Peacock was a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley and they influenced each other's work. He wrote satirical novels, each with the same basic setting — characters at a table discussing and criticizing the philosophical opinions of the day.
He worked for the British East India Company.
Peacock's juvenile compositions, some of which were privately printed by Sir Henry Cole, exhibit just the sort of formal precocity which a schoolmaster would appreciate, while displaying nothing of the peculiar fancy and humour which have given him his abiding place in literature. More interesting is a prize contribution to "The Juvenile Library", a magazine for youth whose competitions excited the emulation of several other boys destined to celebrity, among them Leigh Hunt, de Quincey, and W. J. Fox. Peacock, in 1800, gained the eleventh prize for an essay on the comparative advantages of history and biography.
At the age of 16, Peacock moved to London. There is evidence in his papers of his having for a time followed some mercantile occupation, the exact nature of which is unknown. He began visiting the Reading Room of the British Museum, which he frequented for many years, a diligent student of the best literature in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. His circumstances, though narrow, must have been independent, for in 1804 and 1806 he published two volumes of poetry, The Monks of St. Mark and Palmyra, from which profit could hardly have been expected.
His friends, as he hints, thought it wrong that so clever a man should be earning so little money. In the autumn of 1808 he became private secretary to Sir Home Popham, commanding the fleet before Flushing. His preconceived affection for the sea did not reconcile him to nautical realities. "Writing poetry", he says, "or doing anything else that is rational, in this floating inferno, is next to a moral impossibility. I would give the world to be at home and devote the winter to the composition of a comedy". He did write prologues and addresses for dramatic performances on board the HMS Venerable: his dramatic taste then and for nine years subsequently found expression in attempts at comedies and pieces of a still lighter class, all of which fail from lack of ease of dialogue and the over-elaboration of incident and humour. He left the Venerable in March 1809. Another of his longer poems, "The Genius of the Thames", which he had meditated in 1807, was published in 1810.
For some years, the course of Peacock's life is only known in connection with Shelley. In the winter of 1813 he accompanies Shelley and Harriet to Edinburgh; throughout the winter of 1814-15 he is an almost daily visitor of Shelley and Mary at their London lodgings. In 1815 he shares their voyage to the source of the Thames. "He seems," writes Charles Clairmont, a member of the party, "an idly-inclined man; indeed, he is professedly so in the summer; he owns he cannot apply himself to study, and thinks it more beneficial to him as a human being entirely to devote himself to the beauties of the season while they last; he was only happy while out from morning till night". During the winter of 1815-16 Peacock was continually walking over from Marlow, where he had established himself some time in this year, to visit Shelley at Bishopgate. There he met Hogg, and "the winter was a mere Atticism. Our studies were exclusively Greek". The benefit which Shelley derived from such a course of study cannot be overrated. Its influence is seen more and more in everything he wrote to the end of his life. The morbid, the fantastic, the polemical, gradually faded out of his mind; and the writer who begun as the imitator of the wildest extravagances of German romance would, had not his genius transcended the limits of any school, have ended as scarcely less of a Hellene than Keats and Landor.
In 1815 Headlong Hall was written, and it was published the following year. With this book Peacock definitively takes the place in literature which he was to maintain throughout his life, without substantial alteration or development beyond the mellowing which wider experience and increasing prosperity would naturally bring.
In 1816 Shelley went abroad, and Peacock appears to have been entrusted with the task of finding the Shelleys a new residence. He fixed them near his own home at Great Marlow. Melincourt was published at this time; and Nightmare Abbey and "Rhododaphne" written. Before these works were published in 1818, Shelley was again on the wing, and Peacock and he were never to meet again.
On January 13, 1819, he writes from 5 York Street, Covent Garden: "I now pass every morning at the India House, from half-past 10 to half-past 4, studying Indian affairs. My object is not yet attained, though I have little doubt but that it will be. It was not in the first instance of my own seeking, but was proposed to me. It will lead to a very sufficing provision for me in two or three years. It is not in the common routine of office, but is an employment of a very interesting and intellectual kind, connected with finance and legislation, in which it is possible to be of great service, not only to the Company, but to the millions under their dominion."
It would appear that the East India Company had become aware that their home staff was too merely clerical, and had determined to reinforce it by the appointment of four men of exceptional ability to the Examiner's office, including Peacock and James Mill.
Mill's salary is said to have been £800 a year; we do not know whether Peacock received as much. The latter's appointment is said by Sir Henry Cole to have been owing to the influence of Peter Auber, the Company's secretary and historian, whom he had known at school, though probably not as a school-fellow. Mill appears to have undergone no probation: Peacock did, but the test papers which he drafted were returned to him with the high commendation, "Nothing superfluous, and nothing wanting".
We learn from Hogg that it was on July 1, 1819 that Peacock slept for the first time in "a house in Stamford Street (No 18) which, as you might expect from a Republican, he has furnished very handsomely."
In 1820, Peacock married Jane Griffith or Gryffydh. In his "Letter to Maria Gisborne," Shelley referred to Jane as "the milk-white Snowdonian Antelope." Peacock and his wife had three daughters. One of them, Mary Ellen, married the novelist George Meredith as her second husband in August 1849. Jane Peacock died in 1865.
In 1822 Maid Marian, begun in 1818, was completed and published. It was soon dramatised with great success by Planché, and enjoyed the honour of translation into French and German. Peacock's salary was now £1000 a year, and in 1823 he acquired the residence at Lower Halliford which continued his predilection to the end of his life. In 1829 came The Misfortunes of Elphin, and in 1831 Crotchet Castle, the most mature and thoroughly characteristic of all his works.
In 1836 his official career was crowned by his appointment as Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence, in succession to James Mill. The post was one which could only be filled by someone of sound business capacity and exceptional ability in drafting official documents: and Peacock's discharge of its duties, it is believed, suffered nothing by comparison either with his distinguished predecessor or his still more celebrated successor, Stuart Mill.
It is much to be regretted that so little is known of the old India House, or of its eminent occupants in their official capacity. It does not seem to have afforded an employment of predilection to any of them. Peacock has let in a little light in another direction:—
Peacock's occupation seems to have principally lain with finance, commerce, and public works. The first clear glimpse we obtain of its nature is the memorandum prepared by him at the request of a Director respecting General Chesney's projected Euphrates expedition, and reprinted in the preface to the General's narrative as a tribute to its sagacity. The line of inquiry eventually resulted in the construction under his superintendence of iron steamboats designed to demonstrate his view of the feasibility of steam navigation round the Cape.
For many years after his appointment Peacock's authorship was in abeyance with the exception of the operatic criticisms which he regularly contributed to the "Examiner,"
and an occasional article in the Westminster Review or Bentley's Miscellany.
In 1837, Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, Maid Marian, and Crotchet Castle appeared together as vol. 57 of Bentley's Standard Novels. About 1852, taste or leisure for authorship returned, and he commenced a series of contributions to Fraser's Magazine with the first, and most interesting, paper of his "Horae Dramaticae", a delightful restoration of the "Querolus," a Roman comedy probably of the time of Diocletian.
Peacock had in the interim retired from the India House on an ample pension (March 29, 1856). Throughout 1860 his last novel, Gryll Grange, continued to appear in Fraser's Magazine.
Peacock died at Lower Halliford, January 23, 1866, from injuries sustained in a fire in which he had attempted to save his library, and is buried in the new cemetery at Shepperton. His granddaughter remembered him in these words:—
Peacock's own place in literature is pre-eminently that of a satirist. That he has nevertheless been the favourite only of the few is owing partly to the highly intellectual quality of his work, but mainly to his lack of ordinary qualifications of the novelist, all pretension to which he entirely disclaims. He has no plot, little human interest, and no consistent delineation of character. His personages are mere puppets, or, at best, incarnations of abstract qualities such as grace or beauty.
His comedy is Aristophanic. He suffers from that dramatist's faults and, though not as daring in invention, shares many of his strengths.
Most of the text of this article was extracted from the Introduction written by Richard Garnett for the edition of Thomas Love Peacock's novels published by J. M. Dent & Co. in 1891.
Lists of Peacock's works from The Thomas Love Peacock Society.