By Ana Stevenson
The second Romantic Novels 1817 Seminar, which took place on Friday 10 March 2017, welcomed Dr Freya Johnston to the University of Greenwich to explore Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt (1817). Dr Johnston is a fellow and lecturer in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. As the general editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, Dr Johnston and her team will soon be publishing a new edition of Peacock’s novel in question, which has been out of print since 1924-1934.
The seminar was suitable for those who were recently introduced to Melincourt as well as to those well-acquainted with Peacock’s works and themes. Dr Johnston provided a superb introduction to the text while broadening the main topics present in this novel, allowing each attendee to further discuss aspects that connect Peacock’s fiction with his very private life.
Thomas Love Peacock never called his writing novels; they were prose fiction, romances, satires that resemble a dinner party conversation, with little restriction of time and space. The Literary Gazette saw Peacock mixing a variety of types of prose fiction, but could not define it as one specific kind. His disregard for generic categories of writing and expectations of genre is clear through his choice of title: Melincourt does not provide the reader with an idea of theme. Peacock purposely excluded the word “Castle” as he believed that this could give the wrong impression of it being a Gothic novel.
The plot follows a variety of characters. The heroine, Anthelia Melincourt, was raised in a secluded castle by a father who ignored the norms of society and aimed to educate her as an equal to men. She represents several Romantic ideals, displaying her love for nature and intellectual beauty. Upon her father’s death, Anthelia becomes an eligible match, desired by many suitors who proceed to visit Melincourt Castle upon Mrs Pinmoney’s invitation. Anthelia invites an old friend of her father’s, Mr Hippy, who serves as a host at Melincourt – both the castle and story – allowing her to interact with the visitors on her own terms, and taking advantage of the situation to survey the room and to survey the modern manners on display.
One of the visitors expected at the castle is Sir Telegraph, Mrs Pinmoney’s cousin. On his way to Melincourt he encounters an old college friend, Mr Forester, the least satirised character, and the one who presents the reader with most of Peacock’s pro-reform views. Mr Forester is accompanied by Sir Oran, an orangutan brought to England from Angola who was taught how to behave like a man. Mr Forester bought him a baronetcy and half of an elective franchise, intending to get Sir Oran to parliament. He represents what is believed to be a different variety of human species, one that is not corrupted by the norms of society. Sir Oran is given many qualities to make up for his lack of speech. He acts as he feels in order to express himself and is whatever people need him to be.
Anthelia and Sir Oran’s encounter brings all the characters together, allowing us to explore their dispositions and interactions. As tempting as it may be to link figures like Southey, Malthus, and even Peacock himself with his fiction, the author desired that readers should avoid personal allusions in regards to his characters, who were created to represent certain groups of people, with names that reflect their disposition and give no space for change or progress within their roles. They speak through a variety of sources, which are pointed to by Peacock in his footnotes. Freya Johnston pointed out that the bureaucratic aspects of his primary occupation as an official for the East India Company are clear in his use of notes to validate his points.
The story also relies heavily on dialogues, which gives the novel aspects of a dinner party conversation. Peacock’s desire to separate his personal life from his fictional work seem to be extended to the political views expressed in Melincourt; it is unclear if the ideas celebrated by less satirised characters such as Mr Forester reflected Peacock’s own life. However, it is clear that some of these views were inspired by his close friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was quick to praise Melincourt and the ideas expressed within it.
One of the recurring subjects in Peacock’s novel is the consumption of sugar, which is presented as a symbol of consumerism with little care for the origins or means of production. Some characters may understand that sugar is produced by slave labour, but they are not willing to abstain from this delicacy which not only provides them with a luxury good but also with status. With that being said, Johnston argued that the only point where we see certain characters changing their opinions is when Mr Forester convinces them to boycott the sugar commerce and join his Antisaccharine Society by attending a festival at Redrose Abbey where a luxurious meal is prepared without the addition of sugar. It is unknown if Peacock himself abstained from the use of sugar, though Shelley did.
Other themes explored in Melincourt are the dangers of paper-money, the value of chivalry, the boundaries between humans and animals, progress, and parliamentary problems. In his own style, Peacock satirises the unreformed parliamentary system and the corruption reigning within it. He blames the general misery of the English people on unjust political and economic systems. He express pro-reform views, but does not specify the particular aspects that he believes should be changed, nor how this could be done.
In regards to the motif of progress, it is presented to us once again by Mr Forester, whose conversations are still somehow modern and relatable. Although specific ideas have changed, their essence can still be found now. Debates about labour are still present in our society, as are those about corruption, poverty, inequality, and consumerism. In a world where a single individual may appear unimportant, we are reminded that a person alone may not be able to achieve global progress towards what they perceive to be good. However, importantly, a tale by Homer retold by Mr Forester reminds us that those who persist in their choices add to a greater number, revealing that a group in search of goodness is not so small and unimportant after all.
The next ‘Romantic Novels 1817’ seminar will take place on Thursday 18 May, at 6pm, at the University of Greenwich (Queen Mary Court, Room 263). It will focus on William Godwin’s Mandeville and will be led by Dr Jenny McAuley (QMUL).