Nightmare Abbey


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Wherefore so? Fear ye not the waves that roll? No : in charmed bowl we swim. What the charm that floats the bowl?

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

Water may not pass the brim. The bowl goes trim. The moon Our life is a false nature ; it is not in the harmony of things ; it is an all-blasting upas, whose root is earth, and whose leaves are the skies which rain their poison-dews upon mankind. We wither from our youth ; we gasp with unslaked thirst for unattainable good ; lured from the first to the last by phantoms — love, fame, ambition, avarice — all idle, and all ill — one meteor of many names, that vanishes in the smoke of death. Seven is a mystical number, and the omen is good. Meanwhile, however, he is constantly distracted from these projects by his dalliance with two women — the worldly and flirtatious Marionetta and the mysterious and intellectual Stella — and by the constant stream of visitors to the abbey.

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She flirts with Scythrop, who quickly falls in love; but when she plays hard to get, he retreats to his tower to nurse his wounded heart. Mr Glowry tries to dissuade Scythrop from setting his mind on a woman who not only has no fortune but is insufferably merry-hearted into the bargain. When this fails he turns to Mrs Hilary, who decides in the interests of propriety to take Marionetta away. But Scythrop threatens to drink poison unless his father drops the matter and allows the young woman to stay.

Mr Glowry agrees. Unknown to Scythrop, Mr Glowry and Mr Toobad have already come to a secret arrangement to marry Scythrop to Mr Toobad's daughter Celinda; but when Mr Toobad breaks the news to his daughter in London, she goes into hiding. Back at Nightmare Abbey Marionetta, now sure of Scythrop's heart, torments him for her own pleasure.

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The other guests pass the time dining, playing billiards and discussing contemporary literature and philosophy, in which discussions Mr Flosky usually takes the lead. A new visitor arrives at the Abbey, Mr Asterias the ichthyologist , who is accompanied by his son Aquarius. The guests discuss Mr Asterias's theory on the existence of mermaids and tritons. It transpires that a report of a mermaid on the sea-coast of Lincolnshire is the immediate reason for Mr Asterias's visit.

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A few nights later he glimpses a mysterious figure on the shore near the Abbey and is convinced that it is his mermaid, but a subsequent search fails to discover anything of note. Over the next few days Marionetta notices a remarkable change in Scythrop's deportment, for which she cannot account.


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Failing to draw the secret out of him, she turns to Mr Flosky for advice, but finds his comments incomprehensible. Scythrop grows every day more distrait , and Marionetta fears that he no longer loves her. She confronts him and threatens to leave him forever. He renews his undying love for her and assures her that his mysterious reserve was merely the result of his profound meditation on a scheme for the regeneration of society. A complete reconciliation is accomplished; even Mr Glowry agrees to the match, as there is still no news of Miss Toobad.

It is only now that we learn the reason for the change in Scythrop's manner. The night on which Mr Asterias spots his mermaid, Scythrop returns to his tower only to find a mysterious young woman there. She calls herself Stella and explains how she is one of the seven people who read his treatise. Fleeing from some "atrocious persecution", she had no friend to turn to until she read Scythrop's treatise and realised that here was a kindred mind who would surely not fail to assist her in her time of need.

The 100 best novels: No 9 – Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

Scythrop secretes her in his hidden chamber. After several days he finds that his heart is torn between the flirtatious Marionetta and the intellectual Stella, the one worldly and sparkling, the other spiritual and mysterious. Unable to choose between them, Scythrop decides to enjoy both, but is terrified of what might happen should either of his loves learn of the other's existence. There is a brief and rather inconsequential interruption to the proceedings when Mr Cypress, a misanthropic poet, pays a visit to the Abbey before going into exile.

After dinner there is the usual intellectual discussion, after which Mr Cypress sings a tragical ballad, while Mr Hilary and Reverend Larynx enjoy a catch.


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After the departure of the poet there are reports of a ghost stalking the Abbey, and the appearance of a ghastly figure in the library throws the guests into consternation. The upshot of the matter is that Mr Toobad ends up in the moat. Inevitably Scythrop's secret comes out. Mr Glowry, who has become suspicious of his son's behaviour, is the immediate cause of it. Confronting Scythrop in his tower, he mentions Marionetta, "whom you profess to love".

Hearing this, Stella comes out of the hidden chamber and demands an explanation.

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The ensuing row comes to the attention of the other guests, who pile into Scythrop's gloomy tower. Marionetta is distraught to discover that she has a rival and faints.

But her shock is nothing to that of Mr Toobad, who recognises in Stella none other than his runaway daughter Celinda. Celinda and Marionetta both renounce their love for Scythrop and leave the Abbey forthwith, determined never to set eyes on him again. The other guests leave even after the ghost is revealed to have been Mr Glowry's somnambulant steward Crow and Scythrop becomes depressed. He contemplates suicide like Werther in the Goethe novel, and asks his servant Raven to bring him "a pint of port and a pistol", though he changes his mind and opts instead for "boiled fowl and Madeira".

When he renews his determination to make his exit from the world, his father begs him to give him a chance to convince one of the young women to forgive him and return to the Abbey. Scythrop promises to give him one week and not a minute more. When the week is up and there is still no sign of Mr Glowry, Scythrop temporises, convincing himself that his watch is fast. Finally Mr Glowry arrives. He is alone, but he has two letters from Celinda and Marionetta. Marionetta wishes Scythrop happiness with Miss Toobad and announces her forthcoming marriage to Mr Listless.

Thomas Love Peacock

Scythrop tears the letters to shreds and consoles himself with the thought that his recent experiences "qualify me to take a very advanced degree in misanthropy; and there is, therefore, good hope that I may make a figure in the world. It is often said [ not specific enough to verify ] that Peacock's novels are not widely read today on account of the plethora of topical and other allusions with which they are loaded. Peacock himself elucidated a number of these in his own footnotes.

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