In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on 25 July 2018, we present a discussion of Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey by Rebekah Owens. Her post was inspired by a letter written by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Peacock on this day in 1818, an extract of which is shown below.
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To THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK, Marlow
Bagni di Lucca, July 25th, 1818.
My dear Peacock,
You tell me that you have finished Nightmare Abbey. I hope that you have given the enemy no quarter. Remember, it is a sacred war. We have found an excellent quotation in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour. I will transcribe it, as I do not think you have these plays at Marlow.
MATTHEW. Oh, it’s your only fine humour, sir. Your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir. I am melancholy myself divers times, sir; and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting.
ED KNOWELL. Sure, he utters them by the gross.
STEPHEN. Truly, sir; and I love such things out of measure.
ED KNOWELL. I’ faith, better than in measure, I’ll undertake.
MATTHEW. Why, I pray you, sir, make use of my study; it’s at your service.
STEPHEN. I thank you, sir; I shall be bold, I warrant you. Have you a stool there to be melancholy upon? — Every Man in his Humour, Act III, scene i.
The last expression would not make a bad motto.
Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey: a Gothic City Comedy?
by Rebekah Owens
In the letter marked 25 July 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested an ‘excellent quotation’ from Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour (1598) that Thomas Love Peacock might like to use in his forthcoming novel Nightmare Abbey: ‘I am melancholy myself divers times sir; and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting’. He rightly guessed from Peacock’s remarks to him about his work what its content would be, and so supplied him with a useful motto illustrating Jonson’s own preoccupation with the theme of ‘morbidity’ in modern literature.
Peacock had much in common with that particular early modern dramatist. Both were classicists; and both were satirists who used the medical theory of the humours to expose human foibles in their work. Peacock also pays homage to his distinguished predecessor in one other important way. Although Nightmare Abbey is a novella, it is also a drama. Felix Felton considered that the book resembled an opera with ‘libretto’ and music and even that it would make a good stage play (1973, pp. 155-6). He was right. The structure of the book, and the story it tells, use many conventions of both forms; but I think the homage to stagecraft goes much further than this. In the novella, theatre appears in all its permutations, sometimes indirectly.
For example, Peacock presents character archetypes of the sort used by Jonson himself. He creates representative characters who engage in conversational set-pieces in which the fashionable concerns of the literary minded are discussed. As with Jonson’s characters, such affectations mean that Peacock’s creations have an inflated sense of their own self-worth. This is shown in his story by the characters performing in dramas of their own making, although they insist that they are merely players on the stage of life, directed toward some higher purpose. Mr Flosky is convinced that events like the French Revolution and its outcome are a cosmic sign of the futility of action, and a directive that one can only profitably spend one’s life in philosophical contemplation. Celinda Toobad imagines herself the put-upon heroine of a Gothic romance, a sort of female Byronic hero, persecuted and forced into exile. Her father, Mr Toobad thinks that the devil has a hand in everything, including the farcical moment when he tumbles downstairs after colliding with Scythrop. The son of Christopher Glowry, who believes that all are ‘slaves and puppets’ to ‘necessity’ (p. 55), Scythrop is himself convinced that a grand directive lies before him. So intense is his ‘passion for reforming the world’ (p. 47) that he feels obliged to rehearse the moment of its realisation by donning a nightcap and dressing gown and practising his speeches from an improvised throne.
That particular moment in the novella reflects Peacock’s propensity for detailed scenic description, some of which recalls the illustrated backdrops that provided the setting for works acted in the early nineteenth-century theatre. Peacock’s word painting creates a vividly realised background to the action which unfolds before the reader as it would upon a stage, providing the setting for more direct homages to the theatre. The narrative structure of the story, though it has the expected story arc of a novella, is punctuated with small episodes, each a scene enacted before the reader. This is even emphasised by those moments when Peacock resorts to presenting the action in the form of a play – with dialogue and character notes. Two of these exchanges feature Marionetta, the one character who is perfectly adept at stage-managing scenes, especially where the matter of Scythrop’s devotion is concerned; and so, appropriately enough on these occasions, she is the instigator of the dialogue. On one of these occasions, she is even responsible for directing the action. While she plays the piano before an enchanted Mr Listless, the two of them have a conversation about the preoccupations of contemporary life. In the midst of the dialogue is a stage direction, alerting us to Scythrop seated with a copy of Dante. We learn that he is reading it in a manner which has just been described by Marionetta to be the perfect representation of a melancholy man hopelessly in love.
Given all these indirect and direct homages to dramatic form, then, while we (rightly) think of Nightmare Abbey as a parody of the Gothic novel, it is also worth considering Peacock’s novella as a Romantic reinvention of the Jonsonian city comedy. Peacock’s book has all the hallmarks of the city comedies of the seventeenth century but given a characteristically Romantic twist in its deployment of the taste for the Gothic. Nightmare Abbey in its ‘picturesque’ setting might not be a city, but it is still a place where the follies indigenous to urban life are exposed and mocked. The gloomy, mist-shrouded fens, the crenelated turrets, the crumbling, ivy-covered edifice is a monument to the contemporary Romantic fashionable taste for the Gothic, a propensity in literature mocked by Peacock as surely as Jonson mocked the literary pretensions of his own time. When a parcel arrives for Mr Listless, its contents are a representation of all the Regency foibles of the urban reading public which Mr Flosky delineates as he unpacks the parcel. There is the new type of novel centred on ‘misanthropy’, a new poem with a fashionably disaffected hero and a popular Review magazine in which authors are permitted to comment favourably on their own work. This summary of the work of William Godwin, Lord Byron and Robert Southey is as pertinent to Peacock’s audiences as were Jonson’s diatribes against his contemporaries’ literary pretension. Just like Jonson, Peacock saw in his colleagues’ work a disconcerting trend for ‘morbidity’ in literature, a too-intense focus on melancholy.
And, as everyone knows, an imbalance of the humours is invariably injurious to the health, a surfeit of melancholy leading to an unhealthy self-centredness. It results in a disengagement from life that can harm the wider society by displacing all virtue. In this novella, exploring the effect of such excesses of ‘black bile’ in contemporary literature, Peacock creates a cast of characters who feel that that they have no great part to play in the drama of life, no role to play in the betterment of the human condition. That there is, as Mr Cypress puts it ‘no hope for myself or for others’ (p. 99). And so they only feel that, as Scythrop himself says, gloomily paraphrasing another well-known early modern author: ‘the world is a stage and my direction is exit’.
All quotations from Peacock’s Novel are from the Penguin edition, edited by Raymond Wright (Harmondsworth, 1969, reprinted 1981).
Roger Ingpen. 1914. Ed. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: G. Bell & Sons. 2 Vols. Vol 2, p. 607.
Felix Felton. 1973. Thomas Love Peacock. George Allen & Unwin.
Rebekah Owens is currently studying for her PhD at Anglia Ruskin University, focusing on the reception of early modern dramatists in the 19th-century, and especially on how those responses still inform critical works today. She has published widely on early modern literature, from matters relating to the dramatist Thomas Kyd to Shakespeare on Film.