Mervyn Peake combined a true artist’s eye with a magnificent ear for language. The result was the creation of a unique modern classic: the strange and fabulous world of Gormenghast.
Gormenghast is a world into which you will find yourself irresistibly drawn; a feast of the imagination where you may gorge yourself to the full. Every inhabitant knows his place, from the Grey Scrubbers who fulfil their hereditary calling in cleaning the Great Kitchen, to melancholy Sepulchrave himself, Earl of Groan. It is a world governed by ceremony, where nonagenarian Sourdust, lord of the library and student of Groan lore, must instruct the Earl in the strange and symbolic activities to be undertaken each day, as detailed in the great tomes of ritual.
Here Gertrude, Countess of Groan, lies in bed, her red hair ‘clustered upon the pillows like burning snakes’, surrounded by hundreds of white cats. Her passionate daughter Fuchsia, ‘intemperate, suspicious and credulous all in a day’, lurks alone in her attic, while Sepulchrave’s sisters Clarice and Cora, half-witted twins, brood darkly in the Room of Roots. Next in social order come Doctor Prunesquallor – intelligent, kindly, insufferably verbose – and his bony sister Irma, who lays siege to the assembled Professors in a ‘gown of a thousand frills, with its corsage of hand-painted parrots’. Around the Family, a host of faithful retainers go about their business: Fuchsia’s devoted nurse, Nanny Slagg, self-important and resplendent in her best hat with the glass grapes; Rottcodd the curator, fast asleep in the Hall of the Bright Carvings, created by the denizens of the Outer Dwellings. In the Great Kitchen Abiatha Swelter, head chef – ‘a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber’ – nurses his hatred for Mr Flay, first servant of the Earl, above whose cracking knee-joints can be found a heart fiercely loyal to Gormenghast.
Into this stagnant world is born Titus, seventy-seventh earl. Violet-eyed and full of life, from his earliest babyhood he shows a tendency to blaspheme against the fundamental tenets of Gormenghast, as when he violates the Book of Baptism at his christening. Yet on the very day of his birth, another act of revolution is perpetrated – an act which will have consequences far more dangerous to Gormenghast than Titus’s childish misdemeanours. As Swelter celebrates the birth of the new heir, the kitchen boy Steerpike, eyes ‘dark and hot with a mature hatred’, escapes from his predestined position and begins a vertiginous climb across the roofs of the Castle. It is to become a social climb of devilish manipulation which will lead Steerpike to a position of immense power within Gormenghast – and woe betide anyone who attempts to get in his way.
Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in China, where his father was a missionary doctor. He was sent to England in 1922, by which time he had already published his first work. He studied at the Academy schools and during the thirties spent three years with a group of artists on the island of Sark. During the Second World War he was invalided out of active service but sent as a war artist in 1945 to Belsen – an experience that affected him deeply. He had already begun Titus Groan, the first of the Gormenghast trilogy, which was published in 1946, followed by Gormenghast in 1950 and Titus Alone in 1959. Although highly thought of by contemporary writers, The Gormenghast Trilogy received mixed reviews, and Peake continued to earn his living as an artist – including illustrating books for The Folio Society. Peake developed Parkinson’s disease – and died in 1968 – before he was able to develop his plans for further novels. In 2008 The Times listed Peake as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.