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Frequently Asked Questions about

Mervyn [Laurence] Peake 1911–1968

(his life, the Titus books, other works, and ghosts)

answered by G Peter Winnington

 

ON PEAKE’S LIFE

Is there a biography of Peake currently in print?
Yes. See the Peake STUDIES page about Mervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies, published in October 2009.
Malcolm Yorke’s biography (published in 2000) rapidly went out of print, and many readers dislike its tone (see an example). Yorke managed to give the impression that Peake and his wife would have had better lives if only Yorke had been there to advise them. John Watney’s 1976 book contains a great many mistakes, large and small. For other books on Peake, see Part F of Peake in Print.

Is it true that Peake was born in China?
Yes, in a small European settlement called Kuling, on 9 July 1911.
In 1899 Peake’s father, a doctor with the London Missionary Society, was posted to Hunan province to set up a medical centre. Each summer, the European missionaries in that area would escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the plains by climbing into the Lushan mountains above Kiukiang (‘Jiujiang’ today), on the Yantze river, where they established something like an Alpine village that they punning named Kuling. (There is an article on Kuling, and its extraordinary place in modern Chinese history, in Peake Studies 9:4 (April 2006), with photographs from the early 20th century beside recent ones.) Up there Dr Peake met a missionary assistant, Amanda Elizabeth Ann Powell, also with the LMS, in July 1903. They married in December that year and worked in Hengchow (‘Hengyang’ in Pinyin), Hunan province, until 1912, when they were moved to the MacKenzie hospital in Tientsin. In December 1922 they returned to England (arriving January 1923) owing to Mrs Peake’s ill health.
Their first son, Leslie (always known as Lonnie), was born 23 March 1905. (John Watney gets this date wrong in his biography of Peake, a strange mistake when Lonnie was a major source of information for him.)
This period of their lives is covered in some detail in the first chapter of Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies; a map and contemporary photographs can be found in ‘Peake’s Parents’ Years in China’ in the Mervyn Peake Review, 18 (Spring 1984), pp.21–30. Other photographs and quotes from Peake’s father’s memoir can be found in the first chapter of Mervyn Peake: the man and his art (2006).

Is it true that Peake was sent to the Continent as an official war artist?
No. Peake was given two commissions by the War Artists Advisory Committee: the first was to paint glassblowers (in a Birmingham factory) making cathode ray tubes for radar sets; the second was to draw bomber crews before and after their missions. Pictures from both series can be seen at the Imperial War Museum and in Mervyn Peake: the man and his art (2006).
When he went to France and Germany with Tom Pocock in the spring of 1945, it was for a magazine called the New Leader. The idea was that Pocock would write articles which Peake would illustrate. It didn’t work out quite like that. ‘Peake in Print’ Part D (drawings in periodicals) lists what was published in June, July and August 1945. Pocock wrote an account of their trip, which included a visit to the newly liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, in 1945: The Dawn Came up like Thunder (Collins, 1983).

How did Peake die?
Mervyn Peake’s health declined steadily from the mid-1950s onwards. At first an arm or a leg would shake and he thought he should rest. But the tremors increased. Holidays brought only a brief respite. Soon his writing became unsteady and irregular. He started to find it hard to sleep at night and felt strangely restless. After the disappointment of his play, The Wit to Woo, which was taken off the stage in London’s West End after a run of barely three weeks in March 1957, he had something of a breakdown and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – of which little was known at the time. It was just one of the many illnesses that people got in old age – only Peake was still in his late 40s, so a doctor referred to it as ‘premature senility’. There was no treatment for it.
Peake managed to finish Titus Alone early in 1959 but when the publisher wanted him to make alterations to the text he could not concentrate enough to do so. His wife Maeve followed the publisher’s requests as best she could, but the result was not very satisfactory. Langdon Jones has described in Mervyn Peake: the Man and His Art how he revised the text for the second edition ten years later.
Peake continued to draw, however. His wife read him Balzac’s Droll Stories for the edition that he illustrated for the Folio Society (published in 1961) and – miraculously – he managed to illustrate his own Rhyme of the Flying Bomb which was published by Dent in April 1962. Gone of course was the flowing line with which he could draw a whole human body without lifting his pencil from the paper. Now all he could do was build up pictures with short straight strokes. After this, even when he was hospitalized, he continued to have brief moments of peace when the shaking would stop and he could fill sheet after sheet with drawings. But these moments became rarer and he died peacefully, in his sleep, in a private home for the terminally ill.
For a description and discussion of Peake’s medical condition see the article by a Canadian specialist, Demetrios J. Sahlas (see Part H) in versions for both the medical profession and the general reader.
There is no evidence that Peake suffered from encephalitis lethargica. This was a theory put forward by a doctor in the 1950s who mistook Peake’s symptoms for those of sleepy sickness.

What is the correct date of Peake’s death?
Several reference books get it wrong. The correct date is 17 November 1968.


ON THE TITUS BOOKS

Why does Peake sometimes call Dr Prunesquallor ‘Alfred’ and sometimes ‘Bernard’?
By mistake. He obviously thought of both names for him, and slipped unawares from one to the other. Peake’s friend Goatie Smith, who read through the manuscript of Titus Groan before it went to the publisher, failed to notice the error (although he did correct the spelling of Fuchsia’s name, which Peake had written as ‘Fuschia’ throughout). The copy editor at Eyre & Spottiswoode also missed it, so it remained uncorrected.
When I revised the text of the three Titus books for the King Penguin edition early in the 1980s, I asked Maeve Gilmore if I might correct them so that Dr Prunesquallor had just one first name. She did not agree to this change, claiming that her husband had been aware of the mistake and was not bothered by it.
See my article ‘Editing Peake’ in The Mervyn Peake Review 13 (Autumn 1981), pp.2–7, and also
Dainis Bisenieks, ‘How Not to Edit Mervyn Peake,’ Peake Studies, vol 4 no 4 (Spring 1996), pp.31–38.

Strange words
Peake’s vocabulary was wide (helped, I suspect, by Roget’s Thesaurus). Here are my thoughts on some of the words that you won’t find in your dictionary.
During the conversation between Flay and Rottcodd early in Titus Groan, Rottcodd ‘flecked an imaginary speck of dust from the head of a dryad.’ Clearly, ‘flicked’ is intended. As easily happens, either the typist or the typesetter anticipated the upcoming ‘speck’.
Addressing the twin sisters Cora and Clarice, Dr Prunesquallor refers to ‘the whole
anomatical caboodle’ of the human body – ‘anatomical’, of course. As he is not in the habit of mis-pronouncing medical terms (although he does pun by changing ‘tenterhooks’ into ‘tenderhooks’, for example), I suspect that this is a misprint. As with ‘fleck’ it goes back to the first edition.
When Irma Prunesquallor proposes dressing Steerpike in pale grey, her brother asks, ‘Who is to be
apparisoned in the hue of doves?’ I think Peake intended to write ‘caparisoned’, an old verb meaning ‘to put trappings on a horse’ but which Shakespeare applied to clothing humans, as in: ‘I am caparison’d like a man’ (As You Like it).
In conversation with Nannie Slagg, Fuchsia mentions ‘bringing home my leaves and shining pebbles and fugnesses from the woods.’ I think this is deliberate on Peake’s part. People often say ‘funguses’ instead of ‘fungi’ and it would be typical of Fuchsia to mispronounce the word by inverting the ‘ng’ in the middle, making ‘fugnesses’.
Nannie Slagg invents portmanteau words, coming up with
lapsury, which is surely ‘the lap of luxury’, and both responsiverity and responserverity (‘severe responsibility’?). She calls Fuchsia a querail, which I think means someone who complains querulously, and a tempestable thing: bad-tempered, liable to stormy moods. The meaning of her other inventions, like argumentary, justlessness, and ignorous, are easily guessed.
On the other hand, I believe that
rabous (as in a bird taking off ‘from that rabous landing ground’) is probably an accident, a mis-transcription (that went unnoticed) of Peake’s manuscript by his typist. The MS of this passage no longer exists, but knowing the idiosyncracies of Peake’s handwriting, I feel sure that he wrote ‘rufous’, a reddish-brown colour, perfectly appropriate to qualify the Countess’s hair in which the bird had been perched.
When the castle Poet starts throwing his furniture out of the window, ‘object after object was
scrammed one upon the other’ in most editions – but not the first (1946), where it is ‘crammed’ of course.

In Gormenghast Dr Prunesquallor refers parenthetically to ‘Lytotis’ as a figure of speech; he means ‘litotes’.
At the moment when Bellgrove is about to meet Irma Prunesquallor, ‘What was precise was now enormous,
unsubstant, diaphanous’. In the manuscript, it’s definitely ‘unsubstantial’, so it's simply a misprint.
When Steerpike is cornered, towards the end of the novel, he hears ‘the
triding’ of a saw cutting through the wooden ceiling above him. This is a neologism, coined by Peake – what an appropriate word for the sound of a handsaw at work!

A misprinted passage in Gormenghast has caused some problems. In the last chapter of the novel, the Penguin Modern Classics edition (see Peake in Print) followed the first edition and printed this paragraph on page 502:

Steerpike was dead. The fear of his whistling pebbles was no
more. The multitudes moved without fear across the flat roofs.
The kitchen boys and the urchins of the castle dived from the
windows and sported across the water, climbing the outcrops as
they appeared above the surface, a hundred battling at a time
to gain some island tower, new-risen from the blue.

But the simultaneous second edition hardback of 1968 managed to mix up the order of lines 3, 4 and 5:

Steerpike was dead. The fear of his whistling pebbles was no
more. The multitudes moved without fear across the flat roofs.
they appeared above the surface, a hundred battling at a time
The kitchen boys and the urchins of the castle dived from the
windows and sported across the water, climbing the outcrops as
to gain some island tower, new-risen from the blue.

Ever since, editors have struggled to make sense of it, sometimes with ingenuity, so that practically every modern edition of Gormenghast prints a different variation. I won’t list them here. The main thing is: the first edition was perfectly clear and it should always be followed.

In Titus Alone, Muzzlehatch declares that ‘officials are nothing but the pip-headed, trash-bellied putrid scrannel of earth.’ And Peake clearly meant to use that word: it’s neatly written in the manuscript. The usual meanings are ‘thin’ and ‘meagre’ with ‘harsh’ and ‘unmelodious’ as a result of Milton’s use of it to qualify musical instruments (according to the OED). I suspect that Peake chose the word for its sound quite as much for its meaning.


ON OTHER WORKS

Is Boy in Darkness about Titus Groan?
Yes. In Sometime, Never – the only edition prepared and approved by Peake – he is named more than once. Unfortunately Peake’s widow sent an uncorrected copy of the typescript, which did not mention Titus, to a publisher in 1968 and this was used for several further editions. Worse, when she was asked to introduce the 1976 Wheaton edition, she read the corrupt edition and consequently stated that Peake never called the Boy Titus.  Worse still, when Peter Owen brought out Boy in Darkness and other stories in 2007, they got the text right (see the middle of p.29, and the bottom of p.40) but did not correct Maeve Gilmore’s introduction. They also invited Joanne Harris to write a foreword and, under the influence of Maeve, she repeated the mistake. When will it end? (More about this in Peake Studies, Volume 10, No 4, for April 2008.)

Is Titus Awakes by Peake?
No – see the page devoted to it on this site.

Where is ‘Peake’s book, London Fantasy’?
Roger Taylor’s song, ‘London Town, C’mon Down’ on the record called Electric Fire, quotes (in the words of this much consulted site) from ‘Melvyn [sic] Peake’s book ‘London Fantasy’’. Of course, there is no such book; ‘London Fantasy’ is a prose piece (see Peake in Print part D). His words go like this:

But for the fact that the eye can cease to respond, the brain to absorb, the heart to miss a beat, the spirit to launch itself on a hazard of speculation, then surely, in the weird creatures that make up this dark hive called London, or for that matter the world, there would lie before us every day such a scene as haunts the brains of madmen, a delirium of heads and frames and hands, a cavalcade hardly to be suffered for the very endlessness of its inventive fantasy....
Clay miracles float by in a hundred lights. The eyes in constellations swarm through London. Sight becomes cluttered. There is no end to it.
Beneath the electric glare; in fog; in sunlight, in firelight; in wind, at sunrise or at dusk, there is no end.

The Electric Fire site turns this into lines of verse, with substantial changes which I have highlighted below; some of them (e.g., ‘camalcade’ for ‘cavalcade’ and ‘implessness’ for ‘endlessness’) must be simply transcription errors:

But for the fact that the eye can cease to respond
The brain to absorb, the heart to miss a beat
The spirit to launch itself
at hazardous speculation
That surely the weird creatures that make up
This dark hive called London, or for that matter the world
It would lie spread before us every day such it seemed
It haunts the brains of magnates
The delirium of heads and brains and hands
The camalcade hardly to be suffered
The very implessness of its inventive fantasy

Clay miracles float by in a hundred lights
The eyes
of constellations swarm through London
Sight becomes cluttered, there is no end to it
Beneath the electric glare
and the fog
In
downpouring sunlight and fire light
In wind
and sun rise are at dusk
There is no end


GHOSTS

Did Peake write a book called Uriel for President (Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1938)?
No, the entry in E.F. Bleiler’s ‘Checklist of Fantastic Literature’ (1948) is a mistake. The text of Uriel for President is by an American, another (pseudonymous?) M. Peake, about whom I know nothing. The illustrations are by the Austrian-born artist Franz Bergmann who made a career in the US.

Did Peake illustrate the Marvellous Travels of Baron Münchausen?
No, but the Cresset Press thought he was going to and advertised it on the back of at least one of their books. The contract fell through, probably because Peake wanted to retain the copyright in his work, whereas cheeky Cresset preferred to buy outright.

Where is Peake’s book of London Faces?
It was advertised by Counterpoint Publications inside Horizon magazine (number 78)  for June 1946, price six shillings, but never published. Peake always planned to produce a book reproducing the ‘trophies’ of his head-hunting expeditions in London, but for some reason it never reached fruition.

What about The Mystery of Obadiah?
Some time in 1942 Mervyn drew at least two illustrations for The Mystery of Obadiah, which was Richard Armstrong's first novel for adolescents. When the book was published by Dent in 1943, it was illustrated by Marjory Sankey – so I suspect that Mervyn's work did not appeal to the author or possibly the publisher. The one illustration I have seen is reproduced in Sotheby’s sale catalogue for 18 December 1984, item 796.

How is this site financed?
Until now, the cost of this site was covered by subscriptions to Peake Studies. The journal is now free, but the expenses remain. Your support through a donation, however small, is greatly appreciated.

If you have other questions that you would like to see addressed here, please contact me and I’ll be happy to add them.

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