I first encountered Mervyn Peake, as most readers do, through his baroque Gormenghast trilogy. At the time, I was stuck in the purgatorial antechamber between adolescence and maturity, reluctant to abandon certain habits of mind but keen to develop the imaginative sophistication that I thought might come in handy in college. So the BBC’s television dramatization of what they promised would be a darker alternative to Tolkien had its appeal. As it turned out, the BBC only adapted the first two Gormenghast novels, and then only cartoonishly. But my curiosity was sufficiently stirred to seek out the trilogy.
Just over a decade later, the centenary of Peake’s birth presents us with the occasion to appreciate his abundant gifts as an illustrator (of, among other thing, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), novelist, poet, and writer of literary nonsense. On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been new illustrated editions of the Gormenghast novels and a new epilogue, Titus Awakes, has surfaced, written by Peake’s widow, Maeve Gilmore. In Britain, the celebrations have been understandably more elaborate. The British Library has mounted an exhibition to celebrate their recent acquisition of Peake’s archive, while the radio dramatist Brian Sibley has adapted the trilogy, with its new conclusion, for BBC Radio 4. Toward the end of July, I visited the exhibition and attended a panel discussion featuring a host of speakers, including Peake’s sons, Fabian and Sebastian. Read More