The Gormenghast Trilogy Critical Context - Essay

Mervyn Peake

Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The author of The Gormenghast Trilogy spent much of his life ignored by the critics and tastemakers in several branches of art, despite his facility as a poet, a writer of prose, a painter, and a book illustrator. It was a life hampered by the irregular and insecure place of the artist in society, by the conflicts of nations, and by common mortality.

Yet it was not dull; Peake’s life was itself much like a romance, filled with the color of exotic places and with an often bizarre humor. He was born in the city of Kuling in China, where his father was a medical missionary, and he lived there until he was eleven. Some readers have suggested that Peake derived his conception of Gormenghast at least in part from his recollections of this early period. The Peakes were frequent visitors in Hankow, the capital of the province, where foreigners lived in a walled compound surrounded by Chinese workshops that produced fine porcelain. The resemblance between the castle of Gormenghast with the village of the Bright Carvers huddled against its walls and the compound in Hankow surrounded by the porcelainmakers is striking. The resemblance is there, however, only in general, because there is nothing particularly Oriental about the detail of the setting of Gormenghast, its inhabitants, or those who cluster around its walls. The Bright Carvers, artists though they are, show nothing characteristically Chinese in their way of life, their names, or their pursuits.

Whatever influence Peake’s childhood in China had on his work, it may have ultimately had a malign effect on his life: In 1917, Peake contracted a viral disease epidemic in China, one that may have been the remote cause of the nervous condition that struck...

(The entire section is 707 words.)