Wine, Love and Song: Thomas Love Peacock
Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) was the original idler. He worked for thirty-seven years at the East India Company, and wrote about his daily routine:
From ten to eleven, ate a breakfast for seven:
From eleven to noon, to begin ’twas too soon;
From twelve to one, asked, ‘What’s to be done?’
From one to two, found nothing to do;
From two to three began to foresee
That from three to four would be a damned bore.
In reality, like many other idlers, he worked at full pelt. When he wasn’t writing official correspondence, he was composing satirical novels, poems, and essays. His published writings didn’t make enough for him to give up the day job. As he rose through the ranks of the East India Company, he imagined the life of the wealthy, idling classes in his stylish and witty conversation novels.
How should we live? What would the good life be like? It is tempting to believe that happiness eludes us because of lack of money. The lives of the rich can be instructive because they do not experience this constraint. In his novels, Peacock sent up the idea that wealth breeds content, and set out his own view of the summum bonum.
The ‘idle trade’ of poetry
Peacock never thought that things would turn out this way. He wanted to live the dream, not just write about it. His first ambition was to be a poet. An only child, he was brought up in genteel poverty by his widowed mother. He was removed from school at the age of twelve, owing to financial hardship, and educated himself in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, writing occasional poems while working as a clerk in the City of London.
After publishing his first volume, Palmyra, and Other Poems (1806), he just about managed to live semi-independently as a poet and scholar for a while. He settled with his mother at Chertsey in the Thames Valley, walking or boating in the summer, studying and writing when the weather held him indoors, falling in and out of love. When the money ran out, he became the Captain’s clerk on a 74-gun warship, HMS Venerable, then moored in the Downs. But life aboard ‘this floating Inferno’, he wrote to a friend, got in the way of ‘the “idle trade” of writing verses’, and he gave up the job after a year.
By 1810 Peacock was in full flight from the rapacity of commerce. ‘England is the modern Carthage’, he declared in an early letter: ‘The love of gold, “the last corruption of man”, pervades the whole state.’ He flew as far as North Wales, spending fifteen months on the outskirts of a small village in the Vale of Ffestiniog, Merionethshire, like Thoreau in his cabin at Walden Pond, a mile from any neighbour.
Here he pursued his solitary studies, fell in love with a parson’s daughter, Jane Gryffydh (whom he later married), and took long country walks. ‘On the top of Cadair Idris, I felt how happy a man may be with a little money and a sane intellect, and reflected with astonishment and pity on the madness of the multitude.’ Then a family financial crisis called him home.
The Marlow coterie
Two years later, Peacock met another idling poet called Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his life changed. Shelley, too, was interested in the good life, and had the means to pursue it—he was heir to a massive estate. Hadn’t his mentor, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, suggested (quite wrongly) that if wealth were spread more equally, half an hour’s labour a day would be enough to feed, clothe, and house everyone? The rest of the time could be devoted to cultivated leisure.
Peacock and Shelley hit it off immediately, sharing ideas, books, and work in progress. When in July 1814 Shelley, a married man, eloped to the Continent with Godwin’s daughter Mary (and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont), he asked Peacock to take charge of his financial affairs. Back in England, he redistributed some of his wealth, paying Peacock an annual pension of £120 to act as his agent. Peacock settled with his mother at Marlow, on the Thames, where the Shelley party eventually joined him, taking a large house nearby in the spring of 1817.
The Marlow summer of 1817 was an idler’s dream. ‘The Conchoid’ (Peacock’s nickname for Shelley) and Mary were now married, with Mary expecting a third child. They attracted a stream of visitors, including Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Leigh Hunt, and the paterfamilias William Godwin. They took long walks in all directions from Marlow, within a radius of about sixteen miles. They studied the classics, read the latest literary publications, and wrote their own (including Frankenstein, which appeared on 1 January 1818). Peacock wrote in a letter: ‘Perhaps a due mixture of tea Greek & pedestrianism constitute the summum bonum.’ But something was missing. At the end of the year he proposed marriage to Claire Clairmont, who had been living with the Shelleys with her baby daughter by Lord Byron. She turned him down.
After the Shelley party left England for Italy in March 1818, Peacock spent the next summer idling alone. ‘For the most part my division of time is this’, he wrote to Shelley: ‘I devote the forenoon to writing: the afternoon to the river the woods and classical poetry: the evening to philosophy … My reading is as usual at this season somewhat desultory.’ But it wasn’t the same. Without Shelley’s companionship, he was ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’. When opportunity knocked, he needed little persuasion to give up his independent life. His entry into the East India Company in 1819, at the recommendation of a schoolmate, gave him a secure income, and the means to marry and settle down.
The good life
In his novels, Peacock tried to sustain the thought of what the good life might be like. He pioneered the novel of talk, a form of modern Socratic dialogue, in which intellectuals and well-heeled idlers come together at a country house party, or on a journey. They tackle the big questions—the nature of society, whether it promotes happiness, how to live—while eating good dinners and tossing back bumpers of wine. Discussions are inconclusive—‘The schemes for the world’s regeneration evaporated in a tumult of voices’—or end with a glee.
While conversations stall, real life takes a comic turn. Typically the male suitors dither between two women (‘Celinda—Marionetta—either—both’) and the heroines hesitate between men. Some characters and situations are replayed in successive novels. The figure of a young man with a Shelleyan passion for reforming the world, but undecided how to do it, crops up several times, with names like Sylvan Forester or Scythrop Glowry. Others perform solo turns. Sir Oran Haut-ton, the civilized orang-utan who is elected MP for the rotten borough of Onevote in Melincourt (1817), is an original. Dignified and silent, he has learned to imitate the manners of a polished gentleman—though, after a glass too many, may be glimpsed uprooting trees on his patron’s estate.
Men talk and push the bottle round. Women read the Greek classics or Italian romance, and keep up with London opera, novels, and art. The good life choices facing women idlers are at their starkest in Crotchet Castle (1831), a satire on the rich governing classes and their culture of acquisitiveness.
Lady Clarinda Bossnowl has embraced her destiny as a commodity in the marriage market. She seeks a husband with ‘a town and country-house, and plenty of servants, and a carriage and an opera box … You do not think I would take him for himself’. Susannah Touchandgo, the daughter of a bankrupt paper money manufacturer, takes a different path. When her father melts into thin air, she finds a simpler way of life, inspired by Rousseau, in Peacock’s old haunt, Merionethshire. There she lives en famille with the humble Ap Llymrys, teaching the children in exchange for hearty suppers and home-brewed ale—until Mr Chainmail, who yearns for feudal social harmony, claims her as his bride. The Welsh idyll works a change in Lady Clarinda too. She realises that true happiness lies with her impoverished artist lover, Captain Fitzchrome, not in the baubles of the marketplace.
The satisfied guest
Peacock’s most accomplished exposition of the good life is Gryll Grange (1860-1), his last satire, written in the leisure of retirement from the East India Company. By this stage of life, he had lost his wife, two of his children, most of his friends, and the political dreams of his youth. Perhaps he could now speak with authority on the question of how to live. The tone of this work is mellow and convivial, like genial conversation among friends.
Just about everybody in Gryll Grange is rich enough to live in his or her own way. Gregory Gryll, proprietor of a large estate, is ‘Epicuri de grege porcus’ (‘A pig from the herd of Epicurus’), like Peacock himself, devoted to simplicity and the pursuit of tranquil happiness. He is so wedded to quiet dining and his after-dinner bottle of port that he has never married. He plans to leave his fortune to his niece Morgana, who is besieged by unsuitable suitors. His neighbour, the Reverend Dr Opimian, shares many of his tastes: ‘a good library, a good dinner, a pleasant garden, and rural walks’.
On one of these walks, Dr Opimian discovers a wealthy young man, Algernon Falconer, living alone in a tower fitted up with a dining room, a wine cellar, a library, and seven beautiful, chaste young women to wait on him (‘Homeric damsels’, Dr Opimian says). Falconer explains:
I have aimed at living, like an ancient Epicurean, a life of tranquillity … With what classical studies, and rural walks, and a domestic society peculiarly my own, I led what I considered the perfection of life: ‘days so like each other they could not be remembered.’
Is this the perfection of life? Dr Opimian, a comfortable married man, thinks not. He plots to draw the young man into the ambit of Gryll Grange, where a large party is assembled. At Gryll Grange the good life is social. Scenes are dedicated to mutual enjoyment: a large company over dinner or two lovers tête-à-tête. The guests engage in all the pastimes of wealthy nineteenth-century idlers:
After luncheon there was walking in the park, rowing or sailing on the lake, riding or driving in the adjacent country, archery in a spacious field; and in bad weather billiards, reading in the library, music in the drawing-rooms, battledore and shuttlecock in the hall.
Like the ancient Greeks, the characters delight in bodily exercise: Lord Curryfin is seen taming a horse, Miss Niphet running like Atalanta; their courtship flourishes in shared activities like skating and dancing, where they are matched in ‘poetry of motion’.
The book ends with the communal festivities of Christmas. Nine couples—surely a record for Peacock—are united. As well as Morgana and Falconer, Lord Curryfin and Miss Niphet, the seven Homeric damsels pair up with seven suitors, led by Harry Hedgerow. Pining for love of one of them, he brings along six friends for her sisters. These earthy partners are, Harry says by way of recommendation, ‘all something to do with the land and the wood: farmers, and foresters, and nurserymen, and all that.’ Each finds a distinct favourite among the seven vestals.
Gryll Grange rejects the way of the hermit and celebrates living life to the full. For one of his epigraphs, Peacock translates a fragment from the Greek comic poet Alexis’ Tarantinoi:
As men who leave their homes for public games,
We leave our native element of darkness
For life’s brief light. And who has most of mirth,
And wine, and love, may, like a satisfied guest,
Return, contented, to the night he sprang from.
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