Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey
by Thomas Love Peacock
Peacock, a friend of Shelley, is mostly known for books like these: light comedies structured around dialogues between characters standing in for people like Shelley, or Coleridge, or Byron. Or so I’d always heard. I was happy to find these books had more to them than just a roman à clef. Peacock’s got an understated sense of structure that makes his work feel taut, and a feel for humour writing — by which I mean that you don’t just get laughs out of the books, but you’re pulled on by sheer amusement to find out what happens next.
That said, these books do feel a bit thin. Partly that’s because the characters are (deliberately) very broad — so much so that a complex figure like Shelley can be playfully satirised by two differerent characters in Headlong Hall, each representing different aspects of his personality and thought. But the thinness also comes from the style in which Peacock writes, where action is described very simply and pictorial description hardly appears at all. In other words, stylistically similar to old metrical romances.
That said, though broadly similar, these two novels (the edition I have put them in a single volume) are very dissimilar. If you step back and look at the overall plot structure of Headlong Hall, it’s actually a pleasing romantic comedy in an almost classic sense. A group of unlikely characters gather in an isolated spot; a young man pursues a young woman’s favour; she takes against him, and may end up married to a pedantic older man (a satirical take on Coleridge); various zanies and guests add to the chaos; at the end the slightly-buffoonish-yet-patriarchal lord sets things to right, almost by accident. Plot-wise, you could easily imagine this adapted to stage or film. As a novel, though, it proceeds almost entirely through those dialogues, which don’t always move the story along. In fact, the story can come to seem an appendix to the dialogue, which is a shame, as the matter of the story is nicely-turned in its own right.
Nightmare Abbey’s a different creature in a lot of ways. Written by Peacock for Shelley as a comment on Shelley's romantic affairs, the lead’s a charmingly emo-goth take on Shelley (“He built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species ... He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves. He passed whole mornings in his study, immersed in gloomy reverie, stalking about the room in his nightcap, which he pulled over his eyes like a cowl, and folding his striped calico dressing-gown about him like the mantle of a conspirator”). He ends up having to choose between versions of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and an amusingly humourless Mary Godwin (Peacock thought Shelley should stick with Westbrook). It’s far more cynical than Headlong Hall, and arguably less predictable. I think it’s less perfectly structured, but the characters are more engaging, and since the dialogues are really the main features of these books, that means it feels more lively than Headlong Hall. Both books, incidentally, feature a romantic triangle between a young woman, a Shelley-analogue, and a Coleridge-analogue; the different ways the triangles resolve say something about the different spirits animating the two tales.
On the whole, both books are enjoyable. The style’s brisk, and humour still sharp and direct, and there’s an amiability to them that’s still pleasing after two centuries.