Places: Nightmare Abbey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1818

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fiction of manners

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedNightmare Abbey

Nightmare Nightmare AbbeyAbbey. Dilapidated mansion in England’s Lincolnshire County; a former monastery whose state of sad disrepair reflects the plight of its residents, the deeply dysfunctional Glowry family. The house is not far from the sea, being separated therefrom by a tract of low-lying fenland dotted with windmills.

There is nothing unrealistic about an early nineteenth century English family living in what once had been an abbey; many English religious houses became secular residences following King Henry VIII’s dissolution of England’s Roman Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth century. The abbey’s address reveals something about the Glowry family’s problematic social status–they are products of social upheavals that were still considered recent by the English landed aristocracy–but its real significance is that Nightmare Abbey is symbolic of a nation and a world whose secularization has left it uncomfortable and desolate. The road that connects the abbey to the nearest town, Claydyke, is a narrow causeway raised above the fen, from which carriages are all too easily dislodged.

The abbey itself is square in shape, its four walls facing the four points of the compass. It has a tower at each corner, and is surrounded on every side but the south by a moat. The northwestern tower is the domain of Christopher Glowry, the abbey’s owner. The southeastern tower, which is home to Christopher’s son, Scythrop, opens up onto a terrace which is called the garden, but nothing grows there except weeds. The abbey’s southwestern tower is in ruins, inhabited only by owls. The northeastern tower houses the servants, who have all been chosen for the lugubrious quality of their names and faces. The main body of the building contains numerous reception rooms, dining rooms, and guest bedrooms, all of which are underused. The rare guests entertained there are well fitted to the surroundings, especially the connoisseur of the macabre, Mr. Flosky, and the Manichean Millenarian, Mr. Toobad.

Scythrop Glowry longs to transform this doom-laden scenery with the aid of “transcendental technology,” but his father is a considerable obstacle to this ambition, as is the place itself–whose distinctive atmosphere is explicitly identified in chapter 9 as “the spirit of black melancholy.” Scythrop’s cause is not greatly advanced by his romantic association with his formidable cousin Marionetta O’Carroll. When he secretly offers sanctuary to the mysterious Stella–who is briefly mistaken for a mermaid by the ichthyologist Mr. Asterias–the life-enhancing presence that gradually begins to transform his apartments soon turns out to have been an illusion. Fortunately or unfortunately, he is saved from the necessity of marrying either woman, and is thus liberated to return his full attention to his progressive plans for the regeneration of Nightmare Abbey–and hence, symbolically if not actually, the redemption of human nature.

At the end of the novel, Scythrop is still alone in his dreary tower, having failed to make the least material difference to his surroundings–which strongly suggests that readers should not be optimistic about the future reconstruction of Nightmare Abbey.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is not featured as a setting in the novel; however, there are repeated references to it in the text. For example, when Christopher Glowry is absent from the abbey, it is because he has gone to London, and it is from London that most of the guests featured in the story have come. There, London is not an opposite extreme of English life, to be contrasted with the lonely abbey, but a macrocosm symbolically embodied in the microcosm of the abbey: the same collation of nightmares, writ slightly larger. The city offers no possibility of escape, to either the complacently gloomy Christopher or his ambitiously disaffected son. If any salvation is to be found, it has to begin within the abbey’s nightmarish heart and grow outward; the causeway to Claydyke is no highway to Heaven.

BibliographyButler, Marilyn. Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1979. Makes Nightmare Abbey a focal point, positing that as finely drawn as the gentlemen characters are (all of whom are satirically based on real-life personages), the novel is actually the story of two women, Marionetta and Celinda/Stella.Cunningham, Mark. “‘Fatout! Who Am I?’ A Model for the Honourable Mr. Listless in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey.” English Language Notes 30, no. 1 (September, 1992): 43-45. Discusses the possibility of who may have been the model for the character of Mr. Listless, who spends whole days on a sofa in perfected ennui.Schwank, Klaus. “From Satire to Indeterminacy: Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey.” In Beyond the Suburbs of the Mind: Exploring English Romanticism, edited by Michael Gassenmeier and Norbert H. Platz. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1987. Discusses the effectiveness of Peacock’s satire, placing Peacock’s novel in a category of works that defy satire.Wolf, Leonard. “Nightmare Abbey.” Horror: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Literature and Film. New York: Facts On File, 1989. Compares Peacock’s satirical verse as a precursor to Oscar Wilde’s similar style.Wright, Julia M. “Peacock’s Early Parody of Thomas Moore in Nightmare Abbey.” English Language Notes 30, no. 4 (June, 1993): 31-38. Discusses Peacock’s use of Thomas Moore as, possibly, a template for a character in Nightmare Abbey.
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