Mervyn Peake is someone who has sadly begun to recede from the public consciousness. Despite being named in The Times list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945” and there having been a BBC adaptation of Gormenghast starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers aired to critical acclaim, plus persisting rumours of a big-screen version of the book, Peake’s star shines less brightly. Which is a shame.
Peake possessed a rare imaginative talent, which extended beyond writing. He was an excellent artist and illustrator, too.
He will perhaps always be best known for the Gormenghast trilogy of books, which includes the novels Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone. These are some of the most inventive works of gothic fantasy ever conceived.
The hardback first editions of the Gormenghast books, published by Eyre and Spottiswoode, in 1946, 1950 and 1959 respectively, all feature Peake’s magnificent black and white designs on their dust wrappers, and it is partly for this reason that they are now so sought after by collectors. Credit should go to Eyre and Spottiswoode for maintaining a uniformity of design across the sequence of books, particularly since there was a significant number of years between publication of the first and last volumes.
The wrapper of Titus Groan depicts a crow sitting atop a chained crown; Gormenghast shows flames rising above the House of Groan; and Titus Alone reveals the socially excluded Titus staring into the abyss-like tunnels of the Under-River.
Sadly, by the time that Titus Alone was published, Peake himself was staring into his own abyss. Failing health prevented him from holding a pen steady, and he was never again to fully realise his powerful imaginations into creative art.
© Fergus Longfellow
Book expert, Fergus Longfellow, respectfully dons his white gloves to handle his first edition of Gormenghast.