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.

Peacock was personally a poor match for his name: neglected in early life, with no talent at all for flamboyance. Born in Weymouth in 1785, he came from West Country Puritan stock on both sides of the family (the Peacocks were Somerset Independents; the Loves were Devon Presbyterians). His mother uprooted him in early childhood, just as George III’s summer visits were turning Weymouth into a fashionable resort, and he was schooled in Surrey until the money ran out when he was 12. A dedicated autodidact for the rest of his life (Peacock’s death in 1866 was reportedly hastened, if only by shock, when he refused to abandon his library during a house fire), he made sporadic attempts at the publication of his verse throughout his twenties. But nothing attracted much popular or critical attention, and there’s little sign of the brio of Peacock’s later writing in conventional poems like ‘Palmyra’ (‘Man, and the works of man, are only born to die!’) or the equally routine ‘The Philosophy of Melancholy’ (‘The contemplation of the universal mutability of things prepares the mind to encounter the vicissitudes of life’). He spent a year at sea as secretary to the captain of HMS Venerable (an opportunity ‘conducing to advantage’ that in fact led nowhere), and otherwise occupied himself with solitary walking tours (Wales, the Isle of Wight, Scotland) and doomed projects (unperformed farces for the London stage, a planned school in the Lake District). Small family annuities expired. He so inhabited his dour poetic persona that his friend and publisher Edward Hookham, writing to the Literary Fund, ‘had but too just reason to dread that the Fate of Chatterton might be that of Peacock’. The committee awarded him £30.

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