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Peake’s Progress

Selected Writings & Drawings of Mervyn Peake


Edited by Maeve Gilmore


London: British Library 2011

Hardback, 576 p. ISBN 978-0-7123-5834-7


Reviewed by Sophie Aymes

Université de Bourgogne (Dijon)



The recent years have produced publications that testify to the critical revaluation of Mervyn Peake’s work. The centenary of his birth was celebrated in 2011 and was the occasion for several publications, reprints, and events that included an exhibition of his manuscripts at the British Library. Proof of this critical and institutional recognition is the fact that the British Library acquired Peake’s archive in 2010 and has so far reprinted the 1946 edition of the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales with his illustrations (2012), as well as Peake’s Progress, along with an audiobook – a set of two CDs that contain a selection of short stories and poems read by Peake’s sons Sebastian and Fabian.

Peake’s Progress : Selected Writings & Drawings of Mervyn Peake is a selection of Peake’s works that reflects the range of his talents as writer of fiction, poet, playwright, illustrator, and radio adaptor. The book was edited by Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, ten years after he died. Maeve Gilmore’s effort to restore and promote Peake’s work, along with the relentless endeavours of friends and relatives, his late son Sebastian Peake, John Watney, Langdon Jones, Michael Moorcock, and biographer G. Peter Winnington have reversed his status from marginal cult figure to canonical writer and artist, and they made up for the lack of recognition that he suffered in the last years of his life, marred by a severe form of parkinsonism.

Peake’s Progress was initially published by Allen Lane in 1978 in a flawed edition that contained numerous mistakes and was reprinted by Penguin in the same state in 2000. The British Library edition is a facsimile of the 1981 Penguin Classics edition which (unlike the 2000 edition) contains corrections made by G. Peter Winnington (1). This hardback reprint is a handsome volume of over 500 pages with the addition of a preface by Sebastian Peake. It contains 16 plates and 48 line illustrations. As Sebastian Peake points out in the preface, “the reader is lured into a visual and verbal world, where the writer and artist inhabit the same world” [12]. The idea is conveyed by the jacket which shows Peake’s illustration for the nursery rhyme “I Saw a Peacock” from Ride a Cock-Horse (1940) and at the back a photograph of Peake in his house on Sark in 1946.

The book stemmed from the need to show the scale and variety of Peake’s achievements at a time when he was best known for being the author of the Gormenghast novels. John Watney’s original introduction gives a biographical outline with an emphasis on places, although he later qualifies the biographical approach [32]. He aims to trace the early influences on Peake’s later work and to show how the writing of the Gormenghast books was shaped. Peake, an acutely observant child, spent his childhood in China, where his father was a missionary doctor. This early experience combined with early formative reads (such as Treasure Island and The Boy’s Own Paper) to shape his creative mind. Later biographical highlights include the years at Eltham school in England, where Peake met teacher Eric Drake, who went on to open an artists’ colony on Sark. The island was to become a favourite retreat of Peake’s. The 1940s were the peak of his career as writer and illustrator – his illustrations for The Hunting of the Snark (1941), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1943), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1946) having secured his reputation. Peake’s efforts went increasingly unrewarded in the 1950s, and Watney mentions discarded projects such as an operatic adaptation of Titus Groan, and the failure of his plays The Wit to Woo and Noah’s Ark). The late 1950s were marked by a nervous breakdown followed by the first onslaughts of a severe form of Parkinson’s disease. During the declining years until his death in 1968 he managed to write Titus Alone (1959) and to complete the illustrations for the long narrative poem The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962) but progressively, says Watney, “his many-sided creative activities became one by one dented, blurred and, finally, eliminated” [30].

A large part of the works in this anthology were previously unpublished when the book appeared and there are no extracts from the Gormenghast books as they were Peake’s best-known texts. The anthology has 23 sections that combine a roughly chronological order with categories linked to genres and themes. They testify to the wish to chart Peake’s progress and to classify this polymath’s output. Each section consists either of a single work or a selection of works.

The opening piece is a curiosity: Peake’s first complete story, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs, was begun in China and completed in England in 1923. Together with the seminal drafts “Mr Slaughterboard” (1933-1936) and “The House of Darkstones” (1939-40), as well as “Notes for a Projected Autobiography” (1950), it provides an insight into the growth of a writer’s vision, complemented by Peake’s introduction to Drawings by Mervyn Peake (1949), a statement on the art of the graphic artist.

Six works of shorter fiction are reproduced: the novella Boy in Darkness, first published in Sometime Never : Three Tales of Imagination (1956) with two other stories by William Golding and John Wyndham. The section “Five Short Stories” contains “The Weird journey”, “I Bought a Palm-Tree”, “The Connoisseurs”, “Danse Macabre”, and “Same Time, Same Place”.

The sections devoted to poetry contain single works such as the narrative poem The Touch o’ the Ash (1929), A Reverie of Bone (1941, published in 1967) and The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1947, published in 1962). Five other sections are selections of poems from collected works such as Shapes and Sounds (1941), The Glassblowers (1950) and A Reverie of Bone (1967). They are organised thematically as “Poems of War and Place” (among which “London, 1941” and “The Consumptive, Belsen 1945”), “Four Painters”, “Conceits and Shorter Poems”, “Poems of Love” (appropriately starting with “To Maeve”), and “Other Worlds”. The latter provides the final text of the anthology, “Poem” (1960), and the closing line spoken by an “old, cold Lady”: “how old I am” [576).

Four sections pay homage to Peake’s nonsensical wit and graphic talents: the previously unpublished Moccus Poems (1929), “Five Rhymes Without Reason” (selected from Rhymes Without Reason, 1944), Figures of Speech (1954), and “Nonsense Poems” (containing unpublished poems along with a few selected from A Book of Nonsense, 1972).

Finally the anthology features three full-length plays: The Wit to Woo (1950-57, printed for the first time along with sketches for the set and characters), the play for children Noah’s Ark, 1960), and the BBC radio-play For Mr Pye – An Island, (1957), an adaptation of the novel Mr Pye (1953) accompanied with selected drawings from the book.

For the larger part, the anthology publishes or reprints texts; there are relatively few reproductions of drawings and graphic work compared to Peake’s total output, and no paintings. Only one section consists strictly of illustrations, the six line drawings Peake made for Maurice Collis’s The Quest for Sita (1946). The emphasis is laid on unknown or lesser-known graphic works, showing Peake’s talent for caricature and nonsense, and stressing the importance of sketching. The plates are not inserts as in the Penguin edition but pages containing reproductions which, overall, are of a lesser quality than those of the Penguin edition. Most of them are sketches and drawings for the plays The Wit to Woo and Noah’s Ark, as well as studies for the illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark, Treasure Island (1949), and Bleak House (1948).

This anthology was an original undertaking back in 1978 and it provided a stimulating selection of works. As any anthology it begs the question of what was left out and it reflects the difficulty of classifying an oeuvre that defies categorisation. It is not however a critical edition and the general reader may wish that more detailed information had been given to introduce each new section, and that more art had been reproduced. After the spate of recent reprints and new publications, very few texts remain unpublished. For the poetry and nonsense, readers can now turn to the Collected Poems edited by Robert W. Maslen (Carcanet, 2008) and to Complete Nonsense, edited by Robert W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Carcanet, 2011). As for Peake’s art, a rewarding read is provided by Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art (Peter Owen, 2006) compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, and edited by G. Peter Winnington.

The British Library may one day draw from the Mervyn Peake archive and publish its own critical anthology, which would be a welcome addition to the literature published on the author.


(1) A detailed account of the publishing history of Peake’s Progress as well as lists of further corrections are provided by G. Peter Winnington.


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