Gomenghast.Mervyan Peake

By Meryan Peake

Printed: 1950

Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode

Edition: first edition

Dimensions 14 × 23 × 4 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 14 x 23 x 4

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Item information


Red grained leather spine with gilt banding and title. Red cloth boards.


Gormenghast is a fantasy novel by British writer Mervyn Peake, the second in his Gormenghast series. It is the story of Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast Castle, from age 7 to 17. As the story opens, Titus dreads the pre-ordained life of ritual that stretches before him. To Titus, Master of Ritual Barquentine and his apprentice Steerpike are the embodiment of all he wants to rebel against. An important sub-plot involves Titus at school, where he encounters the professors, especially Bellgrove, who becomes Headmaster of Gormenghast school.


Steerpike usurps Barquentine

Steerpike, despite his position of authority, is in reality a dangerous traitor to Gormenghast who seeks to eventually wield ultimate power in the castle. To this end, he kills Barquentine so that he can replace him and so advance in power. Although he is successful in his murder of Barquentine, the old master of ritual put up such a severe struggle that Steerpike is severely injured in the process, suffering extensive burns and almost drowning. As Steerpike lies recovering in a delirious state from his ordeal, he cries out the words And the twins will make it five. This is overheard by the castle’s doctor, Dr Prunesquallor, who is greatly disturbed to hear it. Although the reader is not told this explicitly, Steerpike’s words are a clear reference to the number of people he has killed. The reference to the twins is to the aunts of Titus, the twin sisters Ladies Cora and Clarice. Steerpike has effectively been holding them captive in a remote and abandoned part of the castle, and they are utterly dependent on him for food and drink. Due to Steerpike’s prolonged recovery he is unable to supply them (and at some level Steerpike is aware of this, even in his delirium), and by the time he has recovered he believes them to have probably already died of thirst and starvation, though in fact they die a few days later.

Dr Prunesquallor discusses Steerpike’s words with the Countess Gertrude, but they disagree over its meaning and the ambiguity over exactly what Steerpike meant is never resolved.  Nevertheless, both of them are now thoroughly suspicious about Steerpike and his role in the various disappearances and deaths among the happenings of the castle. Although Steerpike appears to make a full recovery, he is left disfigured with a morbid fear of fire. It also becomes clear that the balance of his mind is increasingly disturbed.

The professors

An important part of Titus’ life is spent at school, where he encounters the school professors, especially Bellgrove, one of Titus’s teachers, who eventually ascends to Headmaster of Gormenghast. The other teachers are a collection of misfits, each with idiosyncrasies of their own, who bicker and compete with each other in petty rivalries, being not unlike a bunch of overgrown schoolboys themselves. A welcome humorous interlude in the novel occurs when Irma Prunesquallor (sister of the castle’s doctor), decides to get married, and throws a party in the hope of meeting a suitable partner. To this end she invites the school professors, who are so terrified of meeting a woman that they make fools of themselves in various ways. One professor faints at the prospect of having to speak to Irma and has to be revived by the doctor. When he wakes up he flees naked and shrieking over the garden wall, never to be seen again. Only Bellgrove, recently made headmaster, rises to the occasion and behaves in a gentlemanly way to Irma. Bellgrove and Irma thus begin a rather unusual romance. Bellgrove becomes an important figure in Titus’ development. In many respects, he is the standard absent-minded professor who falls asleep during his own class and plays with marbles. However, deep inside him there is a certain element of dignity and nobility. At heart Bellgrove is kindly, and if weak, at least has the humility to be aware of his faults. He becomes something of a father figure to Titus.

The Thing

An important development for Titus is his brief meeting with his “foster sister”: a feral girl known only as ‘The Thing’, the daughter of Titus’ wet-nurse, Keda of the Bright Carvers. The Thing, being an illegitimate child, is exiled by the Carvers and lives a feral life in the forests around Gormenghast. Titus first meets her when he escapes from the confines of Gormenghast into the outside world. Titus is entranced by her wild grace and sets out to meet her. He does so, and holds her briefly, but she flees him and is fatally struck by lightning. However, her fierce independence inspires Titus, and gives him courage to later leave his home.

The unmasking of Steerpike

Due to the vigilance of the old servant Flay Steerpike is eventually unmasked as the murderer of the aunts of Titus, Cora and Clarice. He becomes a renegade within the castle, using his extensive knowledge to hide within its vast regions, and waging a guerrilla campaign of random killing with his catapult. Steerpike’s capture seems impossible until the entire kingdom of Gormenghast is submerged in a flood, due to endless rains. The mud dwellers are forced to take refuge in the castle and the castle’s own inhabitants are also forced to retreat to higher and higher floors as the flood waters keep rising. Fuchsia, grown increasingly melancholic and withdrawn after the death of her father and betrayal by Steerpike, briefly contemplates suicide. At the last moment, she changes her mind, but slips and falls from a window, striking her head on the way down and drowning in the floodwaters. Unaware of the accident when they find her body, both Countess Gertrude and Titus are convinced that Steerpike is to blame, and both resolve to bring the murderer to justice.

So begins an epic manhunt through the rapidly flooding castle, with Steerpike forced into ever smaller areas and eventually surrounded by the castle’s forces. Even at this late stage, his ruthlessness and cunning mean that Steerpike almost evades capture. However, Titus realises that he is hiding in the ivy against the castle walls, and full of rage and hatred against Steerpike he pursues and kills him himself. Despite being hailed as a hero, Titus is intent on leaving Gormenghast to explore a wider world, and the novel ends with him dramatically riding away to seek his fortune in the unknown lands outside.

Mervyn Laurence Peake (9 July 1911 – 17 November 1968) was an English writer, artist, poet, and illustrator. He is best known for what are usually referred to as the Gormenghast books. The four works were part of what Peake conceived as a lengthy cycle, the completion of which was prevented by his death. They are sometimes compared to the work of his older contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien, but Peake’s surreal fiction was influenced by his early love for Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson rather than Tolkien’s studies of mythology and philology.

Peake also wrote poetry and literary nonsense in verse form, short stories for adults and children (Letters from a Lost Uncle, 1948), stage and radio plays, and Mr Pye (1953), a relatively tightly structured novel in which God implicitly mocks the evangelical pretensions and cosy world-view of the eponymous hero.

Peake first made his reputation as a painter and illustrator during the 1930s and 1940s, when he lived in London, and he was commissioned to produce portraits of well-known people. For a short time at the end of World War II he was commissioned by various newspapers to depict war scenes. A collection of his drawings is still in the possession of his family. Although he gained little popular success in his lifetime, his work was highly respected by his peers, and his friends included Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene. His works are now included in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum and The National Archives.

In 2008, The Times named Peake among their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.

Mervyn Peake was born of British parents in Kuling town located on top of Mountain Lu in Jiujiang in 1911, only three months before the revolution and the founding of the Republic of China. His father, Ernest Cromwell Peake, was a medical missionary doctor with the London Missionary Society of the Congregationalist tradition, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, had come to China as a missionary assistant.

The Peakes were given leave to visit England just before World War I in 1914 and returned to China in 1916. Mervyn Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family left for England in December 1922 via the Trans-Siberian Railway. About this time, he wrote a novella, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs. Peake never returned to China but it has been noted that Chinese influences can be detected in his works, not least in the castle of Gormenghast itself, which in some respects echoes the ancient walled city of Beijing, as well as the enclosed compound where he grew up in Tianjin. It is also likely that his early exposure to the contrasts between the lives of the Europeans and of the Chinese, and between the poor and the wealthy in China, also exerted an influence on the Gormenghast books.

His education continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923–29), where his talents were encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake. Peake completed his formal education at Croydon School of Art in the autumn of 1929 and then from December 1929 to 1933 at the Royal Academy Schools, where he first painted in oils. By this time, he had written his first long poem, A Touch o’ the Ash. In 1931 he had a painting accepted for display by the Royal Academy and exhibited his work with the so-called “Soho Group”.

The five years between 1943 and 1948 were some of the most productive of his career. He finished Titus Groan and Gormenghast and completed some of his most acclaimed illustrations for books by other authors, including Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (for which he was reportedly paid only £5) and Alice in Wonderland, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Brothers Grimm’s Household TalesAll This and Bevin Too by Quentin Crisp and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as producing many original poems, drawings, and paintings.

Peake designed the logo for Pan Books. The publishers offered him either a flat fee of £10 or a royalty of one farthing per book. On the advice of Graham Greene, who told him that paperback books were a passing fad that would not last, Peake opted for the £10.

A book of nonsense poems, Rhymes Without Reason, was published in 1944 and was described by John Betjeman as “outstanding”. Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Edgar Ainsworth, the art editor of Picture Post, commissioned Peake to visit France and Germany for the magazine. With writer Tom Pocock he was among the first British civilians to witness the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen, where the remaining prisoners, too sick to be moved, were dying before his very eyes. He made several drawings, but not surprisingly he found the experience profoundly harrowing, and expressed in deeply felt poems the ambiguity of turning their suffering into art.

In 1946 the family moved to Sark, where Peake continued to write and illustrate, and Maeve painted. Gormenghast was published in 1950, and the family moved back to England, settling in Smarden, Kent. Peake taught part-time at the Central School of Art, began his comic novel Mr Pye, and renewed his interest in theatre. His father died that year and left his house in Hillside Gardens in Wallington, Surrey to Mervyn. Mr Pye was published in 1953, and he later adapted it as a radio play. The BBC broadcast other plays of his in 1954 and 1956.

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