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The Thinking Man’s Novel

Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context

by Marilyn Butler
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 361 pp., $18.50

What is a novel for? To be read is the simple answer. But since fewer and fewer people want to read novels (as opposed to what the conglomerate-publishers call “category fiction”), it might be a good idea to take a look at what is being written, and why; at what is being read, and why.

In Ideas and the Novel Mary McCarthy notes that since the time of Henry James, the serious novel has dealt in a more and more concentrated—if not refined—way with the moral relations of characters who resemble rather closely the writer and his putative reader. It is not, she says, that people actually write Jamesian novels; rather, “The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.” In addition, for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention.

During the last fifty years, the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life. It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. It should also be noted that the tone of the Serious Novel is always solemn and often vatic. Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American, which is to say positive. For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.

Virginia Woolf thought that the Victorian novelists “created their characters mainly through dialogue.” Then, somehow, “the sense of an audience” was lost. “Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr. Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest—the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.”

Today’s Serious Novel is not well lit. The characters do, say, and think ordinary things, as they confront those problems that the serious writer must face in his everyday life. Since the serious novel is written by middle-class, middle-brow whites, political activists, intellectuals, members of the ruling classes, blacks seldom make appearances in these books, except as the odd flasher.

Predictably, despite the reflexive support of old-fashioned editors and book-reviewers, the Serious Novel is of no actual interest to anyone, including the sort of people who write them: they are apt to read Agatha Christie, if they read at all. But then this is an old story. In 1859, Nathaniel Hawthorne, having just perpetrated that “moonshiny Romance” (his own phrase) The Marble Faun, wrote to his publisher: “It is odd enough, moreover, that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write.” Sensible man, he preferred Trollope to himself. Nevertheless, in a sort of void, Serious Novels continue to be published and praised, but they are not much read.

What is a novel for, if it is not to be read? Since the rise of modernism a century ago—is there anything quite as old or as little changed as modern literature? The notion of the artist as saint and martyr, reviled and ignored in his own time, has had a powerful appeal to many writers and teachers. Echoing Stendhal, the ambitious artist will write not for the people of his own day but for the residents of the next century—on the peculiar ground that the sort of reader who preferred Paul de Kock to Stendhal in the nineteenth century and Barbara Cartland to Iris Murdoch in our own will have developed an exquisite sensibility by the year 2080. These innocents seem not to understand that posterity is a permanent darkness where no whistle sounds. It is reasonable to assume that, by and large, what is not read now will not be read, ever. It is also reasonable to assume that practically nothing that is read now will be read later. Finally, it is not too farfetched to imagine a future in which novels are not read at all. But, for the present, if a Serious Novel is not going to be read, it can always be taught—if it is so made as to be more teacherly than readerly. Further, if the serious student keeps on going to school and acquiring degrees, he will find that not only is his life enhanced by the possession of tools with which to crack the code of rich arcane texts but he will also be able to earn a living by teaching others to teach books written to be taught. Admittedly, none of this has much to do with literature but, as a way of life, it is a lot easier than many other—phrase? Service-orientated Fields.

Although there is no reason why the universities should not take over the Serious Novel and manufacture it right on campus, there are signs that the magistri ludi of Academe are now after more glorious game. Suddenly, simultaneously, on many campuses and in many states, a terrible truth has become self-evident. The true study of English studies in English studies. If this truth is true, then the novel can be dispensed with. As our teachers begin to compose their so-called “charters,” setting forth powerful new theories of English studies, complete with graphs and startling neologisms, the dream of the truly ambitious schoolteacher will be fulfilled and the interpreter-theorist will replace the creator as culture hero.

Meanwhile, in the real world—you take the elevator to the mezzanine, and turn left; you can’t miss it—what sort of novels are still read, voluntarily, by people who will not be graded on what they have read?

Conglomerate-publishers are a good consumer guide, catering, as they do, to a number of different, not always contiguous publics: Gothic stories, spy thrillers, Harlequin romances…each genre has its measurable public. Occasionally, books are written which appear to fit a genre but transcend it because they are works of the imagination, dealing with the past or the future; with alternative worlds. Although these books cannot be truly serious because they are not, literally, true, there is no serious American novelist who can write as well or as originally (not a recommendation, perhaps) as John Fowles or William Golding, two English writers whose works are often read outside institutions. Yet neither Fowles nor Golding is taken with any great seriousness by American schoolteachers. Fowles is regarded as a sort of Daphne du Maurier with grammar while Golding is known as the author of a book that the young once fancied—and so was taught in the lower grades. For reasons that have to do with the origins of the United States, Americans will never accept any literature that does not plainly support the prejudices and aspirations of a powerful and bigoted middle class which is now supplementing its powerful churches with equally powerful universities where what is said and thought and imagined is homogenized to a degree that teachers and students do not begin to suspect because they have never set foot outside the cage that they were born in. Like the gorilla who was taught to draw, they keep drawing the bars of their cage; and think it the world.

Historical novels and political novels can never be taken seriously because true history and disturbing politics are not acceptable subjects. Works of high imagination cause unease: if it didn’t really happen, how can your story be really sincere…? The imaginative writer can never be serious unless, like Mr. Thomas Pynchon, he makes it clear that he is writing about Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics and a number of other subjects that he picked up in his freshman year at Cornell. English teachers without science like this sort of thing while physicists are tempted to write excited letters to literary journals. Thus, the Snow-called gap between the two cultures looks to be bridged, while nothing at all has been disturbed in the way that the society obliges us to see ourselves.

One of the great losses to world literature has been the novel of ideas. Or the symposium-novel. Or the dialogue-novel. Or the…. One has to search for some sort of hyphenate even to describe what one has in mind. Mary McCarthy calls it the “conversation novel.”

From Aristophanes to Petronius to Lucian to Rabelais to Swift to Voltaire to Thomas Love Peacock, there has been a brilliant line of satirical narratives and had it not been for certain events at the beginning of the nineteenth century in England, this useful form might still be with us, assuming that those who have been brought up on sincere simple Serious Novels would appreciate—or even recognize—any play of wit at the expense of dearly held serious superstitions. Where the True is worshipped, truth is alien. But then to be middle class is to be, by definition, frightened of losing one’s place. Traditionally, the virtuous member of the middle class is encouraged to cultivate sincerity and its twin, hypocrisy. The sort of harsh truth-telling that one gets in Aristophanes, say, is not possible in a highly organized zoo like the United States where the best cuts are flung to those who never question the zoo’s management. The satirist breaks with his origins; looks at things with a cold eye; says what he means, and mocks those who do not know what they mean.

It is significant that the only American writer who might have taken his place in the glittering line was, finally, scared off. Since Mark Twain was not about to lose his audience, he told dumb jokes in public while writing, in private, all sorts of earth-shattering notions. Twain thought that if there was a God, He was evil. Twain’s poignant invention, Huck, is a boy who wants to get his ass out of the serious, simple, sincere, bigoted world on whose fringe he was born. He is a lovely, true evocation. But he is in flight; can’t cope; knows something is wrong. There is a world elsewhere, he suspects; but there are practically no people in it—it is the territory.

Every quarter century, like clock-work, there is a Peacock revival. The great tail feathers unfurl in all their Pavonian splendor, and like-minded folk delight in the display; and that’s the end of that for the next twenty-five years. Although it is now too late in history to revive either Peacock or the conversation novel, Marilyn Butler in Peacock Displayed has written an admirable book about a valuable writer.

Thomas Love Peacock was born in 1785; he died in 1866. He was well read in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian literature; he was an early and knowledgeable devotee of opera, particularly Mozart, Rossini, Bellini. Since he did not go to school after the age of twelve, he was able to teach himself what he wanted to know, which was a lot. In 1819, he was taken on by the East India Company where he worked until his retirement in 1856. He associated at India House with James and John Stuart Mill; he was a lifelong friend of Jeremy Bentham and of Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse. For three years, he was close to Shelley; and got him to read the classics. Peacock’s wife went mad while his daughter Mary Ellen married a bearded, dyspeptic, cigarette-smoker—three demerits in Peacock’s eyes. George Meredith was less than an ideal son-in-law, particularly at table. Some of Mary Ellen’s recipes survive.* Ingredients for Athenian Eel and Sauce: “Half a pint of good Stock. One tablespoon of Mushroom Ketchup. One mustard-spoonful of Mustard. One dessert spoonful of Shalot Vinegar. One desert spoonful of Anchovy Sauce. One dessert spoonful of Worcester Sauce. Marjoram and Parsley.” That was just the sauce. Meanwhile, cut the eels in pieces…. When Mary Ellen deserted Meredith for the painter Henry Wallis, Meredith’s digestive tract must have known a certain relief. Later he memorialized his father-in-law as Dr. Middleton in The Egoist. Mary Ellen died young. Despite the deaths of children and a wife’s madness, one has the sense that Peacock’s long life was happy; but then he was a true Epicurean.

  1. *

    From Diane Johnson’s Lesser Lives (Knopf, 1972).

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