Thomas Love Peacock


The Abbey House

I PASSED many of my earliest days in a country town, on whose immediate outskirts stood an ancient mansion, bearing the name of the Abbey House. [1] This mansion has long since vanished from the face of the earth; but many of my pleasantest youthful recollections are associated with it, and in my mind's eye I can still see it as it stood, with its amiable, simple-mannered, old English inhabitants.
  The house derived its name from standing near, though not actually on, the site of one of those rich old abbeys, whose demesnes the pure devotion of Henry the Eighth transferred from their former occupants (who foolishly imagined they had a right to them, though they lacked the might which is its essence,) to the members of his convenient parliamentary chorus, who helped him run down his Scotch octave of wives. Of the abbey itself a very small portion remained: a gateway, and a piece of a wall which formed part of the enclosure of an orchard, wherein a curious series of fish-ponds, connected by sluices, was fed from a contiguous stream with a perpetual circulation of fresh water,---a sort of piscatorial panopticon, where all approved varieties of fresh-water fish had been classified, each in its own pond, and kept in good order, clean and fat, for the mortification of the flesh of the monastic brotherhood on fast-days.
  The road which led to the Abbey House terminated as a carriage-road with the house itself. Beyond it, a footpath over meadows conducted across a ferry to a village about a mile distant. A large clump of old walnut-trees stood on the opposite side of the road to a pair of massy iron gates, which gave entrance to a circular gravel road, encompassing a large smooth lawn, with a sun-dial in the centre, and bordered on both sides with tall thick evergreens and flowering shrubs, interspersed in the seasons with hollyhocks, sunflowers, and other gigantic blossoms, such as are splendid in distance. Within, immediately opposite the gates, a broad flight of stone steps led to a ponderous portal, and to a large antique hall, laid with a chequered pavement of black and white marble. On the left side of the entrance was the porter's chair, consisting of a cushioned seat, occupying the depth of a capacious recess resembling a niche for a full-sized statue, a well-stuffed body of black leather glittering with gold-headed nails. On the right of this hall was the great staircase; on the left, a passage to a wing appropriated to the domestics.
  Facing the portal, a door opened into an inner hall, in the centre of which was a billiard table. On the right of this hall was a library; on the left a parlour, which was the common sitting-room; and facing the middle door was a glazed door, opening on the broad flight of stone steps which led into the gardens.
  The gardens were in the old style: a large square lawn occupied an ample space in the centre, separated by broad walks from belts of trees and shrubs on each side; and in front were two advancing groves, with a long wide vista between them, looking to the open country, from which the grounds were separated by a terraced wall over a deep sunken dyke. One of the groves we called the green grove, and the other the dark grove. The first had a pleasant glade, with sloping banks covered with flowery turf; the other was a mass of trees, too closely canopied with foliage for grass to grow beneath them.
  The family [2] consisted of a gentleman and his wife, with two daughters and a son. The eldest daughter was on the confines of womanhood, the youngest was little more than a child; the son was between them. I do not know his exact age, but I was seven or eight, and he was two or three years more.
  The family lived, from taste, in a very retired manner; but to the few whom they received they were eminently hospitable. I was perhaps the foremost among these few; for Charles, who was my schoolfellow, was never happy in our holidays unless I was with him. A frequent guest was an elderly male relation, much respected by the family,---but no favourite of Charles, over whom he was disposed to assume greater authority than Charles was willing to acknowledge.
  The mother and daughter had all the solid qualities which were considered female virtues in the dark ages. Our enlightened age has, wisely no doubt, discarded many of them, and substituted show for solidity. The dark ages preferred the natural blossom, and the fruit that follows it; the enlightened age prefers the artificial double-blossom, which falls and leaves nothing. But the double blossom is brilliant while it lasts; and where there is so much light, there ought to be something to glitter in it.
  These ladies had the faculty of staying at home; and this was a principal among the antique faculties that upheld the rural mansions of the middling gentry. Ask Brighton, Cheltenham, et id genus omne, [3] what has become of that faculty. And ask the ploughshare what has become of the rural mansions.
  They never, I think, went out of their own grounds but to church, or to take their regular daily airing in the old family-carriage. The young lady was an adept at preserving: she had one room, in a corner of the hall, between the front and the great staircase, entirely surrounded with shelves in compartments, stowed with classified sweetmeats, jellies, and preserved fruits, the work of her own sweet hands. These wee distinguished ornaments of the supper-table; for the family dined early, and maintained the old fashion of supper. A child would not easily forget the bountiful and beautiful array of fruits, natural and preserved, and the ample variety of preparations of milk, cream, and custard, by which they were accompanied. The supper-table had matter for all tastes. I remember what was most to mine.
  The young lady performed on the harpsichord. Over what a gulph of time this name alone looks back! What a stride from that harpsichord to one of Broadwood's last grand-pianos! And yet with what pleasure, as I stood by the corner of the instrument, I listened to it, or rather to her! I would give much to know that the worldly lot of this gentle and amiable creature had been a happy one. She often gently remonstrated with me for putting her harpsichord out of tune by playing the bells upon it; but I was never in a serious scrape with her except once. I had insisted on taking from the nursery-maid the handle of the little girl's garden-carriage, with which I set off at full speed; and had not run many yards before I overturned the carriage, and rolled out the little girl. The child cried like Alice Fell, and would not be pacified. Luckily she ran to her sister, who let me off with an admonition, and the exaction of a promise never to meddle again with the child's carriage.
  Charles was fond of romances. The Mysteries of Udolpho, [4] and all the ghost and goblin stories of the day, were his familiar reading. I cared little about them at the time; but he amused me by narrating their grimmest passages. He was very anxious that the Abbey House should be haunted; but it had no strange sights or sounds, and no plausible tradition to hang a ghost on. I had very nearly accommodated him with what he wanted.
  The garden-front of the house was covered with jasmine, and it was a pure delight to stand in the summer twilight on the top of the stone steps inhaling the fragrance of the multitudinous blossoms. One evening, as I was standing on these steps alone, I saw something like the white head-dress of a tall figure advance from the right-hand grove,---the dark grove, as we called it,---and, after a brief interval, recede. This, at any rate, looked awful. Presently it appeared again, and again vanished. On which I jumped to my conclusion, and flew into the parlour with the announcement that there was a ghost in the dark grove. The whole family sallied forth to see the phenomenon. The appearances and disappearances continued. All conjectured what it could be, but none could divine. In a minute or two all the servants were in the hall. They all tried their skill, and all were equally unable to solve the riddle. At last, the master of the house leading the way, we marched in a body to the spot, and unravelled the mystery. It was a large bunch of flowers on top of a tall lily, waving in the wind at the edge of the grove, and disappearing at intervals behind the stem of a tree. My ghost, and the compact phalanx in which we sallied against it, were long the subject of merriment. It was a cruel disappointment to Charles, who was obliged to abandon all hopes of having the house haunted.
  One day Charles was in disgrace with his elderly relation, who had exerted sufficient authority to make him captive in his chamber. He was prohibited from seeing anyone but me; and, of course, a most urgent messenger was sent to me express. I found him in his chamber, sitting by the fire, with a pile of ghostly tales, and an accumulation of lead, which he was casting into dumps in a mould. Dumps, the inexperienced reader must know, are flat circles of lead,---a sort of petty quoits,---with which schoolboys amused themselves half a century ago, and perhaps do so still, unless the march of mind has marched off with such vanities. No doubt, in the "astounding progress of intellect,'' the time will arrive when boys will play at philosophers instead of playing at soldiers,---will fight with wooden arguments instead of wooden swords,---and pitch leaden syllogisms instead of leaden dumps. Charles was before the dawn of this new light. He had cast several hundred dumps, and was still at work. The quibble did not occur to me at the time; but, in after years, I never heard of a man in the dumps without thinking of my schoolfellow. His position was sufficiently melancholy. His chamber was at the end of a long corridor. He was determined not to make any submission, and his captivity was likely to last till the end of his holidays. Ghost-stories, and lead for dumps, were his stores and provisions for standing the siege of ennui. I think, with the aid of his sister, I had some share in making his peace; but, such is the association of ideas, that, when I first read in Lord Byron's Don Juan,

        'I pass my evenings in my long galleries solely,
         And that's the reason I'm so melancholy,"

the lines immediately conjured up the image of poor Charles in the midst of his dumps and spectres at the end of his own long gallery.


1  "The Abbey House appeared in the February number of Bentley's Miscellany for 1837 (Vol. I. pp.187-90), under a heading which suggests that Peacock was then contemplating a series of early reminiscences: 'RECOLLECTIONS OF CHILDHOOD. | BY THE AUTHOR OF HEADLONG HALL. | [short rule] | THE ABBEY HOUSE.'" from H.F.B. Brett-Smith & C.E. Jones, vol viii, p. 495.

2  The family in the Abbey House were surnamed Barwell: "The Barwell family had strong associations with East India House."---note 14, on p. 291 in Thomas Love Peacock by Felix Felton, London, George Allen & Unwin (1972).

3  and all of that kind (Latin)

4  The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), was first printed in 1794. See Chapter VI of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (published posthumously in 1818), for Catherine Morland's similar literary tastes.