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By Gillian Polack
The early decades in the nineteenth century that gave us some of the most fascinating re-inventions of the Middle Ages also gave us some re-inventions that were flatter than a pancake and some that were mere shadows painted on paper. There are several reasons for this. The most important for me today is one of the reasons for choosing mere shadows on paper as a writing tool. They relate to the need for wallpaper history in a narrative and the need for a time that added to the meaning in a work without requiring any additional thought or explanation by the writer.
Before I begin, however, what is wallpaper history? Wallpaper history is when the historical elements are chiefly painted onto a backdrop. The storytelling in the novel takes place in the foreground and the wallpaper plays no active role in the narrative. The wallpaper itself is neither three dimensional nor critical to the plot.
Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) presents readers with both of these conditions with a triple serve of mockery to turn the ordinary into a classic satire. The satire draws its characters from the writer’s own circles, which, given his circles included Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, suggests a key reason for Nightmare Abbey being in print two hundred years later. The wallpaper of Nightmare Abbey and what it illustrates is therefore important for demonstrating how famous people’s lives could be satirised and what they could be mocked for.
The first hint that the work might possibly be using the Gothic and even the Medieval Gothic is the heading. It’s more than a hint. It’s a full-out shout.
This is part of the satire. The story is a comic love story and there are no nightmare elements and it doesn’t really matter a jot that the story is set in a house that was once an abbey or part of an abbey. From the moment the story itself begins, therefore, it becomes obvious that the medieval is a wallpaper for the story to roam across, and that there is a reason for this. The shouted title and the characters are a perfect match.
Gothic is one of the ideal backdrops and, in some cases, wallpapers, for Romantic writers. For the fictionalised lives of very real Romantic writers it is a very quick and easy scene setting. In some modern romantic historical fiction writers, too, a period and place is used as a wallpaper.
The action in the story is free of the constraints of known history (up to a point) – its main limitations are the setting. While the term ‘wallpaper’ belongs within the world of historical fiction as a descriptor of this kind of tale, I like to think of it as a wallpaper lining a room in which the characters are sharing an emotionally-saturated set of meals. Possibly likening the work of Thomas Love Peacock to that of Barbara Cartland is not the most popular equation I will ever make, but strictly in terms of the way the framework of Nightmare Abbey functions, Barbara Cartland’s more Gothic tales are equivalent. (The rest of the stories by each writer have much less in common, which some readers might find reassuring. Or maybe not.)
The characters living their emotionally intense lives are Shelley, Byron and Coleridge in theatre dress. The story is an entertaining fling that illuminates the role of the Middle Ages in the Romantics world, even while Peacock breaks that world into sharp and cutting shards.
The abbey is not given much detail, nor is any aspect of the Middle Ages. The building and its history are described, however. Decayed and faded, and presented when such a description is needed. Even the Commentary on Ecclesiastes (which the main character’s father composed and read to him, for comfort) is explained in more detail than the medieval. The setting is essential for the style of narrative, but faded.
The reason given for this is clear. The south-eastern tower, for example “was ruinous and full of weeds.” History is in the past, and squeaks into the present only because of the character of decay it presents. It’s not simply wallpaper. It’s wallpaper painted with shadows. The description of who lived in which room and where the domestics were located is nearly a third bigger than the description of the medieval building, and lacking in apology. Apology? Part of the medieval description is simply, “not within the pale of our knowledge.”
Why are there ruins at all? And why am I writing about a book that has such faint echoes of the Middle Ages? The society and social group being mocked in this satire rested upon the Middle Ages for their sense of a certain type of past, but, in reality, often talked about themselves in so doing. Peacock gently mocks the image that Byron and Shelley in particular projected through subduing the Middle Ages to a faint echo.
This small book is an entertainment that quite specifically illuminates the role of the Middle Ages in the actual world of the Romantics. As the story unfolds, egos and false love are more important than the echo of the past.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack