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Peake, Mervyn

Category: Writer

Mervyn  Peake (1911 – 1968) was an English writer, artist, poet and illustrator. He exhibited with the Royal academy, designed stage sets, and illustrated numerous books.

But he is best known for what is usually referred to as the Gormenghast trilogy. The books are dark, surreal and open you into a disturbing world.  Gormenghast is of course pure fantasy, but so believable you can imagine it to exist.  It describes an entirely possible realm, complete, contained and sinister.  It is full of the demons of Peake's experiences.  It is not bleak, but it has evil and its characters are not likeable heroes, all innocence and goodness.  Innocence is quickly lost in Gormenghast.  All of the characters are anti-heroes in their own ways -  Titus, Steerpike, Fuchsia, Nannie Slagg, Lord Groan, Flay, Swelter, Barquentine, Countess Gertrude, twins, Cora and Clarice, and Dr Prunesquallor.

Peake also wrote poetry and literary nonsense in verse form, short stories for adults and children (Letters from a Lost Uncle), stage and radio plays, and Mr Pye, all of which when compared with Gormenghast are quite light – particularly Mr Pye which is about the problems of being angelic!  Mr Pye was set in the Channel Island of Sark where Peake lived for a time.

So what was it that produced this outpouring of genius and creativity?

Mervyn Peake with wife Meave

Peake was born of British parents in  central China in 1911 only three months before the revolution and the founding of the Republic of China. His father was a  missionary doctor and his mother a missionary assistant.  Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family left for England in December 1922 on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He married painter Maeve Gilmore in 1937. They had three children.

At the outbreak of World War II,  he was conscripted in the Army, where he served first with the Royal Artillery, then with the Royal Engineers. He began writing Titus Groan at this time.

Mervyn Peake with son Sebastian, 1940

In April 1942, after his requests for commissions as a war artist - or even leave to depict war damage in London - had been consistently refused, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to Southport Hospital. The next spring he was invalided out of the Army.

The five years between 1943 and 1948 were some of the most productive of his career. He finished Titus Groan and Gormenghast and completed some of his most acclaimed illustrations for books by other authors, including Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark, as well as producing many original poems, drawings, and paintings. 

Oh, but my, are his illustrations dark!  Compare his illustrations with Tenniels and the difference is obvious.  Peake had demons lodged everywhere in his mind.  A book of nonsense poems, Rhymes Without Reason, was published in 1944 and was described by John Betjeman as "outstanding".

Shortly after the war ended in 1945, he was commissioned by a magazine to visit France and Germany. With writer Tom Pocock he was among the first British civilians to witness the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen, where the remaining prisoners, too sick to be moved, were dying before his very eyes. He made several drawings, but not surprisingly he found the experience profoundly harrowing, and expressed in deeply felt poems, the ambiguity of turning their suffering into art.

In 1956, Mervyn and Maeve visited Spain, financed by a friend who hoped that Peake's health, which was already declining, would be improved by the holiday. That year his novella Boy in Darkness was published.

Peake placed much hope in his play The Wit To Woo which was finally staged in London's West End in 1957, but it was a critical and commercial failure. This affected him greatly – his health degenerated rapidly and he was again admitted to hospital with a nervous breakdown.

He was showing unmistakable early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, for which he was given electroconvulsive therapy, to little avail. Over the next few years he gradually lost the ability to draw.

Titus Alone was published in 1959. The last of the Gormenghast books.

In the late 1950s, while writing Titus Alone, Peake's health subsequently declined into physical and mental incapacitation, and he died on 17 November 1968 at a care home run by his brother in law.

 Gormenghast has since been translated into more than two dozen languages.

References

  • Titus Groan (1946)
  • Gormenghast (1950)
  • Titus Alone (1959)
  • Poems and Drawings (1965)
  • Selected Poems (1972)
  • Boy in Darkness and other stories
  • The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1974)
  • Drawings by Mervyn Peake (1949)

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