Titus Groan and Gormenghast are such vivid and imaginative works that it is easy to assume Mervyn Peake raided everything he'd ever known in order to populate his fantasy world. A major influence on his novels was his time at Eltham College in England. The teachers in the novel and the giant tree outside the classroom window were so reminiscent of the people and locations of Eltham School that Peake's classmate Gordon Smith recognised it all.
"The Masters' Common Room," he wrote, " a shabby and inadequate place down the passage from the Central Hall, reappears in one of the Gormenghast books as he used to glimpse it, skating past the half-open door; the petty squabbles, the anthracite fire, and the rows of shiny greenish gowns hanging from the wall."
Steerpike's talent for practical jokes came from Peake's own love of them. According to Sebastian Peake his father would take a professional tape measure and enlist a passer-by to hold one end of it while he measured around the corner. Predictably, Peake would give his end to another bystander before fleeing to a safe distance!
Peake enjoyed practical jokes but they were harmless for the most part. Steerpike's tastes are more savage, as were those of Peake's friends Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas. They once rang random telephone numbers masquerading as officials from London Transport, calling to report a death. Peake strongly disapproved. Although Gormenghast mixes mordant humour with sudden scares, Peake drew the line at jokes that really frightened people.
Greene's influence on Peake went beyond practical jokes. It was after a meeting with Greene that Titus Groan came to be published. Greene also cost Peake a potential fortune. Peake was unsure whether he should demand a flat rate or a royalty from Pan Books for the logo he drew them. Greene advised Peake to take the flat rate. Unfortunately, Pan Books was an unexpectedly huge success and Peake could have made more money from that single deal than he ever would from his writing.
Mervyn Peake was born near the Yangtse River in China's Kiang-Hsi Province during 1911. He spent the majority of his childhood years in Tientsin (also known as Tianjin), to the south east of Peking. The month he was born a revolution overturned the infant Emperor, bringing the 300-year-old Manchu dynasty to an end. The parallels with Titus Groan's fate are clear.
The influence of China is felt most keenly in Gormenghast's descriptions of the quarters beyond the castle walls: "those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock".
The suffering of the Chinese people, coupled with Peake's sense of dislocation, had a profound affect on Gormenghast. On their summer breaks in Tientsin Peake's family were dubbed 'foreign devils' by the locals. Peake's father was a doctor who aided the Red Cross during the revolution and its aftermath.
Peake's son Sebastian claims that this distinction between locals and devils underpins the logic and aims of Gormenghast: "China is there the whole time, underlying the edifice of Gormenghast". The parallels between the tortuous rituals that followed the death of the Chinese Emperor and those that so dog Lord Groan's life are clear. "These rituals were very much part of the upper class Chinese imperative," continues Sebastian Peake, "to seek discipline and order within historical facts."
Peake's wife Maeve claimed: "I don't think he ever intended Titus to return to Gormenghast, just as he could never see himself returning to China. But, just as he retained always a memory of his distant childhood in China, so Titus would always have kept with him the memory of his childhood at Gormenghast."
The Peake family returned to England when Mervyn was twelve. He would never return to China.
Gormenghast is as much a product of Mervyn Peake's experiences of the horrors and futility of wartime Germany as it is of his happier times in China and Sark. The novel is also a result of Peake's tenacity as a writer; the core of the book was researched and honed during the tedious wartime evenings.
Mervyn Peake spent much of the Second World War away from the fighting, being moved around England on manoeuvres. He longed either to be in the thick of the action or not in the army at all. Peake felt his talents lay in being a war artist. Plenty of people agreed, including Sir Kenneth Clark and Augustus John who petitioned the War Office in support.
The petition came to nothing and so Peake entered the war as Gunner 5917577 (a number that he'd later use in Gormenghast). Peake was not a committed soldier; whilst being trained in how to use a theodolite he simply gave up. He asked his commanding officer if he could sit in the back row and work on his book. The CO agreed: the book became Titus Groan.
Peake was discharged from the army after a nervous breakdown and went home before Germany surrendered. Peake later returned to the Army as an officially commissioned war artist, six years after Augustus John's petition.
While he initially wanted to document what he saw as the madness of war in Europe, Peake was to witness things that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He was one of the first people to enter Belsen concentration camp after the Allies had liberated it, witnessing scenes of extreme horror.
He drew a camp warder who spat at him for his efforts. He also drew a young woman who was dying in a hospital bed. Sebastian Peake claims that his father's experiences at Belsen "remained in his conscious and subconscious mind until he died".
Located in the Channel Islands, Sark is a small, isolated place three and a half miles long. High cliffs hide its harbour, which can only be reached by a tunnel carved deep into the island. Despite its size Sark remains an enigma.
Mervyn Peake travelled to Sark in 1933 after his former art teacher Eric Drake invited him to join his fledgling artists' colony. "The island became... very much part of his mythological landscape," wrote Peake's confidante Gordon Smith. Peake was widely viewed as eccentric during his two years on Sark. One of his portraits so enraged a local that he was threatened with a lawsuit. However, he was later accepted into Sark's community after punching someone who dubbed his clothes effeminate!
A definite influence on his writing came from his landlady at the time, Miss Renouf. Peake would immortalise the white bird that sat on her shoulder in Gormenghast as Mr Chalk, ever present on Gertrude's shoulder.
The castle of Gormenghast is described as having boundaries that are as "irregular as the coastline of a squall-rent island", much like those of Sark. When Gertrude demands Titus tell her Steerpike's whereabouts she accuses him thus: "you have been in the North headstones beyond Gory and the Silver Mines. I know where you've been. You've been to the Twin Fingers where Little Sark begins and the Bluff narrows." These real-life locales can all be found on Sark.
Peake moved back to the mainland after he was offered a job teaching at the Westminster School of Art. He would return to Sark years later in order to complete Titus Alone.
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