Mervyn Peake was passionate about Dickens. You only need to read a few pages of his first completed novel, Titus Groan, to see this at once, even before it has been pointed out – as Peter Winnington points out in his fine biography of Peake – that the scholar-pirate Mr Slaughterboard in Peake’s unfinished early novel of that name owns a complete set of Dickens bound in red leather; or that the hero-villain Steerpike in the Gormenghast books takes his name from the hero-villain of David Copperfield, Steerforth; or that Peake drew a magnificent set of charcoal illustrations for Bleak House in the 1940s, which wasn’t published till after his death. There are Dickensian touches all over his work, and I’d like to point out a few of them in this post.
Peake looked at people with a Dickensian eye. In 1941, after being drafted into the army, he found himself studying his fellow conscripts with a sense of frustration that they should have been doomed to live in time of war – when lives and talents were being wasted at a frightening rate – rather than at a time when they could have served as imaginative material to be worked into a masterpiece of Victorian fiction. He wrote a poem about his frustration, ‘To a Scarecrow Gunner’. It’s not one of his best poems, and he knew it, leaving it in manuscript along with the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard; but it’s worth considering all the same. Here it is, a fourteen-line sonnet:
To a Scarecrow Gunner
The Fates have willed it that you’re living now
And not when Dickens might have watched your face
Your pigeon body and the tousled crow
That on your scalp finds perilous nesting space
And they have willed that Dickens cannot hear
Your sad inconsequent ejaculations
In such a curlew voice, as none may share
The portent of, save in hallucinations.
But so much less do I respect the Fates.
The Fates have willed the always insecure
And muddy forage cap on your dark head
Should not be part of Dickens’ stock and store –
But now sits cocky while the man is dead
Who might have seen what’s lost upon your mates.
Written as it is in wartime, this lament for what the scarecrow gunner fails to become – a character in one of Dickens’s novels – is rendered more painful by his likely other fate, to serve as fodder for the enemy’s guns. The birds in the poem – crow, pigeon, curlew – all have unfortunate connotations; the crow is a bird of ill omen, as is the curlew (its mournful cry is often thought to presage death), while the pigeon is a game bird whose use to carry messages in wartime makes it doubly vulnerable, as a source of food and a possible enemy instrument. The gunner’s scalp serves as a ‘perilous nesting place’ for his crow-like hair both because he is permanently dishevelled and because he is himself in peril as a soldier. The sound of the gunner’s voice is ‘sad’ because of the danger he is in, his voice unheard in the general din of a global conflict, the ‘portent’ it carries thanks to its resemblance to a curlew’s cry unnoticed by anyone except in the fever dreams or ‘hallucinations’ of the sick or wounded. The reference towards the end of the poem to Dickens being dead could have a double meaning; the scarecrow gunner’s cap ‘sits cocky while the man is dead’, both in the sense that the man who wears it is effectively dead already before being transported to the battlefields of the continent, and in the sense that the author is dead who might have seen his potential as a model for a character in his latest novel. The abrupt ending of the sonnet, then, while on the one hand it can be read as a poetic failing, can also be said to augur the premature ending of this potential. The scarecrow gunner is one of those lost souls in Peake’s work whose condemnation to obscurity robs the world of something extraordinary; and Dickens’s books are full of similar laments for lost potential.
David Copperfield was obviously one of Peake’s favourite works by Dickens, and it’s a work that’s full of the fear of wasted talent: from the talent of Mr Micawber, who finds it so hard to find an outlet for his natural skills, to that of Rosa Dartle, whose disfigurement by the spoiled boy Steerforth has condemned her to a state of perpetual bitterness and a permanent quest for revenge against all the world apart from the man who actually injured her; from Little Emily, who is engaged to be married to a kindly and devoted fisherman named Ham, but is seduced by Steerforth into running off with him to Europe, ‘ruining’ her good name in the process, to Mrs Micawber, who is thought by her family to have made a disastrous marriage to the always-indebted Mr Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield, who is let down both by her widower father and her young admirer, David, and finds herself facing financial and personal ‘ruin’ as a result. There are several writers in the novel whose writing never comes to anything: Dr Strong, who is compiling a dictionary that never gets beyond the letter D; Mr Dick, who is writing an obscure Memorial which keeps being invaded by the figure of Charles I, decapitating the writer’s ambitions with every appearance. Mr Micawber, too, is a writer, who turns every event in his life, no matter how trivial, into a letter, very few of which succeed in their primary purpose, which is to bring him financial gain. David Copperfield is a writer, but for much of the novel all the writing he has time for is to jot down Parliamentary proceedings in shorthand, while his ill-considered marriage to the childlike Dora Spenlow quickly makes his nascent career as a novelist into a formidable barrier between them that augments their intellectual and imaginative differences instead of cementing their happiness. Relationships in this book are always on the point of collapsing or being destroyed by hostile forces; writing is always in the process of proving empty and pointless; and growing up, which is supposed to bring the potential of a child to maturation, is always being arrested or cut short.
Miss Mowcher, for instance, has stopped growing upwards at an early age and finds her life defined by her diminutive height. Dora has stopped developing intellectually at an equally early age, and finds herself being cheated by every tradesman or servant she asks to help her. Mr Dick, too, is widely perceived as having a childish mind, although his formidable guardian Betsey Trotwood remains convinced of his untapped genius. Mr Micawber is childish in his inability to find gainful employment, his permanent reliance on the kindness of a few good friends; Agnes too is trapped in childish dependence on others by the machinations of the upwardly-mobile clerk, Uriah Heep; Uriah has been forever tainted by the philosophy of the charitable foundation school where he was educated, which taught him to keep proclaiming his own humbleness no matter how fiercely he might resent it (p. 464). For a Bildungsroman, a novel of growth from youth to maturity, David Copperfield is packed with people for whom growth has proved impossible in the teeth of the various social, economic, emotional and educational barriers they have been faced with.
Perhaps the most striking figure of lost potential in the book is James Steerforth, the seemingly heroic young man who effortlessly wins the affection of people from every social class with his charm and charisma. Steerforth delights the inhabitants of the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, where he chooses to spend much of his time; the sailors and shipbuilders there, whose trades he learns at a whim; the schoolboys at the school where he gains his education – including David, who adores him with a passion; the women who fall for him and whom he betrays. Handsome, clever, rich (like Jane Austen’s Emma), he misuses his abundant gifts to damage the people who love him most as if in a destructive game – a game that proves self-destructive in the end. Rosa Dartle, the woman whose face he scarred and whose life he blighted, considers him to have been in potential worth ‘millions’ of any other person in the novel (p. 644). In practice he does nothing at all except flirt with David, damage Rosa Dartle and his mother, abscond with Little Emily, abandon her, and finally die pointlessly in a shipwreck.
As one might expect from the poet who lamented the lost possibilities of the scarecrow gunner, Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan positively teems with similar cases of arrested development – to such an extent that Alice Mills has written an entire monograph about ‘stuckness’ in the fiction of Mervyn Peake. In the first of the novel series that bears his name, Titus Groan himself gets stuck in childhood, growing with difficulty until he is ‘not two years old’ in the final chapter of the book that bears his name. He is surrounded by people who are variously imprisoned by habit and custom, from the eremitic castle poet, who walls himself up in his tower with a barricade of books, to the community of the Bright Carvers, obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of carving wood into fantastic shapes while also being doomed to grow suddenly old at the age of twenty. There is the manservant Flay, so devoted to the castle that he has begun to ossify into a moving sculpture himself, and his arch-enemy Swelter the chef, permanently swathed in self-indulgence in the form of the imprisoning folds of fat that engulf him. There is the Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother, an intelligent and formidable woman who is so wholly absorbed by her birds and cats she has no time for her children. There is his father Sepulchrave, so committed to his library that when Steerpike burns it he goes mad, repeatedly recreating the books he has lost by arranging pinecones on the ground as if on shelves, speaking in blank verse like his favourite dramatists and poets, and transforming himself as if by an act of unhinged imaginative will-power into a Death Owl from one of his tragedies or lost novels. Titus’s sister the Lady Fuchsia is stuck in her position as an impotent family member, ignored by everyone except her doting nurse and the castle doctor; and his aunts, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, are identical twins who are stuck in a permanent loop of mindlessly echoing each other’s thoughts and dreaming of a political coup that will never happen. All these characters embody the capacity of human beings to cut themselves off from one another – and from the past and the future, as the scarecrow gunner is cut off both from Dickens and from the life he might have lived in the time to come, if the deadly rituals of military life had not taken possession of his ‘pigeon body’. Gormenghast Castle is itself the mournful dream of an infinitely fertile imagination left to decay, like the forgotten halls and roofscapes of the seat of the Groans.
If Gormenghast perfectly embodies the lost potential that haunts the characters in David Copperfield, the young antagonist Steerpike embodies the character in Dickens’s book who has the most potential, Steerforth. Peter Winnington has pointed out that Steerforth had already made an appearance around ten years before the publication of Titus Groan in Peake’s unfinished novel, Mr Slaughterboard:
the moment when the dwarf, Shrivel, stands on the table and brushes Smear’s hair to a gloss inevitably brings David Copperfield to mind: the dwarf Miss Moucher [sic] is described by Dickens and memorably illustrated by Phiz, standing on a table, brushing and combing Steerforth’s hair which she has treated with oil.
This, Winnington says, is ‘about the closest Mervyn came to borrowing from Dickens’; but the echoes of Steerforth in the kitchen-boy Steerpike have been recognised for years. Steerpike is both charismatic and strangely attractive to others, despite his strange appearance and unsettling personality. Dr Prunesquallor is as arrested by his energy and naked ambition as Fuchsia is entranced by his mimicry of an adventure hero and a circus clown. Skilled, like Steerforth, in every craft he turns his hand to, he is galvanised into action by the birth of Titus, just as Steerforth is galvanised into action when he is invited to share in his young friend David’s personal life: to visit David’s working-class friends in their boat at Yarmouth, to meet David’s childhood sweetheart, Little Emily, and to entrance her adoptive family, slipping easily into their confidence thanks to his friendship with David, and laying his plans to break up their seaside idyll as if challenging himself to provide the most tragic of endings to David’s life story. Steerpike similarly worms his way into the lives of Titus’s family and associates: his sister, mother, father and aunts, the doctor who presided over his birth, the official who oversees the rituals they are obliged to attend, his elderly, diminutive nurse. Steerpike shares Steerforth’s playful brand of wicked humour, his willingness to do harm on a whim, and is at his most strenuously active when laying the groundwork for seemingly pointless acts of villainy: burning Sepulchrave’s library; designing imperial thrones for the aunts which will never be occupied; scrambling up and down a ladder to rescue members of the Groan family from a fire he himself has started; mixing poisons in the Doctor’s laboratory which he never uses, unless for the singularly pointless purpose of killing Nannie Slagg; lurking in a hammock under the Earl’s dining table to listen in on conversations that tell him nothing. His penetration of Titus’s environment is as complete, and as ruthless, as Steerforth’s invasion of David’s.
In the second Titus book, Gormenghast, the former kitchen boy is more maliciously playful than ever, accompanied always by a monkey as if to point up his tricksterish nature. In this book his role as a double for Titus Groan – a kind of malignant substitute for him – is finally confirmed by his purloining of Titus’s boat, a light canoe the boy has imaginatively invested with the personality of the feral girl who was his first crush. And death is Steerpike’s constant companion or shadow, just as it is Steerforth’s. After being seduced and abandoned by Steerforth, Little Emily is urged to commit suicide by the envious Rosa Dartle, while her friend Martha (also ‘ruined’ by illicit sex) almost succumbs to the same temptation as she lingers on the banks of the Thames, before being saved by David and Mr Peggotty. In Gormenghast the young woman seduced by the upstart Steerpike ends by really committing suicide, since there is no one nearby to save her – one more in the trail of victims he leaves in his wake. She dies by drowning, as Martha nearly did. Steerpike, meanwhile, ends his days in water, like Dickens’s Steerforth, as if to atone for driving Fuchsia to despair. As we might expect, Steerpike is at his most strenuously active in the moments that lead to his death, nimbly evading hordes of pursuers, picking them off one by one with his catapult, skimming about the surface of the rising flood waters in his stolen canoe, until he is symbolically trapped in the ivy of the castle walls – and even then he wields his knife in delighted defiance and crows in triumph like a second Peter Pan. His ingenuity and energy are at their peak when there is nowhere left to go, and as a result he is as charismatic in the termination of his story as ever he was in its slow unfolding.
Steerforth’s death, too, contains unnerving echoes of an adventure story for boys. His charisma shines through as David observes him from a distance, labouring away with his less industrious shipmates in a hopeless attempt to fashion an escape from a deadly storm. Watching helplessly as Steerforth’s ship comes to grief among the breakers, David tells us: ‘I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest’ (p. 637); and a few minutes later, ‘four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair’ (p. 638). Even from far away David notices the beauty as well as the energy of the ‘active figure’, from the curling of his hair – so carefully tended by Miss Mowcher – to the very attractive head-covering that does so little to confine it: ‘He had a singular red cap on, – not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it’ (p. 639). Steerforth remains distinctive, handsome, stylish and theatrical in his final seconds, just as Peake’s Steerpike when he knows he is about to die promises to savour every second of it in a performance of melodramatic self-indulgence: ‘He would indulge himself – would taste the peculiar quality of near-death on his tongue – would loll above the waters of Lethe’ (p. 741). Steerpike is childish in his death, letting out the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ as Titus strikes at him. Steerforth’s childishness comes out only after his death, when David sees him lying on shore among the ruins of Mr Peggotty’s boat-house, ‘with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school’ (p. 640). He does not die alone; in another echo of a boy’s adventure story, the boatbuilder Ham – whose fiancée, Little Emily, Steerforth stole from him – makes a final heroic attempt to rescue his enemy, and drowns in the attempt, adding one more name to the list of lives destroyed by the young man’s influence. In both books – David Copperfield and Gormenghast – water comes to represent the threat of obliteration and obscurity, against which the books’ protagonists and villains struggle with every ounce of strength they have. The protagonists keep their heads above the water, while the villains and their victims succumb to it – on the villains’ part, at least, with seeming enjoyment, as they flash their knives and wave their caps in a last farewell.
The other David Copperfield connection in the Titus books can be found in Steerpike’s resemblance to the book’s other villain, Uriah Heep. The ambitious clerk who rises to a position of power over the family that previously gave him employment has much in common with Peake’s unscrupulous kitchen-boy, who shares his humble beginnings and vaulting ambition. The pair resemble each other physically in obvious ways: Uriah when we first meet him is a ‘cadaverous’ youth of about fifteen, ‘who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, with eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep’ (p. 181). Steerpike is seventeen when we first meet him in Swelter’s kitchen. He does not lose his eyebrows and eyelashes until he is almost burnt to death in the process of murdering Barquentine in the second Titus book, Gormenghast, but his eyes are of a distinctive shade of red from the beginning: he has ‘dark-red concentrated eyes’ (p. 111) when he first opens them to look at Fuchsia in her attic, and by the day of his death they have intensified to ‘two red points of light’ or ‘beads of blood’ (p. 743). Uriah is ‘high-shouldered and bony’ (p. 181), and Steerpike when he strips to wash is ‘very thin, very bunched at the shoulders, and with an extraordinary perkiness in the poise of the body’ (p. 115). Uriah is given to spasms of self-deprecating ‘writhing’ – at one point early on he ‘writhe[s] himself quite off [his] stool in the excitement of his feelings’ (p. 194) – and Steerpike undergoes a similar spasm when he begins to realise he has Fuchsia under his spell: ‘A snake writhed suddenly under the ribs of Steerpike. He had succeeded’ (p. 116). Uriah has the daughter of his employer firmly in his sights from the beginning of his rise to power, in much the same way as Steerforth has Little Emily in his sights from their first meeting; and Steerpike’s desire to fascinate Fuchsia stems from a similar conviction, when he first meets her, that she will be useful to him later – and afterwards perhaps from a sheer delight in imposing his power on people weaker than himself.
Uriah’s designs on Agnes Wickfield form part of a long-term plan whose slow working out involves putting the unfortunate girl through what is effectively slow torture, as she watches her father gradually lose his identity under the combined influence of alcohol and Uriah’s remorseless exposure of his calamitous financial dealings. ‘My Agnes is very young still,’ Uriah tells David at one point (p. 310), ‘so I shall have time gradually to make her familiar with my hopes, as opportunities offer’; his hopes being that he can marry her after taking control of her father’s affairs. Peake’s Fuchsia undergoes a similar torture at Steerpike’s hands, as she watches her father slowly lose his reason after Steerpike has burned his beloved library. Both men, as well as Steerforth, worm their way like parasites into other people’s lives, taking possession of their most intimate private spaces – their rooms, their papers, their families, their bodies, their thoughts. And both men, it seems to me, embody this process of parasitical possession and consumption in a metaphor that represents another clear echo of Dickens’s wording in the work of Peake.
Many months after informing David of his ambition to make Agnes his wife, Uriah comes up with a novel way of describing the lengthy process of bringing his plans for her to fruition. ‘I say! I suppose,’ he says to David at one point, as the young man waits for a coach to leave, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’ (p. 469). David answers, ‘I suppose I have’; and Uriah tells him: ‘I did that last night’. He is referring to his first abortive attempt to ask Mr Wickfield for his daughter’s hand in marriage, an attempt that resulted in wild rejection. Uriah remains convinced, however, as he tells David, that his plan will succeed. ‘It’ll ripen yet!’ he gloats; ‘It only wants attending to. I can wait!’ Shortly afterwards, David notices him through the coach window, moving his mouth as if in the process of eating the pear. ‘For anything I know,’ David observes, ‘he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear was ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it’. Uriah’s gesture is as cannibalistic as it is proprietorial.
In this passage, Uriah’s unpleasant anticipation of Agnes’s ripening contrasts to his habit of referring to David by the honorific reserved for young boys. Uriah is always calling him Master Copperfield instead of Mister Copperfield – something he rarely fails to point out whenever he does it. David, in other words, has always been unripe as far as Uriah is concerned, and always will be. This habit of making people seem younger than they are is shared by Steerforth, who feminises and belittles David by calling him Daisy, and by Steerforth’s scheming manservant Littimer, whose every word and gesture makes David think himself terribly young. In the passage I’ve just quoted, Agnes too is infantilised, as Uriah assumes that the only reason for her to reject him is because she has not yet reached maturity – and conversely, that maturation will render their marriage inevitable. At the same time, her prospective maturation is described in terms that wholly subject her to his body as well as his will; ‘smacking his lips’ anticipates the moment when he will effectively ingest her, making her part of himself. For Uriah, Agnes’ qualities and talents are reserved for his use alone, since he has effectively bought her when he took control of her father’s money. David listens to him with all the horror of a man who recognises how far this assumption implies the wastage of Agnes’s qualities and talents.
Steerpike has a similar moment of acute acquisitiveness in relation to the woman he desires. Having escaped from a prison cell in which the servant Mr Flay has locked him and climbed across a vast expanse of the castle walls and roofscape, the kitchen boy tumbles in through an attic window and loses consciousness. When he wakes he finds himself in a hidden room that belongs to a young girl: fifteen-year-old Lady Fuchsia, who retreats to this attic to withdraw into her imagination and forget the humdrum life of ritual that enfolds her in the formal spaces of the castle. Little by little Steerpike pieces together the evidence he sees around him of the proclivities and age of the attic’s owner – above all the picture book he finds open on a table, in which he finds a poem about three eccentric old men in a ‘grey and purple world’ (p. 106) and notices on the page the signatory marks of the book’s last reader: ‘Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poem or the picture’ (pp. 106-7). Beside the picture-book lie two wrinkled pears, and Steerpike is hungry; he picks one up and notices that a bite has already been taken from its side. Nevertheless he proceeds to bite into the pear himself, as if intentionally to continue his violation of Fuchsia’s personal space as embodied by the attic:
Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia’s teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit – in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. (p. 107)
At this point in the novel Steerpike has only once seen Fuchsia at a distance, through a ‘circular spyhole in the wall of Octagonal Room’ where the Groans were gathering after the birth of the castle’s heir (p. 108). He does not know that she is the proprietor of the attic, the reader of the book who left her thumbprints on the pages, the biter of the pear. Steerpike’s ascent is as yet only physical – the ascent he has just made up the wall of the castle, which finally severed his connection with the castle kitchens where his own development was cabined, cribbed, confined, hemmed in, by his monstrous master, Swelter the Chef. Steerpike himself is young – only seventeen. But his deliberate biting into the pear that has already been bitten – and the implications of this violation of the ‘secret and dark centre of the fruit’ – prefigures his invasion of the secret and dark centre of the castle, as well as his exploitation of the fruit’s first consumer, Fuchsia, whose personal space he is occupying at the moment he bites – and the trajectory of whose life will be interrupted by his meeting of her within a few pages of the bite. Like Uriah, he will assume that he possesses her from that moment, and that her maturation will provide him with another sumptuous meal like the pear he ate in her attic. But unlike Uriah, Steerpike will succeed in the end in wasting her talents completely – her talent for love as well as for all the various arts her attic contains.
As he wrote Titus Groan, Peake was intensely aware that the time he lived in was inimical to the process of bringing the rich potential of youth to maturation, especially for young artists such as Fuchsia or himself. Dickens gave him the language and some of the other novelistic techniques he needed to articulate this threat of artistic waste and loss. His version of David Copperfield, however, goes further in fulfilling this threat than Dickens dared to, at least at this stage in his career (Bleak House goes much further). Gormenghast castle and its occupants have been cut off from the historical, familial and economic resources that gave Dickens’s protagonist, David, the outlets he needed to fulfil his potential as a novelist. Cut adrift from the past and the future, as England was cut adrift from the rest of the world by war, Peake’s castle finds itself tossing on a sea of oblivion as deadly as the ocean that drowned Steerforth and threatened to overwhelm his victims, as well as the victims of his red-eyed double, Uriah Heep. At the same time, writing in response to Dickens perhaps gave Peake a sense of control in the chaos of wartime; control, and a promise that the arrested development of his cast of lonely characters might find a way to maturation after all.
 See G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Own, 2009), pp. 95, 100, 283. For the full set of Bleak House illustrations see Mervyn Peake, Sketches from Bleak House, selected and introduced by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen (London: Methuen, 1983).
 Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 85.
 The Personal History of David Copperfield (London:Hazell, Watson and Viney, n.d.).
 Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (London: Rodopi, 2005).
 The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 365.
 Winnington, Vast Alchemies, p. 95.