Saturday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the man, his life and his most famous work.
Mervyn Laurence Peak was born on 9th July, 1911 in the hill town of Lushan (also known as Kuling; the town was a colonial resort frequented by British and American travellers) in Jiangxi province, China. Peake’s parents worked in China as missionaries; Mervyn went to school in Tianjin. Peake’s experiences of China, of relations between westerners and native, between rich and poor, have been cited as a major influence on his work – the Forbidden City is supposedly a model for Gormenghast castle.
They left the country in 1922 and settled in England. Peake studied art at Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man, Peake worked as an artist, exhibiting work at various shows, including work as part of the Sark Group. Sark is one of the Channel Islands, off the coast of northern France, and Peake lived there for a time during the 1930s as well as later on.
He started teaching art at Westminster School of Art in 1935, and met his future wife, Maeve Gilmore the following year on her fist day as a student at the school. They married in 1937 and went on to have three children: Sebastian (1940), Fabian (1942) and Clare (1949).
Peake applied to be a war artist at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was rejected. He was enlisted and served with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. After more requests to be a war artist and more rejections, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committe, and later left the army. Shortly after the war, working as a war artist, he was one of the first outsiders to see the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had a profound effect on him.
In the 1940s, Peake wrote Titus Groan and Gormenghast and illustrated many books – including works by Lewis Carroll, Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Louis Stevenson – and also designed the Pan Books logo (he had a choice of receiving either a flat fee of £10 or a farthing (¼ penny) per book sold; on the advice of his friend Graham Greene, who thought that paperbacks were a fad, he chose the £10). He started teaching art, and met his future wife through his job.
The Peake family moved back to Sark in the 1940s for a few years, before returning to England in 1950. He continued to teach, paint and write, producing Mr Pye (his only non-Gormenghast novel) about a man who goes to Sark to evangelise the native, only to start growing wings; when he starts to do bad deeds to compensate, he grows horns.
In the 1950s Peake’s health began to decline – he developed Parkinson’s disease and progressively lost his ability to draw and write. He finally died on 17th November 1968 at a nursing home near Oxford. In addition to his novels and art, he also produced several short stories and six books of poetry during his life. It is the Gormenghast books, however, for which he is most remembered and admired.
The three novels of this series that were written by Peake are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The first two are widely acknowledge as masterpieces of gothic fantasy. In the first, the hidebound world of Gormenghast – a sprawling, crumbling castle inhabited by Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan and a whole cast of grotesque characters – is disturbed by the birth of Titus, a long-awaited heir, and by the rise of Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy. In the second, Titus, now Lord Groan, is older and Steerpike’s plans are becoming increasingly murderous; the book ends with a confrontation between the two, and with Titus abandoning his home.
The third book is much shorter, and was much affected by Peake’s waning health and, in the first edition, by some clumsy editing. In it, Titus wanders the land and finds himself caught up in the affairs of a city with high technology. It doesn’t have the same gothic resonance or lush prose of its predecessors, but is not without merit.
Peake also wrote a novella entitled Boy in Darkness, about a young Titus Groan escaping Gormenghast for a terrifying adventure.
In addition, Peake planned at least two more novels in the Gormenghast saga, apparently to be called Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited. Peake’s wife, Maeve, using a few pages written by her husband for the former novel, completed a manuscript entitled Search Without End in the 1970s. She never published it, but now, to commemorate the centenary of Peake’s death, his family are releasing it under its original title.
With this 100th anniversary, there has been a lot of media coverage of Peake and Gormenghast recently. Here is a selection:
- In an article for Black Gate magazine, Matthew David Surridge analyses Peake’s novels.
- Michael Moorcock, China Miéville, Hilary Spurling and A L Kennedy celebrate Peake’s achievements in this Guardian article.
- This BBC News item tells how Peake was influenced by visiting Belsen.
- In a half-hour Radio 4 programme, Sebastian Peake, Brian Sibley and author Joanne Harris talk Peake’s influence and how he was inspired by Sark.
- The BBC has also just started a six-part adaptation of the books with Miranda Richardson as Lady Groan, James Fleet as Dr Prunesquallor and Tamsin Grieg as Irma Prunesquallor.
- The Mervyn Peake website contains lots more information.