The work of the English novelist and satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) is distinguished by its incisive penetration of the intellectual tendencies of his time. He ranks high as a comic novelist of ideas.
Thomas Love Peacock, the son of a London merchant, was educated for a business career and not for a life of artistic pursuits. Finding work in an office uncongenial, he was able to leave his job and to live for a while on his inherited income. During these years he began to write poetry, and he became a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley. After the poet's death, Peacock became his literary executor and edited a volume of memorials. Peacock married Jane Gryffydh, a lady mentioned in glowing terms in Shelley's poem "Letter to Maria Gisborne."
In this period Peacock also began to write the satirical novels on which his reputation rests. The first group includes Headlong Hall (1815), Melincourt (1817), and Nightmare Abbey (1818). His pattern in these works was to dispense with all but the most mechanical plotting and to devote his attention to extended conversations between the inhabitants and guests at characteristic English country houses. Headlong Hall includes Mr. Foster, an optimist; Mr. Escot, a pessimist; Mr. Jenkinson, an advocate of the status quo; and Dr. Gaster, a minister more distinguished by his worldliness than by his piety. Melincourt has a more integrated plot, centering on the wooing of a wealthy heiress. Its main interest lies, however, in its satirical portraits of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Thomas Malthus, and Lord Monboddo. Nightmare Abbey continues the satire of poets and philosophers of the day, including Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Shelley.
In 1819 Peacock joined the East India Company and became a competent and successful executive of colonial affairs. He continued his imaginative writing. In addition to poetry, he published two romance-novels dealing with fairy-tale plots and characters. Maid Marian (1822) is set in medieval England and concerns the legendary exploits of Robin Hood's band. The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) is a parody of the Arthurian legend in which King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Welsh bard Taliesin figure.
After these forays into the romance-novel, Peacock returned to his true métier with another satirical novel, Crotchet Castle (1831). Leading intellectual figures of the day satirized in this work include Coleridge, the rigorous school of Scottish economic thinkers, and those who joined in the period's growing tendency to glorify the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Peacock's career was, however, his production of another novel of the same type almost 30 years afterward. Gryll Grange (1860) shows the marks of age in its tendency to ramble from scholarly to domestic subjects and in its avoidance of personal satire of leading intellectual figures. Gryll Grange was Peacock's last novel. He was one of the most incisive commentators on the cultural life of England in the first half of the 19th century.
The most readable biography of Peacock is Carl Van Doren, The Life of Thomas Love Peacock (1911; repr. 1966). The best critical studies are Howard Mills, Peacock: His Circle and His Age (1968), and Carl Dawson, His Fine Wit (1970).
Freeman, A. Martin (Alexander Martin), Thomas Love Peacock: a critical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.