Bring some Madeira

Thomas Keymer

Marilyn Butler, whose Peacock Displayed was published in 1979, wasn’t the first to connect Peacock’s name with the showy wit of his satires. It started with Shelley, his friend and patron, who joked in 1820 about ‘the Pavonian Psyche’ (pavo: peacock), as though Peacock himself had the kind of name that he specialised in giving to his characters. In the seven novels he produced between Headlong Hall (1815) and Gryll Grange (1860), names are rarely hard to decode. Anyside Antijack is a time-serving Tory politician; Cephalis Cranium, a phrenologist’s brainy daughter; the Revd Mr Grovelgrub, a sycophantic tutor; Dr Harry Killquick, a hit-or-miss physician; Sir Bonus MacScrip, venal member for the borough of Threevotes; Peter Paypaul Paperstamp, the sinecure-seeking poet of Mainchance Villa; Sir Simon Steeltrap, scourge of poachers on his hunting estate at Spring-gun and Treadmill. Some of the names indicate real-life targets such as George Canning, the Tory statesman who started out as the attack dog of the Anti-Jacobin, and Wordsworth, whose acceptance of a government post as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland in 1813 confirmed his apostasy from radical politics. Other names aim at several targets, or are simply generalised types. Occasionally Peacock adds a twist. In his third and now best-known novel, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Mr Glowry, the ‘atrabilarious’ patriarch of the estate, employs only servants who reflect his melancholy by means of ‘a long face or a dismal name’: Raven, Crow, Skellet, Mattocks, Graves. When in need of a new footman, Glowry jumps at the opportunity to hire Diggory Deathshead. But Deathshead turns out to be ruddy-cheeked and cheerful, and is promptly fired.

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