Sigh. I just don’t know how to explain my reading habits. I sometimes have conversations with people who react in drop-jawed surprise that I have a book blog but haven’t read A Thousand Splendid Suns or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It’s not because I object to reading popular books. I read them. I have lots on my TBR. But when there are wonderful odd things tucked in corners like Thomas Love Peacock’s Crotchet Castle to read, I just can’t fit everything in.
Crotchet Castle is one part meandering romance story, two parts satire, three parts pseudo-philosophical dialogue, and a dash of a menu for a very good dinner, all placed in a Rabelaisian flask and shaken well. (With or without olive. I don’t think Peacock expresses any opinions about olives.) I was laughing from the very first page:
It is said that a Scotchman, returning home after some years’ residence in England, being asked what he thought of the English, answered: “They hanna ower muckle sense, but they are an unco braw people to live amang;” which would be a very good story, if it were not rendered apocryphal by the incredible circumstance of the Scotchman going back.
The cast of characters includes Mr. Mac Crotchet, the owner of the castle; Mr. Mac Quedy (that would be Mr. Mac Q.E.D.), political economist; Mr. Skionar, the transcendental poet, who utters nothing but sentimental goop; Mr. Firedamp, who is terrified of malaria, and hence of all water; and a host of others — crowned by the Reverend Doctor Folliott, who is “learned and jolly.”
And that’s really the point. As these characters come and go from Crotchet Castle, as they drink wine and discuss paper money, as they eat their fine suppers and talk about the value of unclothed statues of Venus, as they ask one another to pass the breakfast-fish and argue over the “modern Athenians” (the Scots), they are all learned and jolly. Even the hard-hearted Lady Clarinda, who knows very well what her value is and how she must sell herself for a carriage and an opera-box, is learned and jolly enough to soften by the end, and this outcome is never much in doubt.
Peacock’s satire, while fairly transparent (Skionar, for instance, is a delicious portrait of Shelley), is gentle. He may have a castle full of fools, but no one is malicious, wicked, or even irremediably worldly. The arguments are civil, and bubble just beneath the surface with restrained laughter. Here, a conversation with the practical Mr. Mac Quedy and Mr. Skionar on the age of a nearby Roman camp:
MR. SKIONAR. And call up the days of old, when the Roman eagle spread its wings in the place of that beechen foliage. It gives a fine idea of duration, to think that that fine old tree must have sprung from the earth ages after this camp was formed.
MR. MAC QUEDY. How old, think you, may the tree be?
MR. CROTCHET. I have records which show it to be three hundred years old.
MR. MAC QUEDY. That is a great age for a beech in good condition. But you see the camp is some fifteen hundred years, or so, older; and three times six being eighteen, I think you get a clearer idea of duration out of the simple arithmetic, than out of your eagle and foliage.
MR. SKIONAR. That is a very unpoetical, if not unphilosophical, mode of viewing antiquities. Your philosophy is too literal for our imperfect vision. We cannot look directly into the nature of things; we can only catch glimpses of the mighty shadow in the camera obscura of transcendental intelligence. These six and eighteen are only words to which we give conventional meanings. We can reason, but we cannot feel, by help of them. The tree and the eagle, contemplated in the ideality of space and time, become subjective realities, that rise up as landmarks in the mystery of the past.
MR. MAC QUEDY. Well, sir, if you understand that, I wish you joy. But I must be excused for holding that my proposition, three times six are eighteen, is more intelligible than yours.
I kept being reminded of Rabelais, minus the belching: Peacock is an heir, here, doing some of the same juggling of ideas, laughter, food, learning, religion, satire, and wine.
This post probably hasn’t given you much of an idea of the book, or why I liked it. Try again: Amateur Reader at Wuthering Expectations recently did a few posts on this and several other of Peacock’s novels, and he, as usual, did far better than I did. But I do recommend wedging these in between whatever else you’re reading. Not all of us can be learned and jolly, but it’s nice to read about someone who can.