Our final Gothic Reading Group session in the current 2013-14 schedule takes place this week. After a journey through various Gothic (and not so Gothic) texts and other materials from the eighteenth-century to the present day, we're finishing by tackling something suitably momentous: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast 'trilogy.' We'll be focussing on the first installment, Titus Groan, in this session, but it's worthwhile knowing something more about the series as a whole and the life and times of its author. Thankfully, Lauren Nixon is more than happy to share her considerable passion for all things Peake and Gormenghast related. Read on...
Introducing Mervyn Peake
Before I begin this blog properly, I must make a confession: I have a portrait of Mervyn Peake in my bedroom. Not a print or a postcard, but a portrait. Specifically, it is a 50cm by 45cm canvas print of a self-portrait that currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. I would like to point out that I didn’t buy it for myself- it was a leaving gift from work friends who knew me much too well. Mostly because they were there when we visited the National Portrait Gallery and they saw me ‘fangirl’ when I spotted this painting. It looks like this:
As you can see, it is glorious. At least I think so, but most people don’t agree, which is why it’s hung in a gap between my bedroom door and my wardrobe, so you can only see it from my bed (which sounds extremely creepy, now I type it out). The point is, I really love Mervyn Peake. So it’s entirely possible that what I intended to be a semi-academic blog about why I enjoy his work so much will become the ode of a crazed fan.
Mervyn Peake was a man with a fascinating life. Born in 1911, to missionary parents in the Kiang-Hsi Province, China, Peake spent the first twelve years of his life in Tientsin, where his father ran the hospital. The Peakes lived a compound that Mervyn later described as a ‘world surrounded by a wall.’ The compound was Western, as spot of Britain on foreign soil, whilst beyond the wall was China: two very different, contrasting worlds. In 1922 the Peakes returned to England, where Mervyn finished his education and in 1929 enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts. Though Peake is now best known for his literary works, he was a talented and passionate artist.
Over the next few years his work at the Academy gained recognition and in 1933 he was invited by Eric Drake to join an artist’s colony on the island of Sark. Peake’s reputation was as something of an eccentric, known for wearing ‘effeminate’ clothes (and for once punching a man who called them so), capes and earrings. In her account of their first meeting his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paints him as a vibrant, colourful and creative figure. But the Peake of the early 1930’s, whose first married home was an artist’s studio and who was friends with Dylan Thomas (Peake once leant him a suit, which was far too big for Thomas and never returned) soon became a slightly more sombre figure when he applied to work as a war artist. Though the job was initially unfulfilling, it was during his time in service that Peake began to pen his first novel, Titus Groan and in 1945, as a war artist, he was amongst the first to visit the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. The work produced from the visit, both poetry and artwork (including drawings of dying inmates), held something much deeper and darker than Peake’s earlier, more jovial work. As with any writer, I suppose, it’s easy to trace Mervyn Peake’s experiences as man in the novels he produced. The exotic China of his early childhood, the strange yet familiar nature of life on Sark and the darker side of humanity exposed by WWII are all visible in his short stories, his illustrations and his most famous work, the Gormenghast series.
Titus Groan, the first book in the trilogy, was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1946, followed by Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959. It is a series that many critics have found notoriously difficult to pin down, and as such, there’s fairly little academic work discussing these novels. The series's heart is it’s titular castle, Gormenghast, a huge, sprawling, ancient beast that Peake depicts not as building, constructed by man, but as a living entity. For those that live within it and around it, Gormenghast is all encompassing, as ancient at is vast. Its shadow reaches over every dwelling in its power:
Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of the Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
In many ways, Gormenghast functions in the tradition of the classic Gothic castle. Though once mighty, its magnificence is crumbling and much of its history has been forgotten, yet it seems limitless. For its three young central characters, Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast whose birth opens the novel of the same name, his elder sister, Fuschia, and the upstart anti hero, Steerpike, the castle is a prison that suffocates and stifles. Yet Gormenghast, in my many, many readings, has always felt like something more than the classic Gothic castle. It certainly looks like a classic Gothic castle, but does it feel like one? To me, Gormenghast has felt less like a castle and more like a god- and not a particularly benevolent one. Gormenghast entraps and entwines its people within an endless cycle of ritual and routine, it demands total devotion and it rages against those who would defy it. Of course these are still themes we associate with the Gothic, but more often with people than wirh castles. I’m sure this is something that we will debate come the reading groups session on the texts - seeing as we are a Gothic reading group and therefore every time we meet it’s the law that we ask the question ‘Is it Gothic?’ (I wonder how many more times I can type Gothic in one paragraph? Gothic!).
Be it Gothic or not, the series is twisted and wonderful, though tainted with tragedy in its final volume. The Mervyn Peake of Titus Groan and Gormenghast who conjured such magnificent characters and painted with words as vividly as he did with oils was not the Mervyn Peake who wrote Titus Alone. Titus Alone is a deviation from its two predecessors; whilst Titus Groan and Gormenghast explores the way in which Gormenghast commands the lives of its people and the struggles of its young leads to identify themselves and separate themselves from the castles rituals, Gormenghast features only once in Titus Alone. The book's intention is to delve deep into the psyche of the rebel Earl, Titus and to watch him as he struggles to define himself in a world where no one has ever heard of Gormenghast. But by the time Peake came to write the book, his health was degenerating rapidly and the electroconvulsive therapy he received seemed only to worsen the situation. By the time Titus Alone was published, Peake's mental state was in decline and he struggled to hold a pen, let alone draw. The first publication of the novel was poorly edited and not corrected until the 1970’s.
At this point, I’m realising that this blog is much longer than I had anticipated it being. I could say a thousand more things, but I’m going to save them for the session- so you’ll just have to all come along to hear my words of wisdom/ fanatical ravings. What I would like to close on, is a recommendation. Mervyn Peake created a world like nothing else I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and his creative output is truly extraordinary. The man possessed a unique way with both words and pictures, and if you are going to do the right thing and at least read Titus Groan, make sure your copy has illustrations. And if yourcuriosity is peaked (that’s right, I went there, I made the pun) then you can find copies of Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and Grimm’s Fairy Tales still in the shops, as well as collected editions of his short works and poetry such as Peake’s Progress.
And remember: 'There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast.’
Oh look. Here’s a an ink drawing of Fuchsia Groan? Isn’t all dark and what not? Yes? Go read Gormenghast. You know you want to.
Lauren Nixon is the author of several books on Jane Austen and a PhD student in the school of English. Did her pun make you Groan?