Peake, Mervyn (Mervyn Laurence Peake)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Peake, Mervyn (Mervyn Laurence Peake)

Peake, Mervyn (Mervyn Laurence Peake) (1911-1968) English fantasy writer, artist, and poet

A GOTHIC symbolist, set designer, and illustrator, Mervyn Peake recast the grimness of World War II into literary phantasms of evil. He was born to British parents, a medical evangelist and a missionary nurse, in Kuling, Jiangxi Province, China. A case of encephalitis in his early months precipitated the tremors, insomnia, irritability, hallucinations, and melancholia that eventually took his life. The family returned to England during the first two years of World War I but then returned to China in 1916. Peake was a childhood reader of CHARLES DICKENS and ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON. His early introduction to grotesquerie occurred during his admission to a ward at McKenzie Memorial, a Congregationalist clinic in Tientsin southeast of Beijing, where he sketched physical malformations. During the early years of the Chinese Republic, he observed more wretchedness among malnourished and abused peasants. Upon his return to England in 1923, he attended the Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy. At age 21, he joined an artist commune on the Channel Isle of Sark off the northern coast of Normandy, where he escaped from feelings of alienation and otherness resulting from his Chinese upbringing. He married Maeve Gilmore in 1937; the couple had three children.

During World War II, Peake served as a sapper and war artist in the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers of the British army. In the poem “May 1940,” he summarized the mayhem of the second world war in a rhetorical question, “Where has lost sanity a resting place / These days” (Peake 1981, 144). In 1945, after seeing Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi death camp in northern Germany, he wrote poems such as “Digging a Trench,” “The Consumptive, Belsen 1945,” and “Victims.” He lapsed into morbid imaginings about the ruthless realities of Hitler's Holocaust, which had filled the camp with 13,000 corpses and 60,000 moribund inmates whose “eyes like great hearts of black water / Shone in their wells of bone” (168).

Aided by memories of medical research on patients, Peake brought black humor into a medieval sequence of gothic novels, beginning with Titus Groan (1946) and followed by the Heinemann Prize-winning Gormenghast (1950), which reprises settings from Beijing's walled compounds. In the landscape of Gormenghast, Peake envisions suffocation from septic traditions: “It lay inert, like a sick thing. Its limbs spread. It took the shape of what it smothered” (Peake 2007, 358). After freelancing as an illustrator on Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland, TREASURE ISLAND, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Peake continued fiction writing with Boy in Darkness (1956), Titus Alone (1959), and the fragment Titus Awakes, which the author abandoned in 1960 after his health failed from neurodegenerative dementia.

Peake excelled at visual innovation. Using gothic convention, he fleshed out plots with dreamscapes, claustrophobic towers and dungeons, the treachery of a shadowy SS elite, perverted scientists like Dr. Josef Mengele, neurotic fetishes and phobias, and ritual execution throughout the Nazi empire. His musings on human-animal hybrids, as in H. G. Wells's science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, show the bestiality in the worst of humanity and anticipate medical experiments placing animal parts in human bodies. For characters, he created allegorical figures—Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor, Flay, Fuchsia Groan, Lord Sepulchrave, Pentecost, Rottcodd, Nannie Slagg, Sourdust, Steerpike, and Chef Abiatha Swelter. Set over lesser figures, the ogreish Steerpike, a Hitleresque villain from Titus Groan and Gormenghast, looks through eyes the rust-red color of dried blood. The surreal series earned a cult readership that included the novelist GRAHAM GREENE and the poet Dylan Thomas. The BBC presented radio versions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, in 1984, 1992, and 2003. BBC-TV presented Gormenghast, starring Ian Richardson and Christopher Lee, in 1999 and Boy in Darkness, featuring Terry Jones as the Storyteller, in 2000.


Peake, Mervyn. Gormenghast. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 2007.

----- . Peake’s Progress. Edited by Maeve Peake. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 1981.

Peake, Sebastian. Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art. London: Peter Owen, 2006.