The Modernity of “Melincourt”

“How can I seriously call myself an enemy to slavery, while I indulge in in the luxuries that slavery acquires? How can the consumer of sugar pretend to throw on the grower of it the exclusive burden of their participated criminality?… If every individual in this kingdom, who is truly and conscientiously an enemy to the slave-trade, would subject himself to so very trivial a privation as abstinence from colonial produce, I consider that a mortal blow would be immediately struck at the roots of that iniquitous system.”

The speaker is a certain Mr Sylvan Forester, and the speech comes from an almost unknown satirical novel published in 1817 entitled Melincourt; or, Sir Oran Haut-ton and written by Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), better known for other novels such as Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey and Gryll Grange. (For context, Melincourt was published in the same year as Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion.)

Thomas Love Peacock in 1857

The debate which Mr Sylvan Forester has with his guest Sir Telegraph Paxarett (Peacock never held back when naming his characters) on the question of whether one should take sugar with one’s tea is conducted seriously on both sides and sounds startlingly modern today; especially in these times when debates around the slave trade continue to rage.

Melincourt, like so many of Peacock’s works, is a discussion-novel. There is much dialogue, set out on the page like a play, touching on various current and forward-looking topics. The reader looking for tight plotting and exciting action will be largely disappointed, though there are some episodes crazy enough in their events to satisfy anyone. I’m writing about it here because I seriously believe this book deserves to be easily available to us right now in a major new edition from, say, Oxford or Penguin. Its humour and wit are for all ages, while its discussion of certain issues, covering such matters as feminism, ethical living, political corruption, could have been made for today. That it appears to be completely out of print and forgotten is, to me, quite inexplicable.

The tale concerns a certain Anthelia Melincourt, who, “at the age of twenty-one, was mistress of herself and of ten thousand a year, and of a very ancient and venerable castle in one of the wildest valleys of Westmoreland.” “Her mother died in giving her birth. Her father, Sir Henry Melincourt, a man of great acquirements, … devoted himself in solitude to the cultivation of his daughter’s understanding; for he was one of those who maintained the heretical notion that women are, or at least may be, rational beings; though, from the great pains usually taken in what is called education to make them otherwise, there are unfortunately very few examples to warrant the truth of the theory.” Anthelia grows up to be intelligent and independent-minded: “the spirit of mountain liberty diffused itself through the whole tenor of her feelings.”

The main strand of the story concerns Anthelia’s choice of a husband, though there are many diversions on the way. The most extraordinary of these is surely the introduction of Sir Oran Haut-ton, an orangutan from Angola who has been brought to England and now lives with Mr Sylvan Forester, clothed and treated in all respects as a human being. He plays the flute and the French horn, has great emotional sensitivity and courage, and at various points in the story intervenes to save the day. The effect is curiously joyous; as if Terry Pratchett’s Librarian had travelled through a glitch in space-time into a Jane Austen novel.

(Peacock is at pains to justify his portrayal of Sir Oran by means of footnotes which provide extensive quotations from works detailing the lives and habits of orangutans; it is perhaps important to say that, as far as I can see, Peacock does not intend any kind of racist analogy.)

Sir Oran Haut-Ton: an illustration by F.H. Townsend from an 1896 edition of the novel

Perhaps the most pointed episode in the novel concerns the election in the borough of Onevote, consisting of a delapidated farm in the middle of a heath, occupied by a solitary voter. (There stands, not far off, “the large and populous city of Novote…. The city contained fifty thousand inhabitants, and had no representative in the Honourable House, the deficiency being virtually supplied by the two members for Onevote”.) In this election, two unopposed candidates are proposed: a Mr Simon Sarcastic, and Sir Oran Haut-ton. The whole process is a boozy farce, accompanied by cheering crowds, mocking speeches, and much beer-drinking. “Mr Christopher Corporate held up both his hands, with his tankard in one, and his pipe in the other; and neither poll nor scrutiny being demanded, the two candidates were pronounced duly elected as representatives of the ancient and honourable borough of Onevote.”

The toasting of Mr Christopher Corporate (illustration by F.H. Townsend)

Much later, in 1856, Peacock later wrote a new Preface to the book, noting some of the things that had changed (“Beards disfigure the face, and tobacco poisons the air, in a degree not then imagined”) and, too, some of the things that had not: “The boroughs of Onevote and Threevotes have been extinguished: but there remain boroughs of Fewvotes, in which Sir Oran Haut-ton might still find a free and enlightened constituency.”

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