Forgotten Author: No 62 - Thomas Love Peacock

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The Independent Culture

To say that Thomas Love Peacock is an acquired taste is something of an understatement.

The English satirist was born in 1785 in a naval family. He moved to London in his teens, became a city clerk, and taught himself poetry at the British Museum's Reading Room. Earning his crust as a private secretary to a naval fleet commander, he began to make a serious study of French, Italian and English literature. His minor poems (including one long one about the Thames, which he loved all his life) brought him to the attention of Shelley, who recognised his virtues as a Romantic classicist. They remained close friends until the latter's death in 1822. Peacock also wrote a series of seven satirical novels which remain impossible to categorise.

For a satirist Peacock is remarkably good-natured, but his novels are rambling, vague and highly peculiar. So why should we remember him? Probably because there really is no one else quite like him; Nightmare Abbey (1818) is what you might get if you removed the plot from Gormenghast and crossed it with Ronald Firbank's The Flower Beneath the Foot. The result is a novel so abstruse and witty and disconnected from everything that it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words.

Of Dante, the Honourable Mr Listless says: "I find he is becoming fashionable, and I'm afraid I must read him some wet morning," before his companions launch into complaints that the reading public "shun the solid food of reason for the light diet of fiction". Then follows a long argument about writing and mermaids, ending with a song. It's that kind of book. Crotchet Castle, written 13 years later, functions as a companion piece, and both lapse into theatrical dialogue packed with aphorisms when Peacock can't be bothered to scene-set anymore.

His tales have no structure, thin characters, little human interest, and usually consist of people sitting around tables discussing the intellectual topics of the day. Yet there's something here that can keep you reading. Peacock's books are a window to the past, and we feel we are eavesdropping on the kind of drunken, heady conversations that English intellectuals have had in pubs for centuries.

After the death of his mother, the inconsolable author stopped writing for a quarter of a century, returning for a late finish before dying from injuries sustained while trying to save his library from a fire.