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.
A World Away: Memoir of Mervyn Peake - Maeve Gilmore This was written by Mervyn Peake's widow, shortly after he died. Parts of it are quite raw with the pain (especially the rambling eulogy at the end), but love and passion shine through more strongly. Her writing style veers between poetic and prosaic, giving a very intimate, conversational and engaging feel, and it is peppered with sketches, poems and letters of Mervyn's.

As an artist herself, and to some extent a collaborator on many of his projects (e.g. reading aloud books he was illustrating), she offers great insight into the man and his methods. It is fascinating if you're familiar with Peake's work, but probably of limited interest otherwise.


Mervyn's father was a missionary doctor in China until the family came to England when he was 11 - what a culture shock! Even then, their Victorian Gothic home was scattered with many mementos of China, some of which doubtless fed into his world of Gormenghast.

Although they were very conventional in comparison with their flamboyant and iconoclastic son, some of his artistic talents were found in his parents: his father was "searching always for the apposite word, and always finding it" and also sketched, while his mother was musical.


Mervyn captured her heart, mind, life and imagination from their first meeting - when she was a naive 17-year old convent girl starting at art school, and he was her tutor. Their first date followed immediately, after which she observed "it couldn't have been the end of an evening, only the beginning of living". He was beautiful, haunting, funny and unconventional. His lodgings "were not furnished. They were simply alive", a pattern replicated in the many homes they were to share: "such beautiful rooms, bare of comfort".

A year's separation, at the behest of her parents, had little effect: "we met again as though only a flutter of an eyelid had passed". So they married, and settled into artistic and marital bliss. He influenced her art: "Mervyn looked and taught me to look" and often used her (and later, their children) as a model, though "The sale of the first drawing [of me] was to me like selling my body."


Mervyn and Maeve were on holiday in the Cotswolds, a rural idyll that "hurt us by their opulence". Having the town crier announce the outbreak of war "seemed less dreadful, couched in the archaic language and setting of what seemed to be an England of ancient custom".

Mervyn was called up: "To be separated after never having been separated is like losing a limb". Maeve also mourns all the things he could have written and painted if had not been called up, although acknowledging, with the benefit of hindsight, "perhaps he made use of everything he saw and lived with... How he survived the world of army discipline is incomprehensible. I think the answer is that he didn't survive it."

Mervyn started the first Gormenghast book, Titus Groan, in the early days of the war, around the time their first child, Sebastian, was born. He even got permission to write while sitting at the back of an army course about theodolites, that he didn't understand. He didn't get to battle, but even so, he had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in hospital shortly after their second son, Fabian, was born (two years after Sebastian). That and war changed him; he became "a shadow, a man with a shadow".


They moved to the tiny island of Sark (near Guernsey), where Mervyn had been happy as a young artist. "The excitement of two small boys let loose on an island with no cars was limpidly pure. To run wildly and inexhaustibly nowhere in particular." This probably partly why Sebastian's memoir is entitled "Child of Bliss" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/487566193).

Mervyn liked to work surrounded by family life, rather than tucked away in a separate study or studio (just as well, given how tiny some of their homes were). Many of his manuscripts have little sketches of children and pets in the margins.

While on Sark, their third child, Clare, was born, though they left soon after. In the early stages of labour, Maeve "started painting a still life, which under the circumstances doesn't seem quite appropriate"!


Mervyn and Maeve were terrible with money (and all the children struggled with maths from when they were small), but the fact Mervyn tended to think of each number as either male of female raises the possibility of synaesthesia, though there is no other mention of anything relevant.

The need for money, and hence travel to London (Mervyn still taught part time) necessitated departure from Sark, though suburbia proved lonelier. Mervyn was having moderate success in terms of acclaim as a writer and illustrator (he won a sci-fi prize for "Boy in Darkness! http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/446044244), but money continued to be tight, and he set his sights on theatrical success which he thought would enable him to buy "exotic and strange presents" for his family and "to feel a success".

Over a period of seven years he struggled to get one of his two plays produced. Many big names looked, and some were interested, but others had (tactful) doubts about viability: "Your characters weave some splendid verbal wreathes for themselves, but seem to be figures in a pageant rather than people in a play."

To add to the stress, the third Titus book, Titus Alone (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324032) was going slowly. Maeve observes that it was "more difficult to be outside the world which had been created as a world within a world, than to be in a world which was probably closer to this one, and yet alien." Unbeknown at the time, early stage Parkinson's disease was also a factor.

Finally, the play was put on, though first night nerves proved worse than those familiar for private viewings and book launches, "a soul-baring experience... where you can see and hear and be infiltrated by the comment and the mood." The reviews were "neither good nor bad, but mostly condescending and ungenerous... It cannot be laid at any door, but disappointment built up by hope for too long, can damage a brain already too prolific."


That was the beginning of the end. Mervyn descended into depression, Parkinson's, encephalitis, "electric treatment", surgery and "premature senility" at the age of 46, dying just over a decade later. Maeve doesn't go into any details, but notes "the mist was descending, but with the frailty of a gauze curtain between the audience and the player".

The final section is her calling out to her beloved, but now absent, husband: reminiscing about the past, and longing to be with him again.


It is interesting to compare this memoir with that of their youngest child, Clare, "Under a Canvas Sky": http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/258608942. Clare was only 7 when Mervyn began his terminal decline, so much of her book focuses on that, whereas most of her mother's one is about the years before that. Clare also pins more of the blame for her father's health on poor theatre reviews. If planning to read the two, read Maeve's memoirs first.


This is a very personal biography (one of its strengths), but for analysis of how his life is reflected in his works, I recommend Winnington's "Vast Alchemies", http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/597014341

Currently reading

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