20th C. novelist, poet, artist and illustrator, 1911-1968.

Mervyn Laurence Peake was born in China on July 9, 1911. He was educated at Tientsin Grammar School, and after his family returned to England, Eltham College and the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man he worked primarily as a painter and illustrator. Peake lived on the island of Sark in the English Channel between 1933-1935, which at the time was known as an artists' retreat. Here he met his wife and lifelong companion, fellow artist Maeve Gilmore. His creative career covers several fields and there is some overlap, but the main aspects of it are described below.

Author

Peake produced a number of novels, children's books and volumes of poetry during his lifetime, frequently providing his own illustrations. *the website Mervynpeake.org indicates that this was originally serialised in Country Life in 1939.

For Gormenghast and his poem The Glassblowers, he won the 1950 W. H. Heinemann Prize given by the Royal Society of Literature.

The 1957 play 'A Wit To Woo' sadly bombed, an event which was severely detrimental to Peake's outlook and confidence in his work. Around this time, compacted by his depression and the stress of writing to support his family, Peake began to experience symptoms of physical and mental deterioration that have since been attributed to the onset of Parkinson's Disease. (Langdon Jones suggests Alzheimer's Disease.) For the next decade he fought against this illness, in the first years still attempting to continue with his work, until his eventual death on November 17, 1968.

Illustrator

Peake illustrated over 20 books (other than his own) between 1940 and 1961, including a number of classics such as The Hunting of The Snark, The Ancient Mariner, The Swiss Family Robinson, Alice In Wonderland and Treasure Island.

Peake's illustrations were commonly rendered in a very fine, cross-hatched style using ink on paper (and a razor blade in service of an eraser). His characters are often drawn with exaggerated profiles, using severe geometric shapes and unnaturally elongated curves for chins, foreheads and mouths. For Gormenghast especially, his characters' physical appearance is an extension of their personality- for instance the Prunesquallors' weak chins and fanciful birdlike noses, or Steerpike's sunken eyes and thick brow, giving him an appearance of dispassionate brooding menace.

War Artist

In 1943 Peake took up a role as a war artist, with the support of the British Ministry of Information. After an initial domestic assignment (painting the glassblowers at a Birmingham factory), he was sent to the continent where he eventually witnessed the liberation of Belsen in 1945. The horrors that Peake witnessed there have a definite influence on parts of his later work (notably Titus Alone).

Gormenghast

Peake's most enduring legacy is his Gormenghast trilogy of 'gothic' novels (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone). These chart the early life of Titus Groan, heir to an ancient, tradition-bound castle called Gormenghast. Although at first seemingly entirely fantastical and eccentric in its setting, Gormenghast is at its core a calculated response to the world events Peake was witnessing unfold.

The first two parts detail the rise to power of a usurper called Steerpike, who, from the humble beginnings as a kitchen boy insinuates himself into the life of the castle and murders his way almost to the top before being unmasked and vanquished by the teenage Titus. This has been interpreted by some as an allegory for the events of the 1940's, where political upheaval destabilised the deeply rooted societal norms that had been encumbent in Europe until that time.

The third book (Titus Alone) sees Titus abdicate, unable to face a life of preordained ritual that had driven his father mad and dominated the life of everyone he knew. In the outside world he encounters the wonders and horrors of the modern age, so totally disconnected from his isolated heritage that he begins to doubt his own memory and sanity. This outside world is held in thrall by the Factory, an embodiment of evil as an industrious force striving for progress at any mortal cost. As you can see, parts of this third installment allude very unambiguously to Peake's experiences during the war.

The initial work on Titus Groan, the first part of the trilogy, was undertaken to alleviate the tedium of a clerical job during the war. Peake drafted each episode of the story in a collection of notebooks, with the text frequently interspersed with sketches of the characters and many other notable visual elements that populated Gormenghast and the world outside its borders, some of which were used as illustrations for the books. There are few fictional settings that can boast such a density of descriptive prose and wealth of visual material allowing such a comprehensive account of the authors invention, in attitude, form and texture, to be conveyed to the reader.

Peake worked with great urgency to complete the final part of the trilogy, as he was already suffering the effects of his final illness by this time (see below). Peake wrote and re-wrote the same sections of the book over and over again, eventually delivering it to his publisher in a fragmented, contradictory state. After Peake's death, it came to light that parts of the original manuscript had been omitted from the book that had been published in 1959. A new version, reconstructed by Langdon Jones using the original sources (typescript and notebooks) was published in 1970.

Legacy

Much of Peake's work gained him only modest critical and commercial success during his lifetime, but was rediscovered by a new audience during the latter half of the twentieth century and is now at last being given the recognition it richly deserves.

In the year 2000, the BBC adapted the first two books of the Gormenghast trilogy as a four part television drama (see Gormenghast), which met with mixed reviews but was warmly received by Peake's son Sebastian.


Sources:

Editor's notes (Langdon Jones) - Titus Alone revised edition, 1970
http://www.mervynpeake.org/
http://www.themodernword.com/
http://www.langdonjones.com/mpeake.html
Peake's notebooks, on display during 2000-2001 at University College London Library.

Maeve Gilmore's book, A World Away, is recommended by the above sources as offering a valuable insight into Peake's life and work. I have not read it yet myself but pass on this recommendation to anyone interested in learning more about him.

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