The Laughing Philosopher, Thomas Love Peacock

English poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist Thomas Love Peacock was born on 18 October 1785 in Weymouth, Dorset, into a lower-middle class family. From there he rose to become both an admired writer and wealthy, “a rare instance of a man improved by prosperity.”

Thomas Love Peacock when young

While working as a clerk with Ludlow Fraser Company in London, he submitted some of his poems to a publisher, Thomas Hookham, who produced The Monks of St. Mark (1804) and Palmyra (1804). Although he still had to work for a living, he became a well-know and widely read author. He became friends with fellow Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1812 and would move in exalted literary circles even though he always kept his ‘day job’ as an official of the East India Company.

I was keen to include at least a mention of Peacock in Mansfield Parsonage, my retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, because he and Austen both wrote brilliantly satirical novels poking fun at Romantic or Gothik sensibilities – yet were both obviously fond of the subject matter at the same time. While Austen has clearly become the more renown author, Peacock is still lauded and admired among the literati, and deserves both praise and acknowledgment in Regency fandoms.

Inasmuch as Mary Crawford, the heroine of Mansfield Parsonage, has a strong love of the Romantic poets, and is an ardent Whig, it was natural to make her an admirer of Thomas Love Peacock for both his verse and his staunch defense of liberal ideology. Since Peacock was an author who both loved and mocked the romantic movement of Regency Britain, I used Peacock’s 1812 book of poetry, The Philosophy of Melancholy, to introduce a future romantic interest for Mary.

During the Regency, a suitor could not give a lady anything more expensive than flowers or food during their courtship. Captain Davencourt, who will be the male protagonist in my next novel, is in love with Mary Crawford and in an effort to make himself stand out, wanted to give her something she would truly appreciate … and with any luck think more kindly of the man who gave it to her. Davencourt, like many would-be swains in that era, figured out a way to send his ladylove a gift without openly making her an offensive offering. He sent her brother, Henry Crawford, the latest volume of Peacock’s poetry, knowing it would be passed on to Mary:

“I will miss you. You make me laugh more than any other creature. No one else would dare to tell me such outre poppycock.” Mary said.

“Would I be a better brother if I talked of Peacock instead of poppycock? As in, the poet Mr. Thomas Love Peacock?” Henry asked with a grin.

“What have you to tell me of the author of Palmyra?”

“That Davencourt has written me to say that Mr. Peacock has just had a new poem published, called Philosophy of Melancholy: etcetera etcetera, and that he has purchase a copy for me as a token of his friendship and is sending it to me here at the parsonage as a gift.” Waiting until Mary had finished squealing and clapping her hands with happiness, Henry continued. “He also sends his compliments to you.”

“May I open it when it arrives?” Henry’s assent brought forth more squealing and clapping from his bibliophilic sibling. “I cannot wait to read it! But why does Captain Davencourt send you a book of poetry? Surely he knows you well enough to know you are not an avid reader of verse.”

“Because, my woolly-headed sister, he is courting you.”

Mary was disconcerted for a moment then rallied. “If true, then he is canny and sly and I shall be very wary of him,” she jested.

One of the reasons I esteem Peacock is that he was both a genius and a jack-of-all trades when it came to his writing. As well as poetry and novels lampooning sensibility, he wrote a children’s educational grammar book, “Sir Hornbook (1813), subtitled A Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad, which provided instruction in grammar for children. Its hero, Childe Launcelot, conquers the parts of speech with the assistance of Sir Hornbook as they travel toward an understanding of language and prosody. The book went through five illustrated editions in five years, thanks to Peacock’s talent for making grammar fun.”

Peacock’s enduring appreciation (if not fame) is the result of his blithe novels mocking the absurdities that can be found in schmaltzy writing styles or genres. Perhaps his best, or at least his most comic, works is his novella Nightmare AbbeyPublished in 1818, Nightmare Abbey skewers both the Gothik genre and the “affected misanthropy, ennui and world-weariness of contemporary writers, philosophers and intellectuals.” Nonetheless, there is an obvious genuine fondness by the author for the hero of the tale, Scythrop, a womanizer with a “passion for reforming the world” who is clearly modeled on Peacock’s dear friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Scythrope, when not beguiled by maidens, mermaids, and ghosts in his moldering castle in Lincolnshire, writes a pamphlet titled “Philosophical Gas; or, a Project for a General Illumination of the Human Mind” which is a “deep scheme for a thorough repair of the crazy fabric of human nature” that sells a whopping 7 copies to the less than adoring public. Yet in spite of Scythrope’s farcical extremes, he is endearing because of his sincere desire to make the world a better place.

Nightmare Abbey reads as though it were written by Henry Tilney, Jane Austen’s wonderful hero in Northanger Abbey, who had little patience with melodrama and mawkishness, but nevertheless takes great pleasure in reading Gothik novels. The intermix between the savage, sarcastic mockery  of romantic drivel and the blatant adoration of horror, mystery, and idealism in Nightmare Abbey is as delightful to read today as it was in the time King George III.

His novels were often comic, but Peacock’s themes were usually deeply in earnest, resulting in his moniker of  the Laughing Philosopher. He might scoff at idealism, but it was infinitely preferable to settling for “a kakistocracy … for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools” and Peacock would always choose a sentimental idealist over one of those people  “who love an authority more than a reason”. His fourth novel, Maid Marian, is bitingly funny, but it was also intended as an “oblique satire on all the oppressions that are done under the sun.” Maid Marian jeers at the tyranny of absolutism and political self-interest, whether the actor wears a right-wing crown of moral authority or masquerades as an leftist outlaw.

It’s a little depressing how applicable that book still is to modern sociopolitical problems.

Sadly, Peacock’s personal life was no where near as amusing as his writings. Although Peacock was very happy in his marriage to Jane Gryffydh, his  “Carnarvonshire nymph” and the daughter of a vicar in Elwys Vach, Wales, they suffered a severe tragedy when their second daughter, Margaret Love Peacock died at the age of two in 1826. Peacock and his wife had an older daughter and an infant son at the time of Margaret’s death, and they tried to bear up under their loss with fortitude. They also adopted a little girl named Mary Rosewell, whom they called Rosa, in an attempt to lavish a needful child with the love they could no longer give Margaret. In spite of these efforts, Jane Peacock had a mental breakdown due to her grief, and remained a nervous invalid until she died in 1852.

Sadly, Thomas Peacock would outlive two of his remaining three children, being survived only by his son, Edward Gryffydh Peacock, from whom he had become estranged in 1849 over an ‘unsuitable’ marriage. Peacock’s youngest daughter, Mrs. Rosa Collinson, died at aged 30 in 1857. His eldest daughter broke his heart in 1858 she left her husband, the author George Meredith, and abandoned her four year old son to elope with Henry Wallis. She and her father never reconciled before she died unexpectedly in 1861.

Old Thomas Love Peacock

These private griefs, and the loss of Peacock’s beloved mother in 1833, explain the scarcity of his works in later life. Only Gryll Grange  and a couple of essays were completed and published after 1840. Several unfished works that he never found the internal motivation to complete were discovered in his papers after his death on 23 January 1866 as a result of injuries that occurred when he tried to save some of his books from a house fire.

Thomas Love Peacock was one of the greatest of the English satirists, a man who should be talked of in the same breath as Jonathon Swift and Jane Austen, an author whose writing has gone unremembered and unmarked for far too long.

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