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The Voice of the Heart

The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake's Imagination

G. Peter Winnington
Volume: 48
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Voice of the Heart
    Book Description:

    The works of Mervyn Peake have fascinated readers for sixty years. His Gormenghast sequence of novels – recently serialized to great acclaim by the BBC – stands as one of the great imaginative accomplishments of twentieth-century literature. In The Voice of the Heart, G. Peter Winnington, the world’s foremost expert on Peake, sets his subject’s fiction in context with the poetry, plays and book illustrations which are less well known. He traces recurrent motifs through Peake’s works (islands, animals, and loneliness, for example) and explores in detail Peake’s long-neglected play, The Wit to Woo. Through close readings of all these elements of Peake’s oeuvre, Winnington is ultimately able to offer unparalleled insight into one of British literature’s most vibrant imaginations.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-439-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Abbreviated references and editions quoted
    (pp. ix-xi)
  6. Works cited
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    This is the first critical monograph on Mervyn Peake’s work as a whole – the first, that is, to take account of his poems, plays, short stories and graphic work (paintings, drawings and illustrations, both to his own works and those by others), as well as his novels about Titus Groan and Mr Pye. There have been biographies (by Watney, Winnington and York, in that order) and memoirs (by Gilmore and Smith), but very little criticism. Half of John Batchelor’s pioneering study,Mervyn Peake: a biographical and critical exploration(1975), analysed Peake’s prose and poetry in general terms, but did not...

  8. 1 Heart
    (pp. 5-27)

    Mervyn Peake is best known for his novelsTitus Groan,GormenghastandTitus Alone. They are often called the ‘Gormenghast trilogy’ but since they are about the eponymous hero rather than his castle home it is more accurate to call them ‘the Titus books’. The appellation is, however, significant: it’s the place rather than the plot that remains in the mind. Rarely has a literary castle caught the imagination of so many readers.

    In the space of less than 25 years Peake also produced thousands of drawings and book illustrations, hundreds of paintings, more than two hundred poems, a dozen...

  9. 2 Solitude
    (pp. 28-55)

    Peake concludes his Introduction toDrawingswith a most revealing statement, not of method, but of belief about the role of the artist:

    As the earth was thrown from the sun, so from the earth the artist must fling out into space, complete from pole to pole, his own world which, whatsoever form it takes, is the colour of the globe it flew from, as the world itself is coloured by the sun. (D11)

    Of the many avenues of investigation that this double comparison opens up, I shall examine but two: the significance of space, and Peake’s view of himself...

  10. 3 Islands
    (pp. 56-78)

    Throughout his work, Peake consistently uses the island, along with its specific physical features such as beaches and cliffs, as an image of solitude. Islands, generally with a sole human inhabitant, are central to many of his works:Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor,Rhymes without Reason and Letters from a Lost Uncle. The island of Sark is the setting forMr Pye, and it has generally been assumed that the maritime imagery in Peake’s work derives from his love of Sark. However, his earliest known poems, ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ and the recently recovered ‘Vikings’, are both set on the...

  11. 4 Animals
    (pp. 79-108)

    Believing that every person is a separate island, Peake constantly comes up against the stubborn ‘fact’ thattwopeople cannot shareoneisland. However, an animal companion – not just any old domestic pet, of course, but an anthropomorphic animal, like Captain Slaughterboard’s Yellow Creature – would relieve the solitude. Consequently many of Peake’s works feature partnerships between hybrids and humans. The strange relationship between Titus and the Thing starts to make sense when viewed in this light. It represents a particular moment in Peake’s thinking, for unlike his belief about islands his attitude towards animals evolved over the years. The loving...

  12. 5 Love
    (pp. 109-129)

    Peake was untiring in his search for a cure to man’s essential isolation. Islands are by definition separate, and animal companions no solution. So he hoped that rather as God’s love used to hold the universe together, so human love might soothe the lonely soul and join the sundered islands. Beside solitude, love is the main theme of his work. The end ofTitus Groanproclaims that ‘love itself will cry for insurrection!’ (506); the end ofGormenghastsees Titus fulfil the prediction by rejecting his inheritance and leaving the castle. The third volume recounts his fruitless quest for love....

  13. 6 Birds
    (pp. 130-150)

    Of the many loves in Peake’s work, we have yet to consider the feeling that Titus has for the Thing. At the age of seven or so he glimpses her in the forest, ‘phantom or human, he knew not which … floating … like a leaf, in the shape of a girl’ (G187). It takes a few days for this momentous experience to sink in and then he suddenly realizes that ‘the slight and floating enigma of the glade had taken on a sex, had become particularized, had woken in him a sensation of excitement that was new to him’...

  14. 7 Identity
    (pp. 151-170)

    For Peake, the act of making a drawing or painting is an existential statement of identity, an expression of his self. While great artists may, metaphorically, ‘paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood’ (D₁₀), the work is in fact separate from the body of its creator; it merely takes the colour of ‘the globe it flew from’. Looking at his own work, Peake writes ‘This is not me’ (D₁₁), which immediately raises the question, who is he? To answer ‘that one’s name is Brown or Robinson is nothing to the point’. Peake is in search of his ‘elemental...

  15. 8 Evil
    (pp. 171-191)

    The notion of evil came to preoccupy Peake with increasing acuity. In early works like ‘The Touch of the Ash’ and his Slaughterboard tales, he amused himself with the cardboard characters of boys’ stories. InTitus Groan, he depicted a character who consciously and deliberately chooses to do evil in pursuit of power. This led to his most developed – and literary – examination of human evil inGormenghast, as Steerpike’s choices reduce his options until he is cornered, literally and figuratively, and killed. Having done this, Peake began to reflect on the relationship between evil and art.

    Between writingTitus Groan...

  16. 9 Perspective
    (pp. 192-218)

    Whenever Peake writes of visual perception, he underlines its selectiveness: what we see depends not upon the optical qualities of the eye but on the heart and mind behind it. ‘We do not see with our eyes but with our trades.’ To a poet, a tree may be ‘a green fountain’, to a carpenter the same tree is ‘potential timber’ and to a child it is ‘a world of boughs’ to climb into (AW3). Because this subjectivity is fuelled by emotion, ‘no eye may see dispassionately’: ‘what haunts the heart’ blinds the eye and leaves ‘the main of Life in...

  17. 10 Voice
    (pp. 219-240)

    In the previous chapter, we noticed how precisely Peake describes the eyes of his characters and how, following his own narrative eye, they are liable to become disembodied and autonomous. These qualities are also enjoyed by the voice, with a significant difference: Peake’s characters came to him first of all as voices, and as he wrote he made sketches to check whether his writing was faithful to what he had heard. These drawings ‘were never exactly as [he] imagined the people, but were near enough for [him] to know when their voices lost touch with their heads’ (HRNE) – the sound,...

  18. 11 Mr Pye
    (pp. 241-262)

    It is high time that we came to ‘Peake’s other novel’. Less than half the length of eitherTitus GroanorGormenghast,Mr Pyeunites, develops and deepens all the themes and motifs that I have been examining. Until now, no one has considered it in the light of Peake’s other works, with the result that they have come away baffled. In his pioneering study John Batchelor damned it with faint praise. ‘Of its slight kindMr Pyeis an attractive work,’ he wrote, justifying his dismissal by quoting C.S. Lewis: ‘One must not munch whipped cream as though it...

  19. 12 Theatre
    (pp. 263-288)

    So far this study has concentrated almost entirely on Peake’s fiction and poetry, yet throughout the 1950s, he channelled most of his creative energy into writing plays. If the themes and motifs presented in the foregoing chapters truly represent his main preoccupations, Peake’s theatre should corroborate my findings, rounding them out with additional evidence and filling in areas I may have neglected. So let us consider the most successful of his plays,The Wit to Woo, which had a brief run at the Arts Theatre in London in the spring of 1957. Since then, no one has offered a critical...

  20. Index
    (pp. 289-290)