Mervyn Peake on Sark

Mervyn Peake, Path through the Trees [Sark]
  1. ‘To Justify the Place’

In August this year I went to the Isle of Sark. The reason for the visit was simple: the writer-artist Mervyn Peake stayed on the island several times, and lived there twice, first from 1933 to 1935 as a member of an artist’s community now known as the Sark Art Group, then from 1946 to 1949 as the father of a family. Other visits included his honeymoon in 1938, a trip with his young sons to sort out the selling of his home in 1950, a holiday in 1953 and a period in 1957 when he was trying to finish the last of the Titus books, Titus Alone (1959), as he gradually succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease.[1] I’m writing a book about Mervyn Peake, and it seemed important to spend some time on the island that became his island: the country of his heart’s desire, whose presence reverberates through nearly all his written work and a great deal of his work as a visual artist.

Mervyn Peake, Self-portrait (1931)

Why was it important to go there, you ask? What can we learn from spending time in a place that figures so prominently in an artist’s imagination? Here’s the beginnings of an answer. Peake’s favourite book as a boy concerned an island – Treasure Island (1881-2) – and the book’s author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a fine essay on romance which sets a sense of place at the heart of the genre.[2] ‘One thing in life calls for another,’ Stevenson tells us:

there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our minds to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles through the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story.

In his own novels, Peake gave us a place like no other: the colossal castle of Gormenghast, whose full dimensions can never be established, with walls like cliffs and rooftops like the tracts of a desert, honeycombed with forgotten corridors and dusty staircases, its main mass punctuated by abandoned courtyards and deserted chambers, lost attics, secluded towers and unlighted windows. His castle aches for occurrence, despite the law that governs its inhabitants, which states that nothing there must ever change. And in the course of the first two Titus novels something happens indeed ‘to justify the place’, as Stevenson puts it; most obviously, perhaps, the two great fights that break the stillness of the castle’s decaying vistas: first the combat between Flay and Swelter at the end of Titus Groan (1946), then the manhunt through the building for the upstart Steerpike at the end of Gormenghast (1950), which culminates in a duel between Steerpike and Titus, reluctant heir to the ancient pile and its incoherent rituals.

P J Lynch’s representation of Gormenghast

In Stevenson’s terms, then, Peake was a writer of romance, and the place of his imagination, Gormenghast Castle, is perhaps the ultimate example of the ‘fitness in events and places’ discussed in Stevenson’s essay. And it’s intimately bound up with the Isle of Sark. The stony bulk of the building recalls the stony bulk of the tiny landmass, rising from the ocean like the carcass of a whale. In the second Titus book, parts of the castle even acquire names associated with the island: the Countess of Groan lists the Coupée (‘the high knife-edge’), Little Sark, Gory and the Silver-Mines, as sections of the building to be searched in the hunt for Steerpike, while Peake’s description of these parts could serve as a description of Sark’s shoreline: ‘Great islands of sheer rock weather-pock’d with countless windows, like caves or the eyries of sea-eagles. Archipelagos of towers, gaunt-fisted things, with knuckled summits – and other towers so broken at their heads as to resemble pulpits, high and sinister; black rostrums for the tutelage of evil’ (p. 699).[3] To visit the island is to return to the source. If certain places seem to cry out for a tale that will do them justice, travelling to the places which spawned great fiction is a necessity for anyone seeking to unlock the riddles of that fiction; a kind of pilgrimage, if you will, to discover the pains and pleasures, the tortures and delights that prompted that spawning. Titus Groan begins, indeed, with a quotation from the ultimate novel of pilgrimage, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which would have been familiar to any child of nonconformist parents in the first half of the twentieth century:

Dost thou love picking meat? Or woulds’t thou see
A man in the clouds, and have him speak to thee?[4]

I would indeed like to see the visionary ‘man in the clouds’, Mervyn Peake, more clearly than I do, and attending to Sark may give new resonance to the voices he speaks with.

I only had a week for my visit, so my opportunity for deciphering the island’s riddles – and with them the riddles of Peake’s work – was severely restricted. This blogpost records a few of its results.

Map of Sark from https://www.sark.co.uk/map/
  1. Cliffs of Sark

What, then, of Sark’s ‘shape, its solidity, or outline, or texture’, as the object of our scrutiny? It lies just off the coast of Normandy, along with the rest of the Channel Islands. Its shape seen from above, as in a map, is well described by Stephen Foote in his invaluable little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (2019), which I took with me on my trip as a guidebook: ‘The island is made up of two parts – Big Sark and Little Sark – which are connected by a narrow isthmus, La Coupée, with steep rocky cliffs either side’.[5] From the sea it resembles a kind of mesa or plateau, like the one in Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) where dinosaurs have survived into modern times alongside cave-dwelling humans. The Sark plateau is surrounded by cliffs two or three hundred feet high, which guard isolated beaches of stone or sand accessible only by precipitous paths winding down the cliff faces. Hidden among their skirts are innumerable caves, as well as two tidal rock pools named after Venus and Adonis, conjuring up images of pagan worship and erotic dalliance. The two harbours are reached through narrow tunnels drilled through the stone. Peake knew these cliffs very well; on a reconnaissance trip with Gordon Smith in 1932 he got stranded on one of them. Here’s Smith’s account of the incident:

I remember scrambling with Mervyn across a steep cliff-face, with the waves smashing hungrily below. Somehow we got out to a knife-edge of rock that stuck out at right-angles from the face, like the branch-gable of a house. This we both straddled, and found ourselves gazing a bit anxiously up at the main cliff, which went up vertically, a few inches away, for another thirty or forty feet. The only hold seemed to be a shallow depression about half-way up. Perched on the top of the cliff, overhanging the edge, was a boulder the size of a small cottage. I still do not know how we got up the face, though I remember getting first a knee and then a toe into the depression mentioned and reaching some sort of safety near the side of the boulder.

Mervyn also reached the top, but found himself on a tiny ledge just under the worst underhang of the boulder, with his arms clasping as much of its mass as he could compass. I edged towards him to help.

‘If you come near me I’ll bloody well kill you!’ he muttered desperately.

Finally, by some contortion, he managed to turn himself right round, which was no comfort at all: for he was now facing outwards, looking down over the sea far below, with his arms spreadeagled behind him. All I could do was stay still, and watch. After long, agonizing minutes he inched his way to safety.[6]

Cliffs of Sark

This passage recalls Steerpike’s vertiginous epic climb up the walls of Gormenghast towards a window in Titus Groan – though the climb in the novel is through thick ivy, the sort of ivy one sees clinging in many places to the cliffs of Sark. The distances involved are different; at one point Steerpike stops to rest in his climb and notes that ‘He was about midway between the ground two hundred feet below him and the window’, which makes the height of the castle wall over four hundred feet, one hundred feet higher than the highest of the island’s cliffs.[7] But the sensations aroused by wall and cliffs may well have been identical:

He could not know that he was nearing the window. Distance, even more than time, had ceased to have any meaning for him, but all at once he found that the leaves were thinning and that blotches of light lay pranked about him. He remembered having observed from below that the ivy had appeared to be less profuse and to lie closer to the wall as it neared the window. The hirsute branches were less dependable now and several had snapped at his weight, so that he was forced to keep to one of the main stems that clung dustily to the wall. Only a foot or two in depth, the ivy lay at his back partially shading him from the sun. A moment later and he was alone in the sunshine. It was difficult for his fingers to find purchase. Fighting to wedge them between the clinging branches and the wall he moved, inch by inch, upwards. It seemed to him that all his life he had been climbing. All his life he had been ill and tortured. All his life he had been terrified, and red shapes rolled. Hammers were beating and sweat poured into his eyes.[8]

The torment of the teenage climber, here, invokes exactly the sort of fierce desperation expressed by Peake in his threat to kill Gordon Smith. But Steerpike later grew adept in the art of negotiating the castle’s precipitous heights, swinging himself up and down on lengths of rope as he pursued his self-appointed trade as spy and assassin, and Peake, too, clearly acquired real confidence on the cliffs. Smith tells us that he accomplished another climb ‘with a young cormorant in each coat pocket pecking angrily at his armpits as he hung’.[9] Afterwards he kept one of the cormorants in his studio, where it ‘defecated all over his canvases’, in the words of Malcolm Yorke.[10] Just as the cormorant became acclimatised to human company, so Peake became what Stephen Foote calls a ‘Son of Sark’, naturalised to its strange and isolated landscape, as all his readers become naturalised to the strange and isolated landscapes of his imaginary castle.

Let’s take another few steps towards our own, more limited kind of naturalisation.

Creux Harbour, Sark. Picture of the harbour wall from Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye
  1. Geographies of Sark

Cliffs are the first feature of Sark you notice as you approach by boat from Saint Peter Port in Guernsey. We saw a dolphin on the crossing; the Peake family saw a school of porpoises.[11] We disembarked at one of the two harbours on the island, the Maseline Harbour, completed after the war and not yet in use when the Peakes lived there. The smaller of the two, Creux Harbour, was the one Mervyn knew best, and features prominently in his illustrations for his third novel, Mr Pye. A cove enclosed by a massive sea wall, it features a pebble beach surrounded by cliffs, a shallow cave, and not one but two tunnels cut through the rock from the road beyond, one leading to the harbour wall, the other, smaller tunnel leading down to the beach. Secret and secluded, it must have been the perfect introduction to the island when the ferry moored there. In Peake’s time visitors to the island could catch a horse and carriage up the steep slope that begins on the other side of the tunnels; in those days, as now, there were no cars on the island. Today the horse and carriage have been replaced by a tractor pulling a long trailer divided into seated sections, known as the Toast Rack because of its shape (the passengers are the toast). We chose instead to walk up the narrow path that winds alongside the road to the top of the hill through the thick vegetation that grows almost everywhere on Sark. Here it’s an exotic subtropical jungle, full of rhododendrons and other alien plants, but elsewhere it’s more of a maquis made up of blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble, the sort of scrubland through which partisans moved in Corsica. You get the best sense of this scrubland from L’Eperquerie Common at the North end of the island, where a maze of narrow paths has been hacked through the thick dwarf-forest, giving sudden access to viewpoints high above the gun-grey waters of the English Channel.

Mervyn Peake, ‘The Avenue, Sark’

At the top of the road from the harbour, after passing a pub on your left – the Bel Air Inn – you reach the crossroads called the Collinette (i.e. small hill or hillock). There, now as in Peake’s time, horses and carriages wait in a row to collect visitors for leisurely tours around the island. Straight ahead lies the main street of Sark, known as the Avenue. A fine painting of it by Peake called ‘The Avenue, Sark’ (1934) hangs in the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery, fully bearing out the words of a reporter at a Sark Art Group exhibition who said of Peake’s work that ‘the effect of light which he brings into his pictures makes them vivid, alive and interesting’.[12] That same Sark Art Group exhibition also included a lost picture of his, illustrating Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ (1794): ‘a thing of dark trees, slumbrous shadows and wicked green light, with, as centrepiece, a vivid yellow tiger’.[13] There is something distinctly tigerish about the streaks of light and shade in ‘The Avenue, Sark’, though the centrepiece here is a woman in the sunlit distance, rendered spectral by the obscurity of her face.

Wind-sculpted tree, near L’Eperquerie

As the painting shows, the roads of Sark are left untarmacked, presumably to make them easy on the horses’ feet. They are now as Peake first saw them, shaded by sinuous pines and spreading oaks; but by the time he came to live here a second time, just after the war, all the trees along the sides of the road had been chopped down, leaving only the ‘great stub ends of the massacred trees’, as he puts it in Mr Pye.[14] Sark suffered badly under German occupation, occupiers and occupied alike, and the wood was needed as winter fuel, for heating as well as for cooking the islanders’ desperately short rations; I read about these tough conditions in an excellent exhibition at the Old Island Hall on the Rue de la Seigneurie.[15] The adjective ‘massacred’ reflects Peake’s deep affection for trees, and one wonders if he had this massacre in mind when he wrote this short poem in the 1940s:

If trees gushed blood
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welled

From every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear
And let them live?[16]

The absence, during his second long stay on Sark, of the pines and oaks he had carefully painted before the war, must have served as a constant reminder of the time of violence and privation that came between.

The Gallery, Sark (1933)

The Avenue and its westward extension, Mill Lane, features large in Peake’s Sark life. Just before the right hand turn to the Rue de la Seigneurie stands the Post Office, with its blue plaque commemorating Peake’s association with the island. The building was originally constructed in 1933 as the Sark Art Gallery; Peake helped in its construction when he became a founder-member of the Sark Art Group, and the arched room above the entrance was where Peake had his studio (a photo survives of him painting in it).[17] As originally built, following the designs of the Sark Art Group’s co-directors, Eric and Lisel Drake, the place brought a sense of Modernist flair to the tiny island, with its clean lines, all-round verandas, Art Deco spiral stairway, and ingenious use of natural lighting. These days it remains a very attractive shop, though all the features I’ve listed have long gone, apart from the studio above the entrance. Further along the Avenue you pass the old schoolhouse, now a visitor’s centre, with the little gaol next door. Peake describes the gaol in Mr Pye as ‘a pocket-size prison like a stone sea-chest’, and Mr Pye spends several hours hiding in it from a mob of islanders baying for his blood.[18] Further on, past the sixteenth-century Old Manoir where the first Lords of Sark had their home, you pass the Peake family’s house on your right, half way down Mill Lane. Originally called Le Chalet, after Peake’s time it was renamed Le Clos de Vin, and when I first saw it there was no name on the gate at all, which meant I took several days to identify the place with any certainty. Fortunately the exhibition in the Old Village Hall happened to mention the name change, and I found the sign for Le Clos de Vin lying on a bench in the driveway. The house was very large and shabby, painted white on the outside; it had two glass conservatories attached to the sides that faced the road, and the sagging front gate looks very much like the gate of Miss Dredger’s house as pictured in Mr Pye.[19] It also had an extensive lawn. More than this I couldn’t see, since I was too shy to go up to the front door, ring the doorbell and ask permission to look around. I’d have loved to find out if a palm tree can still be found in the grounds. Peake describes the process of acquiring this exotic specimen in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, claiming that he brought it to Sark in a bid to make the island tropical. He had no illusions that the island would actually become tropical when the tree was planted; he wanted only to invoke ‘The tropics that one finds between the thick cardboard covers of dog-eared and thumb-marked story books. The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’.[20] It was his little contribution to the myth of Sark’s connection to piracy, a connection we’ll revisit very shortly.

Sark Prison

I was interested in the location of the house because it was so central, so very much (I thought) at the heart of island life. The Gallery – now the post office – was only a few hundred metres away, as were the two-roomed schoolhouse and the Anglican Church on La Seigneurie Road, which Peake also painted.[21] The shops of the Avenue were nearby, and the Island Hall, while the Methodist Church stands on a parallel road called the Rue du Sermon, not far from the island’s tiny parliament, the Chief Pleas, and the home of the island’s feudal lords, La Seigneurie. Connecting all these places is a network of tree-lined roads, along which bicycles bowl between carriages, pedestrians and tractors. If I’d pictured the place as a reclusive artist’s retreat I was quickly disabused of this notion; the Sark I saw was all a-bustle, often of course because of the hordes of summer tourists who came up on day-trips from the ferry, but also because of the vibrant local community. On the day we arrived, there was a cricket match on the pitch by the new Island Hall. I watched lazily, sipping a drink, as Sark got thrashed by Guernsey, and thought about how Peake had joined the island football team in the 1930s as keeper, despite the fact that he’d never played football before (his rugby skills, on the other hand, must have come in useful).[22] I saw posters for a performance by a local amateur theatre company, and remembered the theatrical performance given by the Sark Art Group as the monks who brought Christianity to Sark (Peake didn’t take part in the performance, since he’d left the Group by that time).[23] I drank in the garden of the Bel Air Inn amongst a swarm of chatty Sarkese, and remembered Peake’s paintings of Sark pub life, which included a drawing of a game of darts and several paintings of fishermen drinking.[24] He worked in the fields in the 1930s to make a living, and in the 1940s his two small sons took visitors round the island in a cart drawn by their elderly donkey, Judy. Peake and his family were gregarious, not reclusive, and Peake practised his art in the middle of the island community, just as he wrote, drew and painted in the middle of his family, not set apart from them in some private attic or outhouse. This may seem surprising, given that Gormenghast Castle is full of recluses; but it’s in the first of the Titus books that the loneliest castle dwellers can be found, a book that was largely written during Peake’s troubled period in the army from 1940-1942 – a period that ended in breakdown and hospitalization. The second novel, written on Sark, is full of communities, with Titus drifting among them in perpetual quest of a community of his own – a quest that continues in the picaresque journey of Titus Alone. If Peake and his family felt like outsiders on the island, they were outsiders in a busy society, not hermits like the exiled servant Flay in his cave, or the wild girl called The Thing swinging free and alone through the forests of Gormenghast Mountain.

The Window in the Rock

Peake’s novel set on the island, however – Mr Pye – contains acute loneliness as well as crowds, and it is perfectly possible to be lonely on Sark. During our visit we stayed at a relatively quiet location: a room in a new house off the Rue de la Seigneurie, close to several lonely sites that loomed large in Peake’s imagination. The first is the Window in the Rock – a square hole bored in the rockface two hundred feet above a stony shore, probably designed for hauling up goods from the beach below to the island plateau (we found a rusting winch nearby). Here the plump visitor to Sark, Mr Pye, stood beside his friend Miss Dredger as they contemplated the problem of his burgeoning wings, which seem to have sprouted in response to Mr Pye’s angelic nature, isolating him from the other inhabitants of the island. For once, at this point in the novel Mr Pye is prepared to see the wings not as a moral or social problem – to be combated by behaving badly in secret, which of course leads to an outgrowth of horns instead – but as a practical asset: ‘What a place to take off from,’ Mr Pye comments as they gaze down a ‘sheer wall of sickening rock’.[25] Peake’s illustration for this chapter shows the Window as the uneven border of an animated picture, with two contrasting figures framed by it – one plump, one thin – looking outwards, away from the viewer, outlined against what we know from the text is a dizzying drop, a leap into space, an opening onto the sky, the ocean, fierce life and sudden death. The notion of a picture as an opening onto vast unseen spaces is characteristic of Peake’s art, from the densely crosshatched illustrations to the Ancient Mariner to the gravity-defying supernatural beings of The Quest for Sita.[26] Mr Pye’s response to the view is not to consider its moral implications – a Hamletesque ‘to be or not to be’ prompted by the ethical dilemmas embodied in his wings and horns – but to think of the actions it might inspire, above all the action of taking flight, which implies a final acceptance of and faith in the feathered limbs he has been striving so hard to get rid of. Cliffs, of course, have that effect on some people – including me: an urge to get closer, to jump, to soar from one medium to the next, from earth to air, though for most of us the action of soaring can only ever be achieved in dreams. For Peake, the visionary shift from one medium to another could be achieved by a simple change of art form, from drawing to painting, from book illustration to writing in verse or prose for page or stage. Place prompted thoughts of action, just as it did for Stevenson in his essay on romance. Mr Pye’s response to the Window might almost be a response to the passage in which Stevenson considers the relationship between a person’s concern with conduct – with whether they have behaved, or will behave, rightly or wrongly – and their more practical concern with problems arising from their physical or social environment:

Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant. Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

In the turbulent mid-twentieth century, one gets the sense that the urgent practical demands of dealing with one’s surroundings – of day-to-day survival, say on an island, under occupation or in the storms of winter in peacetime – vastly outweighed the ‘passionate slips and hesitations of conscience’ as a priority in most people’s lives; as no doubt it did in Stevenson’s, who was a consumptive under sentence of imminent death for most of his life. And ‘problems of the body’ feature largely in Mr Pye, not just in the matter of its unwanted excrescences – wings and horns – but in other ways I shall come to later. They are the source, in fact, of Mr Pye’s isolation, despite his ability to make friends with other outcasts.

Les Autelets

The other Peakean landmark close to our lodgings was a group of distinctive stone formations that rise from the sea in the next bay along from the Port du Moulin, above which the Window is sited. These are Les Autelets – the ‘little altars’: four crooked stacks of rock like giant wayward relatives of the standing stones at Stonehenge or Avebury, all of which can be accessed from the shore at low tide. Mr Pye and Miss Dredger looked down on them from the headland that contains the Window in the Rock. I couldn’t reach the top of that headland, which has been fenced off in obedience to the damaging laws of trespass that obtain throughout so much British territory (though not in Scotland); so I had to look at Les Autelets from the other side, standing on a path that led westwards through the bushes of L’Eperquerie Common, at the north end of the island. Mr Pye’s thoughts on these natural monuments combine the artist’s eye with the ‘practical intelligence’ mentioned by Stevenson. The largest stack in the group, the Grand Autelet, ‘isolated from the main cliffs and knee-deep in water’, is described by the narrator of Peake’s novel as a ‘natural effort at cubism’; but for Mr Pye it is ‘very abstract’, a resistance to representation of the world in mimetic or narrative terms.[27] Seeing it brings flying to his mind, as did the sickening drop on the other side of the Window. He thinks of

sailing away through the sweet, translucent air. Of stepping out over the edge of this precipitous headland and, like that gull, of being borne across the bay and the sea, and up into the sun, and down and up again, and away and away and then, perhaps, to return and to perch at last, who knows, on the back of the old Abstract.[28]

Scenery here prompts thoughts of action of a very specific kind: the sort of mythical action that can only be accomplished by a person who has wings, an Icarus flying to the sun, a Satan launching himself across Chaos towards the vulnerable earth – though without the moral implications of these legendary flights (Icarus teaches us not to aspire beyond our reach, Satan’s journey exemplifies the workings of diabolical Pride, but both figures remain fascinating and attractive despite their sins, as Breughel and Doré confirmed in their pictures of them). Mr Pye thinks he has lost his chance for such action, since he is working to shrink his wings through the wicked behaviour he has been practising in recent weeks. But the sight of Les Autelets brings back the possibilities of flight, not as part of a grandiose narrative, appropriated by priests for allegorical religious purposes like the flights of Icarus and Satan, but as an expression of his own inward ‘army of anonymous desires and pleasures’, a summation of Mr Pye himself. After landing on the Grand Autelet he imagines himself reaching into his pocket for a fruit drop – a characteristic gesture wholly specific to Mr Pye, who is known as the ‘Fruit Drop’ to the islanders. His imagined flight goes nowhere – neither to the sun nor to the heavens nor to some distant destination. Instead it doubles back on itself and deposits him at the very place he started out from, without an agenda beyond the satisfaction of his immediate cravings. It confirms his identity, independent of his self-proclaimed mission of converting the people of Sark to his religious way of thinking. It’s an act of self-liberation which must wait to be accomplished till the end of the book. And it’s also an act of insurrection against balance; a concept we’ll be coming back to, along with piracy.

The Seigneurie of Sark
  1. The Seigneurie of Sark

At the centre of the island, ideologically if not geographically speaking, is the Seigneurie, one of whose many roofs we could see from our bedroom window. It’s a strange fusion of buildings which include a sixteenth-century farmhouse, rebuilt and enlarged in more-or-less classical style in the seventeenth century, with a second and third house added on behind in the eighteenth century and further eccentric changes made in the nineteenth, including an ornate five-storey tower and an extravagant dovecote.[29] Each of the past four centuries, then, has seen the house expand, until it looks from most angles more like a village than a family home – or a miniature model for Gormenghast Castle, which organically grew over many centuries into the titanic fortress it is when we first see it in Titus Groan. The Seigneur who added the tower, the Reverend W. T. Collings, also made additions to the nearby parish church and built the tiny prison, extending his architectural reach well beyond the limits of the house’s grounds.

The Seigneurie Gardens

The glory of the Seigneurie, however, is its celebrated gardens, which are crammed with exotic flowers and bushes that bloom in all seasons, alive with bees, birds and butterflies. There is a maze of low-growing hedges with a tiny fortress in the middle, a circular lawn surrounded by trellises, further formal lawns in front of the old original facade, and down the hill a swampy pond with its own dishevelled island, a Sark for ducks. One can imagine the Head Gardener of Gormenghast, the monklike Pentecost, moving along the paths of the Seigneurie Garden in his leather cowl. Could his monkishness have drawn on stories of the performance by the Sark Art Group in May 1935, when the painter Tony Bridges impersonated the island’s patron saint, Saint Magloire, and the rest of the Group dressed up in religious robes? As I mentioned earlier, Peake wasn’t involved in that performance, having taken up a post earlier that year at Westminster School of Art, but there were plenty of photos, and the performance won the artists a prize for their costumes; he very likely knew all about it.[30] One of the buildings at La Seigneurie stood in for Saint Magloire’s chapel; today it houses an exhibition on the lords and ladies of Sark.

The Old Windmill, Sark

These days the Seigneurie looks serene; but it wasn’t always so. Just down the road from Le Chalet, where the Peakes lived, stands an abandoned windmill, whose sails were burned for firewood in the war and never replaced. This was at the centre of a small rebellion in that revolutionary epoch, the late eighteenth century. At the time the Seigneur had a monopoly on the use of the mill, as he also did on the breeding of dogs (Peake tells us in Mr Pye that no bitches were allowed on the island, and paints a verbal picture of the frustrated male dogs of Sark reduced to wrestling and moping in the sun by the absence of females).[31] The Sarkese at last became so fed up with the mill monopoly that they built a second mill on Little Sark; they were encouraged in their resistance to the Seigneur’s authority by the spread of Methodism, and built a Methodist church to rival the Anglican church, Saint Peter’s, as well as a second mill. The second church is still there, though the same minister now serves both. The second mill lies in ruins. Mr Pye has quite a bit to say about the fragmented state of Sark society – divided as it is between indigenous islanders, English incomers, and transient visitors, as well as by the usual feuds between close neighbours.[32] The divisions persist today along economic lines: one local shopkeeper told us the island is strangely split between millionaires and workers, with the Seigneurie placed presumably closer to the former than the latter. But it’s the millionaires who have made the biggest changes to Sark’s feudal system; the Barclay brothers, who built a hideous castle on nearby Brecquou Island, helped to instigate changes which have led to the vote being extended to all Sark’s population, not just the descendants of the sixteenth-century settlers from Jersey.

The plaque at the Coupée

In the Second World War the Seigneurie became the focus of negotiations between the occupying German forces and the islanders. At first relations were fairly cordial, and the lady of the island, Dame Sibyl Hathaway – who spoke German well – was able to secure certain concessions for the islanders, such as permission to take out fishing boats when the tide was favourable, instead of in strict compliance with a timetable set by the occupiers.[33] But the splits between the islanders were also exacerbated by the occupation. The Nazis made a sharp distinction between natives of the island and settlers from elsewhere, shipping out the non-natives to internment camps on the mainland, and eventually including the Dame’s American husband, Robert Hathaway, among the deportees. The war also brought tragedy to the Seigneurial family: the Dame’s eldest son was killed by a bomb in Liverpool. Relations with the occupiers deteriorated in 1942 when a group of British commandos landed on a headland called the Hogsback, killing three German soldiers and capturing a third; this led to restricted access to beaches, the laying of extensive minefields and an increase in deportations. The German commander and a four-year-old child were killed by mines in 1943, a second British commando raid was foiled by a minefield in the same year – two commandos killed and the rest wounded – and when the war ended, two German soldiers deployed as prisoners to clear the mines were also killed (Dame Sibyl ensured they were buried with full military honours). The most positive outcome of the war, perhaps, was the widening, paving and railing of the narrow isthmus known as the Coupée, which separates Big Sark from Little Sark. The German prisoners of war who did this work commemorated their feat of engineering with a plaque, which can still be seen at the crossing. Afterwards they made toys for all the children on the island – but their best gift was the upgraded Coupée, since before the upgrade, schoolchildren traversing the viaduct in high winds sometimes had to crawl to prevent themselves from being blown over the three-hundred-foot drops on either side.

Crossing the Coupée

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Peake once cycled across the Coupée, before it had railings, without touching the handlebars. The only hint of this I found when I looked just now came in his son Sebastian’s book, A Child of Bliss (1989), where he speaks of his father’s astounding feats of balance with undiminished admiration: ‘Riding on his bicycle, standing on the saddle or the handle bars, one foot on each, was another of his tricks, a hazardous one, as I found to my cost on trying to emulate it’.[34] No mention of the Coupée in that passage; perhaps I was thinking metaphorically. Wartime could be seen a hazardous isthmus bridging the gap between one era on the island and another, and Peake’s two long stays on Sark may have given him an unusual insight into the nature of the path that lay between.

Mervyn Peake, Self Portrait (1933)
  1. Piracy on Sark

If modern visitors find the tale of the German occupation endlessly fascinating, Peake’s own obsession with the island was partly triggered by its association with a very different kind of aggressor from the sea. Sark’s past is bound up with piracy – a fact commemorated by the T-shirts you can buy in one of the shops on the Avenue with the skull and crossbones on the front. The pirate Eustache the Monk, a trickster figure treated by one medieval French poet as a combination of Robin Hood and Reynard the Fox, used the island as a base in the thirteenth century, and by the early modern period it was again occupied by pirates; one of the obligations laid on the first Seigneur of Sark in the reign of Elizabeth I was to keep the place free from salt water thieves.[35] Peake may have known about Sark’s pirate connections before his first visit; on hearing that his former schoolmaster, Eric Drake, planned to set up an artist’s colony on the island, he wrote at once to Gordon Smith: ‘Isn’t it marvellous? Gosh! I’d give my soul to come. Pirates and octopi! O.K., Chief’.[36] The reference, of course, is thoroughly generic, and may only indicate a generalised association of islands with piracy based on Peake’s childhood love of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he is said to have known by heart. But once he had joined the colony he could have learned very quickly that in Sark’s case the association is a historical one. And when he painted himself on Sark – a self-portrait in oil survives from 1933 – he is palpably piratical, with windswept hair, a collarless shirt, deep tan and insolent eyes.[37] Piracy was in Peake’s blood, and forged his first and strongest link with the easternmost Channel Island.

Illustration from Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, with Les Autelets in background

A number of Peake’s visual and verbal works connected to Sark have a pirate theme. His picture book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) sees the pirate captain of the title capture an androgynous Yellow Creature on an island whose rock formations closely resemble Les Autelets – although the rest of the island is tropical (‘The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’, Peake might have added). At the end of the book the captain retires with the Yellow Creature to another tropical island full of Sarkese rock formations. Much later, Peake’s fourth novel, Mr Pye (1953), transforms Sark itself into a pirate ship, a ‘strange, wasp-waisted ship of stone’ (p. 48) populated by a ‘crew’ that includes Miss Dredger, whom Mr Pye insists on calling ‘sailor’ throughout the novel, and who calls him ‘chief’ in return, as if he were a pirate chief in a Boy’s Own story (and his name, of course, contains the first syllable of both ‘piety’ and ‘pirate’). He even looks like a buccaneer later in the book, when he seeks to do evil in a desperate bid to rid himself of his wings. As horns begin to sprout on his forehead in response to his newfound wickedness, he seeks to hide them under a bandana, giving the effect of an ‘illustration of a pirate out of a story-book for infants’ – a story-book, in fact, just like Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor.[38] His campaign to convert the island to his faith resembles a piratical recruitment drive in a seaport, with the plump English visitor at one point reducing a ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ into a human wreck – as well as a convert – with a few well-chosen words (p. 77). Another of his converts – the young woman Tintagieu – has hair that ‘flapped like a pirate’s flag’ (p. 111). By the end of the book Mr Pye has taken on the moral ambiguity associated with that greatest of pirates, Long John Silver, who is as attractive as he is terrifying. He is hounded across the island as an embodiment of the Devil, with a mob of islanders and policemen after him led by a man called George with the ‘huge voice’ and aggressive manners of a pirate (p. 238). George refers to his fellow manhunters as ‘lumps of stinking conger’ and tells them to ‘Get out your jack-knives’ (p. 246) for what promises to be a summary execution. Mr Pye hides for a while in that piratical ‘sea-chest’, the island prison. Pirate captains in stories are always on the verge of being usurped by their fellow buccaneers – a sailor called George Merry leads a mutiny against Long John Silver in Treasure Island; so Mr Pye’s position at the end of the novel only confirms his credentials as the self-styled ‘chief’ of the good ship Sark, at the epicentre of a confusion generated by his own abortive attempt to take control of the little island.

Jim takes aim

Pirates live their lives in a state of precarious balance on the constantly moving sea: think of Israel Hands swarming up the swaying mizzen mast towards young Jim in Treasure Island, a scene which Peake illustrated while living on Sark with two of his most memorable images. One shows Jim sprawling in the crow’s nest, pointing his flintlock pistols at the approaching pirate, who grips his dirk between his teeth as he climbs painfully towards him; Peake draws the mast at a slant as if to emphasize its radical instability. The other shows Israel Hands tumbling limply into the sea after Jim has shot him, all balance lost. Another sea-story told by Peake – an early poem called The Touch o’ the Ash (1929), about a murderous ship’s captain who kills one of his men, only to be hounded to death by the dead man’s ashes – culminates again in the mizzen mast of the vessel, where the captain waits in the crow’s nest, armed with a marlinspike, for the vengeful approaching spirit to claim his soul.[39] The captain is no pirate, but he behaves like one, flogging his men to the bone with a cat-o-nine-tails, stringing them to the bowsprit by their thumbs, or (in one case) flinging them into the ship’s furnace as punishment for insubordination. Like Israel Hands and Long John Silver, and like the plump little missionary-captain Mr Pye, he takes the risk of affiliating himself with the Devil, and it seems inevitable to Peake’s readers that the Devil will take him in the end. The Captain in The Touch o’the Ash has lost his sense of moral balance before the poem began, so that it also seems inevitable that his final confrontation with the vengeful spirit will take place fifty feet above deck, where nothing is stable.

The end of Israel Hands

Balance and imbalance play a prominent role in Peake’s thoughts on Sark, which should hardly surprise us, given the presence of ‘sheer wall[s] of sickening rock’ on every side. But what sort of balance did he have in mind? The question may not be answerable, in the end, but what follows is an attempt at a preliminary answer. Or rather answers, since just one solution to any riddle, it seems, won’t do.[40]

Jim boards the Hispaniola. Illustration from Treasure Island
  1. A Question of Balance

There are two major incidents in Mr Pye where the question of balance comes to the fore, both of them reliant on the peculiar geography of Sark with its cliffs and precipices.

The first occurs when the little missionary arranges for a disabled woman to be lowered by rope to the beach at Derrible Bay – the hard-to-access shoreline he has chosen as the location for a picnic to which he has invited all non-indigenous or ‘English’ islanders, for purposes of his own. The act of lowering the woman, Miss George, is intended to cement Mr Pye’s status as a worker of miracles, guided by God, and so consolidate his moral hold on the people of Sark. Miss George is heavy, but the lowering makes her seem light; she is thought of as mostly stationary, but the event gives her unexpected vertical mobility; she is treated on most occasions as the legitimate butt of a joke, but her role in Mr Pye’s performance is to serve as a kind of messenger or angel, the embodiment of his vision of universal kindness.

Derrible Bay at Low Tide

But the lowering is also an act of appalling cruelty, since Miss George is given no warning that it will happen, and would have objected furiously if she had been told in advance exactly how she would be granted access to the beach. Just how cruel an act it is can be best appreciated by visiting Derrible Bay, as we did ourselves the day after coming to the island. There’s a steep path down to the sea, dropping from level to level in zigzags, and at the bottom a formidable barrier of jumbled stones interposes itself between the final flight of steps and the soft white sands. There’s a fine large cave beside the beach – one of the possible models for Peake’s picture of Ben Gunn’s cave in his illustrations for Treasure Island – and beyond this, the place where Miss George undergoes her ordeal. These features – the stones and the place of the ordeal – explain why Peake chose Derrible Bay as the setting for his picnic. The stones both render the beach unusually difficult to reach and supply convenient hiding places for the indigenous islanders in Mr Pye who attend the picnic uninvited. And the location of the lowering – a geological feature of real distinction – gains additional resonance from the name of the Bay in which it is located: Derrible Bay, which is indeed most terrible for Miss George. The lowering-place is frightening in itself, but it is rendered still more frightening both by the name and by the gravity-defying action Mr Pye imposes on it. The missionary, in fact, forces Miss George to act out the event that fits the place, that justifies it, in Stevenson’s words, and there is something deeply unjust and therefore disturbing about how he makes this happen.

The Chimney at Derrible Bay

The formation is described as a ‘chimney’ in the novel, and Stephen Foote assumes that Peake is referring to a manmade industrial chimney of the kind that can still be seen at the ruins of the Silver Mine on Little Sark. As Foote points out, the Countess of Groan mentions the Silver Mine as a district in Gormenghast Castle (see above), and he suggests that Peake has ‘employed poetic licence to transpose the mine shaft from Little Sark for dramatic effect’.[41] In fact, however, Peake is referring to a geological chimney, and there’s a particularly fine example at Derrible Bay: a giant funnel of rock, rising two hundred feet or so from beach level to the level of the island plateau. Peake describes it with some care: ‘At the foot of the cliff in the northern elbow of the bay a natural archway led, not to a finite cave, but to a shaft that rose in gloomy darkness tinged with red, to where it drew breath, an irregular circle of breath, which from the base of the chimney, looking up, seemed no larger than a plate’ (p. 111). In advance of the picnic, Mr Pye leads Miss George through the ‘thorn bushes’ and ‘waist-high ferns’ of the Sarkese maquis to the ‘lip’ of the ‘murderous hole’ (p. 112) at the top of the shaft, where she is strapped into her favourite armchair before beginning her descent. A fine picture of the ‘murderous hole’ in question opens the novel’s Chapter 14 (p. 96). No one in the book, or reading it, is under any illusion that Miss George wishes to accomplish this feat of false flight – to be Mr Pye’s ‘exemplar’, as he calls her, or his human angel, since he has clad her in a white nightdress to symbolize chastity (p. 90). Mr Pye confirms his own awareness of Miss George’s terror when he describes her as his first ‘martyr’, and later insists to the islanders gathered on the beach below that her descent represents the overcoming of fear through ‘courage’ – despite the fact that it happens ‘not of her own will’ but because he himself has pronounced it ‘right’ that she should suffer (p. 117).

The opening of the chimney from below

It seems appropriate, then, that Miss George’s reluctant descent of the chimney should turn out to be a turning point in Mr Pye’s fortunes. As the descent begins, the islanders on the beach become aware of another phenomenon taking place nearby: the arrival of a whale’s rotting carcass at Derrible Bay, drifting in on the tide. The appalling stench of the corpse quickly drives the revellers away, leaving only Mr Pye and a few friends to witness the ersatz miracle of Miss George’s touchdown. The ruination of Mr Pye’s attempt to impose his vision on the gathered inhabitants of Sark signals the moment when the balance of the book begins to tip away from him, so to speak; when the equilibrium between good and evil in his body starts to favour evil. Up to this moment he has seemed something of a miracle-worker, capable of disarming powerful men and women by the sheer confidence with which he spreads the word of his own eccentric God. But Miss George’s reluctant feat of balance, as her weight counterposes the weight of the team of powerful men who grip the ropes that lower her chair, while her body maintains its precarious poise in the chair while dropping through the red-tinged darkness towards the sand – occurs at the point when Mr Pye loses control of his own bodily and spiritual equilibrium. The arrival of the whale upsets his plans, and suggests the presence of a force that runs counter to his neat narrative of sin and salvation. From this point on, Mr Pye’s confidence in his collusion with his private God – whom he dubs the ‘Great Pal’ – takes a serious hit, and he loses all certainty that he is engaged in a divinely-ordained mission to convert the islanders to his faith. In the process, he himself undergoes the ordeal he imposed on Miss George, and reveals himself for what he is: not a saint or godling, but a complex being who cannot be reduced to crude moral binaries.

The opening of the chimney from above. Illustration for Mr Pye

The chief mark of his loss of moral balance is the wings that grow from his back, which start to manifest themselves after the picnic at Derrible Bay. As an apparent sign from God of Mr Pye’s goodness, they also imply that his goodness has gone too far – that it has exceeded the reasonable limits set by the human body and mind, and has begun to be excessive, hypertrophied, oppressive, monstrous. Interestingly, their appearance causes a loss of balance in others as well as himself. When Miss George first glimpses his wings – through the keyhole of Mr Pye’s bedroom, the day after her ordeal (pp. 162-3) – she retreats in disarray, then loses her footing on the stairs and tumbles headlong to her death, confirming the murderous effects of fear and imbalance invoked by the chimney incident (and note how her ersatz flight down the chimney here becomes a fatal fall down a flight of stairs). Much later, when Mr Pye has aroused the hostility of the rest of the island and is galloping towards the Coupée in a horse and carriage, perfectly aware that he cannot escape but flapping his wings in a bid for freedom as he gallops, there are clear echoes of what happened to Miss George. In the first place – as we noted earlier – the ringleader of the posse that seeks to catch him is called George, or sometimes ‘Pawgy’ (as in Georgy Porgy). In the second, one of the lookouts stationed at the old windmill to watch for Mr Pye misses his footing on the building’s stone steps, falls, and ‘was dead before he reached the bottom’, like Miss George before him (p. 251). Mr Pye and his wings, meanwhile, recall Miss George the ersatz angel and her flapping nightgown. Everything points towards a climactic showdown at the cliff’s edge of the Coupée – another great geological feature of Sark, balancing the chimney – and to a showdown that must in some way atone for the Derrible debacle. So to the Coupée is where the last stage of our tour must take us.

La Coupée, Sark
  1. At the Coupée

In deference to Peake’s possibly mythical feat of crossing the Coupée by bike, we set out for that famous tourist attraction – images of which have brought visitors to Sark for a hundred years – on two hired bikes; mine even had the name of Peake inscribed on the frame. The best view of the Coupée, we found, could be obtained by turning aside at the highest point of the approach at the Big Sark end, where a footpath takes you up to a grassy prominence overlooking the isthmus, from which pictures may be taken almost as good as the tourist photos you’ll have seen throughout your trip. From the Coupée itself, meanwhile, you can look down three hundred feet on one side to the beach called La Grande Grève. This beach was partitioned during the war into separate areas for German officers, German soldiers and ordinary islanders, and later became a regular bathing-spot for Peake and his sons; Mr Pye kicks over children’s sandcastles here in his bid to shrink his wings by committing petty crimes. On the other side of the Coupée you have a view straight down the cliffs to the rocks below. It’s from here that Peake is supposed to have clambered down the precipice to rescue one or more baby cormorants (history is a little vague as to the numbers involved). Cycling across the narrow stone bridge is not permitted any longer, but even pushing your bike across gives a pretty good sense of how daring it would have been to ride across without using the handlebars in the days before railings were installed.

‘Peake Trail’

The Coupée provides a world-class setting for the climactic moment of a film or novel; and Stephen Foote has rightly introduced it, in his guide, with a passage Peake wrote about it near the end of Mr Pye, as the missionary determines to make it the destination of his final journey on Sark:[42]

‘The Coupée,’ whispered Mr Pye, and his mind flew back to that first night on Sark, when, in the storm he had stood on the narrow ridge and heard the waves thrashing the rocks three hundred feet below, and the wind beating on the face of the cliff.

He shut his eyes again and he could see in his imagination how the land narrowed: how Big Sark dwindled to the perilous isthmus: how it seemed as though two great forces were joined together by the Coupée as though it were the cord that joins the unborn child to its mother, or like that moment called life that links the dark domains of the womb and of the tomb. He knew that Tintagieu was right. He must make for that place – the wasp-like waist of the island he had come to save from itself. (p. 249)

In this passage, the narrow viaduct of stone surrounded by precipices becomes a metaphor for human life, rendered yet more perilous in Peake’s lifetime by the outbreak of World War Two and the Cold War that followed. One of his most powerful poems, ‘Grottoed Beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving’ (1940) – written in response to the birth of his son Sebastian and his wife Maeve’s act of childbirth – imagines Maeve’s body as a quasi-organic structure within which the child lay ‘Grottoed’ for nine months ‘Among the breathing rafters of sweet bone’, as if in a Sarkese cave or a Gormenghast attic.[43] Emerging from the womb, especially in wartime, involves a traumatic separation from this place of shelter, as if Little Sark had become divided from the ‘continent’ of the larger island by the severing of its umbilical cord (the Coupée, after all, is subject to erosion and will presumably one day be worn away altogether). At the point of severance, the poem suggests, the child-island must feel a little like the Island of Madagascar, as ‘the tides divide an [A]frica / Of love from his clay island, that the sighs / Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry’. At the same time, in the final stanza of his poem Peake insists that the bond between mother and child, continent and island, will remain as strong as ever after the separation. And the link forged in the poem between island and infant, continent and mother, explains why Mr Pye seeks out the Coupée for his final showdown.

Mr Pye seeks to establish a bond between the islanders reminiscent of the bond between mother and child, fusing them one to another despite the stretches of turbulent water (ideological, personal, social, political, cultural) that divide them. At the Derrible picnic he represents that mission as a preliminary stage in the erasure of the Cold War itself, a re-balancing, so to speak, of an unstable planet. ‘The whole world is unbalanced,’ he tells the picknickers, adding – with characteristic hubris – that ‘There are a few of us, a very few, who fight to keep it upright’ (p. 100). A military man at the picnic, Major Havershot – whose name affirms his predilection for solving problems by the bullet – would prefer to start the project of restoring balance by engaging with Russia rather than Sark, presumably by violence, given his name. But for the missionary ‘it is Sark that we are healing now, isn’t it? Not Russia. Russia can follow’ (p. 101). The West needs to examine itself before turning its gaze on others; only then can the process of healing be effective.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye in the BBC TV series of 1986. Image from a tapestry in St Peter’s Church, Sark.

But the logic of this position demands that Mr Pye gaze at himself, too – which is more difficult than it sounds, given that the growth of his unwanted wings starts at his shoulder blades. If Sark must be rebalanced before the rest of the world can be addressed, the would-be balancer, Mr Pye, must be rebalanced first, his excessive piety – and his piratical zeal for taking over islands – supplanted by recognition of his humanity, the bond he has with the ordinary men and women he seeks to evangelize. His desperate dash for the Coupée at the end of the book – the waspish waist of the island where the womb is located, the umbilical cord that connects it with its offspring, Little Sark – symbolizes a return to the ties that bind him to the human race, from which his wings have threatened to banish him. Such, at least, would be the narrative trajectory of a conventional novel: it would close with Mr Pye’s recognition of his own humanity, obtained at the umbilicus or navel of the island, the part of the anatomy that graphically links us to our common ancestry. But Peake’s chosen ending is both wilder and more ambiguous. The novel closes with Mr Pye relinquishing all balance, divesting himself of links to pre-set narratives, and launching his body at last into the flight he contemplated earlier, when gazing at Les Autelets; committing himself, in fact, to his wings. It’s a celebration of vision, strangeness and difference rather than likeness, though the missionary’s very ordinary body, short and plump, seems to invite Peake’s readers to share his commitment to these same qualities – vision, strangeness and difference – however ordinary those readers may think themselves to be.

The loss of all balance on Mr Pye’s approach to the Coupée is made quite explicit, from the unbalancing of the watchman who falls down the old mill’s steps to the unbalancing of the carriage in which the missionary rides. As soon as Mr Pye sets off from his refuge in the island prison he finds himself off kilter: ‘turning dangerously upon two wheels [his carriage] headed up the hill past Rosebud cottage while Mr Pye, his wings beating at his sides, cried out encouragement to the black charger’ (p. 250). His disconnection from the human race is noted by the artist, Thorpe, who sees him in this final dash as a ‘seraph in striped trousers’ rather than a man (pp. 250-251). Dogs chasing the carriage lose their balance, ‘bowling one another over in the madness of the race’ (p. 251). Note how mental imbalance comes into play here too, a condition later reinforced by references to the ‘dementia’ of Mr Pye’s pursuers and Mr Pye’s own position ‘at the plunging spearhead of madness’ (p. 253).[44]

Turning into the ‘long Coupée road’ the carriage almost crashes again – it seems ‘impossible’ that it should not – but Mr Pye’s impossible wings ensure that balance is briefly restored (‘Mr Pye aloft in the driver’s seat threw out one of his wings to steady himself’). Miracles take place as more and more islanders join the chase: ‘Every carriage was miraculously filled with the pursuers’ (p. 252), and Mr Pye begins to resemble an ‘apparition’, something as yet unexplained which seems to defy rational analysis. Soon afterwards the chase becomes something equally irrational, a ‘dream’, while Mr Pye becomes a visionary or vision: when he looks backwards at his pursuers they are ‘dazzled as though a burning glass were trained upon them’ (pp. 252-3). The word ‘seraph’ implies an association with the divine, but Mr Pye discards conventional religious narratives or hierarchies when he divests himself of his soul: ‘As the ground began to dip he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’ (we never learn if this act of dismissal is metaphorical or actual) (p. 253). Divested in this way of his attachment to God, Mr Pye ends his headlong journey as a being without affiliations, without links to any story but his own, his unattached condition exemplified in his final grandiose gesture: being flung from the Coupée and taking to the air.

Crowds gather at the Coupée. Illustration from Mr Pye

Here’s how it happens:

There, all in a flash, was the Coupée curving like a white snake – but only for that one instant, for at the next the black horse, rearing in the shafts, veered to the right of the track and, catching the carriage wheel in the railing, tore it off the body and the next moment the carriage, losing balance, was toppled bodily over the rust-red rails. It tore them apart as it swayed monstrously and fell, dragging with it the black horse, so that together they plunged, a hideous conglomeration, down, down, down, vaulting horribly as they descended in giant arcs to the shingle far below. (p. 253).

The echo of Satan’s fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost is pretty clear – think of the famous lines from Book One, ‘With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition’ – and there are distinctly Gothic overtones too, with the snake-like isthmus, the black horse and the ‘rust-red rails’, like a scene from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), in which a coach and horses approach the vampire’s castle by way of an isthmus. But Mr Pye is spared the plunge. Hurled at the point of impact high into the air above the Grande Grève, he finds himself ‘about to fall like a stone’ – then abruptly remembers his extra limbs, watched by gulls and staring islanders. ‘They saw him begin to fall,’ Peake tells us, ‘but then they saw, as he fell, a movement of the wings and, all at once, they were stretched in a great span on either side so that the speed of his descent was checked, and he hung suspended’ (p. 254). No longer awkwardly stuck out to one side to counteract the veering of the carriage, here for the first time Mr Pye’s wings are extended in all their glory, equally and together, unconstrained by the folds of the Lugosi-esque cloak beneath which he has concealed them for much of the novel. Briefly the missionary looks both comic and fragile as he struggles to control them, combining in his person incongruous elements which have never been brought together like this before:

There was beauty in it, with those wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (p. 254)

The moment of solitude is also, here, the moment when Mr Pye severs the umbilical cord that ties him to his mother earth, just as earlier he severed the ties that bound him to his heavenly father, God. His smallness at this moment makes him seem childish; but he soon acquires maturity and even grandeur, in spite of his city trousers: ‘the Islanders saw how he had already mastered his wings and was beginning to soar in slow arcs, and how he was now far out to sea and dwindling until he was only visible to those of keenest vision’. A vision is what he came to the island to impart, but by the end of the novel it has been supplanted with vision itself, the limited capacity for sight shared by all humanity. He has become a messenger for a new kind of religion, which involves flight which is free from the limits of creed or nation, and free from the excessive seriousness which accompanies fanaticism. I wonder if Mr Pye’s flight is among other things a comment on the lightness with which he went through life, the capacity to celebrate earth, sea and sky without being weighed down by the burden of their beauty. ‘I long to spring,’ Peake wrote in his early poem ‘Coloured Money’ (1937), ‘Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one / Farthing to weigh me down’, and this is how Mr Pye ends his career.[45] I mentioned the epigram to Titus Groan at the beginning of this essay, and at the end of it Mr Pye has become what the epigram refers to, a ‘man in the clouds’. The question is, is there anyone left behind who can replicate his flight to freedom?

The approach to Dracula’s castle, showing the isthmus, from Dracula (1931)

In a literal sense, of course, they can’t. The book ends with Mr Pye disappearing from even the keenest islander’s sight, leaving the island ‘suddenly empty […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’: bereft of visions, and even of an artist capable of doing Stevensonian justice to its beauties (the painter named Thorpe who lives on the island is always losing his artistic vision at climactic moments). An early draft of Peake’s novel left the missionary dead, washed ashore not long after his flight like a storm-battered gull; an ending that suggested visions like his have no resting place in this world, like the Son of Man in the Bible (remember his dream of returning from his maiden flight to rest for a while on the Grand Autelet, sucking a fruit-drop).[46] But the ending as it stands leaves things open, rather like the ending of a book by H G Wells, who always leaves open questions in his wake to plant seeds in the minds of his readers: will the Martians return one day? Did the Time Traveller die in his last voyage? What would happen if the Food of the Gods were to keep on working on the living creatures of the earth without opposition? And so on. The last vision of Mr Pye – the sight of him disappearing into the distance on his impossible wings, wearing his shiny black shoes and city trousers – opens up the question of what he stood for. The exaltation of ordinariness, perhaps? His particular ‘ordinariness’ is distinctly middle class – he orders people about with the confidence of one born to it, and pays for things such as the Derrible picnic, or the expensive wine he favours, without blinking. But in the end he enfranchises himself from class as well as religion, launching himself from the cliff with a bathos which deflates all his previous pretensions as missionary, ‘chief’ or prophet.

His launching, too, atones for his one properly harmful act, the attempt to transform Miss George into an unwilling symbol of his beliefs (and the element of atonement would have been made yet clearer if Peake had retained the scene of Mr Pye’s death in the final version of the novel). It balances that act of cruel excess, so to speak, by making Mr Pye repeat it; and in the process confirms the Isle of Sark as a testing ground for balance of all kinds, where a foot put wrong, a lurch or veer too far in one direction or another, will fling one from a precipitous height onto the shingle, like the unfortunate black horse. It’s a site of precarity, which offers constant visual reminders, in the form of cliffs and the open ocean, of the fine line we tread between life and death, between kindness, cruelty and self-obsession, throughout our existence as an individual or species. In an age of extremes – the phrase Eric Hobsbaum uses to describe the Twentieth Century – this acknowledgement of precarity, and the need for some special sense of balance to help us cope with it, may have struck Peake as particularly urgent.[47]

Peake’s poetry shows the same concern with balance as his prose and his pictures, and the same sense that the world itself was unbalanced in his lifetime. Two short poems he wrote in about 1939 summarise this concern. ‘O Heart-Beats’ is the first:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[48]

The second is called simply ‘Balance’, and reads very much like another attempt at the same idea:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[49]

Peake probably wrote these poems while he was waiting to be called up to join the army in the fight against Hitler, while at the same time hoping against hope he would first be selected to put his real talents to use as an official war artist (a hope that failed, at least until 1942). His life, his talents, his capacity for visionary work in both word and image, must have seemed infinitely precarious at that moment, crazily balanced on a fulcrum between hazardous play and imminent death and disintegration. After the war was over, this sense of imbalance did not dissipate. The fate of the world must have seemed yet more uncertain while the Russians and Americans were facing off on either side of the Atlantic, ‘filling the sky with their bombers’ like malignant birds – a ‘murmuration of Stalins’, as Mr Pye puts it (p. 101). Cut off in his mind from both past and future – the dispersing cloud of history, the insubstantial dream of what might or might not be to come – Peake came to see Sark as an emblem of the present, the long moment at which a person’s ‘prime’, or physical and artistic zenith, draws towards the ‘decay’ that awaits all mortal bodies. Its cliffs were his ‘edge of precipice’, and he spent his whole artistic life trying to work out how best to negotiate them.

Take the ferry to Sark, scramble down the path to Derrible Bay, stroll across the Coupée, dare to look out to sea through the Window in the Rock, look down on those little altars the Autelets, and you too may begin to see the island as a kind of emblem – though of what, precisely, I wouldn’t presume to suggest.

Mr Pye and Miss Dredger at the Window in the Rock

NOTES

[1] You can find mentions of all these trips but one, I think, in the two key biographies of Peake: Malcolm Yorke’s Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), and G. Peter Winnington’s Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, P.A.: Peter Owen, 2009), which supersedes Winnington’s Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (2000). For the Sark Art Group see Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group, Who, What, When (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’, Longman’s Magazine, 1:1 (November 1882), pp. 69-79. Reprinted in Memories and Portraits (1887), pp. 247-74. For the full text visit the following link: http://rogers99.users.sonic.net/rls_gossip_on_romance.html

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 699. All references are to this edition.

[4] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 5.

[5] Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019), p. 5.

[6] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 41-2.

[7] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 83.

[8] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, pp. 84-85.

[9] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 42.

[10] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 64.

[11] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introduced by Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 66.

[12] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[13] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[14] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 14.

[15] A detailed account of Sark in wartime can be found in Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), which draws on research by Penny Prevel and ‘various members of staff at Sark Visitor Centre’ (p. 31).

[16] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 144.

[17] For the photo see Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 10.

[18] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[19] Stephen Foote points out that Le Chalet seems to have been the model for Miss Dredger’s house in Mr Pye; see Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 22, and for the gate, p. 56.

[20] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 95.

[21] For Peake’s painting of St Peter’s Church see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 49.

[22] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 58.

[23] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56-58.

[24] For the pictures of Sarkese fishermen see Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 44.

[25] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 188.

[26] For a discussion of the illustrations for Maurice Collis’s The Quest for Sita see my blogpost here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/maurice-collis-and-mervyn-peake-quest-for-sita-1946-part-1-text/

[27] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 187.

[28] Peake, Mr Pye, pp. 187-8.

[29] These details of La Seigneurie’s construction are taken from the house’s website: https://www.laseigneuriedesercq.uk/.

[30] For some of the surviving photos see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56, 57 and 58.

[31] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[32] See e.g. Peake, Mr Pye, p. 12, which refers to the ‘triple sandwich of island life’.

[33] See Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), p. 8.

[34] Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, p. 221.

[35] For Eustache or Eustace the Monk see https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/eustace-monk-holy-man-king-john-french-invasion-england/. The phrase ‘salt water thief’ comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act 5 scene 1.

[36] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 44.

[37] The self-portraits can be found in Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 160. Another self-portrait from 1931, when Peake was 20, can be found on p. 30, and makes him look even more piratical.

[38] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 205.

[39] The Touch o’the Ash can be found in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 45-61.

[40] For the tendency (need?) for good riddles to have multiple answers see Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The whole book makes the case, but Adams states it plainly on p. 51: ‘One notion I am setting myself against, here – I may as well be plain – is that any given riddle has one right or correct answer’.

[41] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 59.

[42] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 58.

[43] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[44] Perhaps the spear makes reference to one of Peake’s favourite poems, the anonymous ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, about a visionary madman, which contains the lines:

 

With a host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.

[45] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 23.

[46] I think Peter Winnington mentioned this to me, and even sent me the alternative ending; I’m looking for the reference but haven’t yet found it!

[47] Eric Hobsbaum, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1995).

[48] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 52.

[49] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 65.