Mervyn PEAKE

Nationality: English
Place of Birth: Kuling, Central China

Genre(s): Science fiction; Poetry

Award(s): Heinemann Award for Literature, 1951, for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers.

Table of Contents:
Personal Information
Media Adaptations
Further Readings About the Author

Personal Information:
Family: Born July 9, 1911, in Kuling, Central China; moved to England in 1923; died of Parkinson's Disease, November 18, 1968, in Burcot, Oxfordshire, England; son of Ernest Cromwell (a doctor and missionary) and Elizabeth (Powell) Peake; married Maeve Gilmore (a painter), 1937; children: Sebastian, Fabian, Clare.
Education: Attended Eltham College and Royal Academy Schools.
Memberships: Royal Society of Literature (fellow). Addresses: Home: 1 Drayton Gardens, London S.W. 10, England.
Agent: David Higham Associates, 76 Dean St., Soho, London W.1, England.
Author, poet, art teacher, painter. Military service: British Army; served as engineer and official military artist during World War II; commissioned by a magazine to visit the Continent shortly after the war had ended, made drawings at German concentration camp at Belsen.
Writings by the Author:
(Self-illustrated) Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1942, Macmillan, 1967.

The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, Grey Walls Press, 1945.

Titus Groan (also see below), Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946.

(Self-illustrated) Craft of the Lead Pencil, Wingate, 1946.

(Self-illustrated) Letters from a Lost Uncle, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948.

Gormenghast (also see below), Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950, reprinted, Overlook, 1991.

Mr. Pye, Heinemann, 1953, Overlook Press, 1984.

"The Wit to Woo," first produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1958.

Titus Alone (also see below), Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959, new edition, 1970, reprinted Overlook Press, 1992.

The Gormenghast Trilogy (contains Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone), Weybright & Talley, 1967, Overlook Press, 1988, reprinted as The Gormenghast Novels, Overlook Press, 1995.

(With Brian W. Aldiss and J. G. Ballard) The Inner Landscape, Allison & Busby, 1969.

Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, edited by wife, Maeve Gilmore, and Shelagh Johnson, St. Martin's, 1974.

Boy in Darkness, Exeter, 1976.

Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, edited by M. Gilmore, Allen Lane, 1979, Overlook Press, 1981.

Shapes and Sounds, Chatto & Windus, 1940, reprinted, Village Press, 1974.

The Glassblowers, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1945.

(Self-illustrated) Rhymes without Reason, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948.

(Self-illustrated) Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, Dent, 1962, Dufour, 1973.

Poems and Drawings, Keepsake Press, 1965.

A Reverie of Bone, and Other Poems, Bertram Rota, 1967.

A Book of Nonsense, Owen, 1972.

Selected Poems of Mervyn Peake, Faber, 1972.

Twelve Poems: 1939-1960, Bran's Head Books, 1975.

Also illustrator of numerous books.
Media Adaptations:
Titus Groan, Mr. Pye, and Rhyme of the Flying Bomb were adapted as radio plays; Peake's poems were adapted by James Milton and Polly Pen for the musical "Songs on a Shipwrecked Sofa," c. 1987.
Mervyn Peake's most popular work is the Gormenghast Trilogy, a singular gothic fantasy of tremendous proportions that is made up of the books Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone. A writer for the London Times described the trilogy as "an immensely long and detailed description of a house and its inhabitants who never could have existed, but are presented with such art that the reader cannot doubt their reality." R. G. G. Price of Punch thought that the trilogy is "about a closed world set in a vast castle governed by ancient rituals and peopled by eccentrics." Writing in Critical Quarterly, Ronald Binns stated that Titus Groan is "concerned with [the] lavish description of the decaying world of the castle and its environs, together with the dramatisation of a range of weird and eccentric characters." Speaking of the trilogy as a whole, he wrote: "It belongs to no obvious tradition [and] lacks an ordered structure." In similar terms, Michael Wood wrote in the Observer that Titus Groan "is impossible to describe and therefore hard to recommend coherently." Ducan Fallowell of Books and Bookmen marvelled that Peake "can describe a rafter in two thousand words without introducing anything extraneous such as a pillar or even a beam, or boring you. . . . Two thousand words on a rafter? Which is only part of a roof, you know. And Peake describes the whole roof and the castle of which it is a part, a castle five miles long, describes all of it, and what goes on in and around it. Strange."
The trilogy chronicles the life of Titus Groan from his birth to maturity, although, as Robert Ostermann wrote in the National Observer, "to speak of these novels as being `about' anything is as inadequate as saying The Odyssey is about a man trying to get home to his wife. Such fiction as this is first and foremost about itself. These novels are not an echo or an imitation of life. Their life is their own--a bizarre, often awe-full life. And it imposes itself with obsessive force on the reader." Wood found that Peake "presents a world which, like Kafka's, demands to be discussed in its own terms--the reverse of an allegory. It is a world of fantasy,. . . a closed, self-sufficient creation." Price echoed this judgment: "The books must be appreciated on their own terms outside the normal categories of fiction as a gigantic feat of sustained invention, a vicarious dream of extraordinary vividness, [and] a triumph of visual writing."
Writing in a lively prose, Peake populated his trilogy with a host of unique and colorful characters. "The people in Titus Groan," Lin Carter wrote in Imaginary Worlds, "are monstrous caricatures portrayed with the gusto and violent energy of a Dickens." Philip Guerrard of City of San Francisco agreed that Peake used "Dickensian caricature." Stephen J. Laut believed that "the characters are as wild a collection of grotesques as one could find." "Mr. Peake's style," Ruth Teiser of the San Francisco Chronicle commented, "is marvelous to a degree. . . . His inventiveness, his ingenuity, and his humor are astonishing." Carter praised "the florid richness of the prose," while Ostermann noted Peake's "language and scenes [ that] combine the lyrical and the monstrous."

Overall, the Gormenghast Trilogy is highly considered by several critics. Price called it an "odd minor masterpiece," and Ostermann judged it "an eccentric, poetic masterpiece." R. G. Davis of the New York Times remarked that "Peake liberates and elevates as well as charms." Writing in the Spectator, J. W. M. Thompson stated that Peake has "a secure place among that precious line of originals . . . who resist classification and fashion, and go their own ways."

Further Readings about the Author:
Batchelor, John, Mervyn Peake: A Biographical and Critical Exploration, Gerald Duckworth, 1974.

Carter, Lin, Imaginary Worlds, Ballantine, 1973.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume VII, 1977, Volume LIV, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 15: British Novelists, 1930-1959, Gale, 1983.

Gardiner-Scott, Tanya J., Mervyn Peake: The Evolution of a Dark Romantic, P. Lang, 1989.

Gilmore, Maeve, A World Away: A Memoir, Gollancz, 1970.

Gilmore, M. and Shelagh Johnson, editors, Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, St. Martin's, 1974.

Mervyn Peake, 1911-1968, National Book League, 1972.

Metzger, Arthur, A Guide to the Gormenghast Trilogy, T-K Graphics, 1976.

Watney, John Basil, Mervyn Peake, St. Martin's, 1976.

Winnington, G. Peter, Vast Alchemies: the life and works of Mervyn Peake, Peter Owen, 2000

Best Sellers, November 1, 1967.

Books and Bookmen, February, 1969, March, 1972, April, 1976, April, 1979.

Book World, January 7, 1968.

Cambridge Review, November 23, 1973.

City of San Francisco, February 17, 1976.

Contemporary Review, April, 1968.

Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1979.

Detroit News, September 13, 1981.

Listener, December 19, 1974.

National Observer, November 6, 1967, December 11, 1967.

New Statesman, January 26, 1968, November 8, 1974, December 20, 1974, February 16, 1979.

New York Times, November 19, 1968, June 4, 1987.

Observer, April 14, 1968, September 27, 1970, January 28, 1979.

Revue des Langues Vivantes, Number 40, 1974.

Saturday Review, December 16, 1967.

Spectator, December 29, 1967, January 26, 1968, November 11, 1972.

Studio, September, 1946.

Times (London), November 19, 1968, August 5, 1978.

Times Literary Supplement, June 25, 1970, April 21, 1972, January 26, 1973, April 4, 1975.

Unisa English Studies, Volume XII, Number 1, 1974.*

Source: amended from Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 1999.
Gale Database: Contemporary Authors
1999 The Gale Group. All rights reserved.