Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Mervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies: The Definitive Illustrated Biography - G. Peter Winnington COMPARING BIOGRAPHIES OF PEAKE

This is a fascinating, passionate, exhaustively researched, illustrated - but eminently readable - biography of Peake, focusing on how his life affected his works (both written and drawn/painted).

Of the four other biographies I've read, this is the one that is best for understanding his oeuvre. It has two forewords, acknowledgements, a preface, a bibliography and detailed notes; all are worth reading. It also has an index. This edition is well illustrated with photos and copies of Peake's art. For those who know him as an author, the latter may be particularly welcome. It certainly made me more aware of how many books he illustrated.

For understanding the man himself, from a more personal angle, I recommend the biographies by his widow (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/487563887) and daughter (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/258608942). In particular, Winnington's book says very little about Peake's long years of illness, which fits the purpose of this, but is painfully portrayed in the other two.


The glorious title is taken from one of Peake's poems, "Coloured Money", an excerpt of which is quoted at the start of the book:
"O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown
To prance immune amongst vast alchemies,
To prance! and laugh! my heart and throat and eyes
Emptied of all
Their golden gall."

"Vast alchemy" also relates to glassblowing (Peake's famous pictures and poems about "The Glassblowers", who made cathode ray tubes for radio detection and ranging) and, by analogy, the creation of mankind.


Rather than a traditional review, I will use this space to summarise key aspects and events of Peake's life and how they are (or might be) reflected in his works.

This does mean it includes minor spoilers.


Peake was born in China to Methodist missionary parents, where his father was a doctor. Peake lived there until he was 11 and it is easy to see many links with Gormenghast. The danger is perhaps of reading too many parallels, but anyway, examples include:

* Dr Peake was cooped up in a walled city during the Boxer uprising - and contemplated escape by rope.
* Items in the Hall of Bright Carvings are described as "in narrowing perspective like the highway for an Emperor" and Dr Peake had photos of such routes.
* Confucius was the 77th of his line, inherited the title Duke, lived in a mansion (later destroyed by fire), was devoted to ritual, and went into exile. (He also had a wet-nurse, though I think this less significant than Winnington does, as it was common in such families at the time.)
* Peake spent his formative years in a walled hospital compound in Tientsin, with summer trips by palanquin to a cooler hill station at Kuling.
* At home, the attic (Fuchsia) and space under the stairs (Titus) were special places.
* He witnessed an epic flood (2 metres deep).
* The geography of the hospital compound has close parallels with Gormenghast, including wastelands in the north and salt marshes in the south.
* The subsequent family home in England was filled with Chinese artifacts.
* He held a pencil more like a Chinese calligraphy brush than a Western writing/drawing tool.


China was not the only influence:

* The headmaster of his English school, Eltham College, is apparently recognisable as Bellgrove.
* Jacob Epstein's first wife was probably an inspiration for Countess Groan.
* His daughter says in her memoirs (referenced above) that Fuchsia was inspired by Maeve as a girl - though the fact she watches her father's descent into apparent madness more closely echoes Clare's own experience.
* "The House of Darkstones" was a precursor, and the first three chapters are included in "Peake's Progress" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/181923906).
* I've always thought the first two Titus books are primarily about place and Winnington says "Once Mervyn had imagined Gormenghast, the place itself generated characters to inhabit it, and the story-line came only after that".
* Winnington makes a brave attempt to summarise the plot on page 149 (worth comparing with Peake's preliminary notes, on page 161).
* "Titus Groan" was written in army barracks, during WW2, where his duties included "roofspotting" (looking out for bombs) and time in the cookhouse. It was continued after a nervous breakdown.
* Peake signed a letter "Alias Steerpike".
* Peake's favourite Dickens was "Bleak House", in which an irate character says, "I should like to throw a cat at you".
* He originally planned about 60 illustrations for each Titus book.
* In early versions of "Titus Groan", there were whole chapters in the present tense for no apparent reason. In the published version, the present is (mostly) reserved for reveries.
* Graeme Greene (a friend) criticised "Titus Groan" for its wordiness and lots of other things, but Peake acted on many of his suggestions.
* Peake said of "Titus Groan", "It is, and it is not, a dream". So that clears that up. ;)
* Initial reviews of "Titus Groan" were not enthusiastic, with the exception of novelist Elizabeth Bowen who perceptively said "I predict for Titus a smallish but fervent public... Such a public will probably renew itself, and probably enlarge, with each generation."
* The Bright Carvers' "fate it was to age prematurely and decline rapidly" seems horribly prophetic of their author.
* "Gormenghast" was written during three years on the island of Sark. It had better reviews than its predecessor.
* "Boy in Darkness" and "Titus Alone" were written over seven years living in Wallington (his parents' former home).
* "Titus Alone" was edited by others (Peake being too ill by then), meaning the initial version was almost incoherent. A better version was published in the UK in the 1960s, but didn't reach the US until the 1990s!


The US publisher of "Titus Groan" added the subtitle "A gothic novel", an issue that Winnington discusses at some length (page 217). He points out that it does produce horror in the reader and sympathy for a hero who is seeking freedom, but on the other hand, there is also plenty of humour and other distancing devices.


Coming to school in England at 11, Peake encountered a strange mix of the familiar (he had visited a couple of times before) and the strange. He was both an outsider and an insider - much like many of the characters he wrote about.

Islands, both literal and metaphorical are a related and recurring theme in Peake's work. He lived on the island of Sark in two periods of his adult life, and was very happy there. Cheeta's room is much like the exhibition hall he helped set up there.

Escape, especially from incarceration of some kind, is a common thread, too.


Here's a strange one I hadn't noticed: in several of his writings, a globe or vase is smashed at a crucial turning point of the narrative. It is also something he drew (page 120).

Conversely, another thing I hadn't consciously noticed, "Explicit adult sexuality is almost entirely absent from his oeuvre". I guess Winnington is overlooking the memorably awful line from "Titus Alone", "his cock trembled like a harp string".

Archetypal quests are common - in "Captain Slaughterboard", all the Titus books, and other works.

An almost empty house/palace, cut-off from the outside world (back to outsiders and islands), with lots of old men and an rookie rebel.


Peake was a compulsive drawer from a young age, and wrote too, having his first piece published in a periodical for the children of missionaries when he was aged about 11.

At school, Peake was apparently noted for "the general air of piratical gusto". Several instances are cited where he identified more with the role of pirate than cowboy - and of course, he wrote "Captain Slaughterboard".

Peake's older brother, Lonnie, is quoted as saying "Mervyn was not the impractical genius his wife would now have him be" and the book gives examples of his active involvement in his career and finances - and the lengths he went to to try to become an official war artist.


"Mervyn always thought of himself, first and foremost, as a painter", so he went to art school. At that time, The Royal Academy School focused on close observation and careful copying of great works. Possibly tedious, but good training for an illustrator.

"From the start it was the human form that interested him most... Animal studies came next." It is also noted that he always had an eye for the grotesque (in his writing as well) - except for portraits of his wife, children and best friend. Critics were puzzled by the mixture of grace and the grotesque.

For much of his adult life, he was a part-time art teacher (it was how he met his wife, Maeve), as well as an illustrator. However, he never made enough money to support his family: they relied on Maeve's inherited investments (and even those were not always sufficient).


In "Captain Slaughterboard", the Captain and his mate, Smear, discuss the joy of reading and the probable pain of writing great books. They conclude that writing is what keeps writers out of the asylum - sadly not true in Peake's case.


Peake expended much thought on naming his characters, and often changed them many times; for instance, Steerpike was once Smuggerby. The humourous allusions of some of them are clearly reminiscent of Dickens.


Slaughterboard and Sepulcrave are both death-related names.

More seriously, being amongst the first allies to enter Belsen, where they found over 30,000 survivors (in the loose sense of the word) and over 10,000 unburied bodies, was a traumatic event. Peake had survivor guilt and questioned the ethics of publishing his drawings and poems of the dead and dying.

Peake had been invalided out of the army prior to that, with a nervous breakdown. Years later, he was diagnosed with "premature senility", more likely Parkinson's disease and depression. He was treated with ECT and surgery, which didn't help. This long period of his life is only briefly mentioned here.

His tombstone is inscribed with one of his own lines:
"To live at all is miracle enough"


Winnington has a real passion for his subject, and I loved this analysis:
"One of the virtues of Mervyn's writing... lies in the range of senses that he evokes... It is a form of synaesthesia that Mervyn practises widely in his writing... From the language of his verse, Mervyn might almost be taken for a sculptor rather than a painter." See page 114 for examples.

Regarding synaesthesia, Maeve notes in her biography (referenced above) that Mervyn tended to think of each number as either male of female, which raises the possibility of more literal synaesthesia.

On a similar theme, he disputes the common view that Peake is a very visual writer, instead arguing that it's very physical (page 217). He quotes the opening lines of "Titus Groan" and observes, "There's not a colour, not a line, nothing to instruct the eye. It's all in the feeling, the physical sensation of the 'massing' of the stone, the 'ponderous quality' of the architecture, the sprawling humble dwellings that 'swarm'... and cling 'like limpets to a rock'... When other senses enter, it is sound rather than sight that predominates... Most readers will quite unconsciously translate these physical and auditory terms into... the visual... Reading the Titus books affords them an intense multi-sensory experience. Therein lies one of the gifts of Mervyn Peake."

I agree with Winnington to an extent, but without wanting to overlook all the times where Peake IS a visual writer, such as “His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues.” (from TG). Many more examples in the numerous quotes I selected here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/310390629.


My only (minor) criticisms are that Winnington sometimes goes into too much detail about pictures that are not included in the book, and that the index could be improved. In the latter case, for example, there is no entry for China, though Peking, Tientsin and Kuling are listed; this means you have to know which cities to look up, and also that you don't find more general mentions of the country and its culture.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake