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Peacock, Thomas Lovefree

  • Nicholas A. Joukovsky

Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)

by Maull & Co., 1857

Peacock, Thomas Love (1785–1866), satirical novelist and poet, was born on 18 October 1785 at Weymouth, or Melcombe Regis, Dorset, the only child of Samuel Peacock (c.1742–c.1793), a London glass merchant, and his wife, Sarah, née Love (1754–1832), daughter of Thomas Love, a retired master in the Royal Navy. His parents, who were married at St Luke's, Chelsea, on 29 March 1780, both came from nonconformist families in the west of England: on his father's side Independents in Taunton, Somerset, on his mother's side Presbyterians in Topsham, Devon. Little is known of his father, who apparently lived apart from his wife and son, and died in reduced circumstances, leaving them three small annuities, all of which successively failed or expired. His mother was a strong-minded woman who encouraged her son in his literary pursuits. According to family tradition, 'he often said that, after his mother's death, he wrote with no interest, as his heart was not in the work' (Nicolls, xxvi).

Early life and poetry

In 1791 Sarah Peacock took her son to live near her parents at Chertsey, and early in 1792 she sent him to a private school kept by John Harris Wicks at Englefield Green, where he remained for six and a half years and distinguished himself from his schoolfellows. 'The master was', he later recalled, 'not much of a scholar; but he had the art of inspiring his pupils with a love of learning, and he had excellent classical and French assistants' (Letters, 2.446). During his holidays at Chertsey the boy would listen to the reminiscences of his sailor grandfather, who had lost a leg in Rodney's great victory over De Grasse off Dominica on 12 April 1782. After being removed from school before his thirteenth birthday, presumably because his mother could no longer afford the expense, Peacock was entirely self-educated, eventually acquiring, by dint of steady application, a degree of erudition seldom found outside a university, including a thorough mastery of the Greek, Latin, Italian, and French languages. By February 1800 he was employed as a clerk for Ludlow, Fraser, & Co., merchants in the City of London, and in the same month he won an 'extra prize' from the Monthly Preceptor, or, Juvenile Library for his first publication, a verse 'Answer to the question: “Is history or biography the more improving study?”' While it is not clear how long his employment lasted, he apparently lived with his mother on the firm's premises at 4 Angel Court, Throgmorton Street, until about 1805. A miniature by Roger Jean shows him at this time as a handsome young man with dark blue eyes, a Roman nose, a high forehead, and a profusion of curly brown hair. Peacock continued to write occasional verse throughout his years in London, and his first volume, Palmyra, and other Poems, was printed by Thomas Bensley and published by W. J. and J. Richardson late in 1805, though postdated 1806. The rare octavo half-sheet containing his comic ballad The Monks of St. Mark was privately printed by Bensley in the same format, presumably about the same time (the date at the end of the poem, 'September, 1804', being that of composition, not of printing). Some time in the next year or so Peacock met Thomas Hookham junior and his brother Edward Thomas Hookham, who offered to become his publishers and to supply him with books from their father's extensive circulating library in Old Bond Street. Other close friends of his early years included William de St Croix of Homerton and Thomas (Ignatius Maria) Forster of Lower Clapton, another remarkable autodidact, with whom he sometimes corresponded in Latin.

For several years after the publication of Palmyra, Peacock's resources appear to have been just sufficient to enable him to live semi-independently as a poet and scholar. Always a sturdy pedestrian, he made a solitary walking tour of Scotland in autumn 1806, visiting many of the romantic scenes that had recently been popularized by Walter Scott. In the following summer, while living with his mother at Chertsey, he became engaged to a young woman named Fanny Falkner, but the engagement was broken off through the interference of one of her relations, and she died the following year, after marrying another man. His lasting memory of their love was later enshrined in his lines on 'Newark Abbey, August 1842, with a reminiscence of August 1807' (Fraser's Magazine, November 1860). In May 1808 he obtained an appointment as secretary to Sir Home Riggs Popham aboard HMS Venerable in the Downs. Although he regarded the ship as a 'floating Inferno', he remained in the position for almost a year to please some friends—probably his two maternal uncles in the navy—who thought there was a prospect of its 'conducing to advantage' (Letters, 1.25). After leaving the Venerable in April 1809, he decided to expand a poem on the Thames that he had written at sea into what eventually became The Genius of the Thames, published by the Hookhams in spring 1810. To gather material for the work, he traced the course of the river on foot from its source to Chertsey, stopping for a few days at Oxford. At the beginning of 1810 he went to north Wales, where he took lodgings for almost fifteen months at Tan-y-Bwlch, near Maentwrog, Merioneth, in the Vale of Ffestiniog, which he described as 'a terrestrial paradise' (ibid., 1.43). Here he developed a strong attachment to the Welsh landscape and a lasting interest in Welsh traditions. His letters to Edward Hookham and Thomas Forster provide glimpses of the young poet pursuing his course of solitary study, exploring the local scenery, and occasionally falling in or out of love. They also reveal that he had long since rejected Christianity as 'a grovelling, misanthropical, blood-thirsty superstition', and had more recently embraced philosophical scepticism as 'a complete Academic' (ibid., 1.57, 62). One of the two young women who interested him at this time was his future wife, Jane Gryffydh (1789–1851), daughter of the parson at Maentwrog, but he left north Wales in April 1811 without declaring his feelings, even though he thought her 'the most innocent, the most amiable, the most beautiful girl in existence' (ibid., 1.64).

Peacock may have been called home by an impending financial crisis, for within a few months his mother was forced by creditors to sell her furniture and leave Chertsey. With the assistance of friends, they were able to take up residence at a cottage in Wraysbury, where new creditors were soon clamouring for payment. Through the good offices of the Hookhams, Peacock's most pressing wants were relieved by grants from the Literary Fund in December 1811, May 1812, and June 1813. However, his despondency was serious enough to give Edward Hookham 'reason to dread that the fate of Chatterton might be that of Peacock' (Letters, 1.91). Peacock himself responded to the crisis by producing a new poem, The Philosophy of Melancholy, and a heavily revised ‘second edition’ of The Genius of the Thames, Palmyra, and other Poems, published in February and April 1812. With encouragement from James Grant Raymond, the acting manager of the Drury Lane Company, he also wrote three farces—'Mirth in the Mountains' (lost), 'The dilettanti', and 'The Three Doctors'—none of which was performed on the London stage. Efforts to obtain pupils for a small educational establishment likewise failed. His only literary success during this period was a ‘grammatico-allegorical ballad’ for children entitled Sir Hornbook, or, Childe Launcelot's Expedition, which appeared late in 1813, with a title-page postdated 1814, and ran through five editions in as many years. Despite his financial difficulties, he continued his classical studies and translated a number of passages from Greek tragedies. His Aristophanic Greek anapests on Christ may also have been written at this time. In the early autumn of 1812 he visited Tunbridge Wells with Thomas Forster and made a two-week walking and sailing tour of the Isle of Wight with Joseph Gulston of Englefield Green, while in the following summer he paid a second visit to north Wales, returning to London by way of Bath. His cousin Harriet Love later described him as having been during this period of his life 'a sort of universal lover, making half-declarations to half the young women he knew' (Works, 1.civ).

The Shelley circle: satiric fiction

It was in the hope of obtaining private assistance for his friend that Thomas Hookham junior introduced Peacock to Shelley in November 1812, and it was partly to relieve Peacock's distress that Shelley invited him to stay at Bracknell in September 1813 and then to join him and his wife Harriet and her sister Eliza on a journey to the Lake District and Edinburgh. 'At Bracknell' Peacock later recalled:

Shelley was surrounded by a numerous society, all in a great measure of his own opinions in relation to religion and politics, and the larger portion of them in relation to vegetable diet. But they wore their rue with a difference. Every one of them adopting some of the articles of the faith of their general church, had each nevertheless some predominant crotchet of his or her own, which left a number of open questions for earnest and not always temperate discussion. I was sometimes irreverent enough to laugh at the fervour with which opinions utterly unconducive to any practical result were battled for as matters of the highest importance to the well-being of mankind; Harriet Shelley was always ready to laugh with me, and we thereby lost caste with some of the more hot-headed of the party.

Works, 8.70–71

Peacock's attitude of amused detachment may have disturbed the Bracknell circle, but it did not prevent him from quickly becoming Shelley's closest friend and most trusted adviser. Shelley's marital crisis of July 1814 put him in an awkward position as a friend to whom both husband and wife turned for advice and consolation. Although Peacock was one of the few friends who remained loyal to Shelley after his elopement with Mary Godwin, his obvious partiality for Harriet made his relationship with Mary difficult. If Peacock's rationality and scepticism stood in sharp contrast to Shelley's impetuosity and enthusiasm, the two poets nevertheless shared many of the same ideals, and their mutual influence benefited both. Peacock's Sir Proteus: a Satirical Ballad, published under the pseudonym P. M. O'Donovan in March 1814, reveals a new interest in literary politics that may be one of the first signs of Shelleyan influence. On the other hand, his fragmentary romantic epic 'Ahrimanes'—written in Spenserian stanzas and originally projected as a twelve-canto narrative of two lovers involved in a struggle between the Zoroastrian principles of good and evil—clearly anticipates Shelley's Laon and Cythna. Meanwhile Peacock's personal fortunes reached their nadir in January 1815 when he was arrested for debt in Liverpool, after running off with a supposed heiress who turned out to have nothing. In the spring he considered emigrating to Canada and taking Marianne de St Croix, who was apparently willing to marry him despite her knowledge of his indiscretion with the heiress.

After Shelley reached a settlement with his father in May 1815 and began to receive an annuity of £1000, he allowed Peacock a regular income of £120 a year, until it was rendered superfluous by his India House appointment. In return, Peacock acted as Shelley's agent in business matters: paying bills, negotiating with creditors, and finding houses. It was presumably Shelley's allowance that enabled Peacock and his mother to settle at Marlow, where he could enjoy his lifelong passion for boating on the Thames. At the end of August he accompanied Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Charles Clairmont on a boating expedition up the Thames to Lechlade, and on the way up, at Oxford, he restored his vegetarian friend's health with his prescription of 'Three mutton chops, well peppered' (Works, 8.99). Peacock spent much of winter 1815–16 at Bishopsgate, near Windsor, reading Greek with Shelley and Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who became a lifelong friend. It was Peacock who proposed the often misconstrued title for Shelley's Alastor, or, The Spirit of Solitude. In the following summer Shelley wrote Peacock several long travel letters from Switzerland, two of which he published in revised form in A History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817). After Harriet's suicide in December 1816 Peacock was one of those who advised Shelley not to delay his marriage to Mary Godwin. In March 1817 Shelley moved into a house at Marlow that he took partly to be near Peacock, and for the next twelve months the two writers saw each other almost daily. During this period Peacock became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, John Keats, James and Horace Smith, and other liberal writers. In December he participated with Charles Ollier in the revision of Shelley's Laon and Cythna for reissue as The Revolt of Islam. Early in 1818 he unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Claire Clairmont, who was living with her daughter Allegra as a member of Shelley's household. After Shelley's departure for Italy in March, Peacock not only continued to act as his business agent but also read the proofs of the Rosalind and Helen and Prometheus Unbound volumes and tried to get The Cenci accepted for performance at Covent Garden. Shelley again chose Peacock as the recipient of his long descriptive travel letters from Italy, and their correspondence continued until Shelley's death in July 1822. As Shelley's executor Peacock was involved for several years in complex negotiations with Sir Timothy Shelley's solicitor, William Whitton, to secure financial support for Mary Shelley and her son Percy Florence. Shelley's will could not be proved until after Sir Timothy's death in 1844, when Peacock finally received two legacies totalling £2500.

Peacock's years at Marlow were the most productive period of his literary career as well as the period in which he discovered his true gift for satiric fiction. Headlong Hall, the first of his stylish and witty conversation novels, was an immediate success on its publication in December 1815, with a title-page postdated 1816. Melincourt—a more overtly political satire in which the civilized orang-utan Sir Oran Haut-ton is elected MP for the rotten borough of Onevote—also attracted a good deal of attention when it appeared in three volumes in March 1817. The fragmentary tale known as 'Calidore' was probably written in the spring or summer, along with The Round Table, or, King Arthur's Feast, a second children's book, published without date in the autumn. Rhododaphne, or, The Thessalian Spell, the last and best of Peacock's long poems, was finished in November and published in February 1818. Shelley immediately wrote an enthusiastic review of Rhododaphne, which was sent to The Examiner but never inserted. Nightmare Abbey was written in the spring and published in November 1818, in an attempt, Peacock told Shelley, 'to bring to a sort of philosophical focus a few of the morbidities of modern literature and to let in a little daylight on its atrabilarious complexion' (Letters, 1.152). Shelley may have been surprised to find himself caricatured in the book, along with Coleridge and Byron, but he nevertheless 'took to himself the character of Scythrop' (Works, 8.497). Peacock's Marlow journal for July–September 1818 records the writing of his unfinished 'Essay on fashionable literature' as well as the genesis of Maid Marian, which he intended to make 'the vehicle of much oblique satire on all the oppressions that are done under the sun' (Letters, 1.156). This satiric romance of the twelfth century, based on the popular ballads of Robin Hood, was nearly finished when it had to be laid aside at the end of the year. Unlike his early poetry, Peacock's first three novels found an appreciative audience. Headlong Hall reached a second edition in 1816, and a third in 1822; Melincourt was translated into French in 1818, and Nightmare Abbey into German in 1820; all three books were reprinted in America, along with Rhododaphne.

India House: the middle years

About the beginning of January 1819 Peacock went to London to embark on his thirty-seven-year career in the examiner's office of the East India Company. His candidacy had been brought forward the previous autumn by his old friend Peter Auber, who was then assistant secretary of the company. Because he had no experience with Indian affairs, he was given several weeks to study for a special examination on systems of land revenue collection. The resulting paper, 'Ryotwar and Zemindarry settlements', is said to have been returned with the compliment 'Nothing superfluous and nothing wanting' (Nicolls, xxxvii). His provisional appointment as assistant to the examiner at an annual salary of £600 was approved by the court of directors in May 1819, as part of a larger experiment to open the higher posts in the examiner's office to outside talent. At the East India House he showed great skill in drafting dispatches, and his appointment was confirmed in April 1821 with a salary rise to £800. His subsequent career was one of steady advancement, at first in the shadow of James Mill, who was appointed at the same time, and who brought his son John Stuart Mill into the office in 1823. When James Mill became assistant examiner in April 1823, Peacock's salary was raised to £1000, and when Mill succeeded William McCulloch as examiner in December 1830, Peacock became a senior assistant to the examiner at £1200. In February 1836, with Mill seriously ill, Peacock became assistant examiner at £1500, and in July, a month after Mill's death, he was appointed examiner at £2000—a salary that remained unchanged until March 1856, when he retired on a pension of £1333 6s. 8d. and was in turn succeeded by John Stuart Mill. Through James Mill he became acquainted with almost all the leading philosophical radicals, including Bentham, with whom he is said to have been 'extremely intimate—dining with him tête à tête, once a week for years together' (Sir M. E. Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1851–72, 1897, 1.60). He also influenced the careers of Henry Cole and John Arthur Roebuck by introducing them to John Stuart Mill.

With his prosperity virtually assured, Peacock took a house at 17 (later 18) Stamford Street, Blackfriars, in June 1819 and turned his thoughts to marriage. Despite his having had no contact with Jane Gryffydh for more than eight years, he proposed by letter in November 1819, and they were married at Eglwys-fach, Cardiganshire, on 22 March 1820. For the first few years the marriage seems to have been happy, and four children were born to the couple during the next eight years. But after the death of their second daughter, Margaret Love, in January 1826, Jane is said to have been 'inconsolable' and to have developed some kind of mental illness that left her 'a complete invalid', unable to 'attend to the care of their children, or undertake the troubles of housekeeping' (Nicolls, xxxix, xli). In 1823 Peacock had taken a cottage for his mother on the Thames at Lower Halliford, and in 1826 he took the adjoining cottage and turned the two into a comfortable country residence, where his mother looked after the children until her death in October 1832. To supply Margaret's place in the family, he informally adopted Mary Ann Rosewell, whose family lived in the neighbourhood, and who strikingly resembled the dead child. His epitaph for Margaret's tombstone in Shepperton churchyard caused a quarrel with the rector, who objected to the opening line: 'Long night succeeds thy little day'.

After his India House appointment and marriage, Peacock's literary work became more sporadic. His ironic essay 'The four ages of poetry', in the first and only number of Olliers Literary Miscellany (1820), provoked Shelley to write 'A Defence of Poetry'. Maid Marian appeared in March 1822, with a prefatory note explaining that all but the last three chapters had been written in the autumn of 1818—before Scott made Robin Hood a character in Ivanhoe. J. R. Planché's operatic adaptation, Maid Marian, or, The Huntress of Arlingford, with music by Henry Bishop, opened at Covent Garden on 3 December 1822 and enjoyed a successful run with Charles Kemble as Friar Tuck and Anna Maria Tree as Maid Marian. Peacock's tale was translated into German in 1823 and into French in 1826 and again, more satisfactorily, in 1855. In 1823 Peacock met the Welsh antiquary and lexicographer William Owen Pughe, and in 1824 he joined the Cymmrodorion, or Metropolitan Cambrian Institution. During the financial panic of 1825–6, he wrote his Paper Money Lyrics but suppressed them to avoid offending James Mill. After Mill's death he permitted Henry Cole to publish some of them in The Guide and privately to print an edition of 100 copies, with a few other poems, in July 1837. His satiric romance The Misfortunes of Elphin, based on legends of sixth-century Wales, appeared in March 1829, and Crotchet Castle, containing a romantic interlude in Merioneth, followed in February 1831. Elphin includes, as 'the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written', the rollicking 'War-Song of Dinas Vawr', which begins:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,But the Valley sheep are fatter;We therefore deemed it meeterTo carry off the latter.

Works, 4[1].89Crotchet Castle contains the Reverend Doctor Folliott's trenchant satire on the 'march of mind', as represented by the 'learned friend' (Lord Brougham) and the 'Steam Intellect Society' (the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) (ibid., 4[2].13). But for all their satiric brilliance, neither of these new works seems to have enjoyed the same degree of success as the four earlier tales. Peacock was one of the original contributors to Bentley's Miscellany, edited by Dickens, and in April 1837 Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, Maid Marian, and Crotchet Castle were reprinted, 'with corrections, and a preface, by the author', as no. 57 in Bentley's Standard Novels series. All Peacock's journalistic writing appeared in liberal or radical publications. He was induced to contribute four articles to the Benthamite Westminster Review under John Bowring's editorship, four more to John Stuart Mill's short-lived London Review, and one to the whig Edinburgh Review. Always a lover of opera, he also wrote opera criticism for the Globe and Traveller, edited by his friend Walter Coulson, and for The Examiner, owned and edited by Albany Fonblanque.

As one of the two highest permanent officials in the East India Company's home service, Peacock was an able administrator but never exerted the sort of powerful influence over Indian affairs that James Mill did. He had serious reservations about the utilitarians' programme of reforming Indian institutions along European lines, and the fundamental cast of his intelligence was practical rather than theoretical, sceptical rather than doctrinaire. It is entirely in keeping with his practicality that his most notable achievements as an India House official should have been in the burgeoning field of steam navigation. Peacock began to study all aspects of the subject in 1829 and quickly became the company's acknowledged expert in the field. From 1831 to 1833 he collaborated with James Henry Johnston in making arrangements for the steam navigation of the Ganges. His queries about Egyptian and Syrian routes to India stimulated Francis Rawdon Chesney to explore both between 1830 and 1832, and he drew up the original plans and budget for the Euphrates expedition led by Chesney in 1835–6. Although he favoured the Euphrates route, he also advocated the employment of larger and more powerful steamers for the Red Sea route. To this end he supervised the design and construction of the Atalanta and the Berenice, the first vessels to steam the whole distance to India, and later the purchase and refitting of the Semiramis, then one of the most powerful vessels in the world. An early proponent of iron ships, he often worked closely with the Birkenhead shipbuilder John Laird and his brother the African explorer Macgregor Laird. As clerk to the company's secret committee, he not only procured river steamers for the Indus, the Euphrates, and the Tigris, but also supervised the design, construction, fitting, and trials of a new class of iron war-steamers with movable keels for both river and sea service. These were his 'iron chickens', whose names—Nemesis, Phlegethon, Pluto, Proserpine—and distinguished service in the First Opium War of 1839–42 led him to characterize them as 'the Infernal Flotilla dispatched against the Celestial Empire' (Letters, 2.269, 279). His visionary scheme of placing British steamers on the Aral Sea and the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers in central Asia prompted the fatal mission of Arthur Conolly to Khiva and Bukhara. While much of his evidence before parliamentary committees in the 1830s dealt with steam navigation, he also defended the company in 1834, when he resisted the claim of James Silk Buckingham to compensation for his expulsion from India, and in 1836, when he repelled the attack of Liverpool merchants on the Indian salt monopoly.

Later life and writings

It was through his work as examiner and clerk to the secret committee that Peacock became an intimate friend of Sir John Cam Hobhouse, afterwards Lord Broughton, who was president of the Board of Control from 1835 to 1841 and from 1846 to 1852. From 1840 onward he spent many of his holidays at Erle Stoke Park, Hobhouse's country house in Wiltshire, where he met many distinguished Victorians, including Disraeli, Thackeray, and Macaulay. In the summer of 1843 he began to commute daily from Lower Halliford to the India House, reading Homer and Aeschylus in Greek in his corner of the railway carriage, and thereby confirming his opinion 'that the march of Mechanics is one way, and the march of Mind is another' (Letters, 2.279). Soon he gave up his house in Stamford Street, moving his London quarters first to 22 John Street, Adelphi, and afterwards to 1 Torrington Street, Russell Square. In 1841 his only son, Edward Gryffydh, went to India as a midshipman in the Indian navy but returned the following year on a medical furlough. Two years later Peacock obtained a clerkship for him in the examiner's office. In January 1844 Peacock's eldest daughter, Mary Ellen, married Lieutenant Edward Nicolls, who drowned two months later while in command of HMS Dwarf in Ireland. In August 1849, after five years of widowhood, she married George Meredith, then an ambitious young poet with no obvious prospects. Her sister Rosa Jane and her brother Edward also married before the end of the year. While Peacock is said to have disapproved of all three of these 1849 marriages, he remained an indulgent father and tried to help the Merediths through years of financial struggle and emotional turmoil. He does not appear to have been particularly disturbed when Mary Ellen finally left Meredith in September 1857 for their painter friend Henry Wallis, who later acknowledged paternity of the son she bore the following spring. Wallis painted an informal portrait of Peacock in January 1858, but a photograph taken in the previous year by Maull & Co. provides a more satisfactory likeness of the writer in his old age.

Peacock's wife died on 23 December 1851 at Southend-on-Sea, and some time in the following year he proposed marriage to Claire Clairmont's twenty-seven-year-old niece Pauline, who 'looked daggers at the dear old man' (Clairmont Correspondence, 2.551). It was apparently through his connection with the Merediths that he returned to literary work in the early 1850s, after having published nothing new since 1838. George's first volume of Poems was published in 1851 by J. W. Parker & Son with a respectful dedication to Peacock, and Mary Ellen was commissioned by the Parkers to produce a revised edition of William Kitchener's The Cook's Oracle, a task in which she enlisted her husband and father as collaborators. Both of the Merediths occasionally contributed to Fraser's Magazine, edited by their friend John William Parker junior, and Peacock's hand is evident in an article entitled 'Gastronomy and civilization', published in December 1851 over the initials M. M. The following year Peacock's own scholarly series of Horae dramaticae began to appear in Fraser's. His Greek lines on an East India Company whitebait dinner were privately printed in 1851, and his little book of scatological Latin epigrams on a statue of Sir Robert Peel in 1854. About 1851 he undertook an edition of Aeschylus's Supplices that he worked at sporadically for many years but never finished. After his retirement from the India House, his contributions to Fraser's became more frequent. The most notable of these were his 'Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley' (1858, 1860), which were followed by some 'Unpublished letters' (1860) and a 'Supplementary notice' (1862). Although often asked to write a life of Shelley, he had always refused because he did not want to revive old gossip by discussing his friend's marital affairs; but eventually he saw a need to correct the accounts published by others, especially those of Thomas Medwin and Thomas Jefferson Hogg. His insistence that Shelley was not separated from Harriet when he fell in love with Mary, as Lady Shelley implied in her Shelley Memorials (1859), led to a bitter quarrel with Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, in which Richard Garnett publicly took up their cause. The last of Peacock's novels, Gryll Grange, was serialized in Fraser's in 1860 and reprinted as a book in February 1861. In comparison with his earlier tales, the characters are more lifelike while the satire is at once more mellow and more idiosyncratic. His last published work was a translation, Gl'inganati, the Deceived: a Comedy Performed at Siena in 1531, and Aelia Laelia Crispis, which appeared in August 1862. Of the later works that remained in manuscript, the most characteristic are a reminiscence of 'The Last Day of Windsor Forest', possibly intended for Fraser's, and 'A Dialogue on Idealities', apparently written for Lord Broughton's daughter Charlotte Carleton.

After his retirement, Peacock rarely left Halliford except for his visits to Lord Broughton, which continued until 1860. For most of his adult life he had espoused the philosophical doctrines of Epicurus, but if he hoped to find tranquillity in his old age, he was doomed to disappointment. His wife's death had thrown him into a profound depression, and his spirits were even more severely shaken by the deaths of his two surviving daughters—Rosa Jane in October 1857 and Mary Ellen in October 1861. Even after the last and bitterest of these losses, he struggled to regain his equanimity and managed to find solace for a time in educating the sixteen-year-old Clari Leigh Hunt, who came to live with him shortly after Mary Ellen's death. Early in 1863 his health and spirits declined markedly, and for the next three years he saw few visitors except Thomas James Arnold. His death was apparently hastened by the shock of a fire that broke out in his house toward the end of 1865. In this crisis he retreated to his library and exclaimed to the local curate, who was urging him to take refuge elsewhere, 'By the immortal gods, I will not move!' (Nicolls, li). The fire was extinguished, but his already fragile health was badly shaken. He died in his sleep at Lower Halliford, Middlesex, on 23 January 1866 and was buried six days later in the new cemetery at Shepperton. The cause of death was certified as 'climacteric'. In a brief will dated 22 October 1864, he left his entire estate, valued at under £1500, to his adopted daughter ‘May’ Rosewell, who remained to nurse and comfort him to the end. His son, who was sufficiently provided for by an East India Company pension, survived him by less than a year. Peacock's library was sold at Sothebys on 11–12 June 1866.

Character, opinions, and reputation

Peacock's friend Thomas Taylor the Platonist always called him 'Greeky Peeky' (Nicolls, xxxviii), and it would be hard to find any prominent contemporary figure, other than Taylor himself, who identified as completely as Peacock did with the life and ideals of the ancient world. He embraced the teachings of Epicurus as 'the noblest philosophy of antiquity' and considered the Epicurean doctrine of pleasures and pains to be the ultimate source of Bentham's principle of general utility, or 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' (Moore's Epicurean, Works, 9.67, 46–9). In true Epicurean fashion, Peacock's tastes and pleasures were simple, like those of the Reverend Doctor Opimian in Gryll Grange: 'a good library, a good dinner, a pleasant garden, and rural walks' (Works, 5.19). Although many of his friends were writers, he disliked literary society, despised literary gossip, and tried hard to avoid notoriety—all the more so on account of the scandals involving Shelley and Byron. Even within his own family he was extremely reticent about his private affairs, and his reserve led some of his acquaintance to suspect him of coldness. Yet he was by all accounts a delightful companion, with a ready wit, a powerful memory, and a large fund of amusing anecdotes. In the words of Sir Edward Strachey, he was 'a kind-hearted, genial, friendly man, who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him', and was 'self-indulgent without being selfish' (Strachey, 22). Hobhouse found him, both in his private life and in his official capacity, 'a man of most scrupulous probity—and generous & just in all his dealings' (MS journal, 8 Jan 1847).

Peacock was remarkable not only for his acquirements as a self-educated scholar but for his range and versatility as a writer. Most of his early verse tends to confirm Shelley's observation that his friend was 'a nursling of the exact & superficial school in poetry' (Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2.126). However, his genuine poetic gifts are evident in a few personal lyrics, in the best of the songs scattered through his novels, and in Rhododaphne, which influenced Keats and won praise from Shelley, Byron, and Poe. Peacock's satiric tales fall naturally into two types—the conversation novels and the satiric romances—both of which stand well outside the main traditions of the English novel, offering little to the ordinary reader in the way of plot or character development. With their curious mixture of poetry and prose, fantasy and reality, abstract theory and common sense, they have clear affinities with the ancient genre of Menippean satire and evidently belong to the class of satiric fiction in which 'the characters are abstractions or embodied classifications, and the implied or embodied opinions the main matter of the work'—a class in which he placed 'the fictions of Aristophanes, Petronius Arbiter, Rabelais, Swift, and Voltaire' (French comic romances, Works, 9.258).

It is not easy to deduce Peacock's own opinions from his fictional dialogues, in which he told an admirer he had 'endeavoured to be impartial, and to say what could be said on both sides' (Letters, 2.425). Nowhere is the difficulty more apparent than in the running contrast between past and present that provides the central theme of his fiction. Because he so often satirizes the present in contrast with an idealized past, he has sometimes been mistaken for a reactionary and a pessimist, especially in his later years. But if a man is known by his associates, it must surely be significant that Peacock's friends were, almost without exception, either advanced liberals or radicals, though some of them became considerably more conservative, as he did, after 1830. When he satirized reformers in Crotchet Castle and Gryll Grange, it was due in part to the fact that their views had become the new orthodoxy, for he was by nature a contrarian in politics, telling Henry Cole that the 'predominant opinions of a community' were 'always a lie and a Tyranny' (MS journal, 8 April 1831). The general tendency of his satire remained liberal and progressive, even if he could not resist ridiculing his contemporaries for their complacency and their willingness to measure progress by advances in technology rather than by real improvement in the quality of physical, mental, and moral life. Robert Williams Buchanan, who visited Peacock in summer 1862, recognized that his negative stance was fundamentally an ironic pose: 'The pessimism which appears everywhere in his books was the daily theme of his talk; but to understand it rightly we must remember it was purely satiric—that, in truth, Peacock abused human nature because he loved it' (Buchanan, 244).

Peacock's reputation rests mainly on his seven novels, which have never been popular but have always found numerous admirers among readers with serious interests in literature and ideas. After suffering a marked decline in the late nineteenth century, his literary stock rose steadily in the twentieth. In the early twenty-first century he is widely regarded as the most distinctive prose satirist of the Romantic period and one of the most perceptive commentators on English intellectual life in his time.


  • The letters of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. N. A. Joukovsky, 2 vols. (2001) [incl. detailed chronology]
  • The works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones, 10 vols. (1924–34)
  • N. A. Joukovsky, ‘Peacock before Headlong Hall: a new look at his early years’, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 36 (1985), 1–40
  • C. Van Doren, The life of Thomas Love Peacock (1911)
  • E. Nicolls, ‘Biographical notice’, in The works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. H. Cole, 3 vols. (1875), 1.xxv–lii
  • [H. Cole], Thomas Love Peacock: biographical notes, from 1785 to 1862 (‘only ten copies printed’, [1874])
  • R. Buchanan, ‘Thomas Love Peacock: a personal reminiscence’, New Quarterly Magazine, 4 (1875), 238–55
  • E. Strachey, ‘Recollections of Thomas Love Peacock’, in T. L. Peacock, Calidore and miscellanea, ed. R. Garnett (1891), 15–23
  • K. N. Cameron, D. H. Reiman, and D. D. Fischer, eds., Shelley and his circle, 1773–1822, 10 vols. (1961–2002)
  • The letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F. L. Jones, 2 vols. (1964)
  • The letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. B. T. Bennett, 3 vols. (1980–88)
  • The Clairmont correspondence: letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, ed. M. K. Stocking, 2 vols. (1995)
  • The journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–1844, ed. P. R. Feldman and D. Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (1987)
  • The journals of Claire Clairmont, ed. M. K. Stocking and D. M. Stocking (1968)
  • H. Cole, journal, V&A NAL
  • J. C. Hobhouse, Baron Broughton, MS journal, BL
  • N. A. Joukovsky, ‘Thomas Love Peacock's manuscript “Poems” of 1804’, Studies in Bibliography, 47 (1994), 196–211
  • N. A. Joukovsky, ‘The lost Greek anapests of Thomas Love Peacock’, Modern Philology, 89 (1992), 363–74
  • N. A. Joukovsky, ‘A new “Little book” by Thomas Love Peacock’, Modern Philology, 85 (1988), 293–9
  • N. A. Joukovsky, ‘“A dialogue on idealities”: an unpublished manuscript of Thomas Love Peacock’, Yearbook of English Studies, 7 (1977), 128–40
  • L. Madden, ‘“Terrestrial paradise”: the Welsh dimension in Peacock's life and work’, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 36 (1985), 41–56
  • M. Butler, Peacock displayed: a satirist in his context (1979)


  • BL, letters, journal, and literary papers, Add. MSS 36815–36816
  • BL OIOC, steam navigation papers, L/MAR/C562–96
  • Harvard U., Houghton L.
  • NYPL, Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, papers
  • BL, literary MSS and corresp. with Lord Broughton, Add. MS 47225
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Mary Shelley
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to P. B. Shelley
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Whitton
  • NYPL, Berg collection
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Miss Fotheringham


  • R. Jean, miniature, watercolour, 1805, NPG
  • photograph, 1852, Wallis Estate; repro. in D. Johnson, The true story of the first Mrs Meredith and other lesser lives (New York, 1972)
  • Maull & Co., photograph, 1857, repro. in The works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. H. Cole, 3 vols. (1875) [see illus.]
  • H. Wallis, oils, 1858, NPG
  • photograph, 1861, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

under £1500: probate, 7 March 1866, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Victoria and Albert Museum National Art Library, London