bey‘Nightmare Abbey’ is probably as heavy-handed a piece of satire as you will find in the whole of literature. Neither nightmarish – there are none of the traditional characteristic features of gothic fiction – nor set in an abbey, this short novel is partly a thinly disguised portrait of some of the romantic poets of the time, and partly a pastiche of their works.
It is tedious in the extreme. Some of this is deliberate – in parodying cloying philosophical nonsense it is hard to avoid writing philosophical nonsense. The trick is I suspect in providing just the right amount. There’s little or no characterisation here – all the characters are cyphers – Mr Lackwit, Mr Toobad, or the Reverend Mr Larynx. There’s also little or no narrative. The characters assemble in the abbey, which is really a moated country home on the remote Lincolnshire coast, where Scythrop Glowry, (admittedly, a pretty magnificent name) falls in and out of love as eligible females are paraded before him. Even Robert McCrum in choosing this novel for his list of 100 best novels in English for the Guardian in 2013 describes the plot as “cardboard-thin”. This is because the novel is simply a vehicle for Peacock’s friendly commentary on the lives and love affairs of the romantic poets. It may have had them rolling in the aisles in the early nineteenth century, but surely quickly lost its humour in a decade or two, and today provides many tumbleweed moments. Only one comment hit a chord; when, for the umpteenth time Mr Flosky, a friend of Mr Glowry senior is pontificating on his obscure theories, the narrator notes that he “suddenly stopped: he found himself unintentionally trespassing within the limits of common sense”.
The narrative voice is deeply cynical. Romantic relationships are purely commercial – “marriage is a lottery, and the less choice and selection a man bestows upon his ticket the better” – and married life is a burden – “Mr Glowry used to say that his house was no better than a spacious kennel, for every one in it led the life of a dog”. Jane Austen wrote about relationships and courtships with a similar scepticism, but her characters are far more three dimensional and believable, and if you want a light-hearted commentary on the gothic novels of the period ‘Northanger Abbey’ is an infinitely better choice. That this novel squeezed out ‘Lord of the Rings’, the Gormenghast books, and others from the Guardian’s top 100 novels makes its inclusion all the harder to understand.