Back in the year 2000 I watched Gormenghast, a stunning drama in four parts on BBC Television. It was a sumptuous gothic fantasy/costume drama of epic proportions and introduced me to the beautiful youth that was Jonathon Rhys Meyers, and also starred Celia Imrie, Zoe Wanamaker, John Sessions, Christopher Lee and Richard Griffiths amongst many other stellar performers.
It told the tale of life and death in the crumbling labrynthine monstrosity that is Gormenghast castle, ruled by the mad 76th Earl, inhabited by eccentric characters of every class and profession, governed absolutely by age-old rituals of which no-one could remember the origin.
The drama was based on the first two parts of the Titus Books by the British author and illustrator, Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950), both of which I read a short but respectable time after I had watched the TV drama. The books are, of course, masterpieces; Peake’s characters are amongst the most imaginatively and cringe-makingly conceived in English Literature with the most fabulous names (Swelter, the cook, Nannie Slagg, the ageing nursemaid, Prunesquallor, the physician and more).
The only thing that didn’t ring quite true for me about the BBC production after reading the books was the beauty of JRMeyers’ Steerpike when Peake had written him as a gangly youth with an overly large forehead and close-set red eyes. But that is a minor matter; Meyers played Steerpike brilliantly. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gormenghast-DVD-Jonathan-Rhys-Meyers/dp/B00004S322
This morning, having just finished the Ian McEwan novel I’d been reading, I picked up the third part of the series. Entitled Titus Alone, it is the story of the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus, who, having been born at the beginning of the first book, and having spent his entire boyhood at Gormenghast, has abdicated and embarked on new and terrifying adventures in the wide world that he never knew existed beyond the castle walls. Chapter One is prefaced by a Publisher’s Note which was fascinating, informative and heart-breaking in equal measures. I decided to find out about Peake’s life and how Titus Alone came to be published several times.
Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in China where his father worked as a missionary doctor, returning to England in 1923. Even as a teenager, Peake was a brilliant writer and artist and had written several stories. Art college was followed by a bohemian life amongst the Soho Group and then with a colony of artists on the island of Sark in the English Channel where he spent two years. Returning to Surrey, Peake taught Art at Westminster School of Art and in the late 1930s married Maeve Gilmore, a young artist. Before the outbreak of WWll he had written his first book (a children’s book called Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor) and had exhibited and sold a number of paintings.
He started writing Titus Groan after being called up for armed service, but left the army in 1943 following a nervous breakdown. Probably his most memorable war-time employment was as an official war artist at the closure of Belsen at the end of the war when it was still filled with survivors of the holocaust, weak and half-starved. I can barely imagine the horrors he had to confront in that place.
Between the end of the war and 1950, Peake became a father to two sons and a daughter and also published both Titus Groan and Gormenghast to great acclaim. By 1956, Peake’s health was beginning to be a worry, and in 1957 he suffered a second nervous breakdown, followed by the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. He continued to write and draw for the third book of the Titus series, but was unable to teach, and was spending more and more time in hospitals and institutions. With the help of Maeve, Titus Alone was finally published in 1959, printed from a typescript prepared from the notebooks which Peake always wrote in. Sadly, Peake died in November 1968 at only 57 years of age, having spent his last days at a care home near Oxford.
Various inconsistencies were found in the transcript and it was discovered that there were three different versions of Titus Alone in Peake’s notebooks. Mr Langdon Jones took on the task of reconstructing the book using the several different versions and updates that were found by Maeve after her husband’s death. It was found that the version published in 1959 was not complete and was not what the author truly intended.
In 1970 the newly updated Titus Alone was copyrighted by Mervyn Peake Estates and duly published. In 1995 new editions of all three novels were released, with the addition of the opening of what would have been a fourth book, Titus Awakes, along with notes on the themes and events Peake had intended to write about. This fourth book has now been published, having been completed by Maeve Gilmore with help from notebooks recently found in the attic of the family home; I must look out for it.
Although Titus Alone didn’t receive the same rapturous welcome that the first two books did, Peake is rightly believed to be a writer of genius, and his novels are modern classics of English Literature. Read my thoughts on Titus Alone here.