The Peacock in the Woolf
by Andre Gerard
Thanks to an internet search engine, Thomas Love Peacock has just popped up, a Jack-in-the-box surprise, a Jack Horner plum surprise, a Cluedo surprise even. Peacock in the Woolf – who would have thunk? Even though I’d never read Peacock before, I should have spotted him sooner. Thinking back, it seems to me that I have always had a sense of quotation in Mr. Banke’s complimentary remark about Mrs. Ramsay, “Nature has but little clay, like that of which she moulded you.” In my current To the Lighthouse surveying fever, I finally checked to see if there was indeed an antecedent for this high-flown phrase, and the internet dutifully provided me with the following song from Headlong Hall:
In his last binn Sir Peter lies,
Who knew not what it was to frown:
Death took him mellow, by surprise,
And in his cellar stopped him down.
Through all our land we could not boast
A knight more gay, more prompt than he,
To rise and fill a bumper toast,
And pass it round with THREE TIMES THREE.
None better knew the feast to sway,
Or keep Mirth’s boat in better trim;
For Nature had but little clay
Like that of which she moulded him.
The meanest guest that graced his board
Was there the freest of the free,
His bumper toast when Peter poured,
And passed it round with THREE TIMES THREE.
He kept at true good humour’s mark
The social flow of pleasure’s tide:
He never made a brow look dark,
Nor caused a tear, but when he died.
No sorrow round his tomb should dwell:
More pleased his gay old ghost would be,
For funeral song, and passing bell,
To hear no sound but THREE TIMES THREE.
(Hammering of knuckles and glasses, and shouts of Bravo!)
Who knew that William Bankes was an amateur of Thomas Love Peacock! Perhaps I should have. Checking Virginia Woolf’s essays, I find he is mentioned in at least nine essays written by Virginia prior to 1927, including such major essays as “Hours in a Library”, “Robinson Crusoe” and “How Should One Read a Book?”, and the references are always favourable. Virginia saw him as “superbly eccentric and opinionated”, and delighted in his “sense of form.” In “Gothic Romance” she talks about how “Scott, Jane Austen, and Peacock stooped from their heights to laugh at the absurdity of convention and drove it, at any rate, to take refuge underground”, and in “Robinson Crusoe” she again links him to Austen and Scott, saying “Here is Scott, for example, with his mountains looming large, and his men therefore drawn to scale; Jane Austen picking out the roses on her tea-cups to match the wit of her dialogue; while Peacock bends over Heaven and earth one fantastic distorting mirror, in which the tea-cup may be Vesuvius or Vesuvius a tea-cup.”
In “Impassioned Prose”, Virginia places Peacock among the writers who puzzle critics, who “stand obstinately across the boundary lines, and do a greater service by enlarging and fertilizing and influencing than by their actual achievement, which, indeed, is often too eccentric to be satisfactory.” She then elaborates this thought by saying that “Peacock and Samuel Butler have both had an influence upon novelists which is out of all proportion to their own popularity.” It is in “Robinson Crusoe”, however, that Woolf most clearly expresses her thoughts about Peacock’s importance and salutes him for his iconoclastic vision:
And we have to remind ourselves that it is necessary to approach every writer differently in order to get from him all he can give us. We have to remember that it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision. It is by reason of this masterliness of theirs, this uncompromising idiosyncrasy, that great writers often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith, from Richardson to Kipling, is to be wrenched and distorted, thrown this way and then that.
Great writers not only have a distinct vision, they have the skills and strength to share that vision. For all his flaws, for all the peculiarity of his vision, for Virginia, Peacock belongs to the great. His greatness is minor, yet he rewards study and merits acknowledgment.
So much for placing Peacock. The immediate question is – tribute or homage aside – what is he doing in To the Lighthouse? Surely he is not just there because, for a while, he happened to be George Meredith’s father-in-law. Beyond making William Bankes a reader of Headlong Hall – and thus deepening his character cave – what does knowledge of Peacock in the background add to a deeper understanding of To the Lighthouse? Playfulness, for one. With or without Peacock, William’s remark is comic; is sentimental, self-indulgent hyperbole; is parody masking as poetry. To find the original of the remark in a convivial drinking song, a song sung by a drunken party of pedantic eccentrics and roistering obsessives, is to be reminded that To the Lighthouse is often a very funny book. Virginia’s wicked sense of fun is always lurking in the background.
Peacock thoughts lead not only to comedy. Discernible in his train are also androgynous thoughts, thoughts of mortality and canonical thoughts. Androgynous thoughts, because in her allusion Virginia changes the gender. Mrs. Ramsay replaces Sir Peter, and we have yet another gender change to add to the long list in the novel. Thoughts of mortality, because in Headlong Hall the drinking song is provoked by the skull of Sir Christopher Wren. Both the reading and the writing Virginia would have cherished that skull, would have cherished it for it skull-ness, and for its Wren-ness. It is a skull to be added to Yorick’s, to the young woman’s skull which Scott removed from the cave on the Isle of Egg and to the skull which so frightens and disturbs Cam. As Wren’s skull, it also a skull of culture building, and a prop skull which Peacock’s Mr. Escot uses pontificate about man, saying that “the propensity which has led him to building cities has proved the greatest curse of his existence.” When reading the To the Lighthouse passage, awareness of Wren’s skull may help explain the workmen “carrying bricks up a little plank” as they build a hotel at the back of William Bankes’ House. That said, the hotel construction may also echo the real life construction of a hotel directly in front of Talland House in 1894, construction which led Leslie Stephen to sell the family summer home in St. Ives. And within the novel, the “little plank” connects to the “narrow plank” on which, in “The Lighthouse” section, Lily imagines herself while painting, and the “feathery and evanescent” surface of Virginia’s “cathedral-like” structure allows us to connect the labour of the workmen, Lily painting and thoughts of mortality. And as for canonical thoughts, just as Sir Peter’s drinking song is closely preceded by the Wren skull, the song is immediately followed by Mr. Panscope’s appeal to the authority of great men, and his marshalling of a most idiosyncratic and whimsical “metaphysical phalanx” of such.
Peacock may be there for another purpose. In “Phases of Fiction”, a 1928 essay which, increasingly, I am coming to see as a reader’s guide for To the Lighthouse, Virginia places Peacock, along with her beloved Laurence Sterne, with the Satirists and Fantastics. She praises him for “exquisite sentences”, for his suggestive reticence, and for a version of the world “which ignores so much, simplifies so much”. What she likes is his ability “to play with his mind freely, ironically”. She likes – with reservations – the way in which he gives us “a sense of his own personality by the shape of his phrase”. In the description of William Bankes talking to Mrs Ramsay on the telephone, in the coupling of the Graces in fields of asphodel with the 10:30 to Euston, Virginia is sporting with us, parodying our world, making “our own follies and solemnities” look a little silly. In quoting the line from the Headlong Hall drinking song, Virginia deepens the parody, and subtly acknowledges a writer who was both an influence and a kindred spirit. Peacock is both internal and external to her novel, just as Virginia of the “Dreadnought Hoax” continues to be part of Virginia the writer. The disguised Peacock in the Woolf reveals a Woolf in Peacock guise.
And since I, too, am verging on the idiosyncratic, the whimsical and the metaphysical, I’ll conclude with Peacock’s epigraph to Headlong Hall. Taken from Swift’s “Cadenus and Vanessa”, it pleases me as much as it must have pleased Virginia Woolf and Peacock. Pleasure aside, it also serves as a sensible caution to me and to my fellow hobbyhorse riders.
All philosophers who find
Some favourite system to their mind
In every point to make it fit,
Will force all nature to submit.
Jonathan Swift “Cadenus and Vanessa”
About the Author
Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress), editor and publisher of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, no longer earns a living as tutor and apartment manager in Vancouver. He now camps and ocean kayaks among eagles and otters on Salt Spring Island, but his primary residence remains To the Lighthouse.
A different version of this essay first appeared in Andre’s Blog.