18th century

Thomas Love Peacock’s “Maid Marian” (1822)

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Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

In honour of International Women’s Day, I discuss Thomas Love Peacock’s ground-breaking novel “Maid Marian” (1822).


The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian does not figure in any of the earliest Robin Hood texts. We know that she was a feature of Tudor May Day celebrations, [1] and that from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98). She was also featured as Robin’s wife in Ben Johnson’s unfinished play The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631). Despite this, Marian never seems to have figured largely in seventeenth-century ballads, apart from Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) and, later in the century, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, although the latter ballad was never very popular, and certainly never made it into the often reprinted versions of Robin Hood’s Garland in the eighteenth century.

In fact, if you lived during the eighteenth century, the lady whom you would be familiar with as Robin’s love interest would have been Clorinda, the ‘Queen of the Shepherdesses’. Clorinda appears in a very popular ballad that was reprinted often throughout the eighteenth century entitled A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Showing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour, and Marriage at Titbury Hall, which, Francis James Child says, first appeared in John Dryden’s Miscellanies in 1716. Even in the afore-mentioned Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, Robin’s true love is a lady named Claribel, which is a nod to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Fairie Queene (1596).

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Title Page to Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)

Marian’s ‘big break’, in fact, only came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novella are based upon Byron and Shelley. [2] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott. [3]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. [4] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. [5] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. [6] Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, [7] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [8]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. She is no delicate little lady; instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. Marian’s headstrong attitude is indicated in the following passage:

‘Well, father,’ added Matilda, ‘I must go into the woods.’
‘Must you?’ said the Baron, ‘I say you must not.’
‘But I am going,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will have up the drawbridge,’ said the baron.
‘But I will swim the moat,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will secure the gates,’ said the baron.
‘But I will leap from the battlement,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will lock you in an upper chamber,’ said the baron.
‘But I will shred the tapestry,’ said Matilda, ‘and let myself down.’ [9]

Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’. [10]

She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. She is an emancipated woman in the Wollstonecraft feminist tradition. [11]

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Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. [12] Early ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) were hastily thrown together from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c.1370). Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent; in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. Hence Stephen Knight speaks of ‘the brilliance and influence’ of Peacock’s novel. [13]

Influential upon the tradition as a whole Peacock’s novel certainly was (I would  disagree with this somewhat, however, for after its first printing it was soon discontinued, being revived only once in the 1830s and then again in the 1890s). But I must respectfully disagree with Stephen Knight regarding the novel’s ‘brilliance’. Throughout the whole novel, we are never allowed to forget that Robin is simply a lord who is playing at being an outlaw, which is the case with all ‘gentrified’ texts where Robin is presented as a Lord. [14] Robin never faces any real danger, and his presentation as a Lord robs him of the power he possesses in Scott’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, although better than the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and the several eighteenth-century criminal biographies of him, Peacock was no Scott. Robin and Marian’s adventures in Maid Marian amount to nothing more than an aristocratic frolic – a game for the lord and lady.

Peacock, however, did set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), which was a sequel to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial, Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.


References

[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 190.
[2] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[3] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[4] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[5] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[6] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[7] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[8] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[9] Peacock, Maid Marian, 28.
[10] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[12] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[13] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[14] This is the case with all gentrified texts, as is the case in Munday’s plays. See Liz Oakley Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Anthony Munday’s Huntingdon Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post Medieval Ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 115.

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