Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in Kuling, Central Southern China, where his father was a medical missionary. Within a year, the family moved to the Northern city of Tientsin. Peake was educated at Tientsin Grammar School then at Eltham College in South East London. During the Second World War, whilst serving with the army, he established a reputation as a gifted book illustrator with his pictures for Ride a Cock Horse (1940), The Hunting of the Snark (1941) and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1943). Titus Groan was published in 1946 and was followed, in 1950, by Gormenghast and the third volume of the Gormenghast saga, Titus Alone, was published in 1959. His other works include Shapes and Sounds (1941), Rhymes Without Reasons (1944), Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and Mr Pye (1953) and a play, The Wit to Woo (1957). He died in 1958.
The middle and late nineteen-forties saw the appearance of a number of British works of literature which were quick to assume the status of 'classics - meaning eloquent, authoritative, definitive statements begotten by an epoch but speaking for more than an epoch. All who beguiled the bad days of the end of the war and the start of the peace by reading Four Quartets, The Unquiet Grave, Brideshead Revisited, The Loved One, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were aware that these books were only able to say what they did about the human permanencies because of the urgency enforced by the times. They all have in common the concise presentation of a world - Connolly's France, Waugh's alternatives of Catholic order and necropolitan despair, Orwell's two dystopias, Eliot's mystical 'still point' where history is redeemed by eternity. These worlds are built round a separable idea, which may be summed up as man's impotence to be good or happy without cherishing the values the war nearly quelled for ever. One book, however, resisted and still resists the shelling-out of a central sermon or warning. The world created in Titus Groan is neither better nor worse than this one: it is merely different. It has absorbed our history, culture and rituals and then stopped dead, refusing to move, self-feeding, self-motivating, self-enclosed. This is the world of Gormenghast.
Titus Groan, the first novel in a trilogy, appeared in 1946. Its author, Mervyn Peake, was then thirty-five. Critical response to the book was very favourable, in some instances ecstatic. Peake continued the fortunes of his hero and the elaboration of his hero's world in Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). Fine though these sequels are, they could not repeat the impact of the first book: 1946, year of austerity, was very ready for imaginative feasts. But, despite the praise of critics, Titus Groan never reached the widest possible public; it was destined to be something of a coterie obsession. Peake makes few appearances in histories of modern fiction, and one can see why. Unlike the vaunted post-war names, he does not seek - in his subject-matter - to probe topical themes like race, class and homosexuality or advance the frontiers of what we call the contemporary consciousness; in technique, he appears to look back rather than forward. His books nourish the private imagination: they do not exemplify the development of an art.
Peake has been praised, but he has also been mistrusted. His prose works are not easily classifiable: they are as unique as, say, the books of Peacock or Lovecraft are unique. Moreover, he has too many talents: he is a fine poet and a highly original draughtsman. The Peake style in illustration is inimitable, and it has been greatly imitated. He has, in his total mastery of the literary as well as the pictorial art, only one peer - Wyndham Lewis. Their aims in both arts could not be more dissimilar, but Peake and Lewis come together in an approach to descriptive writing which owes a great deal to the draughtsman's trade. If their books seem slow-moving, that is because of the immense solidity of their visual contents, the lack of interest in time and the compensatory obsession with filling up space. Titus Groan is aggressively three-dimensional. Look at the opening description of Gormenghast, where the term 'a certain ponderous architectural quality' exactly conveys what we are in for. But around the solidity is an extra dimension, one of magic, showing the poet as well as the draughtsman: 'This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.'
This sounds like 'Gothic' writing, but the term is inadequate. As we read Titus Groan, we seem to be given clues directing us towards the daylight of a literary category, but all the keys change into red herrings. Take the names of the characters, for instance - Nettel ('the octogenarian who lived in the tower above the rusting armoury'); Rottcodd, curator of the Hall of the Bright Carvings; Flay, Swelter, Steerpike, Mrs Slagg, Prunesquallor. These are fitting for a Peacock novel, for Dickens or for a comic children's story. They are farcical, but the mood is not one of easy laughter or even of airy fantasy: the ponderous architectural quality holds everything down, and we have to take the characters very seriously, despite their names. Nor is it appropriate to think in terms of a gallery of glorious eccentrics (a very British concept). Nobody flies away from a centre of normality; everybody belongs to a system built on very rigid rules.
The estate of Gormenghast is sustained by tradition and ritual. Lord Sepulchrave, the father of Titus, is instructed daily by Sourdust, lord of the library, in the acts he must perform. These are laid down in ancient books: 'the exact times; the garments to be worn for each occasion and the symbolic gestures to be used'. The whole ritualistic system is only properly understood by Sourdust - 'the technicalities demanding the devotion of a lifetime, though the sacred spirit of tradition implied by the daily manifestations was understood by all.' This same sacred spirit operates at all levels. Thus, the Great Kitchen is kept clean by eighteen men called the Grey Scrubbers, automata whose calling is predestined and hereditary. But it is out of the kitchen that a revolutionary force emerges - the youth Steerpike who, on his own admission, has a 'disrespectful nature'. He calls the Countess of Groan, that great lady who lives in a sea of white cats, 'the old Bunch of Rags'; he even calls the sun 'the old treacle bun'. Pulling the legs off a stag-beetle, slowly, one by one, he says: 'Equality is the great thing, equality is everything.' The worn-out radical arguments sound fresh and sinister in this closed world: 'Don't you think it's wrong of some people have to work and live in luxury?' Steerpike is one of the destroyers. He burns the library, killing its lord and sending Titus's father mad. There is a season of violence and murder. But Gormenghast remains, and the Warden of the Immemorial Rites proclaims Titus its seventy-seventh earl.
The book ends with its titular hero not yet two years old, but there is plenty of time for him: we have finished a mere third of the tripartite epic. And it is as we near the end of Titus Groan that we realize the propriety of applying the term 'epic' in an exact sense. The book is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction. The doomed ritual lord, the emergent hero, the castle, the hall of retainers, the mountain, the lake, the twisted trees, the strange creatures, the violent knives, the dark and the foreboding belong (however qualified by tea, muffins, tobacco and sherry wine) to a prehistoric England. And the magnificence of the language denotes an epic concept.
It is difficult, in post-war English writing, to get away with big rhetorical gestures. Peake manages it because, with him, grandiloquence never means diffuseness; there is no musical emptiness in the most romantic of his descriptions; he is always exact.
The roof of the Twisted Woods reflected the staring circle in a phosphorescent network of branches that undulated in the lower slopes of Gormenghast Mountain... Every blade of the grass was of consequence, and the few scattered stones held an authority that made their solid, separate marks upon the brain - each one with its own unduplicated shape: each rising brightly from the ink of its own spilling.
Occasionally, as in the book's peroration, he seems to go too far:
Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings... And there shall be a flame-green daybreak soon. And love itself will cry for insurrection!
But context is everything. The whole book is a gesture only too well aware that it goes too far; there is a certain built-in self-mockery, most evidently proclaimed in the grotesque names and titles. We are asked to accept conventions that is impossible to take seriously, but within those conventions the blood is genuinely moved or chilled. The husky purr of the Countess, her heavy body decked, thick as foliage, with birds conveys a shudder authentic enough: 'In Titus it's all centred. Stone and mountain - the Blood and the Observance. Let them touch him. For every hair they hurt I'll stop a heart. If grace I have when turbulence is over - so be it; and if not - what then?'
It is a complex book in that it evokes many layers of response: the sophisticated pleasure in consummate artifice, the more naďve enjoyment proper to a rather archaic romance, horror which is qualified by disbelief, a kind of 'camp' titillation, self-indulgence in 'Gothic' atmosphere, a genuine aesthetic elation induced by language finely used. It is an intellectual book, in which wit - in the old sense of cerebral play - operates at times when we expect only the nerves to be engaged: 'The Thing scraped the ceiling with its head and moved forward noiselessly in one piece. Having no human possibility of height, it had no height. It was not a tall ghost - it was immeasurable; Death walking like an element.' One is always aware of the cool control of the author's intelligence, even in the most romantic flights, maintaining, like an estate generator, the imagined world and excluding the real one. But is the real one totally excluded?
We have to go back to the year of the book's first appearance, the first year after a long and horrifying war, before we can answer that question. The attaching of a calf's skull to a dead Sourdust's vertebrae, the cat's claws ripping a 'crimson wedge' for Steerpike's cheek below the right eye, the fight between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders - these are not gratuitous Gothicism so much as reflections out of an era of horrors. The burning of hundreds of years of tradition and the madness of an earl deprived of his sustaining props of ritual - these seem to be symbols of the end of true, historical, centuries of order. But it would be dangerous to search too earnestly for the allegorical in Titus Groan. It remains essentially a work of the closed imagination, in which a world parallel to our own is presented in almost paranoiac denseness of detail. But the madness is illusory, and control never falters. It is, if you like, a rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature. There is no really close relative to it in all our prose literature. It is uniquely brilliant, and we are right to call it a modern classic.
Anthony Burgess on Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake books reviewed
Titus Groan is the Seventy Seventh Earl of Gormenghast in waiting and his birth begins this story and that of his rather eccentric family, their servants and the kingdom of...
- Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939)
- Shapes and Sounds (1941)
- Rhymes without Reason (1944)
- Titus Groan (1946)
- The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946)
- Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) (1948)
- Drawings by Mervyn Peake (1949)
- Gormenghast (1950)
- The Glassblowers (1950)
- Mr Pye (1953)
- Figures of Speech (1954)
- Titus Alone (1959)
- The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962)
- Poems and Drawings (1965)
- A Reverie of Bone and other Poems (1967)
- Selected Poems (1972)
- A Book of Nonsense (1972)
- The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1974)
- Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings (1974)
- Twelve Poems (1975)
- Boy in Darkness (1976)
- Peake's Progress (1978)
- Ten Poems (1993)
- Eleven Poems (1995)
- The Cave (1996)
- Boy in Darkness and other stories (2007)
- Collected Poems (2008)