“Nightmare Abbey” by Thomas Love Peacock

“Nightmare Abbey” by Thomas Love Peacock (1818) – 109 pages

Imagine a gathering of some of the most poetic and philosophical minds in England for a weekend in 1818.  There’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge (renamed Flosky), there’s Lord Byron (renamed Cypress) there’s Percy Blythe Shelley (renamed Scythrop), there’s Thomas Love Peacock (renamed Hilary).  Also at the gathering are a leading scientist (renamed Asturias), a religious leader (renamed Larynx), a philosopher (renamed Toobad), an exhausted intellectual (renamed Listless), and Shelley’s father (renamed Glowry) as well as a niece of Hilary (renamed Marionetta O’Carroll) and a daughter of Toobad (renamed Celinda, aka Stella).  Then imagine that Thomas Love Peacock wrote an affectionate satire of the gathering.  He actually did write this satire, and it is called “Nightmare Abbey”.  All of the main characters were based on real people, but some of the real people are no longer famous. 

 The gathering takes place at the Glowry (Shelley) mansion which is called Nightmare Abbey.  The drink of choice is Madiera wine, a drink they can all be enthusiastic about.  The conversation is about all the significant ideas, books, and events of the time including Kantian metaphysics, Manichaean philosophy, transcendentalism, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe, and the French Revolution.  The Romantic era was a somewhat gloomy time for intellectual thought, especially after France killed one tyrant Louis XVI only to replace him with worse tyrants Robespierre and Napoleon.  The optimism of the Classical era was gone.

    “A Frenchman is born in harness, ready saddled, bitted, and bridled for any tyrant to ride. He will fawn under his rider one moment, and throw him and kick him to death the next; but another adventurer springs on his back, and by dint of whip and spur on he goes as before. We may, without much vanity, hope better of ourselves.” – Scythrop

The youngest man at this party is Scythrop (Percy Blythe Shelley), and much of “Nightmare Abbey” is devoted to his romantic attachments, plural.  Marionetta plays him like a harpsichord, showing an inverse amount of interest in him as he is showing in her.  Thus when he is warm toward her, she is cool, and when he is cool toward her she is warm.  Then there is Stella who is passionate and rich and on vacation from her education at a German convent.

Meanwhile the scientist Asturias is on the hunt for a mermaid which at one point he spots in the mansion’s moat.

“Nightmare Abbey” resembles a period play with its set pieces and highly-worked dialogue more than a naturalistic novel.  One gets the sense that Peacock is being a little hard on especially the Coleridge character (Flosky) who can take any clear idea and cloud it with too many words.  Flosky “never gave a plain answer to a question in my life.”  But Peacock’s satire is all in good fun, and I doubt if any of the real people who were at this gathering were offended. 

Thomas Love Peacock

“Nightmare Abbey” is filled with ideas, interesting characters, and parodic situations.  It is a veritable grab-bag of everything that was going on in intellectual circles around 1818.  I read this book once and listened to it on audio twice in order to fully appeciate it.  This novel is definitely not for everyone because there are tons of obscure references, but I enjoyed reading a novel that has too much going on rather than too little. It’s really not necessary to understand all of the references to appreciate this novel. The Romantic era in England was quite unknown to me, and this novel was a humorous and likeable introduction to this era. 

In case you are wondering, Jane Austen was still mostly unknown at this time, and there is no evidence that Thomas Love Peacock had heard of her. 

“Nightmare Abbey” is available free in MP3 audiobook form at Books Should be Free.  “Nightmare Abbey” is ranked number 11 on The Observer’s list of the “Top One Hundred Novels of all Time”.

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