Titus Groan, 1946
Mr. Pye, 1953
Titus Alone, 1959
The Gormenghast Trilogy, 1967 (includes Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone)
Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 1942
Letters from a Lost Uncle, 1948
The Wit to Woo, pr. 1957
Shapes and Sounds, 1941
Rhymes Without Reason, 1944
The Glassblowers, 1950
The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, 1962
Poems and Drawings, 1965
A Reverie of Bone, and Other Poems, 1967
Selected Poems of Mervyn Peake, 1972
A Book of Nonsense, 1972
The Craft of the Lead Pencil, 1946
Drawings by Mervyn Peake, 1949
The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, 1974
Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, 1974
Mervyn Laurence Peake, painter, poet, and novelist, is one of the most interesting English artists–visual and literary–of the twentieth century. He was born in Kuling, China, in 1911. His father, Ernest Cromwell Peake, was a Congregational missionary doctor, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, of Welsh background, had come to China as a missionary nurse. The Peakes returned to England just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 but went again in 1916 to China, where they remained until 1923. Mervyn Peake never returned to China, but critics have suggested that his most famous work, The Gormenghast Trilogy, was influenced by his youthful experience of living in China as a foreigner, where he was affected by both its squalor and its exoticism. Back in England, he enrolled at Eltham College, where he remained until 1929. Although better as an athlete than as a scholar, he impressed his teachers with his artistic abilities. He enjoyed his public school days, and in the Gormenghast novels, the customs and protocols of school life were re-created.
After leaving Eltham, Peake studied at various London art schools. Tall, thin, and intense, he soon began exhibiting his work and taking part in the London art world–designing costumes, drawing illustrations for a proposed book, selling his own paintings, and writing poetry. He spent time on the island of Sark and then became a teacher at the Westminster School of Art. There he met Maeve Gilmore, also the child of a doctor. They were married in 1937 and had three children. It was a close and nourishing relationship despite a perennial lack of money, frequent moves, and, ultimately, the deteriorating state of Peake’s health. Initially, Peake was an artist and an illustrator who also wrote verse. In 1940, however, while in the British army, he began to write what became his first novel, Titus Groan. It was an arduous process. An unlikely soldier, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. After becoming a government artist, he drew sketches of prisoners at the Belsen concentration camp. In 1946 his novel was published, followed by the second volume, Gormenghast, in 1950, and in 1959, after his health had seriously failed, Titus Alone. The three volumes were later published as a trilogy, but Peake had envisioned further episodes in the life of Titus Groan, and the last volume would undoubtedly have been different if Peake’s abilities had not begun to wane.
The work has been variously described as a gothic fantasy, a pseudomedieval romance, a poetic masterpiece, a fairy tale, a fable, and a nightmare. It is peopled with grotesque figures that easily could have come from the pens of Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. The central and dominating character, however, is not Titus or any other human figure but the castle, Gormenghast, which permeates and envelops the various personalities, their lives and conflicts, especially in the first two volumes. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast, there is not much in Peake’s created world outside the castle, which is run according to long-prescribed rituals, rituals which are to be unquestioningly obeyed if not rationally understood. Most obey, but not the villain, Steerpike, who desires power over Gormenghast and its people and who is willing to manipulate the rituals to gain that power, nor Titus, who becomes the seventy-seventh earl of Groan, and whose own story is a story of growth, discovery, rebellion, maturity, and freedom. The first volume ends shortly after Titus’s birth, the second tells his tale from the age of seven to seventeen, and the third sees Titus alone, gone from the castle into the outside world of the near future, a world of perverted science and mechanical destruction.
One critic described the work as an artist’s vision put into words. Peake provided illustrations for his characters, but his writing is so lush and brilliant that his drawings remain secondary to his prose. His inspirations were probably many: his childhood in China, his love for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island, his school days at Eltham, his experience on Sark. An eccentric himself as an adult, he created one of the most unusual locales in twentieth century literature in Gormenghast Castle. Titus Groan and Gormenghast were critical but not commercial successes. Concerned about the need for financial security, Peake placed his hopes in the success of a play he wrote, The Wit to Woo, but it failed, and in 1957 he suffered another breakdown. Titus Alone was published two years later, and in the opinion of many critics it is a lesser work, doubtless diminished because of Peake’s disability. He was diagnosed as a victim of Parkinson’s disease or perhaps premature senility; he was ultimately forced into a sanatorium, where he died in 1968.
By that time, a Peake cult was well under way, inspired in part by the great popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). Peake, however, as many pointed out, was no Tolkien, and the differences were considerable. Peake’s characters, more grotesque than Tolkien’s, are also more ambiguous. There are no happy endings in the Gormenghast books, and there probably would not have been any even if Peake had survived to write more. Peake’s works have also been compared to E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922) and his other epic fantasies, although Eddison portrays the values of a heroic society covering a vaster panorama and Peake’s unheroic universe is confined to a castle. Ultimately, perhaps Peake’s trilogy is best described and appreciated as the unique accomplishment of an eccentric individual and thus not easily classifiable in the history of literature.