Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey was a satirical and experimental novel. Prose was a new form for the Romantics and Peacock took great care to move away from traditional tropes of the early Romantics work by gently pushing the boundaries and taking a light-hearted swipe at his contempories. Robert Kiely believed that Peacock understood the Romantics view of history but ‘…that romantic literature too often failed to connect the past with the present’ (Kiely, 1973, p177). Peacock shows that even in prose format, he can move the Romantic project forward as he questions the basic principles of the Romantics and his positive critique of the same shows a desire to rescue and renew. Peacock wanted a more social environment to come together and not to be melancholy. He recreates his friends in a Roman a clef as the characters in the novel. This also links with his disappointment that Shelley and his circle had moved abroad, and Peacock shows the characters that represent them as coming back together. Peacock felt that he had been left behind and the satirical nature of the text shows his feelings towards them. Marilyn Butler believed that Peacock and Shelley, ‘…strongly deplored the idea of a merely elitist culture…’ (Butler, 1981, p181) and that Peacock urged Shelley to ‘…consider his audience…’ (Butler, 1981, p182). This desire for a wider audience showed Peacock wanted to move away from the hierarchy of intellectuals that the Romantics wrote for and offer up literature to what Coleridge coined the ‘reading public’. The later Romantics also introduced wider cultural and historical tropes into their writing and Peacock shows this concept throughout the text. With a nod to the old traditions, Peacock faces the crisis of later Romanticism head on and Nightmare Abbey becomes a renewed optimism.
Nightmare Abbey was a modern rather than Romantic text offering a satirical and light-hearted take on Peacock’s contemporaries and the Romantic Project. Peacock wanted to show that text didn’t have to be serious and complicated. This liberated view shows through the text and the first time we are introduced to Scythrop’s character, he is meditating and then decides to write a book. Upon hearing that it has only sold seven copies, Scythrop is not dismayed, ‘Let me find the seven purchasers of my seven copies, and they shall be the seven golden candle-sticks with which I will illuminate the world’ (Peacock, 2016, p9). Peacock’s humour here is in stark comparison to the works of the Romantics and this would suggest that Peacock believes that a more positive attitude is required moving forward. When Scyrthop is walking the halls of the abbey, it states he ‘…stalked about like the grand inquisitor’ (Peacock, 2016, p9). The humour is a chance for the poets to not take themselves too seriously. Kiely suggests that ‘In making fun of the Romantics…he demonstrates why there is no such thing as romantic comedy despite an abundance of romantic humor’ (Kiely, 1973, p178). However, the humour satisfies a need that Peacock has to show the Romantics that the satire in the text is required as a renewed optimism and that the Romantic project will benefit greatly from this. This humour is at its greatest near the end of chapter twelve. Upon believing that a ghost is near, the assembled guests reaction is similar to a comedy sketch. Mr Toobad is so alarmed at the presence that in his panic, he misses the door and jumps through a window (Peacock). ‘Mr Asterias and his son, who were on watch for their mermaid, were attracted by the splashing, threw a net over him and dragged him to land.’ (Peacock, 2016, p52). The humour in this scene is in juxtaposition to the mythical creature that is being searched for.
Peacock also wanted to advocate a conviviality between friends. A chance to get together and have conversations instead of living insular lives. In particular, Peacock was making a case for laughter and merriment. In the case of the Reverend Mr Larynx, Peacock shows the convivial atmosphere he enjoyed at Nightmare Abbey, ‘he would condole with Mr Glowry,- drink madeira with Scythrop, – crack jokes with Mr Hilary,…lament the good old times of feudal darkness with the transcendental Mr Flosky’ (Peacock, 2016, p7). Peacock wanted to move away from the melancholy of the Romantics and look forward to life. This positivity was to encourage talking and debate rather than solitude and is also linked to Peacock’s disappointment over Shelley and his circle moving abroad. He no longer had them near him and was unable to engage in discussions with them.
Peacock’s novel incorporates roman a clef in a way that makes the text very personal. His characters are encrypted caricatures of his peers and are overexaggerated versions of themselves. The character of Scythrop is a portrayal of Percy Bysse Shelley and is mysterious and prone to falling in love. Upon seeing Marionetta’s distress after he shows disinterest in her, he ‘…found his tender sympathies awakened, and did his utmost to comfort the afflicted damsel’ then telling her that he was working on ‘a very hopeful scheme for the regeneration of human society’ (Peacock, 2016, p35). Here we can see the link to Shelley’s claim that poets are the ‘…unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Wu, 2012, p1247). Peacock is mocking Shelley’s position and elitist view not only as a critique of the Romantic project but also as a jibe to not take himself so seriously. It is also quite clear who the characters are based on and Peacock’s not so subtle disguises are an attempt to shake things up in the Romantic community. The character of Mr Flosky is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. David M Baulch suggests that Nightmare Abbey, ‘in its characterisation of Mr Flosky offers the rudimentary critique of the ideological implications of Coleridge’s Kantianism’ (Baulch, 2004, p559). Peacock is essentially mocking Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and his friendship with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the way in which thoughts are processed and human nature as an experience alone are the answers to the question, what is our position in the world? When asked about his belief in ghosts, Mr Flosky replies, ‘I live in a world of ghosts. I see a ghost at this moment’. (Peacock, 2016, p52). This is a making a mockery of Coleridge’s beliefs. The belief that he can see ghosts gives the demeanour of a mad man.
Lord Byron is represented by Mr Cypress, an old acquaintance of Mr Glowry. He arrives at the abbey to say farewell before he leaves for the continent. In a conversation regarding humanity, Mr Cypress states, ‘The mind is diseased of its own beauty, and fevers into false creation. The forms which the sculptor’s soul has seized exist only in himself’. (Peacock, 2016, p47). The dark, brooding figure of Byron can easily be seen in Cypress and the characters troubles mirror those of Byron when he himself finds it necessary to leave England because of accusations of incest. Kiely suggests that Peacock’s complaint with the Romantics was that they, ‘…occupied themselves too much with sorrow, but that they go about it an idle, self indulgent fashion and invent imaginary miseries rather than coping with real ones.’ (Kiely, 1972, p179). In fact, the character of Mr Hilary, who is thought to be Peacock himself, berates Cypress, saying ‘To rail against humanity for not being abstract perfection…is to rail at the summer for not being all sunshine…’ (Peacock, 2016, p46). Peacock is showing that as an insider of the Romantic movement, his critique of Byron’s melancholic, negative views is the way forward towards positivity and overcoming the crisis of late Romanticism.
Nightmare Abbey illustrates a critique of gothic fiction. With its towers and turrets, the abbey itself was, ‘…a venerable family mansion, in a highly picturesque state of semi-dilapidation, pleasantly situated on a strip of dry land…’(Peacock, 2016, p2). The use of the words ‘family’ and ‘pleasantly’ do not evoke the powerful feelings of horror that gothic was designed for. Marilyn Butler argues that, ‘its images project and evil or disturbing environment…’ and it was ‘felt to be a breakdown of control, both in the psyche and in the state’ (Butler, 1981, p157). Peacock however does not follow these conventions. Kiely states that, ‘…the setting for human experience is not a lonely chamber or prison cell, but a full table or a crowded drawing room which people are constantly entering or leaving’ (Kiely, 1973, p182). This was not stereotypical of gothic tropes. The supernatural elements in Nightmare Abbey were treated with humour and sarcasm. The style of Peacock’s narrative in the text includes prose, poetry, script and song. The text moves along well and Nightmare Abbey fits the bill perfectly for the novel as a mixed bag. However, there are numerous occasions where the text could pass as a play. There are stage directions, ‘(He rang the bell for his valet. Fatout entered)’ (Peacock, 2016, p16) and many people enter and exit, as though being directed on a stage. Notably, most of the action takes place when the characters are speaking to each other and whilst this is incredibly simple, it keeps in mind what Peacock’s aim was to bring back a conviviality of talking and friendship. The satirical nature also links with the idea of a topsy turvey world in which the Romantics were living and the way Peacock deals with his critique of the Romantic project makes the novel an excellent medium in which to get his critique across. However, with the newly arriving paradigm of realism fast approaching, Nightmare Abbey doesn’t fulfil the criteria of a realist novel. Peacock wanted to critique the effects of modernity and realism in literature was still in its infancy.
In a letter to Shelley, Peacock told him, ‘I think it necessary to “make a stand” against the encroachments of black bile’ (Cochrane, 2009, p315). Peacock was against the melancholic brooding of Byronic literature and thought it was poisoning the reader’s minds. ‘I cannot consent to be auditor tantum of this systematical ‘poisoning’ of the ‘mind’ of the ‘Reading Public’’ (Cochran,2009, p315). Mr Flosky even defines black bile as, ‘Hatred- revenge- misanthropy- and quotations from the bible’ (Peacock, 2016, p17). Peacock was intent on moving away from the Byronic vision to a more positive outlook on life. He knew that the world of literature needed to move away from such dark and gloomy worlds and the ‘reading public’ would only read what it was fed. Indeed, Mr Flosky announces,
That part of the reading public which shuns the solid food of reason for the light diet of fiction, requires a perpetual adhibition of sauce piquante to the palate of its depraved imagination (Peacock, 2016, p22)
Although Peacock’s observations of the reading public are negative in that they do not have a mind of their own, his objective is certainly clear. Marilyn Butler states, ‘Already in the eighteenth century the literary artist…came to address itself not to a patron but to a public’ (Butler, 1981, p179). Peacock felt a sense of duty to the reading public, not only to move away towards a more positive outlook but also to bring about literature into libraries and make it more accessible to all.
The advancement of the later Romantics is shown in the concretisation of historical perspective in their work. This full sense of developed history is also shown in Nightmare Abbey. Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey in 1818 during a revival of the Neoclassical style and which Marilyn Butler explains that, ‘One way of typifying this movement would be to point to its content, that is to its primitivism or historicism’ (Butler, 1981, p180). Peacock references many famous works throughout Nightmare Abbey including Dante, the Bible and Shakespeare, many of which are quoted or alluded to. In his “Four Ages of Poetry”, Peacock states that poets are, ‘…as yet the only historians and chroniclers of their time, and the sole depositories of all the knowledge of their age…’Peacock, 2015, p2). To fill a text with so many historical works illustrates not only the later Romantic awareness of mediaeval history and classical antiquity but also Peacock’s aim to move the Romantic project along. The age of modernity was in crisis and a look back to traditional styles was a way forward.
Nightmare Abbey was written in a response to the crisis of later Romanticism and Peacock wanted to move away from the doom and gloom of melancholic vision. A satirical novel with humour throughout, Peacock’s light-hearted text showed a different world, which had a more positive outlook. Peacock was also making a statement for the Romantics to stop taking themselves too seriously. Satire was a modern style and Peacock believed that this would bring forward a new optimism. He also advocated conviviality between friends, encouraged them to get together and talk about books and literature in general. As the only action in the text is the conversations between the friends, Peacock’s demonstration of this shows his intent quite clearly. When the Shelley circle move abroad, Peacock is quite put out by this and uses his friends in the text in the roman a clef style. This enables Peacock to mock their positions and elitist ways and show the readership a caricature of them. The overexaggerated versions of his peers gave Peacock free reign to capture their nuances and styles. Nightmare Abbey is also a critique of gothic fiction and any mention of the supernatural is treated with humour. Finally, Peacock filled his text with references to many historical works. This connection with the old traditions shows that to move the Romantic project forward, a look back to the old ways was required.
Baulch, D. M. (2004) ‘The “Perpetual Exercise of an Interminable Quest”: The Biographia Literaria and the Kantian Revolution’ in Studies in Romanticism. [Online] Winter2004, Vol. 43 Issue 4, p557-581. [Available from http://rh5pp9fz2b.search.serialssolutions.com/?charset=utf-8&pages=557-581&atitle=The%20%EF%BF%BDPerpetual%20Exercise%20of%20an%20Interminable%20Quest%EF%BF%BD%3A%20%EF%BF%BDThe%20Biographia%20Literaria%EF%BF%BD%20and%20the%20Kantian%20Revolution&jtitle=Studies%20in%20Romanticism&title=Studies%20in%20Romanticism&issn=0039-3762&volume=43&issue=4&date=2004&aulast=Baulch&aufirst=David&au=Baulch%2CDavid%20M.] [Accessed 04/01/18]
Butler, M. (1981) Romantics Rebels & Reactionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Cochrane, P. (2009) “Romanticism” and Byron. [Online] Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/staffordshire/detail.action?docID=1133133 [Accessed 27/12/17]
Kiely, R. (1973) The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Peacock, T. L. (2015) “The Four Ages of Poetry” Handout given out in Later Romantic Writing November 2017 by Martin Jesinghausen
Peacock, T. L. (2016) Nightmare Abbey. Great Britain: Amazon
Wu, D. (2012) (Ed) Romanticism: An Anthology Fourth Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd