The Case for Negative Thinking

V.S. Pritchett

  • Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context by Marilyn Butler
    Routledge, 361 pp, £10.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0293 9

One of the pleasures of reading Peacock in the Thirties, when I first read him, was that he was without acrimony. He enabled us to relive the great battles of ideas in the 19th century without an aching head. His conversation was spirited and diverting and he had sceptical hopes of human nature. Born in 1785 and dying in 1866, Peacock lived through 80 years of rancorous social change. He was a contemporary of Rowlandson – Rowlandson’s country drawings evoke Peacock’s landscapes; he had listened to his gifted mother reading Gibbon when he was a boy; he preceded and survived Byron, Shelley and Keats. He outlived Enthusiasm and revolution, sat through the quarrels of Reform, went on to consider the doubts of Matthew Arnold and the euphoria of the Great Exhibition, and listened to all arguments with a satirist’s joy in dispute. A liberal who sometimes sounded Toryish – he was often attacked by the strenuously committed, who demanded that everyone should stand up and be counted, and Hazlitt called him a mere ‘warbler’ – Peacock seemed to be a gourmet of ideas who perversely remained seated at the table with his bottle of Madeira, indulging his wit. Where was his ground? Fashion called for tragedy and the didactic. Peacock replied that his ground was in the Comic Spirit.

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