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Headlong Hall / Nightmare Abbey - Thomas Love Peacock

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Author: Thomas Love Peacock / Genre: Classic Literature

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      17.08.2001 03:25
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      Dubious disciple of Tarzan expresses proud ornithophilia (6,4,7). I'm no good at cryptic crosswords. I'd like to think this is because I didn't do them as a kid, but then I never felt any inclination to do them as a kid and where there's no inclination, there's often no ability. Either way, it's a pity, because cryptic crosswords can be great fun. The fun lies in playing with words and ideas in a not very serious way. Rather like reading the books of the writer this review is about. His name is concealed in the cryptic clue above. If you haven't worked it out, don't worry, because I wouldn't have either if I hadn't invented the clue myself. So let's take it a step at a time. Who was a dubious disciple? Well, he was a bit more than a disciple, but "apostle" didn't alliterate (inter alia). My saying that should allow you to work out that the first word is THOMAS. Now, forget about the bit in the middle and concentrate on bit on the end. "Ornithology" is bird-study, so "ornithophilia" must be bird-love. And it's proud. But is that "proud love" or "proud bird"? My asking that should allow you to work out that the third word is PEACOCK. Now let's try the bit in the middle. A disciple of Tarzan called Thomas is expressing his love for peacocks. How might he go about it? Well, how did Tarzan go about expressing the same emotion? Tarzan love Jane. My explaining that should allow you to work out that the full answer is THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK. He sounds like a 'sixties pyschedelic band, doesn't he? Maybe he was -- if he wasn't, he should have been. First and foremost, though, he was a writer, born in 1785, died in 1866. In Weymouth and London, respectively. He was only a minor literary figure even in his day, but that's part of what I like about him. That and his name. And his books. Well, two of them, anyway. He wrote seve n-and-a-bit: Headlong Hall (1816); Melincourt (1817); Nightmare Abbey (1818); Maid Marian (1822); The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829); Crotchet Castle (1831); Gryll Grange (1860); and Calidore (which he never completed). I've tackled four of them, and given up with two. The two I gave up with were The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. The two I didn't give up with were Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey. The fact that those two are also his most famous books tends to suggest that they're his best too. And his best is pretty darn good. Headlong Hall is a satire on, among other things and other people, the Romantic Movement and proponents of it like Shelley and Byron; Headlong Hall takes a narrower purview and satirizes the Romantic Movement and its proponent Shelley and his hopeless love-affairs. For a flavor of the first, here is Mr Foster, the perfectibilist, who believes that the human race is getting better with every generation: "In short," said he, "everything we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection." Foster and his perfectibilism are adamantly and absolutely opposed by the deteriorationist Mr Escot, who believes that, on the contrary, the human race is getting worse with every generation: "[T]hese improvements, as you call them, appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; and thus one generation acquires fifty wants, and fifty means of supplying them are invented, which each in its turn engenders two new ones; so that the next generation has a hundred, the next two hundred, the next four hundred, till every human being bec omes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation, than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness." But Mssr Escot and Foster are opposed, or perhaps balanced, by Mr Jenkison, the statu-quo-ite, who believes that the balance of good and bad remains the same from generation to generation: "I have often debated the matter in my own mind, pro and con, and have at length arrived at this conclusion --that there is not in the human race a tendency either to moral perfectibility or deterioration; but that the quantities of each are so exactly balanced by their reciprocal results, that the species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in statu quo." Throw in more philosophers and scholars attached with equal fervor to other, and odder, world-views, mix with absurd incidents, absurder love-affairs, and season with genuine learning and wit, and you have the recipe with which Thomas Love Peacock has appealed to a small but select audience ever since Headlong Hall was first published in 1816. Two years later, in 1818, he followed it with Nightmare Abbey, which is less a feast than a single dish, but no less delicious for that. Even better, you can buy both for a pound in the Wordsworth series at a bookshop near you now.

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      These two novels contain characters who are either representative types, or thinly veiled caricatures of Peacock's contemporaries, who gather in country houses to eat, drink and discuss. These tales poke fun at contemporary attitudes and ideas, such as the Romantic literary movement.