- Crotchet Castle by Thomas Love Peacock, and: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
J. B. Priestley called Thomas Love Peacock's fictions "novels of talk," and Gore Vidal saw them as "Novel(s) of Ideas," but they are also "novels of fashion." The characters that populate the dinner tables and salons of Nightmare Abbey, Crotchet Castle, and Chainmail Hall are intensely preoccupied by what is, and is not, fashionable. Peacock's sensitivity to Romantic cosmopolitanism is evident in his characters' discussions of Goethe, Dante, Mozart, and Kant. Intriguingly, Peacock questions how and why fashionable preferences are afforded, such as when Scythrop picks up the Commedia "though he knew not a word he was reading" and Listless concedes that because Dante "is growing more fashionable," he "must read him some wet morning" (NA, p. 34). Peacock revels in critiquing [End Page 183] his culture's current darlings in light of classical precedents, while Peacock's epigrams from Niccolò Forteguerri, François Rabelais, and Samuel Butler emphasize his detachment from current literary fashions. He displays a Swiftian pleasure in simultaneously quoting from and disdaining the vogues of the day.
Peacock suffers from being far more acknowledged than read; literary critics often cite Peacock's novels but seldom study them in depth. The Cambridge Edition of The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, under the general editorship of Freya Johnston, will begin to remedy this neglect. Alongside Nicolas Joukovsky's 2001 edition of the letters, this new edition brings textual scholarship on Peacock up to modern standards and replaces parts of the ten-volume Halliford edition (1924–1934). Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Crotchet Castle (1831) are the first novels to be published in the edition. Not mere updates, these editions display the highest scholarly rigor with each volume, containing more than 250 pages of introduction, appendices, and notes, as well as a detailed chronology of Peacock's life. The compendious introductions map the composition, publication, reception, and critical history of each work, and the variants and emendations to the first published edition are listed in full at the back of each volume. The appendices give edited versions of related documents; the Nightmare Abbey volume includes Peacock's "An Essay on Fashionable Literature" (1818), and "The Four Ages of Poetry" (1820). The Crotchet Castle volume includes three holograph fragments of the novel and two holograph manuscripts of related poems. Johnston states in the General Editor's Preface that Peacock's characters "exist primarily in order to share, voice, and test, the limits of their ideas" (CC, p. xii). The sense of these novels as a space to "share, voice, and test" is heightened by the depth and quality of these scholarly materials. The novels are augmented as the discussions of Peacock's characters are melded with the commentary of Johnston, Matthew Bevis, and Joukovsky, to produce a sort of commonplace book for the late Romantic period.
The tension produced by Peacock's narration of fashionable life in 1818 and 1831 alongside his authorial sympathy for Renaissance classicism is a central feature of his work. In the preface to Richard Bentley's 1837 edition of the novels, Peacock acknowledged that some years after publication "things were true, in great matters and in small, which are true no longer," worrying that his work was too embedded in its historical moment. Some years earlier Percy Bysshe Shelley, observing this tension between ancient and modern, came to the opposite conclusion, calling Peacock's work "a strain too learnèd for a shallow age, / Too wise for selfish bigots" and predicted that his friend's work would be appreciated in "the serener clime / Of years to come" ("Letter to Maria Gisborne," lines 242–43, 245–6). The apparently opposing views of Peacock and Shelley—of novels of their time versus the novels as timeless wisdom—are reconciled by...