The mind behind strange, Gothic Gormenghast


A hundred years ago tomorrow, Mervyn Laurence Peake, the author of the ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, was born. He lives on still in his surreal masterpiece of comedy, gloom and grotesque

GORMENGHAST: IT is a castle, vast and forbidding, not an easy place in which to live, tied as it is to impossible rituals, but even more difficult to escape, as the 77th earl, Titus Groan, lord and heir to it all, discovers. The same could be said of the strange, Gothic Gormenghast trilogy written by the artist and poet Mervyn Laurence Peake, who was born in China 100 years ago tomorrow. Themes of power, duty and freedom dominate the self- contained set pieces, and the reader is caught up in a visual maze that is grotesque, often funny and desperately profound.

No one forgets the 1,000-page Gormenghast; the text lives on in the mind because of its extraordinary images, the physicality of long, gloomy stone passageways and characters that live off the page, particularly the scheming Steerpike, the boy who fights his way out of the castle’s kitchens and grasps control through a series of cunning moves.

Unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a cohesive narrative spanning three volumes constructed around a quest with a difference, the disposal of a dangerous ring, Gormenghastis concerned with the static faced with change, with passivity confronted by action and ultimately, in young Titus, an unlikely hero who simply wants to flee his world, as he does at the end of the second book. Tolkien’s work is very English; Peake’s is more European.

Peake was the second son of English medical missionaries based in China. Early in life he learned to live in his imagination. He often watched his father at work, healing the sick and performing operations.

The family sustained an English middle-class life in a purpose-built western-style compound in northern China. The boy listened to the Mandarin being spoken all around him yet read everything he could about the home he heard about but had never seen: England. He read adventures and first encountered Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel Peake was to love all his life, while living there. Eventually, in 1949, he would illustrate an edition of it.

Echoes of Stevenson’s vision, plus the grotesque humour of Lewis Carroll, are there to be seen in Gormenghast, as is the stylistic presence of a giant, Charles Dickens. But as for the rites and rituals that take place in the castle at the heart of Peake’s great yarn, they were as inspired by childhood visits to Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the experience of observing the ancient traditions and rigid customs that shaped Chinese life, as they were by his interest in English Gothic.

Peake arrived in England at the age of 11, when his father took leave. But his mother, who suffered from heart disease, became seriously ill, and the Peakes never returned to China. Peake senior opened a medical practice in Surrey. Mervyn went to school at Eltham College, in Kent, where most of the pupils were the sons of missionaries. Mervyn was a poor student, and often unruly, but he did have an exceptional talent – drawing – which was noted by an art teacher who proved to be his saviour.

After a few weeks at Croydon School of Art, Peake was accepted for a five-year course at the Royal Academy Schools, in Piccadilly. He completed three and a half years before leaving to help his former Eltham art teacher establish an artists’ colony on the Channel Island of Sark. He quickly took to a life of painting on the beach, and it suited his maverick temperament. But when work he had exhibited impressed the principal of Westminster School of Art, he was offered a teaching job in London. Peake was attracting attention and was still only 22. (A recent memoir, Under a Canvas Sky, by one of his three children, his daughter, Clare, gives some sense of Peake at this time.)

At the college Peake met a sculpture student, Maeve Gilmore, and despite her parents’ objections the couple married in 1937. In July 1940, by which time he had become father to a son, Sebastian, he was called up; he served as a driving instructor and as a cookhouse orderly. It was during this boring period in his life that he began writing Titus Groan, the opening book of what would be his Gormenghasttrilogy. A second son, Fabian, was born.

Less than a year later, Peake had suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged from the army. He was not a natural soldier and had a sloppy attitude to uniforms and military protocol. Yet he was interested in serving his country – only in a way more suited to his talents. A magazine commission saw him travel to Germany in the company of a journalist whose reports Peake would illustrate. In June 1945, Peake visited Belsen and drew some of the surviving inmates of the newly liberated concentration camp, including one as she died. The experience affected him. He and his wife and sons moved to Sark, where Clare was born; they stayed there for almost four years before settling in London in 1950.

WHILE PEAKE ANDhis wife lived the lives of bohemian artists, his fictional world was very different. Lord Sepulchrave Groan, the 76th lord of Gormenghast and father of young Titus, is very subdued as the novel opens. He has retreated into silence and has no one except his loyal servant Flay, one of Peake’s finest creations. “Flay was muttering to himself as he walked up and down an endless grey passage, his knee joints, like a clock, ticking off his every step.”

Lord Groan’s vast wife, Countess Gertrude, devoted to her army of cats and to any wild bird that passes, has just given birth to a son. This event has been presided over by the talkative, ever-laughing family doctor, Prunesquallor, brother of the deranged spinster Irma, who eventually finds a husband in an ancient schoolmaster. The birth of young Titus offers some relief to Lord Groan, in that he now has an heir. It is of little interest to the child’s mother. Far more upset by the new arrival is Princess Fuchsia, now stricken with jealousy.

Peake populates the castle with many angry people. Flay hates the chief Swelter, and the feelings are mutual. All the while clever, evil Steerpike is feeding on the individual dislikes and feuds, including the resentments shared by Lord Groan’s stupid twin sisters.

Ultimately, Steerpike orchestrates a fire in the library to stage a self-serving feat of heroism. The blaze causes the death of the old librarian, who is replaced by his 70-year-old, one-legged son, Barquentine. Peake writes with flair and comic abandon. He loves grotesque detail, particularly when describing his characters. Yet there are passages of surreal beauty. Lord Groan is the quietest individual in a novel of loud voices and expansive gestures, and, aside from his son Titus, who remains an infant throughout the first book, he is the most sympathetic.

“The loss of his library had been a blow so pulverising that he had not yet begun to suffer the torment . . . He sensed instinctively that his only hope lay in turning his mind as often as possible from the tragedy and in applying himself unstintingly to the routine of the day . . . Books which he loved not only for their burden, but intrinsically, for varying qualities of paper and print, kept reminding him that they were no longer to be fingered and read . . . the most searching loss of all, the hours of rumination which lifted him above himself and bore him upon their muffled and enormous wings.”

Gormenghast(1950), the second volume, opens when Titus, “suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual”, is seven. Peake has no difficulty killing off his characters. He also explores exile and betrayal. But Titus becomes obsessed with freedom, and fights for it.

A surreal, imaginative energy sustains the Gormenghasttrilogy, although the third volume, Titus Alone(1959), was put together from three different drafts. By then Peake was enduring the agony of Parkinson’s disease, which turned his body into a prison. It is ironic that so much of the gnarled and twisted imagery that features in his depiction of his characters was to be replicated in his own contorted limbs until his death, on November 17th, 1968, at the age of 57. Titus survives and succeeds.