Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Peacock, Thomas Love

PEACOCK, THOMAS LOVE (1785–1866), novelist, poet, and official of the East India Company, was born at Weymouth, Dorset, on 18 Oct. 1785. His father, Samuel Peacock, who left him an orphan at the age of three, was a glass merchant in London; his mother, Sarah Love, was daughter of Thomas Love, master in the navy, who had lost a leg in Rodney's great victory over De Grasse in 1782. Mrs. Peacock, a woman of vigorous character, who sympathised with her son's literary pursuits, went to live with her father at Chertsey, and Peacock received his education at a school kept by a Mr. Wicks at Englefield Green. At sixteen he removed with his mother to London, and was engaged in some mercantile occupation, which he did not long prosecute. His time was employed in study, without apparently any ulterior object, and he made himself an excellent classical scholar and a proficient in French and Italian. His means allowed him to publish in 1804 and 1806 two small volumes of poetry, ‘The Monks of St. Mark’ and ‘Palmyra.’ In 1807 he contracted an engagement with a young lady unnamed, broken off, it is stated, ‘through the underhand interference of a third person,’ an event speedily followed by the young lady's marriage to another, and her death. Peacock's grief was not demonstrative, but its sincerity is attested by some beautiful lines written as late as 1842. In the winter of 1808–9 he officiated as secretary to Sir Home Riggs Popham [q. v.] on board the fleet before Flushing, an uncongenial situation which his friends had probably procured for him, in the hopes of its leading to a permanent appointment. Still an idle man, though always an industrious student, he spent a great part of 1810 and 1811 in North Wales, publishing meanwhile, in 1810, a new and more ambitious poetical effort, ‘The Genius of the Thames.’ While in Wales he made the acquaintance of his future wife, Jane Gryffydh, whose personality and family relations he seems to have shadowed forth in his fragmentary romance, ‘Sir Calidore.’ The heroines of his other fictions are commonly adumbrations of his early love. In 1812 he published another poem, ‘The Philosophy of Melancholy,’ and in the same year was introduced to Shelley by his publisher, Thomas Hookham, then proprietor of an extensive circulating library, who lent books to Shelley and sold them for Peacock. There is no trace for some time of any peculiar closeness of intimacy, but in the winter of 1813 Peacock accompanied Shelley and Harriet on their visit to Edinburgh, which he is said to have prompted. In 1814, in which year Peacock published a satirical ballad, ‘Sir Proteus,’ which appeared under the pseudonym ‘P. M. O'Donovan, Esq.,’ Shelley resorted to him during the agitation of mind which preceded his separation from Harriet, and after his return from the continent Peacock was an almost daily visitor. By the time that Shelley had taken up his residence at Bishopsgate, near Windsor (September 1815), Peacock had settled at Great Marlow, and spent great part of the winter in visiting Shelley. When Shelley settled at Great Marlow, after his return from the continent in the autumn of 1816, Peacock's intimacy with him continued very close; but, as Peacock still declined to follow any profession (‘he seems an idly inclined man,’ writes Charles Clairmont; ‘indeed, he is professedly so in the summer’), it is not surprising that Shelley's munificence had to be resorted to. Peacock for a time received from Shelley a pension, which he may have more than repaid if, as Miss Mitford affirms, he was put into requisition to keep off wholly unauthorised intruders upon Shelley's hospitable household. Peacock was consulted respecting the alterations in Shelley's ‘Laon and Cythna,’ and Peacock's enthusiasm for Greek poetry undoubtedly exercised a most beneficial influence upon the poet. Something of Shelley's influence upon Peacock may be traced in the latter's poem of ‘Rhododaphne, or the Thessalian Spell,’ published in 1818; it is much superior to his other elaborate compositions, and Shelley wrote a eulogistic review of it just before his final departure for Italy. The friends' agreement for mutual correspondence produced Shelley's magnificent descriptive letters from Italy, which otherwise might never have been written.

Peacock had meanwhile discovered the true field for his literary gift in the satiric novel, interspersed with delightful lyrics, amorous, narrative, or convivial. ‘Headlong Hall’ was published in 1816, ‘Melincourt’ in 1817, ‘Nightmare Abbey’ in 1818. ‘Calidore’ was begun about this time, but never completed. These brilliant prose extravaganzas, overflowing with humour both of dialogue and situation, obtained a certain vogue. ‘Headlong Hall’ went through two editions; ‘Melincourt’ was translated into French. They cannot, however, have been productive of much profit.

Peacock told Shelley that ‘he did not find this brilliant summer,’ of 1818, ‘very favourable to intellectual exertion;’ but before it was quite over ‘rivers, castles, forests, abbeys, monks, maids, kings, and banditti were all dancing before me like a masked ball.’ He was, in fact, writing his romance of ‘Maid Marian,’ which he had completed with the exception of the last three chapters when, at the beginning of 1819, he was unexpectedly summoned to London to undergo a probation for an appointment in the India House. The East India Company had seen the necessity of reinforcing their staff with men of talent, and had summoned to their service James Mill and three others, among whom Peacock was included at the recommendation of Peter Auber, the historian of the company. His test papers earned the high commendation, ‘Nothing superfluous and nothing wanting.’ The amount of his entrance salary is not stated, but it justified him in marrying in the following year ‘his Carnarvonshire nymph,’ Jane Gryffydh, daughter of the vicar of Elwys Vach, whom he had thought in 1811 ‘the most innocent, the most amiable, the most beautiful girl in existence,’ but whom he had never seen since. He proposed by letter, and was accepted. ‘The affair,’ remarked Shelley, ‘is extremely like the dénouement of one of your own novels.’ His mother continued to live with him in Stamford Street, Blackfriars; a few years later he acquired a country residence at Lower Halliford, near Shepperton, Middlesex, constructed out of two old cottages, where he could gratify the love of the Thames, which was with him as strong a partiality as his zest for classical literature. In 1820 he contributed to Ollier's ‘Literary Pocket Book’ ‘The Four Ages of Poetry,’ which provoked Shelley's ‘Defence of Poetry.’ The official duties of the India House delayed the completion and publication of ‘Maid Marian’ until 1822, and the delay occasioned its being taken for an imitation of ‘Ivanhoe,’ although its composition had, in fact, preceded Scott's novel. It was almost immediately dramatised by Planché.

Peacock's life from this period is almost devoid of any but official and literary incidents. He displayed great ability in business and in the drafting of official papers. In 1829 he began to devote attention to steam navigation, and drew up a valuable memorandum for General Chesney's Euphrates expedition, which was praised both by Chesney and Lord Ellenborough. He opposed the employment of steamers on the Red Sea, but this was probably in deference to the supposed interests of the company. In 1839 and 1840 war steamers were constructed under his superintendence which doubled the Cape, and took an honourable part in the Chinese war. He frequently appeared as the company's champion before parliamentary committees, especially in 1834, when he resisted James Silk Buckingham's claim to compensation for his expulsion from the East Indies, and in 1836, when he defeated the attack of the Liverpool merchants and Cheshire manufacturers upon the Indian salt monopoly. In the latter year Peacock succeeded James Mill as chief examiner, holding this post until 1856, when he retired in favour of John Stuart Mill [q. v.]

Despite his absorption in official labours, he produced in 1829 the delightful tale of ‘The Misfortunes of Elphin,’ founded upon Welsh traditions, and in 1831 ‘Crotchet Castle,’ perhaps the most brilliant of his writings. The death of his mother in 1833 greatly shook him; he said himself that he never wrote anything with interest afterwards. In 1837 appeared his lightsome ‘Paper Money Lyrics and other Poems’ (only one hundred copies printed), but this was ‘written in the winter of 1825–6, during the prevalence of an influenza to which the beautiful fabric of paper-credit is periodically subject.’ Towards the period of his retirement from the India office he began to contribute to ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ and in that periodical appeared his entertaining and scholarly ‘Horæ Dramaticæ,’ and his reminiscences of Shelley. Shelley's admirers were annoyed at their apparent coldness, and not without reason; but want of personal knowledge disabled them from taking Peacock's idiosyncrasies into due account, and there could be no question of the extreme value of the appendix of Shelley's letters which he added in 1860. In the same year he gave a remarkable instance of vigour by the publication in ‘Fraser’ of ‘Gryll Grange,’ his last novel. The exuberant humour of his former works is indeed wanting, but the book is delightful from its stores of anecdote and erudition, and unintentionally most amusing through the author's inveterate prejudices and pugnacious hostility to every modern innovation. The last products of his pen were two translations, ‘Gl' Ingannati. The Deceived:’ a comedy, performed at Siena in 1851; and ‘Ælia Lælia Crispis,’ of which a limited edition was circulated in 1862. He died at Halliford on 23 Jan. 1866. His wife had died in 1852. Only one of his four children, a son, survived him, and he for less than a year; but he left several grandchildren.

Peacock's character is well delineated in few words by Sir Edward Strachey: ‘A kind-hearted, genial, friendly man, who loved to share his enjoyment of life with all around him, and self-indulgent without being selfish.’ He is a rare instance of a man improved by prosperity; an element of pedantry and illiberality in his earlier writings gradually disappears in genial sunshine, although, with the advance of age, obstinate prejudice takes its place, good humoured, but unamenable to argument. The vigour of his mind is abundantly proved by his successful transaction of the uncongenial commercial and financial business of the East India Company; and his novels, their quaint prejudices apart, are almost as remarkable for their good sense as for their wit. But for this penetrating sagacity, constantly brought to bear upon the affairs of life, they would seem mere humorous extravaganzas, being farcical rather than comic, and almost entirely devoid of plot and character. They overflow with merriment from end to end, though the humour is frequently too recondite to be generally appreciated, and their style is perfect. They owe much of their charm to the simple and melodious lyrics with which they are interspersed, a striking contrast to the frigid artificiality of Peacock's more ambitious attempts in poetry. As a critic, he was sensible and sound, but neither possessed nor appreciated the power of his contemporaries, Shelley and Keats, to reanimate classical myths by infusion of the modern spirit. His works have been edited by Sir Henry Cole in 1873, and by the present writer in 1891; neither edition is entirely complete. Four of the novels—‘Headlong Hall,’ ‘Nightmare Abbey,’ ‘Maid Marian,’ and ‘Crotchet Castle’—form vol. lvii. of Bentley's ‘Standard Novels,’ published in 1837. A photographic portrait, representing him in old age, is inserted in both editions of his works, and the edition of 1891 has, too, a youthful portrait.

[Memoirs by the present writer and by Sir Henry Cole prefixed to their respective editions of Peacock's writings. The latter has also an essay by Lord Houghton, and personal reminiscences by Mrs. Clarke, Peacock's granddaughter. Recollections by Sir Edward Strachey, bart., in vol. x. of Garnett's edition; Shelley's letters to Peacock, and his biographers in general; James Spedding in Edinburgh Review, vol. lxviii.; James Hannay in North British Review, vol. xlv.; R. W. Buchanan in New Quarterly Mag. vol. iv.; George Saintsbury in Macmillan's Mag. vol. liii.]

R. G.