Gryll Grange, the last and mellowest fruit from Peacock’s tree, was, like most mellow fruit, not matured hastily. In saying this I do not refer to the long period — exactly a generation in the conventional sense — which intervened between Crotchet Castle of 1831 and this of 1861. For we know as a matter of fact, from the preface to the 1856 edition of Melincourt, that Peacock was planning Gryll Grange at a time considerably nearer to, but still some years from, its actual publication.
There might perhaps have been room for fear lest such a proceeding, on the part of a man of seventy-five who was living in retirement, should result in an ill-digested mass of detail, tempered or rather distempered by the grumbling of old age, and exhibiting the marks of failing powers. No anticipation could have been more happily falsified. The advance in good temper of Gryll Grange, even upon Crotchet Castle itself, is denied by no one. The book, though long for its author, is not in the least overloaded; and no signs of failure have ever been detected in it except by those who upbraid the still further severance between the line of Peacock’s thought and the line of what is vulgarly accounted ‘progress,’ and who almost openly impute decay to powers no longer used on their side but against them. The only plausible pretext for this insinuation is that very advance in mildness and mellowness which has been noted — that comparative absence of the sharper and cruder strokes of the earlier work. But since the wit is as bright as ever, though less hard, it seems unreasonable to impute as a defect what, but for very obvious reasons, would be admitted as an improvement.
Except Brougham, who still comes in for some severe language, no one of Peacock’s old favourite abominations undergoes personal chastisement. On the contrary, indirect but pretty distinct apology is tendered to Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge by appreciative citation of their work. Even among the general victims, Scotchmen and political economists have a still more direct olive-branch extended to them by the introduction of the personage of Mr. MacBorrowdale: there is no more blasphemy of Scott: and I do not at the present moment remember any very distinct slaps at paper money. Peace had been made long ago with the Church of England, through the powerful medium of Dr. Folliott; but it is ratified and cemented anew here not merely by the presentation of Dr. Opimian, but (in rather an odd fashion perhaps) by the trait of Falconer’s devotion to St. Catharine. So also, as the fair hand of Lady Clarinda, despite some hard knocks administered to her father and brother, had beckoned Peacock away from his cut-and-dried satire of the aristocracy, so now Lord Curryfin exhibits a further stage of reconciliation. In short, all those elements of society to which very young men, not wanting either in brains or heart, often take crude and fanciful objection, had by this time approved themselves (as they always do, with the rarest exceptions, to les âmes bien nées) at worst graceful if unnecessary ornaments to life, at best valuable to the social fabric as solid and all but indispensable buttresses of it.
In all these ‘reconciliations and forgivenesses of injuries,’ however, it is very important to observe that there is no mawkishness; and, whatever may have been sometimes thought and said, there is no ‘ratting in the real sense. As must be obvious to any attentive reader of the novels, and as has been pointed out once or twice before in these introductions, Peacock had at no time been anything like an enrolled, much less a convinced, member of the Radical or any party. He may have been a Republican in his youth, though for my part I should like more trustworthy evidence for it than that of Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a very clever but a distinctly unscrupulous person. If he was — and it is not at all improbable that he had the Republican measles, a very common disease of youth, pretty early — he certainly had never been a democrat. Even his earlier satire is double-edged; and, as must be constantly repeated and remembered, it was always his taste and his endeavour to shoot folly as it flew, to attack existent and not extinct forms of popular or fashionable delusion. Such follies, whether in 1860 or since, have certainly not as a rule been of the aristocratic, monarchical, or Tory order generally.
He found plenty of these follies, however, in the other kind — the kind which he had begun to satirise smartly in Crotchet Castle — and he showed pretty decisively that his hand had not lost its cunning, nor his sword its sharpness. The satire, though partly, is not mainly political; and it is an interesting detail (though it only refreshes the memory of those who knew the facts then or have studied them since) that barely she years before a far more sweeping reform than that of 1832, a very acute judge who disliked and resisted it spoke of ‘another reform lunacy’ as ‘not likely to arise in his time.’ And these words, it must be remembered, are put in the mouth of Mr. MacBorrowdale, who is represented as merely middle-aged.
It is fortunate, however, for the interest of Gryll Grange that politics, in the strict sense, occupy so small a part of it; for of all subjects they lose interest first to all but a very select number of readers. The bulk of the satiric comment of the book is devoted either to purely social matters, or to the debateable land between these and politics proper. A little but not very much of this is obsolete or obsolescent. American slavery is no more; and the ‘Pantopragmatic Society’ (in official language the Social Science Congress) has ceased to exist as a single recognised institution. But there is not much about slavery here, and if pantopragmatics have lost their special Society they flourish more than ever as a general and fashionable subject of human attention. You shall not open a number of the Times twice, perhaps not once in a week, without finding columns of debate, harangue, or letter-writing purely pantopragmatical.
Still more is this the case with another subject which has even more attention, and on which what some think the central and golden sentence of the book is laid down by Dr. Opimian in the often-quoted words, ‘If all the nonsense which in the last quarter of a century [it is appalling to think that this quarter is getting on for three-quarters now] has been talked on all other subjects were thrown into one scale, and all that has been talked on the subject of Education alone were thrown into the other, I think the latter would preponderate.’ Indeed it cannot be said that after nearly five-and-thirty years, up to and including the present moment, during which Competitive Examination has been a field of battle, much has been added to Peacock’s attack on it, or anything said on the other side to weaken the cogency of that attack. No doubt he was to some extent a prejudiced judge; for, though few people would at any time of his youth have had less to fear from competitive examination, his own fortune had been made by the opposite system, and the competitive scheme must infallibly tend rather to exclude than to admit persons like him. But a wise criticism does not ask cut bone in cases of argument, it simply looks to see whether the advocacy is sound, not whether the advocate has received or expects his fee. And Peacock’s advocacy is here not merely sound; it is, in so far as it goes, inexpugnable. It is true there is a still more irrefragable rejoinder to it which has kept competition safe hitherto, though for obvious reasons it will very rarely be found openly expressed by the defenders of the system; and that is, that, under the popular jealousy resulting from wide or universal suffrage, there is no alternative but competitive examination, or else the American system of alternating spoils to the victors, which is demonstrably worse for the public, and not demonstrably much better for private interests.
As for table-turning, and lectures, and the ‘excess of hurrying about,’ and ‘Siberian’ dinners and so forth, they are certainly not dead. Table-turning may have changed its name; the others have not even adopted the well-known expedient of the alias, but appear just as they were thirty years ago in the social and satiric dictionaries of today.
It would be odd if this comparative freshness and actuality of subject did not make Gryll Grange one of the lightest and brightest of Peacock’s novels; and I think it fully deserves that description. But it would be doing it extremely scant justice to allow any one to suppose that its attractions consist solely, or even mainly, in ‘valuable thoughts’ and expressions of sense, satire, and scholarship (to combine Wordsworth with Warrington). In lighter respects, in respects of form and movement, and it is absolutely impossible that he should have been an Evangelical.
We must not dismiss without some special mention the episode — though it is not properly an episode, inasmuch as it has throughout an important connection with the working of the story — of ‘Aristophanes in London.’ This has sometimes been adversely criticised as not sufficiently antique — which seems to overlook the obvious retort that if it had been more so it could not by any possibility have been sufficiently modern. Those who know something of Aristophanes and something of London may doubt whether it could have established the nexus much better. I have elsewhere pointed out the curious connection with Mansel’s Phrontisterion, which was considerably earlier in date, and with the sentiments of which Peacock would have been in the heartiest agreement. But it is extremely unlikely that he ever saw it. His antipathy to the English universities appears to have been one of the most enduring of his crazes, probably because it was always the most unreasonable; and though there is no active renewal of hostilities in this novel (or none of importance), it is noticeable there is also no direct or indirect palinode as there is in most other cases. As for the play itself, it seems to me very good. Miss Gryll must have looked delightful as Circe (we get a more distinct description of her personality here than anywhere else), Gryllus has an excellent standpoint, and the dialogue, though unequal, is quite admirable at the best. Indeed there is a Gilbertian tone about the whole piece which I should be rather more surprised at being the first to note, so far as I know, if I were not pretty well prepared to find that the study of the average dramatic critic is not much in Peacock. The choric trochees (which by the way is a tautology) are of the highest excellence, especially the piece beginning —
‘As before the pike will fly’
in which Coeur-deLion’s discomfiture of the ‘septemvirate of quacks’ is hymned; and the finale is quite Attic. I do not know whether the thing has ever been attempted as an actual show. Though rather exacting in its machinery, it ought to have been.
The novel is rather full of other verse, but except ‘Love and Age’— so often mentioned, but never to be mentioned enough for its strange and admirable commixture of sense and sentiment, of knowledge of the heart and knowledge of life — this is not of the first class for Peacock, certainly not worthy to be ranked with the play. ‘The Death of Philemon’ is indeed a beautiful piece in its first half; the second were better ‘cut’ ‘The Dappled Palfrey,’ a very charming fabliau in the original, chiefly suggests the superiority of Lochinvar to which it is a sort of counterpart and complement. ‘The New Order of Chivalry’ with a good deal of truth has also a good deal of illiberality; and, amusing as it is, is a relapse into Peacock’s old vein of almost insolent personality. Sir Moses Montefiore and Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy did not deserve, though they might afford to despise, the sort of cheap rallying here applied to them; and might have retaliated, not without point, on persons who drew large salaries at the India House, with frequent additional gratifications, and stood up for ‘chivalry’ in their leisure moments. And ‘The Legend of St Laura’ is not first rate. But the Italian translations make us wish for more of the same.
On the whole, however, though we may like some things more and some less here, I cannot conceive the whole being otherwise than delightful to any person of knowledge, sense, and taste. And as we close Peacock’s novels there is this interesting though rather melancholy thought that we ‘close the book’ in more senses than one. They have never been imitated save afar off; and even the far-off imitations have not been very satisfactory. The English Muse seems to have set, at the joining of the old and new ages, this one person with the learning and tastes of the ancestors, with the irreverent criticism of the moderns, to comment on the transition; and, having fashioned him, to have broken the mould.
Opinion governs all mankind,
Like the blind leading of the blind:—
And like the world, men’s jobbemoles
Turn round upon their ears the poles,
And what they’re confidently told
By no sense else can be controll’d.
In the following pages the New Forest is always mentioned as if it were still unenclosed. This is the only state in which the Author has been acquainted with it. Since its enclosure, he has never seen it, and purposes never to do so.
The mottoes are sometimes specially apposite to the chapters to which they are prefixed; but more frequently to the general scope, or, to borrow a musical term, the motivo of the operetta.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59