptive passages of extraordinary beauty. Melincourt is a comparative failure, the excellent idea of an orang-outang mimicking humanity being insufficient as the sole groundwork of a novel. Headlong Hall, though more than foreshadowing the author's subsequent excellence, is marred by a certain bookish awkwardness characteristic of the recluse student, which reappears in Gryll Grange as the pedantry of an old-fashioned scholar, whose likes and dislikes have become inveterate and whose sceptical liberalism, always rather inspired by hatred of cant than enthusiasm for progress, has petrified into only too earnest conservatism. The book's quaint resolute paganism, however, is very refreshing in an age eaten up with introspection; it is the kindliest of Peacock's writings, and contains the most beautiful of his poems, "Years Ago," the reminiscence of an early attachment. In general the ballads and songs interspersed throughout his tales are models of exact and melodious diction, and instinct with true feeling. His more ambitious poems are worth little, except Rhododaphne, attractive as a story and perfect as a composition, but destitute of genuine poetical inspiration. His critical and miscellaneous writings are always interesting, especially the restorations of lost classical plays in the Horae dramaticae, but the only one of great mark is the witty and crushing exposure in the Westminister Review of Thomas Moore's ignorance of the manners and belief he has ventured to portray in his Epicurean. Peacock resented the misrepresentation of his favourite sect, the good and ill of whose tenets were fairly represented in his own person. Somewhat sluggish and self-indulgent, incapable of enthusiasm or self-sacrifice, he yet possessed a deep undemonstrative kindliness of nature; he could not bear to see anyone near him unhappy or uncomfortable; and his sympathy, no less than his genial humour, gained him the attachment of children, dependants, and friends. In official life he was upright and conscientous; his judgment was shrewd and robust. What Shelley justly termed "the lightness, strength and chastity" of his diction secures him an honourable rank among those English writers whose claims to remembrance depend not only upon matter but upon style.
Peacock's works were collected, though not completely, and published in three volumes in 1875, at the expense of his friend and former protégé, Sir Henry Cole, with an excellent memoir by his granddaughter Mrs Clarke, and a critical essay by Lord Houghton. His prose works were collected by Richard Gardiner in ten volumes (1891). Separate novels are included in "Macmillan's Illustrated Standard Novels," with introductions by Mr Saintsbury. For an interesting personal notice, see A Poet's Sketch Book, by R. W. Buchanan (1884).
- (R. G.)