Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), reissued as The Happy Mariners (1935

One of my favourite illustrations in The Hobbit (1937) is Tolkien’s drawing of the three trolls, Tom, Bill and Bert, hiding behind trees as a dwarf approaches the fire they have built in a wood.[1] The wood stands, we’re told, in a disreputable country not far from the Misty Mountains, to which policemen and map-makers never go and where people have never even heard the name of the king. This is the location of Bilbo’s first adventure after leaving home and the first time he acts as a burglar; he has been hired in this capacity to help steal back the treasure of the dwarves, stolen long before by a dragon. It is also the first time the dwarves let themselves get caught by one of their enemies. Bilbo’s expertise as a burglar steadily grows as the adventure continues after this episode. The dwarves, on the other hand, don’t seem to learn anything at all from this first experience of captivity. They get caught again in the Misty Mountains by goblins, in Mirkwood by spiders, and in Mirkwood a second time by their tetchy old foes the Wood-Elves. On one occasion they are even caught in exactly the same way as they were by the trolls: they see firelight in the distance, assume correctly that where there’s fire there’s food, and hurry towards it without taking the most basic precautions, letting their stomachs do their thinking for them. Confusticate and bebother these unteachable dwarves, as Bilbo might well have put it.

This first episode in the hobbit’s adventures – the meeting with the trolls – contains in miniature all the rest. It involves fire, woods, mountains (at a distance), meetings with dangerous creatures, a bit of magic, a good deal of trickery, and some shenanigans with pockets (Bilbo tries to pick a troll’s pocket and gets caught because the purse he lifts is able to talk; pockets or pocketses also play a central role in his later meeting with Gollum). It even involves treasure, since Bilbo and the Dwarves afterwards find the trolls’ cave, which is full of food, gold, unpleasant smells and some useful swords. With the swords is the long, keen knife Bilbo christens ‘Sting’, which he uses to rescue the dwarves when they are caught by giant spiders in Mirkwood. In that later rescue he copies Gandalf’s trick of enraging his enemies with his voice while keeping himself hidden, which suggests again that the hobbit learns from his adventures. Thanks to his growing knowledge, Bilbo grows in stature as the novel progresses, reflecting the growing confidence of the novice reader who follows his journey to the Lonely Mountain (and back again, of course), as charted by Francis Spufford in The Child That Books Built.[2]

The illustration Tolkien drew for this adventure is dominated by trees: long boles in foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in baroque curls above stylised flames. There are very few branches visible; the trees are mostly shown as a cluster of trunks standing closely together. There are various items by the fire: the barrel from which the trolls have been serving out beer, a stone for sitting on (or is it a sack?), a jug, two bowls. In the foreground a dwarf with a hood approaches the fire. At least, Tolkien tells us in the text that the dwarves wore hoods, but this one wears something more like a hat as modelled by the dwarves in Disney’s Snow White (1937), which wasn’t released in the UK until 1938, the year after The Hobbit was first published.

From behind the tree trunks in the background three trolls peer out; they have prominent eyes and pointed ears set high on their heads, like the eyes and ears of cats. I remember thinking as a child that the trolls didn’t look much like the way I’d imagined them; too slim, their heads too large in proportion to their bodies, and the text never mentions those pointed ears.[3] The trees, on the other hand, were wonderful. The ones in the foreground are drawn in broken and unbroken white lines against a black background, while the ones behind are textured with white dots on black, reversing the black dots on white with which Tolkien decorates the ground around the fire; this mixture of line-work with pointillism gives the drawing tremendous energy. Three of the trees have vines curling up them, neatly echoing the curls of smoke rising from the fire. I also liked the way Tolkien put a triple border round the picture, just like an Edwardian picture frame, with the title displayed at the bottom as if on a plaque. This was something I tried to emulate in my own finished drawings at the age of seven or eight.

More recently I’ve been reading a novel for children by Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), republished in 1935 as The Happy Mariners with illustrations by the celebrated artist and theatrical scholar C. Walter Hodges.[4] Bullett’s novel was well known in his lifetime; my 1956 edition tells me it had been reprinted three times, and the illustrations by Hodges are wonderful work, on a par with his much-loved illustrations for Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946). These days any reader will find the book offensive for its representation of Pacific Islanders as a horde of ‘comic’ cannibals who speak a nonsense language; the fact that those islanders are clearly intended to parody British childhood fantasies of adventure in far-off places modelled on imperialist stories tailored to middle-class boys does nothing to soften the racism. But the novel is also full of passages of beautiful prose – something Bullett was well known for in his lifetime. And its central character, a ten-year-old girl called Elizabeth Robinson, could be considered a curious example of British male attitudes to girls just before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 – better known as the Universal Franchise – which finally granted women the vote on the same terms as men in the United Kingdom. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

Most importantly for my purposes in this blog post, however, one of Hodges’s illustrations looks remarkably like Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls. This is a picture titled ‘Night in the Forest’, on p. 119 of my edition, almost exactly halfway through the book. The parallels are striking. First, the trees: long boles in the foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, once again slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in billows and curls more naturalistically depicted than in Tolkien’s drawing. Once again there are very few branches visible, and the trees are standing close together, rising from the bottom to the top of the picture like the bars of a cage. People, not objects, are visible by the fire, one sitting, one lying half raised on their arms; it’s hard to tell which of the four children in Bullett’s book they represent. In foreground and background, occupying the place of Tolkien’s dwarf and three trolls, are the shapes of big cats: eight cats in all, counting the one that’s only visible thanks to its glowing eyes in the dense shadows at the left in the foreground. In Bullett’s text the creatures are not specifically cats but ‘beasts of prey’ (p. 117); Hodges has chosen to interpret them as feline, which is interesting considering the feline appearance of Tolkien’s trolls, with their pointed ears and large, glowing eyes so unlike the description in his narrative. Hodges’s picture, like Tolkien’s, is given texture by the juxtaposition of white on black and black on white, with black predominating throughout, as you might expect in a night scene. Like Tolkien’s, the picture is surrounded by a frame of three parallel lines, and like Tolkien’s its title is given underneath, inscribed on what looks like a brass plaque. So many parallels, it seemed to me when I first saw the picture, could hardly be a coincidence, and I’m inclined to believe that still, though I have little concrete evidence to back this up.

In theory, of course, Tolkien could have read The Happy Mariners, and his youngest son Christopher and daughter Priscilla were of an age to enjoy the edition illustrated by Hodges, which came out in the year when Christopher turned eleven and Priscilla turned six. Bullett’s child protagonists are twelve, twins of ten-and-a-half, and seven, which tallies nicely with the ages of Christopher and Priscilla, as does the fact that there are three boys and a girl in the fictional family, which matches the composition of Tolkien’s actual one. Beyond this, Bullett’s novel has little in common with The Hobbit, apart from the fact that it includes a meeting with anthropophagic people, that is, people who eat other people (though the trolls in The Hobbit are not strictly cannibals, since they are clearly identified as a different species from the beings they eat). There’s much more in it, however, that aligns with the fiction of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s best friend in the 1930s; again, I’ll have more to say about this later. Could Lewis, I wondered, have recommended the book to Tolkien, or vice versa? Sharing views on fiction, especially fiction with a fantastic aspect, was common practice among the Inklings, the informal literary circle that met at the Eagle and Child pub and elsewhere in Oxford throughout that decade, of which Lewis and Tolkien were the principal members.[5] Bullett is exactly the kind of writer who would have interested them, even if they might not have agreed with his ‘liberal socialist’ politics; he wrote Christian apologetics, among other things, and poetry of a slightly old-fashioned kind, the kind of which they might have approved. Moreover, one of the novels Bullett wrote in the 1930s was about Adam and Eve (Eden River, 1934), a mythic story Lewis took up nine years later in his second science fiction novel, Perelandra (1943); he might well have read Bullett’s story with attention. The Happy Mariners was another story that contained material potentially attractive to the Inklings, above all in its use of fantastic tropes and dreamscapes made real, as well as in its rich deployment of literary allusions.

In the opening chapter of Bullett’s book, the Robinson family is visited by a strange man who brings a gift for one of the children – Elizabeth – which turns out to be a ship in a bottle. The children take the ship to a pond in a brickfield (a site where bricks are made) and launch it in its glass container, then throw stones at the bottle to free the craft from bondage. As soon as the glass breaks the children find themselves at the edge of a high cliff, looking down on a full-scale version of the vessel floating in the sea beneath them. After managing to get on board, they learn that the ship is in fact a Spanish caravel which has been captured by a solitary English mariner, who wakes up after a sleep of three hundred and fifty years or so and helps them steer it across the ocean to an uninhabited island. The island closely resembles an island the children drew on a map at the beginning of the novel to provide a focus for their games. As they explore the place they find that all the details they included on the map are present, from a log cabin for shelter to a trail of footprints and a trove of buried treasure, which includes cake and a large stone sundial. Also present are some comic but threatening pirates and some comic but friendly Pacific Islanders, and the novel ends, after various adventures, with the defeat of the first and the bequeathal of the treasure to the second (with strict instructions to bury it again at a site of their choosing). The children then return home in the caravel. In the course of the journey the mariner who helped them sail it returns to his long sleep, and having got them safely home the ship returns to the size it was at the beginning of the story, ‘eight inches from prow to stern’ (p. 248). The novel, in other words, describes a there-and-back-again trajectory, which is the only other thing it has in common with The Hobbit.[6]

Bullett’s book holds many echoes of earlier fiction for children. The fact that there are four child protagonists – three boys and a girl – recalls the plural child protagonists of Edith Nesbit’s novels, and the magic that takes place in a claypit used for making bricks may remind us of the industrial sandpit in which Nesbit’s four children (not including the baby) discover the Psammead in Five Children and It (1902). Bullett’s frequent shifting of point-of-view between one child and another similarly recalls Five Children and It, as does the humorous tone of their frequent squabbling. The Elizabethan sailor awakened after long sleep recalls Nesbit’s rudely-awakened Psammead, a sand-fairy who grants the five children their wishes, all of which come true with awkward consequences unforeseen by the wisher; the sailor is much less grumpy than the sand-fairy, and the magic he and his ship unleash is less awkward in its effects, but the parallels are clear enough. The island, meanwhile, has much in common with the Neverland of J M Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). Barrie tells us that the Neverland is based on the map of a child’s mind, which nearly always takes the shape of an island,

with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. (p. 73)[7]

The mixture of adventure story and fairy story in this description exactly matches Bullett’s ‘island of the map’. So too does the fact that Barrie’s Neverland has different contents depending on which child is dreaming it. ‘Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal’, Barrie tells us, so that John’s has a lagoon with flamingos flying over it, for instance, while Wendy’s has a ‘house of leaves deftly sewn together’ (p. 74). Bullett’s island, by contrast, is a response to the collective imaginations of the four children who drew the map on which it is based; but the different children each have specially tailored adventures on it. The youngest child, for instance, seven-year-old Martin, finds his way at night into a ‘Forest of Fairy Tales’ which none of the other children encounter (Chapter 14), though they get taken home in the end by a friendly cuckoo he met on this solitary adventure – remembered, perhaps, from Mrs Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock (1877). The island also contains elements from Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1883), most obviously in the siege of the log cabin by pirates, which invokes the siege of the stockade in the earlier novel (the eldest child, Rex, ‘had just been reading Treasure Island’ before the book begins, p. 2). The footprints leading to the treasure recall the famous footprint in Robinson Crusoe (1719), a book which is also invoked by the children’s surname; and the attack on the pirates by the Pacific Islanders recalls a similar attack in R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857), as do the many lavish descriptions of tropical vegetation. All these echoes of earlier fiction for children must be deliberate, I think, and suggest that Bullett read the map of children’s minds as dominated by their reading, supplemented by conversations with adults, especially their businessman father. Even the Elizabethan sailor, Phineas Dyke, comes from an episode in British history much read about by British children in the age of imperialism: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Phineas’s awakening from long sleep summons up the many characters from history brought back to life by the fairy Robin Goodfellow in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies (1910), to tell their stories to two British children, just as Phineas tells the story of his capture of the real Spanish caravel to Bullett’s child protagonists. The Happy Mariners reads in fact like a journey through a library; the kind of journey recounted by Walter de la Mare in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904), which tells of its protagonist’s travels in the ‘Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance’.

The originality of Bullett’s story derives from its passages of rich description, a series of dreamy set pieces which mark it out as a novel written after the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis.[8] Each of these passages is sensually vivid, but also self-evidently unrealistic, full of details that can’t be explained by conventional logic. Here, for instance, is Elizabeth’s first impression of life on the ship:

She had known every inch of the ship so well when the ship was in its bottle that she was filled with astonishment at finding everything a thousand times bigger. Here was the half-deck, higher by four feet than the other; here, on their swivels, were the two guns (faulcons, as Father had called them); and here was the cook’s galley. All was exactly as her father had shown her, and as she herself had seen when, with the ship in her hand, she had studied and admired its every part. The beams of the deck were slippery; two or three times she nearly lost her footing, and once only saved herself from falling by clutching at a gigantic coil of rope, rope thicker than her arm in a coil as tall as herself. The great lantern that swung and swayed half-way up the mizzen mast held her attention for a wondering moment. How did it come there, and who had lit it? Perhaps Rex had found it in the course of his explorations. The question did not occupy her for long, for she was enraptured with the taste – the salt and tarry taste – of this adventure; the sight of stars moving overhead; the feeling of the ship, like a live thing, under her; the rhythm and music of the ploughed sea; the sound of the canvas that was like the beating wings of a gigantic bird. She felt that she, like a queen, was riding the ship, and that the ship was riding the sea, and that the sea itself, with its myriads of leaping waves, was racing round the world. Speed and air, music and starshine, were  mixed in one glorious cup for her. (p. 54)

The passage mingles accurate marine vocabulary – half-deck, faulcons, cook’s galley, beams and so on – with elements of arrant fantasy, such as the sudden growth of an eight-inch model of a ship into a craft ‘a thousand times bigger’, or the fact that a lantern is somehow burning on the ship’s mizzen mast without having been lit by anyone (though there may be a rationale for this – ‘Perhaps Rex had found it’). Elizabeth’s attempts to rationalise the lantern get quickly subsumed by her enjoyment of the sensory richness of her adventure; it has a ‘salt and tarry taste’, the stars look as though they are moving along with the ship, the ship’s movements make it feel ‘like a live thing, under her’, the sea sounds like music, while the flapping of the sails sounds like the wings of a giant bird – everything around her is endowed with life by each of her senses in turn and together. Her intense sensory awareness convinces her that she can feel the sea itself ‘racing round the world’ – which it may well be, though the ability to sense that world-encompassing motion could be regarded as a supernatural gift. The passage ends with the idea that all her senses together contribute to her general delight, the ‘glorious cup’ from which she is drinking. Delight trumps conventional logic, then, on Elizabeth’s maiden voyage, despite (or because of) the promise of imminent danger held by the faulcons on their swivels.

Part of the dreamlike aspect of this passage derives from the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a young girl of the 1920s. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship stems from a fascination with maritime adventure which makes itself felt in the careful study she has made of the model gifted to her by a kindly-eyed sailor. The model’s release from its glass bottle and expansion to full size enables Elizabeth to realise her dreams of adventure, a dream stimulated, it would seem, by the books she has read – the books I’ve listed, some of which are directly referenced in the text. All these books are directed at boy readers rather than girls, but Elizabeth finds a way of reading against the grain to incorporate details from those books into her games with her siblings. For instance, she’s the one who draws the outline of the island on the children’s map, after a first abortive attempt by her younger brother; she’s also the one who first and most vividly brings the ship to imaginative life: ‘In fancy she sailed under a copper sky down a broad river that ran through the dark and sleeping forest; she saw panthers gliding among the trees, and monkeys leaping from branch to branch pelting each other with coconuts, and scarlet parrots that started screaming at her ship’s approach’ (p. 16); and it’s from her imaginings that her male siblings get inspiration: ‘Her brothers […] caught fire from her eyes’ (p. 19). She’s the one who succeeds in breaking the bottle with a well-cast stone, ‘though it is notorious that girls can’t throw straight’ (p. 23), and thereby wins the captaincy of the craft inside; and she knows more about that craft than the other children (‘“You seem to know a lot about this ship,” said Rex, almost complainingly. “You haven’t been on her before, have you?”’, p. 35). By the time we read the paragraph I’ve just cited, Elizabeth is both captain and ‘queen’ of a captured warship, leading her siblings on a quest to an unknown island of their own invention. She’s in a position, in other words, which outside this book she could only dream of, and her delight in riding the ship around the world is intensified, one might guess, by the fact that she could never enjoy these experiences under ordinary, non-magical circumstances.

At the same time, however, Elizabeth is constantly being relegated in Bullett’s novel to roles traditionally assigned to women under patriarchy: looking after her younger brother, cooking in the ship’s galley, being sent below when a storm blows up at sea while her brothers help man the vessel, sewing clothes in the log cabin and so on. Yet she is steering the ship when the children first encounter the pirates, takes an active part in the defence of the log cabin during the siege, and befriends the chief of the Pacific Islanders, thereby saving herself and her siblings from the evil designs of the buccaneers. Elizabeth, in fact, is a kind of in-between figure, both capable of acquitting herself well in situations formerly reserved for boys, and unable to free herself from the narrow range of roles available to young girls in her lifetime, above all as future wives and mothers. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship shows her to be willing and eager to embrace roles far beyond this narrow range, but she sometimes accepts the limitations imposed by men, as embodied by her oldest brother. That brother’s name – Rex, which is Latin for king – seems to identify him as more ‘naturally’ worthy of a leadership role than she is, despite her own name’s connection to a woman who famously had the ‘heart and stomach of a king’; and when the children land on the island Elizabeth soon hands over the captaincy to Rex. She occupies a liminal position, neither equal with her brothers (despite the promise of equality held out by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928) nor willing to accept her unequal status.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that Elizabeth often seems most aware of the rules that govern the ‘salt and tarry’ adventure in which the children find themselves caught up. For instance, when the model ship first changes size she suggests, ‘Perhaps […] it was a big ship all the time, really. But we couldn’t see it. It was in the bottle, and the bottle was magic’ (p. 51). Later, when they discover the log cabin on the island in exactly the place they put it on the map, she suspects at once that it came into being when they imagined it:

‘Why, it might have been built yesterday,’ said Guy, ‘by the look of it.’
‘Perhaps it was,’ said Elizabeth thoughtfully.
‘What on earth do you mean?’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’ (p. 139)

Later still, she thinks she understands how and why Phineas unexpectedly vanished from the island and reappeared on board the caravel:

‘He belongs to the ship, don’t you see? He’s lived on her for three hundred years. It’s his home, and he’s helpless and kind of lost anywhere else. That’s why he came back, I’m sure. He just forgot all about us and went back to his old ship without quite knowing what he was doing. Like people walking in their sleep.’ (p. 242)

Elizabeth’s in-between state, not bound to the rules of ‘realistic’ adventure stories as her older brother is (the younger boys abide by different rules, as we’ll see), makes her at ‘home’ on the ship and the island, as he is not. She rarely gets worried or frightened, as the boys do, and finds herself able to sympathize both with the wicked pirate chief when they pick him up at sea and with the chief of the Pacific ‘cannibals’ when she finds him injured outside the cabin; in fact, her willingness to set aside convention to make friends with the latter ensures that their adventure gets a happy ending. Thanks to her experiences as a girl in a society dominated by men, she is acutely conscious from the start that the children are engaged in events that have little to do with the rules of physics or social conventions – though those rules and conventions are always at work behind the scenes. In the end it seems clear that the whole adventure could not have happened without Elizabeth’s involvement, and in this she is closely related to Barrie’s Wendy, for whom Neverland and all its adventures are engineered by Peter Pan; though Elizabeth’s greater agency is reflected in the fact that she engineers the island for herself by sketching out its contours in the opening chapter. That the adventure is predominantly Elizabeth’s is also suggested by the fate of the pirate chief, who has his head cut off by Phineas in single combat on the deck of the caravel, but spouts only sawdust from his injuries, making it clear that he cannot feel them and so no longer needs Elizabeth’s sympathy (which she bestowed on him freely on his earlier visit to the vessel). The sawdust conveys the fact that the whole adventure was only ever a brief holiday from ‘real life’, and that this interval of play – when living and breathing human beings can be filled with sawdust like a child’s dolls – will soon be over, giving way once again to the world we call ‘real’. Of all the children, Elizabeth seems most aware of the evanescence of the adventure, since she has most to lose by its coming to an end. She’s the first to note, after the pirate chief’s beheading, that they will likely be home in time for tea (p. 246); but she is also the last to leave the island, lingering as long as she can to say goodbye to her friend the chief of the Pacific Islanders (pp. 236-7). Her in-betweenness persists to the novel’s final page.

Interestingly, the boys in the story too exist in an in-between state, caught both between childhood and adulthood and between conventionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes. The eldest boy, Rex, is the most maddeningly masculine of the three, constantly seeking to assert his greater knowledge and strength over those of his siblings. He addresses his youngest brother, Martin, as ‘my lamb’ (p. 6), telling him that ‘When you’re a bit older’ he’ll learn to fear pirates as well as yearn for them. On one occasion he calls his other brother Guy ‘my little man’, like a tiresome adult, while ‘thrusting two hands mannishly into his trouser pockets’ and giving ‘a scornful laugh that was very impressive’ (pp. 17-18). At the same time, Rex is not yet wholly given over to the patriarchy, since he is willing to cede his ‘natural’ place as leader from time to time by consenting to the best ideas of his brothers and sister: ‘That was the pleasant thing about Rex,’ Bullett tells us; ‘even though he was the eldest he was never above taking suggestions from the others’ (p. 6). His genial compliance derives, no doubt, from his secure position as presumptive leader of the Robinson children.

The youngest boy, meanwhile – Martin – lives equally in his imagination and the material world, being wholly devoted to his older sister, his cat Fandy, and a broken cuckoo clock he treats as a toy. Unlike Rex he is not yet fully aware of the distinctions between his dreams and desires and the reason-based universe adults expect him to inhabit; and this is best exemplified by his solo adventure in the ‘Forest of Fairy-Tales’ to which he finds his way on the island, where he meets a dwarf who offers him three wishes in time-honoured fashion (pp. 152-4). Martin has just passed a beautiful orange tree in the forest, and wishes for that; at once he finds it growing next to him, and his next wish is to be able to take it away with him when he goes home. The dwarf suggests he carry it away in a pot, but Martin is horrified: ‘But it won’t be the same in a pot!’, he cries in distress. The dwarf then offers him the forest as well, to keep the tree in its ideal context; Martin agrees at once, and his second wish is duly granted. After this, Martin pauses to consider his final wish. He would like, he says, to eat the oranges, but also doesn’t want to ‘spoil the tree’ by plucking them. Unfortunately the dwarf ignores the second part of his wish and plucks all the fruit, after which ‘The tree was bare; the oranges lay scattered on the ground’, and Martin finds himself ‘on the verge of tears’, realising that the tree he loved no longer exists in the state that made him fall in love with it. Martin’s desires, he learns, are unattainable in the ‘real’ world, something that’s made clear to him through his inability to formulate his wishes satisfactorily (shades here, again, of Five Children and It). In recompense the dwarf offers him one more wish – forgetfulness – and Martin at once forgets the lesson; perhaps Bullett thinks him too young, as yet, to have learned it. The youngest Robinson goes on to have other fairy-tale adventures that night – in a snow-bound village where he meets the cuckoo from his broken cuckoo-clock and Cinderella – and he tells his siblings all about them when he gets home; but he never again mentions the vexed conundrum of the orange tree.

All the same, there are hints elsewhere in the text that Martin is fully aware at times of the disconnect between his desires and the ‘actual’ world he lives in. When the children first come aboard the life-size ship, Martin quickly learns he may not be much help in its handling. ‘I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to like this trip very much,’ he tells his sister. ‘I wanted to help with the ship, but they said I was too little’ (p. 59). Soon afterwards he adds, ‘I think it would be rather nice to go home. You could come too, couldn’t you? They don’t want girls here, you know. As Rex said, this is a man’s job’ (pp. 59-60). Martin is, in fact, the only one of the brothers who directly recognises the convention that makes Elizabeth an unusual member of a ship’s crew, and he does so because he finds himself in the same position; unlike the older boys he cannot pretend to be a man. It takes all of Elizabeth’s ingenuity to persuade him that they can’t go home in the ship’s boat, rapidly explaining that ‘it was impossible, that she couldn’t row, that it would spoil the fun, that she must stay with her brothers, and that Martin was going to have the time of his life on the Resmiranda’ (p. 60). If Martin, at his young age, is tied to convention, Elizabeth has the wherewithal, here as elsewhere, to find imaginative ways around it.

Rex, then, is almost a maddening sort of man and Martin is very definitely a child; but the middle brother, Guy, is more ambiguous in his role. First, he is Elizabeth’s twin, and very fond of his sister – something that Rex finds it necessary to tease him about from time to time (‘real’ men, in Rex’s opinion, don’t side with girls in every family disagreement). His relative plumpness makes him less suited to the ‘male’ life of high adventure; when he slides down the rope that leads from the cliff-top to the newly life-size ship, his weight causes the rope to break and he falls into the sea, which means he is forced to spend the first few hours on board without his clothes as he waits for them to dry; a humiliating situation for any would-be mariner. His position in the family between his brothers and between a child and an adult comes across most clearly in the adventure he has on his own, when he decides to leave the log cabin to spy out the land without consulting his siblings. This comes straight after Martin’s solitary adventure, and we’re told that Guy is the only one of Martin’s siblings to fully believe in his adventures in the Forest of Fairy Tales, since in Guy’s opinion

This island […] was not an ordinary island; it seemed to be a place where things you thought of had a queer trick of coming true when you least expected it. And not only things you thought of, but things you half-thought of, things you had forgotten, and perhaps – who could say? – things that lay buried inside you under all the other thoughts. (p. 178).

This makes it sound as though the island releases things from your Freudian unconscious (or ‘subconscious’, as Bullett calls it in his essay Dreaming); and sure enough, Guy feels the pull of the unconscious on his own solitary adventure, much as Martin did in his encounter with the dwarf. As he hurries towards the highest point on the island he abruptly feels a strange inclination to take a detour towards a nearby spot where his dreams might come true, like Martin’s:

As he came closer, a warm breath of intoxicating scent floated up into his face, and phrases of distant music stole upon his senses. The leaves of all the trees began to quiver and glow, as though little lamps had been lit inside them; and the whole forest seemed to be singing, murmuring. At any moment something strange and delightful might happen, for near him, within hand’s touch, he was aware of another world, a world both inside and outside the forest that he saw, the sea that he remembered, and the home that he had left so long (it seemed) ago; and he felt that some trifling happy chance – a step, a movement, the flicker of an eyelash, or a single word if only it were the right word – might release him into that world. (p. 179)

This enchantment of Guy’s has much in common with Elizabeth’s feeling of sensory pleasure on the ship; each of Guy’s senses is caught in turn by the ‘other world’ that seeks to draw him to itself, from smell (‘scent’) and sound (‘music’) to sight (the ‘little lamps’ of the leaves) and touch (hand’s touch) – only taste is missing. The accumulation of these sense impressions brings with it the potential for delight of the kind embraced by Elizabeth (‘something strange and delightful might happen’), but Guy has a mission and, as a boy, suspects that what tempts him to abandon it must be wrong, running counter to the values boys and men are supposed to embrace. He therefore resists delight as Elizabeth did not, hurrying past the place of enchantment towards the hilltop where he hopes to be able to see all round the island. A second time he is tempted – this time by the sudden realisation that the treasure must be buried nearby, where they located it on the map – and this time he succumbs to temptation, digging for a while until his ‘conscience’ strikes him again and he hurries on to Look-out Hill (p. 180-1). Even here he finds himself revelling in the pleasure of seeing the island laid out below exactly as he and the other children conceived it, and realising that ‘it was the map itself come beautifully and marvellously true’ (p. 181). In the face of this beauty, the need to arm himself with ‘information of immense stragetical (or was it strategical?) importance’ (pp. 181-2) seems only supplementary to the pleasure of simply living in the present. For a while, in fact, he completely forgets his patriarchal role as the male scout on whom his family depends, enraptured by another assault on his senses, beginning with the ‘slow lazy rhythm’ of waves breaking on the shore:

Guy listened to this music crashing and echoing round the coast, and stared in delight, forgetful of danger, at the rippling water, which, though near at hand crested with tiny waves, in the distance seemed so smooth and blue that he could scarcely tell where the sea ended and sky began. (p. 182)

Throughout his adventure, then, Guy finds himself torn between the vision of the fairy tale forest afforded to Martin, the sensory delight afforded to Elizabeth, and his responsibility as the male protector of women and children, who must set aside visions and pleasures for practical ends. The sight of the approaching canoes of the Pacific Islanders recalls him to his position within the patriarchy, so that he starts taking practical measures – ‘he took bearings’ (p. 182) – in an effort to judge how far away they are and how much time he has to warn the others about them. Patriarchal values, however, have just as great a tendency to lapse into fantasy as a delight in one’s physical surroundings, or a conviction that another, more beautiful universe exists ‘both inside and outside the forest he saw’. As he watches the canoes Guy is seized by an impulse to attack them all by himself, like a rogue bull; but he comes back to earth with a bump when he suddenly realises that even ‘he and old Rex’ together ‘would be hard put to it to protect those youngsters’, Martin and Elizabeth – his twin sister being relegated to the status of youngster ‘by virtue of her sex’ (p. 183). He hurries back to the cabin, and after that all his various fantasies get swept away by the urgent need to defend their stronghold against both pirates and Pacific Islanders. During the siege, Elizabeth’s relative ‘youth’ too gets forgotten, and she takes up a musket with just as much confidence and skill as the boys.

Guy’s wavering between the values of the child Martin, his sister Elizabeth, and his older brother Rex, encapsulates the experience of reading The Happy Mariners, which slips easily between sophisticated descriptions of bodily responses to the sea and the island and passages of comic melodrama, like the absurd behaviour of the pirates Bill Murder and Nautical Tallboy in Chapter Twelve; between moments of life-and-death urgency, like Guy’s race to inform his siblings of the Islanders’ approach, and moments of outright fantasy, like the sudden arrival of the wooden cuckoo from Martin’s cuckoo clock at the exact moment when she is needed to transport the children from island to ship at the end of their island adventure. Bullett’s point, it would seem, is that all these ingredients play an active part in the lives of adults as well as of children; a view confirmed by the fact that the children are as much influenced in their thinking by their businessman father as they are by their reading. Claims that one or other set of values belongs exclusively to children or to adults, to boys or to girls, seem to be undermined by the shared nature of so many of the children’s experiences; though the novel also pays due attention to the pressure on boys and girls to adopt exclusively masculine or feminine habits, on children to ‘grow out of’ their weakness and imaginative playfulness, and on everyone to pay less attention to the delight of the moment than to the useful plans they ought to be making for the future. Bullett’s alertness to this pressure lends the novel an atmosphere of gentle mournfulness – the children must surely succumb to such pressure at some point – despite its seeming endorsement of bodily and imaginative pleasures over the demands of duty and convention.

Running through the novel is another theme to which Hodge’s picture, ‘Night in the Forest’, alerts us: cats. I mentioned before that Martin’s favourite companion, besides the wooden cuckoo in his cuckoo clock, is the cat Fandy; and somehow Fandy pervades the children’s adventures with his presence. He accompanies them on the visit to the pond in the brick field which opens the novel, sitting near them ‘languidly washing his face’ as they discuss the island in the pond that inspires their map. On the map, the island takes on the shape of a ‘crouching leopard’, so that all events within its confines could be said to exist within the confines of a feline body. The absence of the Fandy cat and the cuckoo clock from the ship (Martin drops the clock as he climbs on board) is what makes the youngest Robinson wish to go home (pp. 59-60), and the discovery that the cat is in fact on board is what decides him to stay (‘Martin was delighted to have Fandy with him again, and he said no more about wanting to go home’, p. 65) – in spite of the fact that Fandy gave them all a fright with his gleaming eyes in the dark of the hold (pp. 63-4). The loss of Fandy on the island makes Martin miserable again, and it’s in search of Fandy that he sets off on his journey into the Forest of Fairy Tales, where he finds the cat again in the house of Cinderella, as if the island had always been the cat’s home (or one of them). Later, when Bill Murder creeps into the log cabin and prepares to stab Guy, Fandy jumps on him ‘from his hiding-place in the shadows’ and scratches his face ‘quickly and furiously with all his sharp claws at once’, thus saving Guy’s life and perhaps the lives of the other children. After this the cat recedes into the background for a while, reappearing at the precise moment when the cuckoo arrives to carry them back to the ship, when Martin points him out sitting on the beach nearby, ‘unconcernedly washing his face’ (p. 240). On returning to the ship Fandy vanishes once more, before turning up in the final sentences of the novel, ‘busy washing his face’ again; as the narrator observes, ‘There never was a cleaner cat than Fandy’ (p. 248). Martin’s cat, then, frames the story in at least two senses: he appears at the beginning and the end, and his shape provides the ‘frame’ or outline for the island which lies at the heart of their adventures. In the course of the narrative, he keeps vanishing and reappearing, as if calling in question the laws of physics; and he is sometimes scary (as he is in the hold) and sometimes heroic (as he is in the log cabin), as unconcerned about being consistent as he is about being always present.

Which brings us back to Hodges’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. The picture shows the children by a fire in the forest at night surrounded by wild animals, the same wild animals they earlier insisted should be present on their island of adventure. Long before night fell, they encountered similar animals in the jungle: ‘once a huge yellow beast sprang out of its hiding-place into their path, stood for an instant grinning and glaring at them and lashing its tail, and then loped off with an angry laugh’ (pp. 108-9). Rex claims that this beast is a hyena – presumably because of its laugh – but its capacity for springing out of hiding-places and its glaring eyes might remind us of Fandy. Elizabeth seeks to defuse the fears the hyena inspires by reminding the others they have made it up: ‘Of course we did say there’d be wild beasts, when we drew the map. So we’ve only ourselves to thank for it. But I hope they won’t be too wild’ (p. 109). But more beasts emerge after nightfall, when only Rex and Guy are awake, all of them definitely ‘too wild’: first a ‘sleek hissing snake’ (p. 116), then ‘distant shapes’ beyond the firelight, at one point distinguishable as ‘a prowling beast of prey, a spotted yellow thing, lithe and sinuous, baring its cruel fangs and sniffing the human scent’ (p. 117). This creature’s spots and sinuous body evoke a leopard, like the one that inspired the shape of the island, and the impression is reinforced later when the boys see ‘a huge black cat-like creature with blazing emerald eyes’ (p. 118) approaching the fire, which Rex fights off with a blazing branch in time-honoured hero fashion, like Mowgli fighting off Shere Khan. Hodges’s picture shows the beasts as lithe black cats, despite Bullett’s later reference to them as ‘howling’ (p. 121), and the feline ears he gives them reappear in Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls.

What Hodges’s picture does not show is how the beasts are finally dispersed. ‘Suddenly,’ Bullett tells us,

There was a stir among the beasts, a flicker of fear in the bright cruel eyes. A heavy pad-pad, a mighty earth-shaking roar, and into their midst leapt a huge lion. The boys, transfixed with fear, sat for one instant staring at the creature, saw it leap upon its prey and plunge its claws into the soft fur. What animal it had chosen they could not discern; they could only see that it was almost as big as the lion itself, and they gave a gasp of astonishment to see the lion, like a monstrous cat, take up the struggling creature in its jaws and carry it away without effort as though it had been a mouse. All the other animals had fled, and now the lion was gone, and it was unlikely, said Rex, that he would bother to visit them again. (p. 121)

The beasts that threaten the children, then, and the beast that scares them off, are both clearly modelled on cats, and hence on Fandy. Disappearing and reappearing throughout the text, sometimes as a terrifying threat, sometimes as a protective guardian, always implicitly present even when the narrator fails to mention him for many pages at a time, Martin’s animal companion embodies the workings of the unconscious better, perhaps, than any other component of the novel. Even the lion that saves the children remains ambiguous in its motives. After it leaves with ‘the struggling creature in its jaws’ Rex is not wholly sure it will not come back to eat them, too: ‘Even lions are afraid of fire’, he tells Guy reassuringly, but adds a qualification: ‘I expect’ (p. 121). The simple adventures undergone by the children, where goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies, hides another world in which the distinction is not so clear, in which lions are not simple allegories of imperial might or divine strength, love and wisdom.

The appearance of the lion in the forest, just after the moment pictured by Hodges in his illustration, is perhaps the episode in the book with clearest associations with the work of C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s allegorical representation of Christ (or Christ’s qualities) in the Narnia books is of course the great lion Aslan; and Aslan has a way of appearing and disappearing unexpectedly, leaving humans and sentient animals for long periods to fend for themselves; after all, he’s ‘not like a tame lion’, as Mr Beaver tells the child protagonists in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).[9] He’s also liable to reappear in different guises; for instance, in Prince Caspian (1951) he is at first invisible to all the child protagonists except Lucy, and in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) he manifests himself successively as a picture in a book (p. 133), an albatross (pp. 158-9) and a lamb (pp. 208-9).[10] Closest to Bullett’s cat theme is the version of Aslan in The Horse and his Boy (1954), which sees the great beast transform into several felines of different sizes, from the two or more lions who first bring Shasta and Aravis together (pp. 29-32) to the solitary lion who chases Shasta and Bree to the Hermit’s garden (pp. 128-9) or the friendly cat who comforts Shasta among the tombs (‘big and very solemn […] Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell’, p. 80).[11] In this, Lewis’s version of the Thousand and One Nights, Aslan is a recurrent but various presence, exactly as Fandy is in The Happy Mariners.

There are other echoes of Lewis’s work in Bullett’s novel. The ship that begins as a miniature version of itself anticipates Lewis’s ship the Dawn Treader, which the children in that book first encounter as a picture on a wall. That ship, too, becomes full size by magic after a destructive act, in this case a furious attack by a boy called Eustace. ‘I’ll smash the rotten thing,’ Eustace cries as he rushes at the picture (p. 14), but in doing so he hurls the child protagonists into the world of Narnia, just as Elizabeth’s well-cast stone, which breaks the bottle, hurls Bullett’s child protagonists into the world of their dreams. The island where dreams come true, meanwhile, finds an echo in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the protagonists come across a ‘Dark Island’ in which all dreams, including nightmares, are made real; something Lewis represents as the worst of horrors: ‘Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand – come to life, become real. Not daydreams: dreams’ (p. 156); an idea the crew of the Dawn Treader find they cannot face. Guy’s wrestle with his conscience on the way to Look-Out Hill finds echoes in several Narnia books, in which children get tempted in various ways and either succumb to temptation or successfully resist it. Diggory in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), does both, first releasing an evil witch from an age-long enchantment, then successfully resisting her blandishments in a Narnian Garden of Eden.

Most strikingly of all, perhaps, Bullett’s young Martin learns in the Forest of Fairy Tales that the place resembles a series of boxes of the sort widely known as Chinese boxes. His friend Cinderella calls these boxes ‘Indian’, but explains what they are with helpful clarity:

‘It’s like those Indian boxes,’ she said, ‘all different sizes, one inside the other. The forest of firs was like the first box; inside that was the snow country; and inside the snow country was the little town of moonshine where I live. The funny thing is, that they get bigger instead of getting smaller. And the one in the middle is biggest of all.’ (p. 168)

The passage, of course, foreshadows the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956), in which Lewis’s children find their way to a succession of new worlds, ‘world within world, Narnia within Narnia’, like an onion, ‘except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last’ (p. 181).[12] Once again, these echoes of Bullett’s novel in the work of Lewis seem to me more than coincidental, and I find myself suspecting that Tolkien’s friend may have known it better than Tolkien himself.

It seems to me too, however, that Bullett’s cats have very different connotations from Lewis’s Aslan. My suspicion is based on another work by Bullett, a collection of poems he published as an undergraduate at Cambridge under the title Mice and Other Poems (1921), only six years before the first version of The Happy Mariners. In his introduction to Mice and Other Poems, the critic and poet Arthur Quiller-Couch pointed out that many young men who had fought in the Great War turned to writing poetry, and that their verse – including the verse contained in ‘this pamphlet’ – often displays a not unnatural ‘bitterness of resentment’.[13] The first poem in Bullett’s collection both explains its title and manifests the ‘bitterness of resentment’ born from the horrors of industrialised warfare. Here it is:

Mice

I see the broken bodies of women and men,
Temples of God ruined; I see the claws
Of sinister Fate, from the reach of whose feline paws
Never are safe the bodies of women and men.

Almighty Cat, it sits on the Throne of the World,
With paw outstretched, grinning at us, the mice,
Who play our trivial games of virtue and vice,
And pray—to That which sits on the Throne of the World!

From our beginning till all is over and done,
Unwitting who watches, pursuing our personal ends,
Hither and thither we scamper… The paw descends;
The paw descends and all is over and done.

In this early poem, written during or soon after his experience of combat in the Great War, cats embody an indifferent Fate wholly unlike the stern but cheerful lion-god of the Narnian chronicles; the sort of Fate that could condone casual slaughter on an industrial scale. In his essay Dreaming Bullett directly associates this sort of nightmare-cat with army life, referring to a dream of his in which a ‘cat-faced demon […] dressed in military uniform with all his buttons hideously shining, leaped out of a boiled egg at the tap of my spoon and ordered me to stand to attention’ (p. 12). The presence of war lurks in the background of The Happy Mariners, too. Phineas Dyke, the Elizabethan sailor who wakes from long sleep aboard Elizabeth’s ship, is the only survivor of a naval action in which all his fellow combatants died, friends and enemies alike, leaving him in sole charge of the caravel. Sleep fell on him as soon as the action ended, and his extended period of unconsciousness could be read as a kind of self-induced coma, offering a welcome escape into dreams from the horrors of war at sea. The cats in the novel, more often friendly and protective than terrifying, could represent the sort of softening or mellowing which Arthur Quiller-Couch hopes will take place in the young soldier-poets who have endured so much. But their terrifying aspect lingers, and the belligerent tendencies of the three boys in Bullett’s novel may have added to the melancholy undertones of the novel, especially for an adult reader who remembered the massive loss of young male life (and female too, as ‘Mice’ reminds us) in Flanders and France. These boys are already shaping up to provide perfect cannon fodder for the next outbreak of global warfare in 1939.

But I’d like to end with a more cheerful thought on Hodge’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. Bullett’s essay, Dreaming, intersects in several ways with his novel for children, most obviously in its various lyrical meditations on the possible ways of viewing dreams. In the first section of the essay, Bullett tells us about his childhood theory that every person consists in fact of two people, each of whom is awake when the other is asleep; consciousness and dreams, according to this theory, have equal value, which means that Elizabeth’s dream life as captain and queen is as valid as her waking life as a girl from suburbia. In the second section, Bullett suggests that a person’s dream life exists in seamless continuity with their waking life, both being made up of identical elements, memory and thought, but in different proportions, with organising thought being almost absent from dream, while by contrast organising thought dominates any act of conscious recollection. A daydream or reverie, for Bullett, inhabits a liminal place between waking and dreaming, and its essential quality, translated into visual terms, most closely resembles ‘that quivering glaze of heat, colourless and transparent, that we sometimes see in summertime rising liquidly from the dry ground’; while in terms of hearing it invokes ‘the warm hum – the very voice of magic – with which sun-saturated woods are filled at noon’ (p. 18). Lying in such woods under such conditions – on a hot day in summer, with the trees rendered ‘at once more bright and less solid than reality’ – a person may entertain ‘a long procession of fancies’, among others that what we take to be ‘real’ is in fact no more stable or rational than what we take to be imaginary. This perception, if applied to the dream- or play-world of the island – made up as it is of memories – and the ‘real’ world from which it offers an escape, would again suggest that neither is more real or concrete than the other, each being susceptible to conditions that render them ‘less solid than reality’; conditions that include the darkness of midnight as well as summertime heat ‘rising liquidly from the dry ground’ at noon.  Elizabeth’s experiences on the ship and the island, in other words, are as positively real and valid a component of her memory – and of the personality of which her memory forms an essential part – as any of the seemingly inflexible rules and reasons imposed on her by education and convention. Both are equally real, while at the same time both form part of the same ‘long procession of fancies’. The same is true of Martin’s experiences in the Fairy-Tale Forest, or of Guy’s delight in his senses as he hurries through the woods or stands on Look-Out Hill, exulting in the sight and sound of the waves breaking on the shore. There is hope, in other words, that Elizabeth and her brothers will emerge from the woods of their island more ‘equal’, at least in each other’s eyes, than they were when they first went in. Their shared experience there, which is as real as their time in the suburban house Hodges pictures at the beginning and end of Bullett’s narrative, makes them comrades in spite of the accidents of gender, age, or personal disposition.

To adopt another idea from C. S. Lewis – that of the Wood Between the World in The Magician’s Nephew, which is full of ponds (like the pond in the brick field where the Robinsons’ adventure started) that offer gateways into other worlds – the children may possibly emerge from the woods on the island into a world which is slightly better than the world that spawned the Great War. We know from history, of course, that they did not, and that the rise of Nazism and the Second World War were just around the corner. But the hope endured, given shape and legal form by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. So when we look at Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls in the woods, we might think about Bullett’s woods as pictured by Hodges in The Happy Mariners, the woods of daydream in Bullett’s essay on Dreaming, and Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds; and we might take this ‘long procession of fancies’ as an invitation to go wandering in the woods of our own waking and sleeping dreams, from which we too might emerge with our hopes intact – and possibly even rendered a little more accessible.

NOTES

[1] My edition of The Hobbit is the 50th Anniversary edition (London and Sydney: Unwin Hyman, 1987), and the picture of the trolls can be found on p. 43.

[2] See Spufford, The Child That Books Built ( London: Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 64-71.

[3] Spufford mentions the non-authoritative nature of Tolkien’s illustrations (for himself as a child) in The Child That Books Built, p. 71: ‘Illustrations – I decided – were limitations’. I felt the same way about some books but not about others; Pauline Baynes’s illustrations for the Narnia books, for instance, seemed to me of a piece with the text, and indispensable.

[4] All references in this post are to Bullett, The Happy Mariners, illustrated by C. Walter Hodges (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1956).

[5] See Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1982).

[6] There and Back Again is of course the subtitle of Tolkien’s novel.

[7] Quoted from Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] Bullett’s keen interest in and admiration for Freud are clearly evident in his essay Dreaming, published as a pamphlet in 1928, the year after The Spanish Caravel (The Happy Mariners). The complete pamphlet can be found here: https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.470223/mode/2up.

[9] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959), p. 166.

[10] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965).

[11] Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1959).

[12] Lewis, The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1958).

[13] References are to The Project Gutenberg eBook of Mice and Other Poems, transcribed from the Cambridge University Press edition of 1921.

Night Scenes in Peake and Masefield

One of the most memorable moments in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) comes when the banished servant Flay returns to the castle in secret to continue his faithful vigil over its masters, the Groan family, and above all the young heir to the castle, Titus Groan. At one point in his nocturnal wanderings through abandoned halls and empty corridors, Flay comes across a ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ (p. 639), in the middle of which grows a thorn tree whose silhouette strikes him as strange.[1] Gradually, as the dawn begins to break, he begins to understand the reason for this strangeness. The tree conceals the figure of Steerpike, Gormenghast’s Master of Ritual and (in Flay’s view) the deadliest enemy of the House of Groan. Flay’s discovery of Steerpike leads first to Steerpike’s exposure as a murderer (he has hidden the skeletons of Titus’s two aunts in a forgotten room where he can gloat over them) and afterwards to Flay’s own death. The passage in which he finds him, then, is a turning point in the novel, and deserves to be quoted in full as a masterpiece of atmospheric writing.

Here it is:

In the centre of the quadrangle was a thorn tree, and [Flay’s] eyes turned to the pitchy silhouette of that part of it that cut across the yellow of the sunrise. His familiarity with the shape of the old tree caused him to stare more intently at the rough and branching stem. It seemed thicker than usual. He could only see with any clarity that portion of its bole that crossed the sunrise. It appeared to have changed its outline. It was as though something were leaning against it and adding a little to its bulk. He crouched so that still more of the unfamiliar shape came into view, for the upper part was criss-crossed with branches. As his vision was lowered and he commanded a clearer view beneath the overhanging boughs his muscles became tense for it seemed that against the livid strip of sky – which threw everything else both on the earth and in the air into yet richer blackness – it seemed – that against this livid strip the unfamiliar outline on the left of the stem was narrowing to something the shape of a neck. He got silently to his knee and then, lowering his head and lifting his eyes, he obtained an uninterrupted view of Steerpike’s profile. His body and the back of his head were glued together as though he and the tree had grown up as one thing from the ground.

And that was all there was. The universal darkness above and below. The horizontal stream of saffron yellow and, like a rough bridge that joined the upper darkness to the lower, the silhouette of the ragged thorn stem, with the profile of a face among the stems.

What was he doing there in the darkness alone and motionless? (pp. 639-640)

The genius of the passage lies in its use of light and dark to map the slow revelation of Steerpike’s presence. Piece by piece Flay assembles the puzzle, in the process transforming the familiar thorn into something uncanny – a tree with a human body growing out of it – so that the naming of Steerpike only adds to the young man’s unsettling qualities. For much of the passage the reader’s attention is engaged with the particular difficulties of examining the tree in the dimness of the quadrangle; everything else in Peake’s narrative is held in suspension, waiting until the significance or otherwise of this long, slow process of decipherment should be unveiled and the mechanism of plot be set in motion once again.

There are many such moments in Peake’s novel, moments that invite us to set aside the unfolding drama as we seek with one character or another to negotiate some specific aspect of the ever-changing landscape of Gormenghast Castle. In this passage, Steerpike is for a while no longer a villain – not even to Flay, the man who has reason to hate him most, since he was responsible for Flay’s exile. Nor is he the ex-kitchen boy who rose to be Master of Ritual. He is an enigma, detached from grand or petty narratives of all kinds, fascinating precisely by virtue of being, first, an unknown object spotted in the dark, then a hybrid of tree and man, ‘alone and motionless’, his thoughts more completely hidden than his body. For as long as the passage lasts, he and Flay exist only as rivals locked in a physical and psychological duel, Flay deriving an advantage from Steerpike’s ignorance of his presence, Steerpike deriving a greater advantage from his uncanny relationship to the tree and to the ‘universal darkness’ of the quadrangle and the castle it metonymically represents.[2] At each such moment in the novel, the characters involved become extensions of their setting, doing homage to Gormenghast’s quasi-sentient vastness by their total absorption in the immediate problems or wonders it presents them with. Each of these moments contributes another potent strand to the developing myth of the castle, while the characters themselves gain a mythic dimension thanks to their place within the titanic structure.

In this passage, Steerpike strikes Flay for the first time not as an intruder but as an indigenous denizen of the castle’s gloomy interstices, a being who springs from between its stones just as the tree does; this despite Flay’s conviction that the young man is a deep-dyed traitor to its ruling dynasty, which Flay continues to serve despite his banishment. The young man’s appearance of being wholly at home in the darkness of the quadrangle, and of being able to transform something familiar (the tree) into a tool to advance his hidden purposes, anticipates the final section of the novel, in which Steerpike wanders Gormenghast’s attics, roofscapes, cellars and staircases as at once an outcast and the castle’s deadly alternative monarch, the Arch-fiend of Peake’s secondary world. In that final section of the book, Steerpike’s unrivalled familiarity with the building’s topography gives him an unsettling advantage over his pursuers, the Groans, allowing him to reign unchallenged in spaces of the building to which its nominal rulers have never penetrated. The power this knowledge gives him is something he anticipates from the moment when his murder of the aunts has been discovered. At that point he makes the spontaneous decision to embrace the situation – that is, to relish his sudden fall and the terrifying aura with which it invests him, in a world where tradition elicits absolute obedience:

If it was no longer possible for him to wear, one day, the legitimate crown of Gormenghast, there was still the dark and terrible domain – the subterranean labyrinth – the lairs and warrens where, monarch of darkness like Satan himself, he could wear undisputed a crown no less imperial. (p. 658)

The echo of Milton’s celebrated line here, uttered by Satan in Paradise Lost – ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ – is unmistakable.[3] From this point onwards, Steerpike is ‘no less imperial’ than Titus himself or his formidable mother, the Countess Gertrude, having fulfilled his ambition to attain, in a sense, the castle’s crown; the fact that his is an illegitimate version of that crown only enhances his perverse enjoyment of it. The scene at the thorn tree, like a painting of the Tree of Life defiled by the presence of the human-headed Serpent, pre-empts this passionate embrace of perversity, when Steerpike becomes an embodiment of the fastness at the centre of Peake’s imaginative universe.

*****

First edition of Lost Endeavour, Frontispiece by Stephen Remi, showing Little Theo on the left and Charles Harding on the right.

I was reading one of John Masefield’s novels recently – a strange, visionary book called Lost Endeavour (1910) – when I came across a passage which seemed to me to foreshadow the passage with the thorn tree. It’s from one of Masefield’s intense set-pieces: a scene in which a small band of pirates finds itself surrounded by a war party of indigenous Americans on a hill in the wilderness at night. Knowing they are surrounded, and believing that the war party will attack at dawn, the pirates decide that one of their number must leave the hilltop to fetch water if they are to survive the night. An enslaved boy of sixteen whom they happen to have met, and who knows the land as none of the rest do, volunteers for the mission. On his way back from filling their water bottles at a stream, he sees something ahead of him which may or may not be a threat, or a place where a threat is hiding. This is where my next passage begins:

What was the black thing? Was it a thicket of briars, or a patch of sumach, or an Indian grave-heap? I could not be sure; and it was necessary that I should be sure. I lay down flat upon the ground, so as to get its upper edge, if it had one, defined against the stars and the comparative lightness of the lower heaven. Looking at it thus, with my head flat upon the ground, I thought it must be the bulk of a vast uprooted tree, probably much rotted and overgrown. That it was a tree was evident an instant later, when, in a puff of air, I caught the scent of wild honey from some crevice in its bark.

Now it was always my plan when alone in the woods to approach such places from the flank, and never directly from the front. One never knows what may be hiding on the further side. One might stir up a bee’s nest, or a honey-hunting bear, or a wild-cat, if one approaches an old log too rashly, and none of these three is polite when disturbed. And as I looked at this log, with a knop or swelling in its surface well defined against a star, something very slowly rose up from behind it, gradually hiding not only that star but several others. It rose up very slowly, so slowly that I knew that it could be no animal. As it rose it defined itself. Something stuck out from it at right angles. It was round, with something sticking out from it; it was something with eyes and a brain; it was looking at the ground where I lay. It was an Indian with eagle feathers in his hair. I got a sniff of his war-grease intermixed with the perfume of the honey. For an instant we stared at each other through the darkness. We were not five yards from each other. If we had made ‘long arms’ we might have touched. What was I to do now? Did he see me or did he not see me; and if he saw me, what was he going to do; and if he did not see me, how was I to get past the log while he was there? Did he see me? I concluded that he could not help it, since my face, in spite of my tan, was pretty white against the ground. But if he saw me he made no least sign, no least noise. He was like some great fungus thrust up suddenly from the log. He had the best cards; it was for him to call the game. (pp. 103-105).[4]

The parallels between this passage and Peake’s are worth considering in detail. First, the topography of the incidents they examine. Both incidents are shaped by their setting: the cloistered quadrangle, implicitly giving Flay a column to hide behind, or at least a shadowed border to hide in as he surveys the thorn tree; the steep hill with water at the bottom which places Charles below the tree trunk as he approaches it, giving him a greater disadvantage in relation to whatever it may conceal. Both take place at night, with the limitations on vision this imposes. Both passages involve the inspection of a tree, an inspection that requires a careful adjustment of position (Flay kneels and lowers his head, Charles lies on the ground) to make use of all available light (the yellow sunrise in Peake’s passage, the stars in Masefield’s). In both cases the risks involved in this inspection are considerable; the banished Flay, if noticed by a denizen of the castle, risks death, while Charles expects to be hurt or killed if the tree conceals any of the creatures he fears. In each case, the human being revealed by the inspection seems uncannily fused with a tree-bole – Steerpike as its extension, the nameless warrior as a fungal growth on its decaying surface. There’s therefore a fantastic atmosphere about both passages. At the beginning of each, the tree could harbour anything at all; by the end what it harbours has become strangely involved with the adjacent vegetation. In each case, too, the human being next to the tree seems by the end to have the initiative. Flay has no idea what Steerpike is doing in the quadrangle or what he might do next, while Charles Harding has no idea if the warrior has seen him or what he might do if he has. As a result Flay and Charles feel able only to react to, not act upon, the circumstances in which they find themselves. Power lies with the man they are watching, despite the fact that he is, or possibly may be, unaware that he is being watched.

Cowboy ambushed by native American warrior, by Stanley L. Wood, one of Peake’s favourite artists as a boy.

Having looked at the immediate practicalities of the situation in each case, we might consider, too, the point of view adopted in each passage within the context of the novel as a whole. Flay is an outcast from the castle, summarily banished by the Countess of Groan after a lifetime of faithful service. Charles Harding too is an exile and an outcast, having been enslaved in Britain at fourteen and sold in America, so that his common cause with the pirates – forced on him by circumstance – renders him subject by law to aggressive punitive measures. After Flay’s banishment he learns the ways of the woods, living in a cave like Stevenson’s Ben Gunn and discovering an aptitude for survival and a love of the natural environment. Charles, too, learns the ways of the woods, and describes himself as a woodsman, which is why he volunteers for the mission of fetching water; he knows full well the pirates would not last more than a few seconds in the wilderness he has made his home. Charles’s familiarity with this environment also gives him an appreciation for the skills of the native Americans, who know it so much better than he does. His status as an enslaved person, too, means that he does not look on the so-called ‘Indians’ from a wholly colonial perspective; they are free men, as he is not, their skills are greater than his, and in both ways they have him at an advantage. Their superiority is implied by the final sentence of the passage, in which the Indian behind the fallen tree is said to be holding ‘the best cards’, as if he and Charles were engaged in a game played for the highest stakes, with the Indian best placed to win. Masefield is careful, however, to show Charles as having in some measure adopted the perspective of the slaveowner who bought him, worrying about how his ‘master’ is coping without his help, worrying about the punishments he himself may face if he deserts his ‘owner’, and so on. Flay too takes the perspective of the ‘legitimate’ castle authorities, the House of Groan, even though it was they who sent him into exile without pausing a moment to consider his long and faithful service. In the previous novel, Titus Groan (1946), Flay worried constantly in exile about how his master, the old Earl who was Titus’s father, would manage without his services, and in the thorn tree scene he is actively engaged in acting on behalf of the Earl’s son, Titus. At the same time, he has a sense that Steerpike has real power over both himself and the House of Groan. In order to move around the castle freely, despite his banished status, Flay has made himself familiar with its obscurer corridors; but his observation of Steerpike reveals that the younger man has made an even more thorough study of the castle’s layout, though Flay’s hatred for Steerpike prevents him from admiring the extent of this knowledge.

Flay and Charles, in other words, are clearly instruments of a certain power structure founded on radical inequality between different perceived orders or categories of human being. Both also embody the weakness of this structure: Charles because of his admiration and partial understanding of the native Americans, Flay because of his evident fear of Steerpike as a force capable of toppling his ‘masters’. Flay and Charles inhabit unjust, inefficient hegemonies sustained by violence, and recognise the presence in their worlds of potent counter-forces (the ‘traitor’ Steerpike, the native American warriors) dedicated to damaging or destroying those hegemonies through their unrivalled mastery of a certain space (the castle, the wilderness). The primacy of that space in each passage – the quadrangle in the pre-dawn darkness, the hill at night – places the advantage in the court of those counter-forces. The quadrangle and the hill become locations in which imperial rule finds itself suspended, challenged, partly undermined, reflecting the historical moment when each writer was writing, at different stages in the long, slow decline of the British Empire.

This decline is driven by internal contradictions. We’ve noted how the scene involving Steerpike marks the beginning of his transition from authority figure within the hegemony – the Master of Ritual, with a powerful hold even over his putative ‘masters’, the House of Groan – to solitary outcast and devilish monarch of the castle’s tracts. Lost Endeavour, too, includes a character who begins with hugely overblown ambitions and ends (as its title suggests) by losing everything he has worked for. The leader of the pirates encountered by Charles is a Spanish sailor called Little Theo, whose name hints at his resemblance to – and later, his aspiration to become – a minor god (theos is ancient Greek for god). In England, Little Theo was Charles’s schoolmaster at a small school; his name was given him, half in mockery and half in admiration, by his pupils, in recognition that there is something powerful about him despite his short stature and humble occupation. Little Theo was enslaved at the same time as his pupil, and this experience – together with what happened after – is suspected by Charles to have driven him half mad. By the time Charles meets him again, not long before our passage, Little Theo has become convinced he is a kind of messiah for the indigenous peoples of the Americas – a figure foretold, he insists, in all New World mythologies. It’s this conviction, sustained by a series of ‘revelations’ that enable him to overcome a string of life-threatening situations, which drives him to become a pirate chief and later to abandon most of his fellow pirates as unworthy partners in his messianic mission. Inevitably – given the historical setting of the novel in the late seventeenth century, the so-called Golden Age of Piracy – this mission comes to nothing; after all, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history does not record a collective rising of indigenous American people behind a European leader. But the mission’s mere existence lends the narrative a quasi-anticolonial slant which is twisted and warped by the fact that the self-proclaimed rebel against Empire is both white and committed to seizing power for himself. The parallels with Steerpike, whose claims to set himself against the elitism of the Groans are effectively nullified by his ambition to rule Gormenghast in their place, are clear enough. So is the fact that both aspiring rulers find themselves undone by the contradictions in their stances. The worlds they inhabit – late seventeenth-century Britain and America, Gormenghast Castle – do not yet offer any serious alternative to the status quo. Steerpike and Little Theo pose as rebels against the powers-that-be, but can only envisage combatting those powers by replicating the inequalities that sparked off their rebellions. They are loners – Steerpike has no friends, Little Theo has contempt for his pirate companions – which makes them weak, despite their conviction of their own power (and Little Theo’s weakness is underlined by the fact that he finds himself powerless when attacked by the indigenous people he intends to rule; he is wounded in the dawn attack on the hill). Both, then, embody the contradictions of the power structures they seek to subvert.

To summarize what I’ve said so far: the greatness of the two long passages I’ve quoted springs from the intensity of their focus on one particular time and place in the unfolding narrative of which they are part. The moment in question constitutes a pause in the action, when for a while everything hangs in the balance. The time is circumscribed in each case by the approach of dawn, when the war party is expected to strike, when what hides beside the thorn tree will be fully revealed, and when Steerpike will have enough light to set off for his unknown destination. The topography of the setting is central to both passages. The ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ divides the night into dense, quasi-abstract patches of light and dark, while the thorn tree makes of Steerpike something weird, an amalgam of tree and man which reinforces the sense that he has some eerie biological connection to Gormenghast castle. The fallen log in the second passage is rendered intensely significant by the darkness of the hillside, which both conceals whatever is behind it and renders weird the slow, silent rising of the warrior from that concealment. In both cases, the inner life of the person next to the standing or fallen tree is just as obscure after his identity has been revealed as it was beforehand. This means that the person in question retains at the end a close association with the place described in the passage, and derives from that place a kind of power he would not otherwise have had. Place and person are fused for a while in these passages, and the implications of this fusion remain unknown as they draw to a close.

Robert Louis Stevenson, admired by both Masefield and Peake.

This laying aside of (nearly) all considerations but those of the immediate present puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’, which seeks to explain his fascination with what we now call thrillers or adventure stories, as against novels of ‘character’, ‘drama’ or ‘thought’.[5] For Stevenson, reading a book should be an experience both ‘absorbing and voluptuous’, taking the reader ‘clean out of ourselves’ while reading, and afterwards leaving behind the ‘busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images’ which render the reader ‘incapable of sleep or of continuous thought’. For him, place is central to the best kind of action narrative packed with the sort of focussed, all-consuming passages he thirsts after. Such narratives intensify the haunting effect of certain places by supplying a plot full of ‘fit and striking incident’ that depends entirely on the specific characteristics of those places and could not be set anywhere else. While we are focused on each successive incident, we should be so preoccupied with place and its role in unfolding events that we set aside all considerations of morality; after all, Stevenson points out,

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; […] 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.

Such narratives of circumstance and incident, then, involve a temporary suspension of the mind from active engagement with ethics, politics or philosophy. The only questions that matter for as long as they last are questions as to what may happen next and how it may unfold. This state of suspension bears some resemblance to the period of hesitation identified by Tzvetan Todorov as a key characteristic of the Fantastic in literature: a temporary uncertainty in the reader’s mind over whether the incidents we are reading about (in this case, seemingly impossible incidents) may be understood as actually happening in the world of the story, or as an illusion imposed on the protagonist by his mental state or by some trickery of the light or of another person.[6] The impossible incident is all that matters for the time being, and the multitude of possible explanations for it – together with the refusal to choose any one of those explanations for the time being – lends it an astonishing, vertiginous power over the mind of the reader. For Stevenson, as for Todorov, the period of suspension or hesitation is infinitely productive, allowing ‘whole vistas of secondary stories, besides the one in hand’ to radiate forth, ‘as they radiate from a striking particular in life’. Such a plenitude of possibility, for him, will make any reader ‘as happy as a reader has a right to be’.

The two passages I’ve set side by side offer Stevenson’s experience of suspension in ample measure. Both are intensely concerned with ‘problems of the body’ – indeed, they render the body itself problematic as Steerpike’s head and back seem to emerge from the tree and the warrior’s head becomes a fungal growth. Masefield’s involves what Stevenson terms ‘clean, open-air adventure’, and while Peake’s is nominally set indoors, the profusion of strange vistas, feral creatures and organic growths in Gormenghast castle give it the wildness of a series of undiscovered caves – though this wildness is not exactly ‘open-air’.  The passages also embody a specific quality in both Peake’s and Masefield’s narratives. In both, place is the focus, together with the time at which the protagonist and the reader come in contact with that place. During each successive incident or set-piece in both narratives – and there are many of them – a ‘vista’ of possibilities is generated, any one of which would provide a richly satisfying story; and the fact that there is for a while this vista renders the incident from which they might spring more potent than any one of those stories once it has started to be told. For that period of suspension, the reader’s imagination is wholly engaged, and the reader empowered, made equal partner with the writer and the protagonist, thanks to the prose on the printed page. That’s a political situation, I think, and helps explain why Peake’s novels have been so popular with politically sophisticated readers down the years, despite the apparent lack of specifically political elements in those novels. Masefield has not achieved the same level of popularity, but several of his books deserve to be much better known – not least Lost Endeavour, with its thrilling set pieces, its vivid evocation of place, and its knowingly troubled relationship to the imperialist world that gave it birth.

Lost Endeavour, specially bound first edition. The turbaned man on the front is Little Theo.

NOTES

[1] References are to The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992).

[2] The most celebrated reference to ‘universal darkness’ in literature comes from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1727-1743), which describes the collapse of British culture and ends in a universal apocalypse presided over by stupidity, embodied by the goddess Dulness. The final lines run:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 42.

[4] Quoted from Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910).

[5] ‘A Gossip on Romance’ can be found in full here: https://electricscotland.com/history/other/EssaysOfRLS09AGossipOnRomancePlusNotes.pdf

[6] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 25.

The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

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

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

[21] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

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.

Mervyn Peake and Whiteness

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick recently. My reason for reading it is quite specific: I believe that Mervyn Peake read it, and I’m in the process of writing a book about Mervyn Peake. My way of reading is perhaps unusual: each morning I do two hundred press ups, in sets of twenty, and read a paragraph or two of Moby-Dick between each set. Strangely, I find that the book gets imprinted on my mind by the exercise, just as the exercise is made easier by being interspersed with sections of the book. I mention this in case other Melville readers might want to try the same experiment. Readers of Dickens and Lord Dunsany might try it too; I read Bleak House and David Copperfield in the same way, and before that a collection of Dunsany’s brilliant but sometimes hard-to-differentiate short stories. I can differentiate his stories now, thanks perhaps to the rush of blood to the brain occasioned by those interspersed press-ups…

This is a blog post that records one of the key findings of my slow perusal of Melville’s text: that he and Peake were both obsessed with the colour white, and for similar reasons. This shared obsession says something, I think, about the uprooting of the world from faith and other familiar grand narratives in the wake of the industrial revolution and the vastly increased mobility of populations it brought about. The whaling ship Pequod embodies that mobility in obvious terms; but Gormenghast, too, embodies it, as a castle-shaped vessel cut adrift from the meanings and contexts of the rituals that serve as its wayward motor, marooning or islanding it (to use two of Peake’s favourite words) in an ocean-like landscape bereft of identifying names and historical or geographical contexts.[1] Whiteness is to the Pequod and Gormenghast Castle as the blank page of the present is to the migrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a symbol of possibility and terror, laden with past associations which have turned strange and sometimes dreadful as the world enters a period of accelerated and often catastrophic change.

There are certain obvious parallels between Melville’s world and Peake’s – most importantly their common fascination with the architecture of the body, whether human or cetacean, and the fact that Peake was as obsessed with sea stories as Melville was, from the favourite book of his childhood, Treasure Island, to the pirates, explorers and Ancient Mariners who are always showing up in his writing and his artwork. And there are more specific links to be found between Peake and Melville. There’s a chapter in Moby-Dick written from Ahab’s point of view, ‘Sunset’, which transforms him into a seagoing Earl of Gormenghast, iron crown and all: ‘Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy’ (p. 182) (note that the first of these two sentences is an iambic pentameter; Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave, like Ahab, often speaks in Shakespearean pentameters).[2] This is the second in a startling series of chapters in Moby-Dick delivered in the form of first-person monologues or dramatic dialogue, strikingly reminiscent of the chapter in Titus Groan devoted to the internal reveries of its cast of characters as they sit in silence round a ritual breakfast table, communing only with themselves.[3] In another, more conventional chapter that follows the series, called simply ‘Moby Dick’, Ishmael considers Ahab’s madness in terms that align the captain with the passionate knife-wielders of Titus Groan and Gormenghast: Steerpike, Titus Groan, the duellists Rantel and Braigon. Each of these young men pits himself against his destiny armed only with a short blade; and Ahab, too, famously attacked the great white whale armed only with a knife on the day he lost his leg to its jaws. We’ll come across further parallels as we go along.

There’s one chapter in particular that stood out from the rest of the American epic as I read it with Peake in mind. This is Chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’: a prolonged and eclectic meditation on the colour white. As soon as I read it I felt as though an unbreakable link had just been forged between Moby-Dick and the workings of Mervyn Peake’s imagination. Peake too, as I’ve often noticed, had an intense relationship with the colour white. He seems to have found it both dazzlingly, even oppressively beautiful, and somehow disturbing; and it was so central to his imagination that something intensely white provides him with the climax of at least three of his major works. In addition, he wrote many poems about it, some of which strike me as among the oddest and most idiosyncratic he composed. A glance at Melville’s Chapter 42 gives, I think, many clues as to the nature of Peake’s obsession – though Melville himself confessed, in the person of his narrator Ishmael, that no one knows exactly ‘where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints’, despite the fact that ‘somewhere those things must exist’ (p. 211). But before taking that glance we should look at the evidence that Peake could in fact have read the chapter in question.

Maeve Gilmore, Moby Dick, c. 1972

That Peake did read Melville is suggested by a number of things, not least the fact that he and his wife Maeve Gilmore had a cat called Moby Dick in the 1930s.[4] There is a portrait by Mervyn of Maeve from this period with a white cat standing on her shoulders;[5] this is presumably the animal in question, while Maeve herself painted Moby, or one of his descendants, in the 1970s, long after the original cat was dead. Mervyn’s poem of 1942-3, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, refers to mysterious angelic saints with wings ‘like sheets / And as white/ As Ahab’s whale’ (Collected Poems, p. 123), and Ahab appears again in the opening paragraph of the short story ‘I Bought a Palm-tree’.[6] Peake’s picture book Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948) includes many echoes of Moby-Dick, from the one-legged adventurer of the title, whose missing leg has been replaced with a prosthesis made from the ‘spike’ of a sword-fish or narwhal (Ahab’s, of course, was made of whalebone), to the object of his quest: to take a photograph of the mythical ‘WHITE LION; The LION on the stamp – the Emperor of the Snows’. At the point when the Uncle finally finds the Lion it is accompanied by a whale ‘as long as a street’, which swims underneath the floor of ice where the Lion is standing. Another whale occurs in Peake’s novel Mr Pye (1953) – a small, dead whale, whose appearance seems to symbolise the loss of epic or tragic aspirations in the wake of the Second World War. Its appearance marks a downturn in the fortunes of the book’s hero, a missionary who seeks to convert the inhabitants of the Island of Sark to his own peculiar brand of Christianity; and the whale is a white one.[7] The white whale of Melville’s novel haunts Peake’s work, much as Stevenson’s Treasure Island did; though of course this need not mean that Peake had actually read the novel. Moby Dick, after all, is a myth of the twentieth century, like Barrie’s Peter Pan, the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or L. Frank Baum’s Marvellous Land of Oz; everyone knows about these things without having encountered the books or plays that brought them into being.

Peake’s intimate knowledge of the novel is best confirmed, perhaps, by a comment he made about it in a radio interview of May 1947, quoted in the biography by Malcolm Yorke.[8] The interview addresses Peake’s trade of book illustration – something he says he was drawn into by the limited opportunities and materials available to artists in the Second World War; and in it Peake describes various works of prose in olfactory terms, as an array of distinctive scents, perfumes and odours:

One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The Book of Job, smells different – very different – from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating.

Inhaling involves absorption, and in some cases addiction, a kind of possession readers experience when in the grip of a congenial narrative. Peake speaks, then, of being addicted to or possessed by the books he reads; and some of the characters in his work are clearly so addicted or possessed: Earl Sepulchrave among them, who goes mad when he loses his library, or Mr Slaughterboard, the pirate captain in an unfinished early novel who takes his library with him to sea, and who seeks to write himself into the list of literary greats by staging elaborate and fatal artistic events with his unfortunate crew as the pages he writes on. Yorke tells us, all the same, that Peake was ‘not a great reader’ (p. 195), and goes on to assert that he ‘lacked the stamina or time necessary to get through a long novel apart, perhaps, from Dickens and those swashbuckling books he had loved in his youth’ (p. 196). Elsewhere Yorke actually includes Moby-Dick among these ‘swashbuckling books’ (‘Stevenson, Ballantyne, Defoe, Melville and other writers of adventure yarns’, p. 182), which rather suggests he hadn’t read it himself. But we know that Maeve – herself a voracious reader who loved Proust – read aloud to him a great deal while he was painting or drawing; a ‘catholic selection’ of books, she tells us, which included Voltaire’s Candide and Waugh’s The Loved One.[9] We know, too, that some of the books Peake most enjoyed were decidedly long ones: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote (which he wanted to illustrate). In any case, delighting in the ‘smell’ of a book rather than its plot means that one can immerse oneself in giant tomes without feeling the need to read them in their entirety. Dipping into Bleak House, Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote is entirely delightful, evoking the precise mood, taste and texture of the world they bring to life while visiting only chapters or short passages. The same, of course, can be said of Titus Groan or Gormenghast, and of Moby-Dick too, whose brief chapters can be read as individual essays penned by a perverse and playful intellect, each with its own atmosphere and philosophical vision. Tzvetan Todorov has wise words on what he calls the ‘fetishism of the book’, whereby ‘the literary work is transformed both into a precious and motionless object and into a symbol of plenitude, [so that] the act of cutting it becomes an equivalent of castration’.[10] Peake knew the smell of Moby-Dick, even if he knew only a fraction of the novel; and the evidence suggests he knew at least this.

Mervyn Peake, Muzzlehatch with Mouse and Chameleon, sketch for Titus Alone

In the radio interview Peake assigns colours to books as well as smells. He speaks of the importance of capturing the ‘colour’ of the writing, and of how the illustrator must be willing ‘to identify himself with another personality’, as well as having ‘the chameleon’s power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on’ (pp. 194-5). There’s a delightful sketch in many editions of Titus Alone showing the misanthrope Muzzlehatch holding aloft both a cheerful chameleon and a tiny mouse, which seems designed to make the point all over again: in it, Peake as illustrator absorbs himself in his character Muzzlehatch, just as Muzzlehatch absorbs himself wholly in the creatures he keeps in his private zoo, who ‘smell one another’ as a reader smells a book (does the chameleon mimic Muzzlehatch’s colouring or Muzzlehatch the chameleon’s, we wonder? There’s no way of telling from a black-and-white illustration).[11] Sniffing and staring at Moby-Dick as he read it, or listened to Maeve reading it aloud as he painted or drew, Peake the visual artist may well have been struck by the only chapter in it dedicated to his medium, colour. After all, he always maintained that ‘we do not see with our eyes, but with our trades’,[12] and Peake seems to have seen his primary trade as painting, even if, as Gordon Smith suggests, ‘he never fully realized his ambitions as a painter in oils’.[13] Moby-Dick is a kind of verbal painting in oils – whale oils – and has many paintings in it, from the picture almost obscured by dirt which hangs in the entrance to the Spouter-Inn in Chapter 3, to the discussion of cetacean art in Chapters 55, 56 and 58 (‘Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, ‘Of the […] True Pictures of Whaling Scenes’, ‘Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood [etc.]’). No wonder Peake was drawn to Melville’s epic, as an expression of his ambitions as a painter as well as a novelist.

Peake himself painted whales at least three times: as an illustration for Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1950) and as embellishments for two of his own books, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and the volume of nonsense poems Rhymes Without Reason (1944). The colour illustration in Rhymes without Reason shows a Greenland whale sitting on a mantelpiece over a blazing fire, watched by a cat.[14] The cat is clearly surprised to see its usual place usurped by a sea mammal; but the situation would be stranger still if the cat’s name were Moby Dick. The cat is not white, however, but ginger. The whale is not exactly white, either; more greyish green. Peake may have modelled it on a stranded whale he found on the island of Sark, which also inspired the rotting whale in Mr Pye; but it’s nice to think he may also have consulted Melville’s authoritative chapters on the subject, and the paintings they recommend, in his quest for an accurate image.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for ‘It Makes a Change’, Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

But to return to Moby-Dick Chapter 42; this is one of the most extraordinary moments in Melville’s novel. In it, Melville points out that whiteness has acquired a range of symbolic meanings at different times and in different cultures; but as with so much of the book, the illusion of control at first imparted by the orderly listing of these associations quickly breaks down as the list gets out of hand. The chapter begins by pointing out that many communities have ‘recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue’, so that the monarchs of Pegu in Myanmar, for instance, had exclusive right to possession of a white elephant, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire chose white as the imperial colour, and (inevitably) the ‘white man’ sees himself as having ‘ideal mastership over every dusky tribe’ thanks to the pallid complexion of his skin. The introduction of racism into the chapter, in a book that sees a South Sea Islander forge a bond of brotherhood with a white American, anticipates the unsettling change of tone that occurs in Ishmael’s chapter on whiteness. At the end of the same paragraph, where the narrator also points out the religious significance of the colour white for the ancient Greeks, the Iroquois nations, and the Catholic Church, Ishmael observes that ‘for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood’ (p. 205, my emphasis). Whiteness has been incorporated into rituals and ceremonies and systems; but it retains an ‘elusive quality’ which ‘causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds’ (p. 205). The colour, that is, somehow escapes the confines of human organisation, eluding all limits and circumventing taxonomies. The terrible appearance of the polar bear and the great white shark is intensified by it; the glory of the albatross and the legendary White Steed of the Prairies is given them by their pigmentation. And a host of creatures and apparitions is rendered dreadful by their association with this colour; partly, Melville observes, because it is the colour of death, transforming the complexion of corpses until they seem to be frightened by their own condition – ‘as if indeed that pallor were as much the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here’ (p. 208). The notion that whiteness should be fearful precisely because it is the colour faces take on when a person is frightened has a wonderful, weird logic about it, and extends its appalling reach to embrace our terror of ghosts and of the horse on which Death rides in the biblical Book of the Apocalypse.

In the end, though, Melville’s Ishmael confesses that there is no logical argument to account for the powerful grip maintained by whiteness on the human body and mind, which renders it both supremely worthy of worship and supremely frightening. ‘How is mortal man to account for it?’ he asks himself midway through the chapter, adding that ‘To analyse it, would seem impossible’ (p. 208). He goes on to list many more examples of the fear aroused by whiteness without offering any explanation of that fear, from the apparitions called the White Friar or the White Nun to the ‘tall pale man’ of the Hartz forests (p. 209), from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the sailor looking out over Antarctic seas:

where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless church-yard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses. (p. 211).

The notion of the Antarctic as a ‘boundless churchyard’ decorated with ‘splintered crosses’ conjures up religion again, which adopted white as its colour at the beginning of the chapter. Here, however, it is a forgotten, faithless religion whose insignia have been smashed to pieces by the operation of the polar cold and whose promise of eternal life has been reduced to the posthumous ‘grinning’ of a skull. White is the colour of death again in this passage, though a death that has a hideous life of its own, like the ghosts, the Pale Horse and the White Nun mentioned previously.

But the chapter ends with another explanation for the fearfulness of whiteness. This is the idea advanced by certain philosophers that the colour white represents the ‘great principle of light’ itself (p. 212), which underlies all material things as the blank page underlies the printed word, or as the white-painted canvas underlies the pigments applied by the impressionist’s brushstrokes. Other colours are mere illusions: ‘subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without’. The inherent whiteness of light is only imbued with colour by its interaction with physical media (crystals, fluids, shadows and so forth) or the complex operations of the human mind. Without the influence of these interposed phenomena ‘the great principle of light, [which] for ever remains white or colorless in itself, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge’, so that the universe would resemble a ‘leper’ (whose condition turns their skin white) or a ‘charnel-house’ (a repository of bones) (p. 212). The chapter closes with the illustrative analogy of ‘wilful travellers in Lapland’ who ‘refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes’ and thus gaze themselves ‘blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect’. For the philosopher who adopts this perspective on colour as a cosmetic application screening us from the horror of universal blankness, whiteness embodies not the life promised by religious orators but again death: the shroud, the bones in a charnel house, leprous diseases, an Arctic wilderness utterly inimical to human existence.

Whiteness for Melville, then, symbolizes both the hope and joy of religious faith and the terror of the world as viewed by an unbeliever: a universal blankness on which the semblance of order and beauty has been superimposed by chance, or by the strenuous efforts of those pedlars in distracting illusion, artists and writers. The first aspect of whiteness – as a symbol of faith in a benevolent deity – is constantly slipping into the second – whiteness as utter indifference or even hostility to human life with its symbols and meanings – just as Ahab the Quaker ends up seeking the whale, not for religious purposes, but to impose total destruction on it as it imposed partial destruction on him. Whiteness, then, may be said to represent symbolism itself, which is continually being imposed by communities and individuals on things that resist being constrained by their symbolic functions. ‘Of all these things’, Ishmael tells us, ‘the Albino whale was the symbol’ (p. 212) – but the statement occurs at the end of a chapter in which so many ‘things’ have been connected with whiteness that it has lost its shape; just as a whale is rendered by Melville’s book a thing of such complexity and variousness that it cannot be said to symbolise anything but itself.

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, detail

For Peake, too, whiteness was associated with religion, but a religion that was constantly becoming strange to him in different phases of his life. Coming from a nonconformist background – his parents were missionaries in China, where Peake lived for the first eleven years of his childhood – Peake married a Catholic artist, Maeve Gilmore, in 1936, and soon found himself at odds with certain aspects of Maeve’s religion. His poem ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’ (Collected Poems, pp. 61-2) sees him ‘fighting the Cathedral / And the voluptuous clouds of Catholic / Narcotic ritual / And all the sick / And opalescent glory of the pearl’, the last line associating whiteness with the elaborate ceremony of the Mass and its ‘sapless’ emblem, ‘the jewelled Crucifix, the golden Tree’. A vestment called the alb forms part of this ‘Narcotic ritual’, a garment (Melville tells us) whose name is derived ‘directly from the Latin word for white’, and invokes the white robes of the twenty-four elders in the Apocalypse, who stand ‘before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’ (Moby-Dick, p. 205). As we shall see, this ceremonial whiteness seems for Peake as well as for Melville to ‘strike more of panic to the soul than that redness that affrights in blood’. At the same time, whiteness also attached itself, for Peake, to his parents’ nonconformist faith. When his Welsh mother died in October 1939, just after the outbreak of World War Two, he wrote a number of verses about her in the tetrameters favoured by the Protestant hymns he knew so well (Mr Pye sings several hymns in Peake’s late novel set on Sark). These verses associate the afterlife both with the chalky whiteness of the Sussex downs where Peake’s mother was buried (‘She who was so loved rests now / Gently in the chalk below’) and of the angels who carry her soul to heaven:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home.

(Collected Poems, p. 49)

Other, less conventional verses of around the same time – set to the so-called ‘common metre’ of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, rhymed ABCB – describe a widely-travelled woman (his mother again?) whose interest in the quality of whiteness has persisted throughout her life:

O she has walked all lands that are
In search of all things white –
For they are to her eyes a fair
And lonely sight.
But O, to her, beyond compare,
In all things of delight
Is the whiteness in the darkness
Of wanderers at night.

(Collected Poems, p. 76)

Whiteness in this poem has become detached from its association with conventional faith, a detachment stressed both by the loneliness the unnamed woman intuits in the ‘things’ of that colour and by her particular predilection for the pale shapes of nocturnal ‘wanderers’, rootless and solitary. These wanderers may be the moon and stars as well as people; Peake calls the moon a ‘white coin’ in his poem ‘Burgled Beauty’ (Collected Poems, p. 46).

This eccentric, post-religious whiteness features again in a longer poem which begins in comic mode but ends in a kind of Blakean rapture, making it Peake’s most explicit statement in verse of the combined attraction and weirdness of the colour white as articulated by Melville:

To all things solid as to all things flat
He raised his little peacock-coloured hat

To all things lucent as to all things dense
He bowed his little head in deference

To all things coloured as to things of grey
He turned and smiled in a most gentle way

But ah, at all things white… at all things white
He could but stand and stare in grief’s delight.

White wonderment upon him and within
That filled him to his cold and wrinkled skin.

That was his hour, his phoenix hour, his world
When all his flags of beauty were unfurled

Inhuman ecstasy of chill delight
Unworldly, lonely agony of white;

The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing
The white cloud over the white waters flowing

All things of white transported him to where
Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air

(Collected Poems, p. 75)

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye

In a number of ways this poem reads like a first draft of Peake’s third novel, Mr Pye (1953), with its diminutive, beaming protagonist, who bows and wears a hat (though Mr Pye’s is not ‘peacock-coloured’ but an ordinary Panama or bowler) and shows ‘deference’ to all things, not just ecclesiastical symbols.[15] Mr Pye is a kind of missionary to the Channel Island of Sark, which could be described as Peake’s spiritual home – he stayed there several times, most notably as a member of an artist’s commune in the 1930s and as the father of a family in the 1940s. The little man in the novel aims to convert the islanders to a pantheistic ‘Faith of Love and Laughter’, presided over by a God who inhabits all things from the sea and sky to a smoking cigarette. The little man in the poem, like Mr Pye, makes gestures of recognition and acknowledgment (bowing, smiling, staring), but to inanimate objects rather than people, as if to suggest a sense of kinship with the many ‘things’ of different visual and physical properties he encounters; and he seeks no converts to his way of seeing. Mr Pye finds that his preoccupation with religion has an impact on his body: as his good deeds proliferate he starts to grow wings like an angel, and has to resort to evil deeds to keep them in check – only to find that doing evil makes devilish horns sprout from his head. The little man of the poem, seemingly by contrast, is drawn to whiteness itself, not just the whiteness of religion. He is as entranced by white animals, plants and weather as by angelic wings or priestly albs: ‘The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing / The white cloud over the white waters flowing’ (Melville mentions the flower japonica in his Chapter on Whiteness [Moby-Dick, p. 204], while weather and horses feature in it prominently). But as with Mr Pye, the little man’s unique philosophy marks him out as different from his fellow humans and therefore isolated and suffering (‘Unworldly, lonely agony of white’). And as with Mr Pye, what he worships ends by carrying him away to a place that can’t be visualised by others. Mr Pye flies away from Sark at the end of the book on his newly-fledged angelic wings, heading out across the sea towards some unknown destination; while the little man of the poem finds himself inwardly transported ‘to where / Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air’. The Catholic Church represents heaven as a place of spiritual hierarchies occupied by beings rendered wholly and permanently collective by the shared and freely given love of God. Mr Pye’s and the little man’s heaven (if heaven it is) seems utterly strange, and no other human beings or human-shaped entities seem to live there. Certain kinds of vision detach the visionary from the rest of humankind, leaving them as lonely in this life as in the world to come, solitary occupants of a church whose symbolism neither they nor anyone else can decipher, and of whose congregation they are in the end the only members.

As with Mr Pye, there’s a transition in this poem from whimsy – the little man in peculiar clothes who makes gestures at inanimate objects as if they were people – to sublimity, a glimpse of something radically other whose identity cannot be fully established, though it echoes Judaeo-Christian iconography. Unaffiliated to any institution, when confronted by whiteness the little man finds himself suspended in a state of ‘White wonderment’ – wonder being definable as the reluctance to assign some specific phenomenon to any given symbolic order, the sort of hesitation that characterizes Todorov’s famous genre of the fantastic. The little man’s reaction isn’t that of an artist, seeking to recreate and enhance the effect that amazes him, or of the conventional missionary, who sees everything in terms of the religious doctrine he serves. He simply experiences, as Peake so often does in his early poems.

In some of those poems this raw experience – unmediated by institutions, trades (such as that of the artist or the missionary) or set forms of knowledge – proves problematic in its purposelessness, the difficulty it presents of finding a suitable outlet for all that the senses have taken in. In ‘Coloured Money’, for instance (Collected Poems, pp. 22-3), the beauty encountered by the poet every day sometimes proves painfully burdensome, like an accumulating heap of gold coins pressing down on or against his heart, and he longs to rid himself of it altogether:

O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown[.]

Here the pain of the glut of coinage dispensed to him by the beauty of what he sees each day stems from his inability to ‘spend’ it with sufficient liberality – that is to express or press it all out, so to speak, in charcoal, paint, words, music, or the actions of his own body.[16] Another poem, ‘Heaven Hires Me’ (Collected Poems, p. 30), gives a religious twist to Peake’s sense of being salaried, and identifies the location of the paymaster (or paymasters – the occupants of his ‘Heaven’ are always ambiguous), as ‘Coloured Money’ does not. In this poem, the speaker is paid not in coins but in whiteness, which represents both moments of supreme calm and self-confidence and sudden, startling visionary experiences [my emphasis]:

Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
White moments of repose
Between the seething of my brain’s all-coloured
Flora of woes,
Fauna from hills unhallowed.
While guilt grows
Stronger as I grow older
And lose love –
How break the terrible girders of the grove?

This is one of those poems whose full meaning may only ever be known to the poet. What grove is Peake talking about, with its ‘terrible girders’? My own feeling is that he’s referring to the heart, the girders being the ribs which serve either to preserve or bar out love; Peter Winnington has shown in detail how crucial the heart is to Peake’s imagination, and the containment of the heart by ribs is an anatomical fact he returns to time and again in his poems.[17] But the broad significance of the poem is plain enough. A sense of depression (‘woes’), shame (‘guilt’) and above all waste pervades the text (‘I do squander a largesse of un- / Uprooted glory’, he tells us in the final section – my emphasis), which is compensated for by moments of unearned ‘payment’. As I said, this payment comes in the form of whiteness, whether it be quiescent ‘white moments of repose’ or dynamic ‘alchemies’ of whiteness; alchemies being Peake’s favourite word for the transformation of the world, often by changing weather or shifting mood, into something fit to be celebrated in art – some substance that reacts with the substances of the artist’s body and brain. These ‘alchemies’ here involve wings or other means of moving through the air, unanchored to the ground, like the springing wastrel of ‘Coloured Money’. In one instance, the appearance of certain birds – migrating swans or geese, perhaps? – somehow empties Peake’s mental landscape of its ‘Flora of woes’ and re-hallows its formerly ‘unhallowed’ uplands:

Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
Undulate on such wings as suck
Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
Out of a sickened sky.

Elsewhere in the poem, clouds are metamorphosed by the evening sunshine into pale deities:

Along the west
White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.

Their transformation balances out Peake’s transgressions against whiteness, whereby he chooses to ‘spit upon the marble face / And carve [his] name upon a seraph’s breast / To testify to my unclean disgrace / The guttersnipe of dreams’. The poet, in other words, still has access to genuine ‘moments’ of vision, despite his propensity for besmirching or vandalising marmoreal and angelic whiteness, a tendency that makes him in his own eyes a dirt-encrusted guttersnipe or mudlark in the vicinity of the house of dreams, rather than the kind of fully-fledged dreamer he most admired: a William Blake (who likewise, he tells us in his poem on the writer-artist, acknowledged plural ‘gods’ rather than a singular God), a van Gogh, a Goya or an El Greco.[18] The phrase ‘unclean disgrace’ in conjunction with ‘marble’ and ‘seraph’ suggests that part at least of his tendency to besmirch whiteness may involve sexual acts, perhaps infidelities (his poems about Maeve often imagine her in terms of whiteness and pallor[19]). But the range of meanings Peake (like Melville) bestows on the colour suggests that to limit it to sexual ‘purity’ would be too simplistic. The poem as a whole, then, gratefully acknowledges the uncomplicated wonder at whiteness he is still capable of feeling, however often he may trespass against that colour and its meanings, both aesthetic and moral.

‘Heaven Hires Me’ concludes that the poet is a split personality, permanently divided between opposing impulses to take pleasure in whiteness and to damage or destroy it: ‘Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun / Of love and ruth – yet, hell / And heaven, so conjoined do make me’. The theme is a repeated one in Peake’s work. Several poems identify ‘conjoined’ but contrasting elements in Peake’s composition – Doppelgängers of the mind and body, so to speak. An example is the poem I mentioned earlier, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, which sets the whiteness of the writer’s internal saints (whose wings are ‘as white / As Ahab’s whale’) against the ‘hideous ghouls’ that also flow through him, personifications of ‘Death, lust and fever’. ‘Heaven Hires Me’ suggests that Peake’s two conjoined personae embody good and evil, ‘hell / And heaven’; and the opposition of ‘saints’ to ‘ghouls’ in ‘I Am the Slung Stone’ would seem to confirm this reading. But it’s notable that the ‘saints’ in this pairing are associated with the story of the Pequod, with its obsessive, self-destructive captain and his pursuit of the furiously vengeful Moby Dick. The implication is that Peake internally quests after the winged holy ones with the same energy that drove Ahab, but that his quest is constantly side-tracked by his demons; hence his aimlessness, Peake being the stone without a target mentioned in the poem’s title. But Peake’s quest for the whiteness of angels may also be an unhealthily obsessive one, as Ahab’s was. Will they destroy him when he catches up with them, as the whale destroyed the captain? In other Peakean depictions of split personalities the identity of the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Doppelgängers is even trickier to determine. The ‘good’ side often seems ambiguous, its purity unsettling, its whiteness inhuman; so that even when Peake gives the impression of returning to religious cliché – good versus evil, light versus darkness, angel versus devil – the oppositions being set up do not feel in any way settled or familiar.

Two poems in his first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds, summarize the ambiguities of Peake’s double being. The first of these, ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’, identifies the two conjoined aspects of the poet as ‘my rebeller / And my conceder’, one of whom concedes to the ‘lies of hoarding’ – war propaganda – while the other revolts against them. Between them they generate an internal ‘civil war’ in Peake, reflecting the ‘war-filled weather’ of Britain in the early 1940s. The angel is associated with ‘love’, the centaur with brashness and cruelty – ‘thoughtless hooves and violent laughter’ – and Peake’s rational mind is unable to control or reconcile them. So far so straightforward, it would seem. But it’s by no means clear in the poem which of the two figures is the ‘conceder’ to the ‘lies of hoarding’ and which the ‘rebeller’ against them. The wildness of the centaur makes it seem invulnerable to nationalist slogans, except in a spirit of savage irony; while the angel’s affinity for love would hardly permit it to embrace militaristic rhetoric, and ‘rebelling’ angels have an unfortunate reputation in Christian theology. In any case, whichever of the pair adopts which of these two responses to the war, the fierceness with which they ‘greet / Each other’ on the ‘narrow stair’ of Peake’s inward life – represented here as a house too cramped and small to contain them both – makes both figures part of the climate of hostility in which Peake finds himself. They are both ‘conceders’ in that sense, transforming Peake into a helpless reflection of the war he loathes – and hence ‘rebellers’ against his yearning for untrammelled access to uninhibited creativity.

Mervyn Peake, sketches of centaurs

The angel’s whiteness is not mentioned in this first poem; but in the second, ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, it certainly is, and the whiteness makes the angel ambiguous, even threatening, like the polar bears and ghosts of Melville’s chapter. In this poem it’s not at first clear that there are two figures inhabiting the poet. ‘I am always / Companion to the ghost-man whom I nurture’, it begins, and the first stanza summarizes the situation as follows: ‘There I am with me, haunting me for ever, / My ghost-man, and my lover’. That last word hints that Peake desires his ‘ghost-man’; that the figure might, in fact, represent an alternative, queer sexuality, competing for his attention with his acknowledged lover, his wife Maeve Gilmore. As the poem goes on, however, the two personas in Peake begin to be distinguished more clearly. The first is ‘the ghost-man’, the second ‘the man of startling armour’, while later the first becomes ‘The Gabriel-headed scorner / White like light!’ – an arrogant angel who considers himself superior to others – and the second ‘the plunger’, a rash seeker after adventure, boy-like and aggressive. The plunger-adventurer gets aligned soon after this with the figure of the pirate, which dominates Peake’s imagination throughout his work, as I’ve shown elsewhere:

Arises now in me the pilferer
Of hollow goods, the sprig and the swashbuckler.
I find in me the boy of shoddy glamour
And violent laughter.
The penny pirate and his cheap adventure…
Stars! And the cocky feather!

Here the pirate is not a real one but a theatrical pose to be adopted, a play pirate embodying fakery and cheapness, as against the solid earthly riches described in ‘Coloured Money’. The cheapness is there in his pilfering of ‘hollow’ or worthless goods, in the ‘shoddiness’ of his glamour, in his link to the low-cost, mass-produced publications which furnished imaginative adventures for children in Peake’s youth (‘The penny pirate and his cheap adventure’) but not material for the attention of serious artists. Like the centaur’s, his laughter is ‘violent’. Can one detect here a certain shame for Peake’s continuing pirate obsession, which stretched back to his boyhood love of Treasure Island and the swashbuckling books derided by Peake’s biographer, Malcolm Yorke? All the same, there is something attractive about this ‘plunger’, as there was about the centaur in ‘They Move with Me’. The poet’s sudden attack on the childish pirate figure in the following stanza seems disturbingly destructive, as he tears off its ‘cloak of crimson paper’, smashes its wooden sword and plucks out the ‘gaudy […] marbles’ of its eyes. And what is left after the pirate has been demolished is no more attractive than what it replaces: ‘white Gabriel the Scorner’, symbol of pride (thanks to his scorn for others), art, and perhaps ambition.

Students drawing from plaster casts, c.1892, New York

In this poem the angel’s connection with art is explicit. Gabriel the Scorner is, we are told, ‘No plaster cast, no imitation figure […] nor replica / Of some snow-muscled marble’, a description that invokes the plaster casts of old works of sculpture used for teaching and copying purposes in art schools. Instead this white being is the ‘eternal / And terrible original’, an authentically new and living vision despite being founded in ancient ideas (such as the angelic hierarchies listed by Milton), and hence a ‘miracle’ that ‘flares’ for a ‘lit moment […] In the clay prison’ of Peake’s body. The miracle is that something new has been given life, and that the figure perfectly embodies the current time as well as the long tradition it sprang from: ‘In me the modern angel has arisen’. But it remains ‘terrible’ and ‘scornful’, somehow inimical to the person who conceives it, just as the violent laughter and fakery of the pirate have something endearing about them. The two figures of Peake’s being are not moral opposites but alternative aspects of him – different moods, perhaps, or inducers of moods. Both trouble him with their violence or scorn, and both represent equally appropriate reflections of the troubled times he lived in.

In his introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the writer-artist considers in detail the importance of tradition in art as well as innovation, arguing that originality is born from long study of what came before – all the way back to wall paintings in ‘a cave in Spain’ – combined with an acute sensitivity to what needs to be expressed in the here and now.[20] ‘That the body of a work is common heritage,’ he writes, ‘in no way drowns the individual note […] it is the individual twist that haunts us’. The final section of ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, however, identifies the tradition from which the angel sprang as a profoundly collective one; not unique to the solitary genius but shared by all humanity like a communal meal held in commemoration of the dead, a eucharist reimagined in intensely material and social terms. Having celebrated the presence of the angel in himself (‘In me the modern angel has arisen’) the poet goes on to recognise its presence – alongside that of its twin, the pirate-plunger – in all the living and the dead, not just the gifted poet or artist:

Alive, the million million, and the dead
Breathe from the furrow and the wooden table:
Gulped with the wine, broken with bread,
Arising through the green sheets of the stubble.
In fruit, in flower, springing invisible
The phantom dead who knew the double owner,
The ghost-man, and the fellow
Of obvious colour.

The tracing of the transition from the dead to the living, from the furrow to wooden table, from the ‘green sheets of the stubble’ to the bread that is broken while the wine is drunk, identifies the doubles in Peake as seasonal or cyclical visitants, like the moods I mentioned earlier – a reading that’s confirmed in the stanza that follows when Peake mentions ‘the autumn grief and the spring bubble’, the different moods that visit him at different times of year, as also expressed in his season-poems such as ‘Two Seasons’, ‘Autumn: the lit mosaic of the wood’, ‘Autumn: There is a surge of stillness bred’, or ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’ (Collected Poems, pp. 35, 36, 38 and 119). More importantly, though, the ghostly angel and the ‘fellow of obvious colour’ inhabit all humankind, dead and alive, as well as Peake: ‘One of a million million, I’, extending in an unbroken line from the people of the deep past to the populations of the future: ‘The sons / Of our sons’ sons and all the unborn people’. The segregation of one person from another, in other words, on the basis of race, class or inborn abilities, is for Peake dishonest and artificial. A person’s characteristics are equally complex, rich, fascinating, and painfully in conflict with one another no matter who that person may be:

For everyone, the double man: the torture.
The struggle and the grim perpetual laughter.
For everyone his Gabriel and the Mocker,
The stillness, and the fountain, and the Master.

That last line identifies Peake’s Christ figure as being both bound up with the painful struggle between competing personae described in the poem and as a potential resolution to it; but it’s a resolution for everyone, not just the elect, the orthodox, the person of genius. Christ emerges from the physical and mental torment to which he was subjected as the grain that furnishes bread emerges from the furrow, or as the masterful drawing emerges (after long gestation in the form of apprenticeship and practice) from the application of charcoal to the ‘white page’. It’s no coincidence that this final section of the poem invokes Christian art as much as Christian religion: Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Annunciation, Bosch’s Christ Mocked, all paintings by artists Peake alludes to by name in his written work. Peake’s Christ is the ‘Master’ in two senses, both as a religious teacher and as an Old Master invoked by the painters known as the Old Masters. His mastery does not set him apart from ‘everyone’ but makes him part of the ‘common heritage’, along with the antagonistic double beings that accompany each individual.

Giampetrino’s copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, c. 1520. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The communion table of the Last Supper occurs a number of times in Peake’s poetry: in ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, for instance (p. 43); ‘Absent from You Where Is There Corn and Wine?’ (p. 122); ‘That Phoenix Hour’ (p. 168); and most surprisingly, perhaps, in Peake’s most extended meditation on whiteness, the long poem ‘A Reverie of Bone’ which he wrote (according to Peter Winnington’s calculations) in 1942, part way through the composition of his first novel, Titus Groan. Originally titled ‘Valley of Bones’, the poem identifies bones, as against ghosts or souls, as the sole remaining trace of the human dead, their delicate whiteness transcending the dry intricacies of theology, their beauty surpassing that of any clay-encumbered living person whose ‘bright blood […] swarms their plinths of bone’ (stanza 18). This erasure of colour from the human afterlife, replacing it with what Melville calls the ‘great principle of light’ – the internal whiteness that unites all human beings, of all classes and all races – means that death removes one of the two beings that inhabit the Peakean human body from the picture. The pirate/plunger disappears, leaving only the cold purity of the ghost-man/Gabriel to dominate the landscape. That is the drive behind the poem: the abandonment of struggle and the replacement of it with a beautiful, eerie, and endlessly mutating stillness and silence.

Accordingly, there is something angel-like about bones in Peake’s poem. The skeletal structure of the hands and feet, for instance (‘The gelid / Twigs of the brittle fingers […] And all the arctic filigree of feet’), along with the ulna – the largest bone in the human forearm – are transformed by Peake’s imagination into the instruments of an angelic flight that is lovelier far than any achieved by avian wings. ‘I see,’ he writes in stanzas 3 and 4,

the pallid
Ulna as downless as the lyric quill
Of some sky-wandering pinion that the sleet

And gusts have stripped of all its clinging hairs;
So that a sliver-shred of whiteness wanders
Across the stars until the night-winds fail.

Here angelic flight has been removed from its celestial context and bestowed on the unaffiliated ‘wanderers at night’ we encountered in the short poem Peake wrote around the time of his mother’s death, ‘O She Has Walked All Lands There Are’. The bones’ wanderings are verbal as well as spatial, so that the ulna’s ‘sky-wandering pinion’ is also the ‘lyric quill’ that writes (perhaps) the wandering verses we are reading. The ribs of the dead, too, undergo dreamlike mutations, into household structures and musical instruments: ‘O ribs of light! bright flight, yours are such stairs / As wail at midnight when the sand meanders / Through your cold rungs that sieve the desert gale’ (stanza 4). The imagined flight of the ulna transitions as we read into the ‘bright flight’ of stairs provided by the ribs, which change again in the next two stanzas into a ‘Bright lyre of ribs’ that play ‘a music of fled forms’ when plucked by a gust of wind (stanza 5), like the Aeolian harp in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. The poem, then, is a virtuoso exercise in imaginatively mutating the last remains of the human body after death. But the key thing, I think, is that each mutation takes it further away from the brightly-coloured emotions and physical urges, the violence, flamboyant self-display and cruel laughter that drove the pirate aspect of the double human body. And each mutation serves to sever angelic whiteness from its religious framework – with the exception of the reference to the Last Supper, which we shall come to shortly.

The poem’s wanderings are given shape and point by the analogy Peake draws between the location of his imagined bones and the open sea. The bones he celebrates in ‘A Reverie of Bone’ inhabit a vast sandy desert of wave-like dunes, which change shape as the wind blows, alternately revealing and concealing the stripped-down corpses they contain – much as the ever-changing ocean alternately reveals and conceals its treasures, denizens and victims. True to Peake’s sense of being a flung stone without a target, his desert ocean harbours no reefs or shores; it is, then, a destination in itself, the objective as well as the pathway for the non-existent ship he imagines crossing it, steered by an ‘impossible helmsman’ and slicing the dunes with its ‘free keel’ (stanzas 13 and 14). The whiteness of the bones thrown up by the desert is visible everywhere – not, as in Moby-Dick, exclusively in Ahab’s whale, or in the whalebones that decorate the ship and furnish Ahab with his prosthetic leg. One ‘ghosted mountain’ in the wasteland, ‘lit by the full torch / Of a sailing moon’, is ‘littered with the white / Residue of the dead, as though its bright / Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy’ (stanzas 30 and 31) – leprosy being one of the more unsettling forms of whiteness touched on by Melville. In Peake’s desert ocean, all creatures harbour a pallor of some sort, so that a white whale is no more remarkable (or no less astonishing) than the other denizens of the desert or the deep, or the human wanderers who watch them from the backs of horses or the decks of ships.

A white whale does come to mind as the poet crosses his sea of dunes, but it is not the special objective of a quest or hunt. At one point the poet summons up a ‘blanched whale’, as white as Moby Dick, swimming between ‘floating islands of translucent ice’ (stanza 37). For Peake, this whale is a miracle of bones rather than of flesh, carrying its living skeleton in ‘undulations / Through sunless waters’, while overhead the gulls with their own internal skeletons execute a similar bony dance in the Arctic gale. The emphasis on bones in this passage may remind us of Melville’s series of meditations on the skeleton of the whale in his chapters ‘A Bower in the Arsacides’, ‘Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton’, and ‘The Fossil Whale’; while the Arctic location recalls Melville’s conviction that the whale can never be hunted to extinction because of its ability to hide itself in certain ‘Polar citadels’, ‘diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls’ to reach the ‘icy fields and floes’ where, ‘in a charmed circle of everlasting December’, it can ‘bid defiance to all pursuit from man’ (Moby-Dick, p. 503). There is no hunting Peake’s white whale because it’s already effectively dead, its undulating skeleton anticipating the moment when another Ishmael will stand in awe of its bare bones, fingering his ‘green measuring-rod’ as he considers how best to calculate their dimensions (Moby-Dick, p. 490). And Peake’s whale is imaginary, as is the ocean in which it swims, as is the desert to which that ocean is being compared. The ‘reverie’ or waking dream of the poem is a flight into the imagination from the realities of war – a flight by pen rather than by pinion.

But it is also a flight from death into death, as one might expect from a poet who is also a soldier in wartime. In war there is no escape from the ‘ruthless regions of what’s true’, as the poet puts it in stanza 32; a soldier is always thinking of his end. The material facts of the body’s composition assert themselves, no matter how brilliantly one seeks to play with them. Unlike the Christian heaven, bones are an undeniable fact or truth of existence; an observation that gets wittily confirmed by stanza 33, in which the poet conjures up ‘a prophet’s skull’ being bowled by the wind across the ‘burning scarp,’ its shadow ‘Cruising before it as it rolls through sunlight’. Prophecies form part of a religious grand narrative that may or may not have any validity. The principal bone of a prophet’s head, on the other hand – the skull – undeniably exists, and is pictured here in perpetual motion across the ‘vast and valid landscapes’ conjured up by Peake’s brain (stanza 32), as recorded by the blue ink of his moving pen-nib.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, detail

Peake’s evocation in this poem of Leonardo da Vinci’s great mural of the Last Supper has something similar to say about religion. It occurs in stanzas 38 and 39, immediately after the mention of the whale, and like the whale serves as an illustration of Peake’s core statement on whiteness. In stanza 34, Peake observes that ‘this hand that props my forehead / Is not more real than those hands of frost / That lie in myriads like an astral choir / Of endless gesture, eloquent though dead’. Through the study of anatomy, Peake’s training as an artist has made him infinitely familiar with the ‘astral choir’ of the human skeleton, which sings in gestures rather than sound. And it is a choir that celebrates not some theologically elaborated hierarchy but the common whiteness underlying all life – and perhaps all visible objects in the universe, if Melville’s philosopher is correct. Stanzas 35 and 36 sum up this materialist religion in terms that seem to echo the chapter on Whiteness:

O passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness
Emptied of ardour like a thought of crystal
Scoring a circle in the air of Time:
Closer to darkness is this lovely lightness
Than to the wannest breath of colour. All
That is most ultimate and clear: the prime

And essence of a dream, that flowering, loses
Its colour-tinctured parts on finding climax
And consummation in a spectral land,
Vaster than arctic, rarer than where cruises
The frigate moon, is your demesne that works
Its magic in the thighbone on the sand.

Again these stanzas stress the purging of colour from whiteness, and with it the personality of the plunger-pirate from the composition of the universe at its key moments. At this point of consummation or flowering the desert becomes a ‘spectral land’ as haunting as the land of the Sami in Melville’s chapter, where visitors are urged to don tinted spectacles to avoid being blinded by the unrelieved whiteness of the frozen vistas. And it inhabits an ‘amoral’ space where the distinctions between black and white, light and darkness, good and evil have been replaced with passionless, amoral perfection, free from emotion, doctrine, faith or ‘ardour’.

This is the space occupied by Leonardo’s Last Supper in Peake’s painstakingly non-narrative poem. For Peake, the key feature of the famous mural is neither the people who appear in it – the dramatis personae of the Passion (Christ declaring that one of his followers will betray him, the twelve disciples reacting with various degrees of dismay or anguish) – nor the symbolic substances displayed on the table, the wine that Christ declares to be his blood, the rolls of bread of which only one has been broken: Christ’s roll, in token of the breaking of his body on the cross. Instead it is the white tablecloth on which the Last Supper is served that Peake considers the crucial component of the celebrated image. This is for him a manifestation of the ‘passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness’ he identified in stanza 35; a whiteness, he writes,

As bleached and scrupulous as that stern linen
Da Vinci laid forever underneath
The isolation of the unfingered loaves,
The desolation of the untasted wine,
The thirteen double islands from the Earth,
Stiff, icebound and estranged from vines and sheaves[.]

In Peake’s reading, the painting shows a moment when all the figures and symbolic objects in the picture have been isolated or ‘islanded’ from one another: Christ because of his consciousness that he alone knows what will happen next and why, the disciples because of the sudden access of distrust (or in Judas’s case guilt and shame) to which they have been subjected, the bread and wine because they have been forgotten in the turmoil of Christ’s revelation. All thirteen people in the picture are referred to as ‘double islands’, not single ones – a phrase that makes little sense except as an assertion that they all contain the twin figures we considered earlier, the ghost-man and the plunger, Christ included. This extraordinary moment renders both figures and objects frozen in time – ‘forever’ – and temperature – they are all ‘icebound and estranged’. But the white tablecloth stands apart from all this turmoil in its passionlessness, its bonelike ‘asceticism’, its sternness – a word Peake invokes twice in successive stanzas. The bread and wine lying on it, Peake suggests,

Show with their pool and crust how pure is flax,
How cold it is and how immaculate
And close it is at the Supper, charged and lorn[,]
To the asceticism of the stern stalk
Of hollow bone that the same master sought –
Blanched, holy whiteness that continues on. [My emphasis.]

The syntax of this stanza is hard to follow, but the drift is clear. For Peake, the bread and wine at Leonardo’s supper are no more than aesthetic supplements to the linen tablecloth, which points the way to what Christ really seeks: the bone-whiteness of a death that will rid him of the turbulence of living, with its betrayals, moral dilemmas, revelations, physical agonies, emotional traumas. Or is it Leonardo rather than Christ who seeks this whiteness; Leonardo who is the ‘master’ or Old Master of this ascetic vision? Or is the power of each master, Christ and Leonardo, somehow shared, like the twin powers that co-occupy the human frame, the angel and the plunger?

The latter reading seems to be invoked in a neologism Peake introduces in stanzas 41-42, as he describes the shifting narratives generated by the desert sands. ‘All is changed’, he notes as knolls of sand collapse into sandy vales or valleys:

the hills as hot as blood
Have given place to corrugated, pale
And ash-grey tracts that have thrown up fresh plunder

From sterile torpor of the desert’s womb;
So that across the desolate plains are littered
Fresh relics of incongruous dynarchies[.]

The word ‘dynarchies’ does not exist, but it fuses three words at least: ‘dynasties’, which implies successions of well-documented generations; ‘anarchy’, which suggests no organisation, documentation, authority, or formal narrative at all; and ‘diarchy’, which means co-rule or shared authority, of the kind Peake repeatedly identifies as present in the human body and mind, dominated as they are by incongruous twins. Such co-rulership could also be implied by the double meaning of ‘master’ in the account of Leonardo’s painting, which may refer either to the ascetic master of the disciples, Christ, or to the grand Old Master, Leonardo, who freezes the key moment of the Last Supper in paint and plaster, capturing its uneasy fusion of evanescent human passion and ‘blanched, holy whiteness that continues on’. Just as the ‘dynarchies’ of the desert circumvent the human dynasties and power systems they repeatedly invoke, so does Leonardo’s painting distance itself from its religious subject; it only represents eucharist, it can never be the eucharistic act as, say, an Orthodox icon can, so that by it eucharist is rendered cold, strange and always elsewhere, always distant. Peake’s meditation on the painting is a meditation on death, not religion, a wresting of the religious subject from the deadening clutch of the ecclesiastical authorities and a returning of it to the material facts in all their strangeness, the beauty of bones in all their insolence, their refusal to be cabined, cribbed, confined within traditional paradigms. As such it empowers the meditator – who is also the artist, the soldier, and the ordinary human being – as well as the human act of creation through painting, dreaming and making verse.

Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle, First Edition

A similar estrangement of whiteness from its religious context takes place in Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948).[21] The Uncle’s quest for the White Lion is not inspired by missionary zeal, nor by a thirst for imperial conquest, nor yet by an Ahab-like quest for vengeance – despite the fact that the Uncle seems permanently angry (he is always swearing like a whaleman, using phrases like ‘blubber it!’ ‘blubberation!’ and ‘blubber take this thumb mark!’). This said, the fragments of empire lie around him throughout his life. As a youth the Uncle spends his time in the imperialist Museum of Natural History in London, or drawing the imperial lions in Trafalgar Square, which he sketches one by one, unaware that (like the colonial project) they replicate each other precisely in the different spaces they have been allotted. He sets out on his adventures in a ship called the S. S. Em, whose name may stand (he thinks) for Empire or Emu, in either case recognising the curtailment of the British imperial project in the era immediately following the Second World War.[22] The Uncle’s relationship with his only companion, Jackson, is decidedly colonial. On first meeting the mournful ‘turtle-dog’ on a beach of red sand, with his shell, his perpetual cold, and his permanently downturned beak, the Uncle decides at once that the creature would serve as the ideal ‘beast of burden – and possibly as a friend’, while at the same time confessing that ‘I was irritated [by him] right from the start’. The ghosts of missionary zeal and colonialism, then, accompany the adventurer on his wanderings, just as the ghosts of his various adventures haunt the formerly pristine pages of every letter he sends to his nephew, in the form of thumb-prints, drops of blood, gravy stains and splashes of coffee. The Lion itself is a symbol of empire; he appears on stamps, like the head of the British monarch; he features alongside the unicorn on the royal coat of arms; and he represents the grandest prize available to the colonial big game hunter, symbolic of the subjugation of the territories he occupies. But the Uncle’s Lion has been partly purged of colonial associations by his dazzling whiteness – which distinguishes him from all other lions and their significations – as well as by his transplantation from the plains of Africa to the frozen (and in Peake’s book uninhabited) wastes of the North. The Uncle, meanwhile, does not plan to subjugate him or his territories with a phallic gun. Instead he hopes to take pictures of him with his box camera, to supplement the stains and pencil sketches which swarm around the margins of his letters. And even this modest aim is dashed when a whirlwind whips away his camera, leaving him only his pencil and his sword-fish leg with which to face the King of the Snows.

The Uncle’s pursuit of the Lion, in fact, reduces him to rags, detaching him from family, friends, home, institutions, even one of his limbs. Symbolically severed from the oppressions of the past, bereft of the grand narratives that would have given some semblance of coherence or control to his wayward wanderings, the Uncle’s sole attachment is to his nameless nephew, whose mind he seeks to fill with brilliant visions of his own vagrancy, unencumbered by moral lessons or useful facts. His polar pictures are full of non-existent animals – snow serpents, Arctic vultures, polar beetles – and promiscuously mix Antarctic penguins with Arctic bears. Even the conventions of fiction do not govern his adventures; the Uncle’s relationship with Jackson does not improve, despite the fact that they save each other’s lives on several occasions, and he never meets his nephew, despite growing fonder of him as he writes his letters. The Uncle’s story is as haphazard as his method of telling it, given structure only by his obsession with the pristine whiteness of the Lion and the landscape it lives in.

Like the Antarctic landscape of broken crosses described by Melville, Peake’s polar regions resonate with religious imagery. As they approach the frigid zone where the Lion lives, Jackson and the Uncle notice that ‘great glittering steeples of ice began to show above the horizon just as though we were approaching a city of glass churches’. The Lion inhabits the largest church of all, a ‘cathedral of glass’ with ‘twenty thousand spires’, which encloses a see-through floor and a ‘rough and dusky throne of ice’. Blue light, green light, then lights of many colours shine up from beneath the structure’s frozen floor, as if through stained glass, painting the creatures gathered there to pay homage to the king of beasts, just as shadows and reflections paint the essential whiteness of the universe in Melville’s chapter. ‘But although everything else reflected the colours that smouldered through the ice,’ the Uncle tells us, ‘the Lion didn’t. Nothing could change his whiteness. He was apart from everything else’. His apartness, like that of the tablecloth under Leonardo’s Last Supper, cuts him adrift from any acknowledged narrative, religious or otherwise. And the Lion’s own blindness cuts him off from those around him: his ‘vast and silent congregation’ of animal subjects, the Uncle and Jackson, the whale, the swarms of fishes under the ice, the glass cathedral. No longer a symbol of religious or secular power, the Lion has become the embodiment of beauty itself, uncorrupted by the stains of history or story. In token of this, the story culminates in the Lion’s death: he roars, rears up, and freezes into a statue, in which form he remains unvisited forever except in the memory of the Uncle, in the imagination of the nephew, and in the sketches that fill the Uncle’s penultimate letter: ‘alone and beautiful in the wild polar waste,’ as the Uncle puts it, ‘my Lion of white ice’. In this book, then, the Lion’s whiteness may be said to liberate its image from religious and imperial colonialism – though these things echo around it like the traces of its dying roar. Pure sculpture, he is uncontaminated by any kind of purpose beyond the artwork’s singular function of being beautiful, strange and unsettling, as well as averse to entanglement in the convoluted coils of cause and effect as recognised by the conventions of verbal logic.

In a similar way, Mr Pye’s white wings – which grow like leprosy as he indulges his delight in good deeds on the Island of Sark – gradually detach themselves from religious significance in the course of Mr Pye, becoming instead a skill to be mastered, a delight to be enjoyed, an embodiment of liberation from the narrative conventions that governed the lifetime of their wearer. In the final paragraphs of the novel, pursued by the island’s inhabitants as a freak or demon, the little missionary first flings his spirit up to Heaven (‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’, p. 253) before ending the chase as himself alone, unpossessed, ungoverned, unbeholden; not a representative of a faith or congregation but a being complete and confident in his own uniqueness:

It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight. There was beauty in it, with those ample 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. (Mr Pye, p. 254)

The last paragraph of the novel confirms that Mr Pye has ‘already mastered his wings’, becoming in the process an accomplished craftsman in the art of flying – and freeing himself from the control of his smug and sometimes tormenting former master, the Christ-figure whom he labelled the ‘Great Pal’.

Again in a similar way, Peake’s novella Boy in Darkness culminates in an act of liberation from religious and imperial mastery. The story begins with the nameless Boy under the tutelage of various masters – the Master of the Ritual, the Master of the Quills – as he suffers day by day through the onerous duties of a child in his position, hereditary ‘Lord of a tower’d tract’ (Boy in Darkness, p. 23). The Boy is of course Titus Groan, and the ‘tower’d tract’ is his ancient home of Gormenghast Castle, but the Boy is as much a subject to tyrannical authority as any other schoolboy under the sway of cruel masters. The Lost Uncle, we learn, evaded the school authorities by making himself ill with doses of ink. The Boy escapes instead by fleeing into the castle, making use of his intimate knowledge of its obscurer tracts to worm his way through its corridors, attics, lost staircases and ruined fortifications into a wasteland twice as bleak as the ocean-desert in ‘A Reverie of Bone’. The Boy’s mastery of the castle displays itself even as he flees the titanic structure; and his flight takes him into the hands of a new kind of mastery. Each escape he accomplishes as the narrative unfolds, in fact, takes him deeper into the convoluted structures of power and servitude to which his heredity has consigned him. As a Boy he cannot escape, though the will to escape and the cunning to effect an escape manifests itself, in potential at least, at every stage of his brief adventure.

The post-apocalyptic landscape to which he flees – a colourless vista strewn with ‘soft white dust’ (p. 38) and littered with industrial wreckage – is ruled over by a malignant relative of the Lion of the Snows: a Lamb of unsettling whiteness. Melville’s chapter on whiteness mentions the regal Lamb of the Apocalypse only in passing (‘the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’, Moby-Dick, p. 205), but Peake’s novella makes him the nightmarish focus of the Boy’s journey, entirely defined, like Ahab’s whale, by his distinctive colouring:

White. White as foam when the moon is full on the sea; white as the white of a child’s eye; or the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost; oh, white as wool. Bright wool… white wool… in half a million curls… seraphic in its purity and softness… the raiment of the Lamb. (Boy in Darkness, p. 56)

The passage invokes the full range of associations given to whiteness in Moby-Dick, from childhood innocence to an unpeopled ocean, from living angels to livid corpses, from priestly albs to ‘sheeted ghosts’. As with the Lion, however, the crowning strangeness of the Lamb is his blindness, which in Peake’s imagination seals him away from sympathy with the human prisoners brought before him, islanding him, so to speak, in his own internal narrative, his lust for power. The Lamb uses his subjects as material for his art, tracing their facial contours with his coldly sensuous little finger before drawing out of them by some diabolical magic the features of the particular beast – bird, mammal, fish or insect – whose likeness he detects in their composition. Peake depicts him as both an artist and an artwork: the ‘creator as it were of a new kingdom, a new species’ (p. 72), comparable in his reworking of limbs and organs to a concert pianist, a sculptor or a gourmet, while himself recalling a ‘marble carving’ (p. 74) and a ‘dancer’ (p. 90), as well as an ‘Emperor’ (pp. 53, 74, 77 etc.), the last surviving emblem of British imperialism. But his art has something wrong with it. Its chilly perfection is deathly. Most of the beast-men he has created in his lifetime are now dead, their bones littering the floors of the mines he makes his home. And the two survivors are grotesques: a muscular, foppish Hyena and a dusty Goat, each of them aspects of the pirate-figure who shares the human body with his white twin, the angel Gabriel, in Peake’s poems. The Lamb, meanwhile, represents the final example in Peake’s work of that ‘modern angel’: master of an art that seeks absolute mastery over its subjects, tormenting, humiliating, reshaping and finally killing them with its intimate attentions. As an embodiment of the soulless present – the pale shadow of Cold War in a post-industrial wasteland, fused with a violent sensuality utterly destructive to its objects – he sums up the topics available to art and artists in the 1950s, which involve making twisted copies of the personal, political and religious power-games on offer, haunted (like the adventures of the Lost Uncle) by spectral memories of the grand narratives of the past.

Under these circumstances, the simple stories that fill the Boy’s imagination – stories of flight, adventure, cunning, unexpected encounters in dangerous places, narrow escapes – take on the status of acts of insurrection, powerful precisely because they are disdained and half forgotten by the authorities. In the narrow confines of his castle bedroom, hemmed in by various forms of adult coercion and control, the Boy finds foreign shores in a patch of mould above his bed: undiscovered countries beyond the reach of his appointed masters, imaginary lands to which he can swear semi-blasphemous loyalty in defiance of his expected total commitment to his role as Earl. Thanks to these inward mental games of piratical abandon, he is able to dream his way out of the castle, although he cannot conjure up any clear images of what lies beyond its broken walls. But once confronted in the wasteland by the Goat and the Hyena, the Boy’s imagination sets to work at once on this new material, discovering ways to imagine them afresh not as the grovelling slaves the Lamb has made them, but instead as powerful rivals to the Lamb, capable of occupying golden thrones exactly like his and of commanding armies of slaves as the Lamb commands the two sad relicts of the army of mighty beast-men he once assembled. Physically weak – the Boy spends much of the novella either asleep or in a faint while being conveyed from place to place, first by a pack of silent dogs, then by the beast-men – Peake’s youthful hero nonetheless has an uncanny ability to conjoin himself to other people’s minds, to inhabit their desires and dreams. When escaping from his bedroom he briefly mingles with an anarchic group of children revelling in the castle grounds, becoming indistinguishable from them by reason of their common youth. Later he becomes an honorary member of the dog-pack thanks to their shared vitality (p. 36); and later still he shows himself able to second-guess the dreams of the Goat and the Hyena, whose own imaginations are limited to the pleasures they already enjoy, rolling in the dust and crunching bones between their teeth – or the pleasures of the Lamb, tyranny and torture. He even imagines himself into the imagination of the inhuman Lamb, describing himself at one point as an escaped ‘figment of [the Lamb’s] thought’ who has somehow ‘wandered – wandered away from his great brain’ (p. 54), and urging the beast-men to let him wander away altogether, out of the wasteland and back again to his abandoned castle bedroom. Each new mind he shares offers a way out of itself, a way to breach its boundaries, and the Boy’s own restless brain is constantly working to uncover these means of egress, these secret passages to an unguessed freedom. He works his way inward to work his way outward, just as he did when effecting his flight from his ancestral home.

The Boy’s mind is coloured, in fact, both by the brilliant lights that shine into it from outside and by the inward light that illuminates his dreams and narratives. This fusion of inward and outward lights is most brilliantly invoked in Peake’s work by the unpublished poem he wrote in Southport hospital in 1942, just before being invalided out of the army, ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’. In the poem, the blue-uniformed patients at the hospital have a means of inward egress from its thick brick walls by means of the brilliantly-coloured dreams that fill them:

For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

(Collected Poems, p. 120)

In Boy in Darkness, too, the Boy’s ‘lit core of fantasy’ offers a means of escape from the darkness of the Lamb’s mine, and a means of combating the power expressed by that beast’s tyrannical whiteness. It’s the Boy’s inclination towards the piratical ‘fabulous’ that transforms the Hyena’s murderous knife – at first no more than a ‘long, slim blade’ (p. 49) – into a sword: a ‘long, thin, deadly yard of steel’ (p. 90) perfectly adapted to the needs of a young adventurer in peril of his life. A sword can be ‘brandished’ as a knife cannot, and can destroy a godlike being in an act of quasi-ritual sacrifice:

In fact the air seemed to open up for him as he sprang, his sword brandished. He brought it down across the skull of the Lamb so that it split the head into two pieces which fell down to earth on either side. There was no blood, nor anything to be seen in the nature of a brain. […] The wool lay everywhere in dazzling curls.

(Boy in Darkness, p. 92)

This execution signals the termination of the angel figure in Peake’s work; there are no more beings of immaculate whiteness in his final novel, Titus Alone (1959). The pirate figure, the ‘plunger’ of the poem ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, has finally rid himself of his pale, perfect heavenly twin. Ahab has purged himself of the white whale, Moby Dick, and in the process exorcised his self-destructive obsession. The oppressive pearlescence of Catholic ritual has been dispersed, along with the various hierarchies – symbolized by thrones and distinctive vestments – it sustained. This exorcism is not absolute; Titus in Titus Alone, for instance, remains haunted by post-traumatic echoes of his ancestral castle, and is briefly reinstated on a fake throne before he dashes it to pieces in a fit of fury. The Boy, too, is finally carried back to the ‘immemorial home’ he briefly escaped from (Boy in Darkness, p. 93). But both young people have been given licence to rove, a licence Peake clearly intended to make use of in the later Titus books he never wrote.

Illustration for Boy in Darkness, Santiago Caruso

Something else happens at the climax of Boy in Darkness. Peake’s boyishness, as an artist, is justified; his immaturity confirmed as a strength, his instinctive insurrection necessary, his lust for adventure no longer an aesthetic liability. And Moby-Dick may have helped. Malcolm Yorke, as we’ve seen, wrote with some acerbity of Peake’s continuing affection for the ‘swashbuckling books’ of his youth. G. Peter Winnington suspects he didn’t read anything too ‘literary’ after his schooldays ended. And Peake himself writes in some embarrassment of his lifelong passion for wild romance at the beginning of his short story ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’:

Perhaps it’s because there is something wrong with my upper storey, for I am incurably romantic. King Solomon’s Mines still haunt me. Coral Island and The Blue Water Ballads are all mixed up in my memory. […] Ben Gunn and Amos Leigh, Ahab and Crusoe – they are with me still in a tangle of fern and palm-trees.

(Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, p. 103)

It’s the ‘rainbow-tinted world’ of the tropics that calls out to him, he tells us, though he knows full well that this is a thing of ‘dog-eared and thumb-marked story books’ of the kind the Lost Uncle penned, which invoke the ‘tropics as one wants them, not as they are’ (p. 103). Embedded in this confession is the name of Ahab, whose journey and life both ended in the tropics, in a succession of ‘clear steel-blue day[s]’ when he chose to chase the whale instead of taking the advice of Starbuck and turning his helm towards his home on far-off Nantucket Island (Moby-Dick, p. 589). The novel he appeared in, Moby-Dick, was derided by one London reviewer as an ‘absurd book’, an ‘ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact’ (https://lithub.com/check-out-the-original-1851-reviews-of-moby-dick/). Peake and his writings were just such an ill-compounded mixture of cold, white reason and rainbow colours. But his poetry and prose suggest that all human beings are made up of such a mixture. And Melville’s acknowledged masterpiece showed a way to transmute this ungainly compound into art, without bleaching it of the rainbow tints that illuminated Peake’s ‘upper storey’, the magic of the Boy’s Own adventures that continued to haunt him. For this, as for so much else, we owe Moby-Dick a world of thanks.

NOTES

[1] A good example of Peake’s use of the term ‘islanded’ is the poem ‘Tides’, which begins ‘Always you are remote and islanded’ and ends ‘You will be always far and islanded’. Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 129-30. All quotations from Peake’s poems are taken from this edition.

[2] All references to Moby-Dick or, The Whale are taken from the Penguin edition, with an introduction by Andrew Delbanco and Notes and Commentary by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), ‘THE REVERIES’, pp. 285-292.

[4] Maeve mentions the cat in her book A World Away, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 22.

[5] For the portrait see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 132; Winnington suggests its name on p. 131.

[6] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 103).

[7] We learn the whale’s colour after its corpse has drifted away from the beach on Sark where it first appeared: ‘The wind blew into Guernsey from the sea, and as that angry island which had so lately been convulsed at the plight of the Sarkese, closed its doors and windows against the little white whale, the Sarkese opened theirs and breathed again; and grinned’ (Mr Pye [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978] p. 130. All quotations are from this edition). After its appearance Mr Pye tries unsuccessfully to get to sleep by counting ‘little white whales jumping over a hedge’ (p. 125). For the actual dead whales on which this one was based see Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer, 2019), p. 42.

[8] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 195.

[9] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away, p. 72.

[10] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 42-3.

[11] The illustration of Muzzlehatch is reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 16. The quotation from Titus Alone comes from The Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 770.

[12] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 193.

[13] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 118.

[14] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 89. The illustration for The Swiss Family Robinson is reproduced in Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 187.

[15] On first sighting his landlady on Sark, Miss Dredger, Mr Pye ‘lifted his hat a few inches from his head and bowed very slightly from the hips’ (Mr Pye, p. 18). Later he gives her, with ‘an old-world charm that was quite inimitable, a little bow’ (p. 134).

[16] The double meaning of the verb ‘express’ is explained by Rosemary Jackson in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), pp. 3-4.

[17] A striking example is the poem ‘Maeve’, which describes her as ‘the cause / Of my heart crying from its midnight grove / Of ribs’.

[18] For Peake’s poems on three of these four visionary artists see Collected Poems, pp. 41 (‘El Greco’), 44 (‘Van Gogh’) and 63 (‘Blake’). He also refers to Rembrandt in his poem of that title (p. 165) and in ‘She Does Not Know’ (p. 69), which mentions Raphael too; and he wrote poems on Jacob Epstein (p. 45) and Mané Katz (p. 34). For Leonardo, see below.

[19] See e.g. ‘To Maeve’, Collected Poems, p. 38, which refers to ‘your white streams / Of clear clay that I love’ and ‘your ivory grove’, ‘Poem’, p. 39 (‘the white shell of you’); ‘Tides’, p. 129 (‘always a remoteness lingers / About you like a vestment of the moon, / O whitely’).

[20] The introduction is reproduced in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 235-41.

[21] All quotations from Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) are taken from the Picador edition (London: Pan Books, 1977). This edition is unpaginated, and so are my references.

[22] Peter Winnington tells us that the ship’s name contains a reference to ‘the pre-1912 name of Eltham College, “School for the Sons of Missionaries”. At school matches, the boys would support their team with the chant ‘Ess-ess-emm!”.’ Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 228.

Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and The Spider’s Palace (1931)

[I was introduced to A High Wind in Jamaica by my high school history teacher, Dick Woollett, in the late 1970s. This post is dedicated to him. Warning: it contains references to subjects readers may find upsetting.]

Two of my recent posts looked at Lord Dunsany’s Irish fiction, which is rarely considered fantasy. In them I argued that all three of the novels I discussed were directly preoccupied with the way the ‘real’ world is dominated by the fantasies of its inhabitants, and that they could therefore be said to address fantasy directly as an integral part of Irish life in the 1930s. This does not make them fantasies as we usually understand the term, of course, since nothing fantastic is said to have happened in them – apart from the rising of an Irish peat bog against its industrial exploiters in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). But it suggests that the discussion of fantasy might benefit from being opened out a little, to reflect on the way the genre or mode exerts a gravitational pull on other kinds of narrative. The period between the wars is full of examples of ‘realist’ texts with fairy tales and fantasies embedded in them, as a means of identifying something crucial about contemporary culture and politics. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1935), with its riffs on the Arthurian legends, examines the impact on masculinity of the Great War and the rise of capitalism, as well as the flagging potency of Victorian ideas in the age of Modernity. Waugh’s novel takes its title from Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land (1922), which also embeds Arthurian legend – reduced to broken verbal fragments, emblems of the fragments left of old certainties after the War – in the English landscape, pointing forward to the successive engagements with Arthurian narratives by Tolkien (who planned for a while to retell those tales as a myth for modern England), T. H. White (in the series of novels that became The Once and Future King), Charles Williams (in his poetry sequence Taliessin Through Logres) and C. S. Lewis (in That Hideous Strength). Meanwhile, the first section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), ‘The Window’, centres on a mother reading a fairy tale to her son – the story of the Fisherman and his Wife, from the Household Tales of the brothers Grimm – which draws out the book’s concern with problems of communication between men and women as embodied in the Hebridean island where the action takes place, surrounded as it is by the severing sea. There’s a story to be told, I think, about the dialogue between the fantastic and the realistic at a time when fantasy was coming into its own as a distinct way of writing; and this story might help us account for the complex dialogue between the modes embedded in fantasy narratives of the 1950s, from The Lord of the Rings to the Narnian chronicles and the Borrowers books.

This post, too, is dedicated to a work of fiction that addresses the relationship between fantasy and the ‘real’ world: Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). On the strength of his novel’s immense popularity between the wars, Hughes is often described as one of the most influential writers on childhood in the twentieth century. High Wind is said to have influenced Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) in its debunking of the Victorian cult of the child, its merciless dissection of the myth of childhood innocence. What isn’t often mentioned, though, is that Hughes also wrote fine fantastic stories for children, and that one collection of these stories, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (1931), came out just two years after High Wind was published. High Wind self-consciously adopts an adult perspective on children’s thoughts and actions, narrated as it is by a sardonic Victorian commentator. The Spider’s Palace gives us direct access to the children’s imaginative world, makes us natives of it, so to speak. Setting the books side by side paints an arresting picture, I think, of Hughes’s ambivalent attitude to fantasy as it manifests itself in two different age groups: young children and adults. For Hughes, fantasy dominates the lives of adults as well as children, and in both cases this domination can be playful, seductive and lethal. In saying so he marks the radical break that has taken place between his own lifetime, on this side of the Great War, and the supposedly halcyon days of the British Empire in the middle years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire throve on waking dreams of power, order, racism, class divisions and segregation between the sexes, and when the so-called Golden Age of children’s fiction was in full flood. But he also points the way to a recognition of how the invasion of the ‘real world’ by murderous fantasies like those of fascism, which was taking place as he wrote his book, had roots in the Victorian culture of his own country.

Anarchy

The Spider’s Palace is one of the oddest children’s books from a decade of often highly experimental children’s writing. The 1930s, after all, saw the publication of Mary Poppins (1934), The Hobbit (1937), The Sword in the Stone (1938), J. B. S. Haldane’s scientific extravaganza My Friend Mr. Leakey (1937), and the radical Irish fantasies of Patricia Lynch such as The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin (1939); but each of these narratives is profoundly comforting in comparison with Hughes’s bizarre collection. Described in some editions as a book of ‘modern fairy stories’, the collection dedicates itself to undermining the reader’s sense that they know what fairy stories are. The style is the most fairy-story thing about them, as terse as the language used by Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang, a thousand miles from the lyrical flourishes of Hans Christian Andersen or George MacDonald. The narratives are anarchic; anything at all can happen in them, and there’s simply no knowing how a story will end. At the end of the decade, Tolkien argued that fairy stories need to close with a eucatastrophe, a sense of something having been satisfactorily completed – as invoked by the famous formula ‘they lived happily ever after’. When Hughes obliquely refers to that formula, it becomes a source of strangeness as intense as a surrealist painting. In one story, for instance, a prematurely aged gardener (who works so hard he only gets one hour’s sleep a night) decides to chase an equally aged rabbit out of his garden – as if a minor character from Alice in Wonderland had decided to rebel against the monarchist system by tracking down the royal herald and subjecting it to vigilante justice. The rabbit is too fast for him, so the gardener decides to taste some of the rose leaves it has been eating, instead of cultivating or painting the roses like the obedient gardeners in Alice. On eating the leaves he finds that they make him young again, which enables him to chase the rabbit all the way to its burrow, where it has imprisoned twenty or thirty white elephants, which the gardener liberates by strangling the rabbit. The story ends with a ‘happy ever after’ that goes like this:

Now that he had all these white elephants the gardener, of course, was rich, and didn’t have to work in the garden any more. Instead he had a small but comfortable house for himself, and a perfectly enormous stable for all the white elephants: and there they lived happily together for ever after: and this was the strange thing, that though when the rabbit had eaten the rose leaf it had only made him young for one night, when the gardener ate his it made him young for ever, so that he never grew old again at all. (p. 37)

Expensive and useless things, which is the traditional definition of a white elephant, define their possessors as wealthy – and in this story they seem to attract riches to them by simply existing; but the gardener seems as egalitarian in the use of his riches as Hughes is in choosing an elderly gardener as his protagonist, providing the animals and himself with homes that are strictly proportionate to their needs. The ‘strange thing’ in the story, however, is not the gardener’s decision to set up a household with thirty elephants, or the rabbit’s transformation in its final fight with the gardener into a monster with fiery eyes and teeth like a tiger’s, or even the rose’s rejuvenating qualities, but the fact that the rose leaves do not work in the same way for the gardener as they did for the rabbit: the rabbit was only made young for a night, but the man remained young for ever, ‘so that he never grew old […] at all’. That, of course, is the literal meaning of ‘they lived happily ever after’; but it takes Richard Hughes to make the formula strange again by allowing it to work for some people in his story world but not for others. Something like this happens in conventional fairy stories, too – the villain never gets to live happily ever after, the hero always does – but Hughes points up the disparity by having both hero and villain consume the same magical food, and experience different results from its consumption. An imaginative tale that breaks its own rules is utterly unlike the traditional magic tale, which explains exactly how a spell or magic object operates and makes sure that this is how it works from beginning to end. Hughes’s fairy tales are full of such instances of rules that get broken arbitrarily – and in doing so they transplant their readers to a far more dangerous imaginative zone than the one they are familiar with from the fairy tale collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The happy-ever-after gets broken more disturbingly in the story of the title, ‘The Spider’s Palace’. In it a little girl gets invited home by a friendly spider, awaking echoes in the reader’s mind of the story of Bluebeard (will she be murdered like a fly?), or Beauty and the Beast, or Cupid and Psyche. The Bluebeard analogy comes closest at first, since the spider’s airborne palace is wholly transparent apart from one room, into which the spider creeps for an hour each day. The girl enjoys her time there, playing in clouds which support her weight, taking pleasure in the spider’s company; but of course she is desperately curious to find out what he does in the hidden room; and when she hides in the room one day she sees him change into a handsome prince, a shape he retains throughout the hour of his concealment. Once the transformation has been witnessed the spell is broken, and from that moment the spider ceases to be a spider, his see-through residence becomes a conventional palace on the ground, and the little girl and the handsome prince go on living together as if nothing has happened. Neither the prince nor the girl, we’re told, ever mentions the change in their living conditions that has taken place. But this is no Tolkienian eucatastrophe. The girl goes on hankering after the days when she lived in an airborne, see-through palace, where she could play among the clouds and do what she liked. Living with a prince in a conventional palace is just no substitute for living with a spider in its magical web. In this story the traditional fairy tale loses its loveliness and an altogether stranger narrative takes its place. It is both a challenge to the usual assumptions about fairy tales – that the conventional forms of happiness they contain will appeal to their readers – and an accurate summary of the reader’s feelings at the end of the story of Beauty and the Beast, which is that life in an ordinary marriage (even a fairy tale one) is not a patch on life in an enchanted castle with a mournful, mysterious, possibly murderous monster (at least, in the context of a story).

Other stories in the collection add further twists to Hughes’s demolition of the Tolkienian eucatastrophe. A little girl who can travel down telephone lines escapes her unpleasant step-parents and gets herself adopted by a strange couple, who have phoned her house by mistake and so inadvertently granted her access to their home. But she tyrannizes over the couple, taking over room after room in their house until they have only an attic left to live in, and later forcing them to remove the roof so she can let off fireworks in her room. Luckily the couple have a friend with a magic rocket; the little girl sets the rocket off on Bonfire Night and it promptly carries her back to her neglectful step-parents, where she lives unhappily ever after on a diet of silence, tapioca pudding and cold mutton. The theme of awkward cohabitation within an unevenly divided domestic space is further developed in the story ‘Inhaling’, in which two small children are given a mysterious substance by a huge policeman. The substance has the property of making things grow to giant proportions, like the Food of the Gods in Wells’s novel, and the two children turn into giants when they pour it into their bath and inhale the steam. Meanwhile the steam also affects their nurse and their father to different extents, while their mother – who inhales nothing – remains the same size. As a result, the mismatched family has to construct a strange new house as experimental as anything by a modernist architect: ‘The nursery, of course, was enormous,’ Hughes explains, ‘Then came the study for their father, that was just about double size […] But the poor little mother had just an ordinary-size drawing-room and bedroom, and had to be ever so careful, when she went into the nursery, that the children didn’t tread on her’ (p. 120). The over-sized nurse, meanwhile, is simply sent away as an inconvenience. As a model of a domestic hierarchy the household is as disturbing as it is strange, and Hughes gives no hint that the situation will ever change. Magical restorations of things to their proper proportions don’t always happen in his fairy tale landscape, any more than they do in the ‘real’ world the child reader will inherit.

The collection ends with two of Hughes’s most unsettling non-happy-endings. In ‘The Old Queen’ the titular monarch is granted the gift of eternal life, but her beloved husband is not, with the result that after his death she is left in dreary solitude in her palace, ‘reigning and reigning’ for ever after without hope of closure (p. 145). And in the final story, a couple of teachers find themselves without a school and are reduced to teaching one another until a lost little girl turns up at their door and they adopt her as both pupil and daughter. The girl proves marvelously biddable except in the matter of getting out of the bath; so in the end one of the teachers flushes her down the plughole, which prompts the last few sentences in the book:

‘OH, what have you done,’ cried the schoolmaster. ‘You have lost our only child!’
‘I don’t care!’ said the schoolmistress in a stern voice. ‘She should have got out of the bath when she was TOLD!’ (p. 158)

The typographic eccentricities of the final sentence (in the original, the last two words are in italic fonts of increasing size) mimic the eccentricity of the story, which breaks free from the traditions of British children’s narratives by subjecting the disobedient child not to chastisement and repentance but to a dreadful and irreversible doom. In the process, the tale provides an unhappy ending to the collection as a whole, which begins in a very different mood. The opening story tells of a determined little girl who decides to go and live in a whale – like an impenitent Jonah – free from any controls at all; but the final story ends with the re-imposition of absolute adult control over a recalcitrant youngster. At the same time, the schoolmistress who punishes the little girl can be seen as anarchic in her impulses, meting out a wholly disproportionate punishment to her disobedient adoptive daughter, who merely acts on a perfectly natural preference to stay in the comfortable bathwater for a few minutes longer than her new mother deems appropriate. Adult order is as much an illusion in this collection as the fantasies conjured up by the wildest child’s imagination; and the fact that the book is not cast as a dream, unlike its most obvious model, Alice in Wonderland, gives it an air of radicalism, of having something to say about the nonsensical nature of accepted conventions, that Carroll’s great novel never quite aspired to.

Portmeirion

It’s perhaps for this reason that contemporary readers referred to the fables in Hughes’ collection as distinctively ‘modern’. The tales refuse to be bounded within the constraints of ordinary literature for the nursery, and refuse to suggest that the world they contain can be distinguished from the world beyond the book’s boundaries. Even the opening story segues very neatly from an everyday situation. An architect who has built a ‘model village’ in Wales (p. 9) – presumably Portmeirion – invites people everywhere to come and live in his country, and a little girl mistakes this for an invitation to live in whales, which is why she ends up moving into the belly of a seagoing mammal. Hughes does not differentiate between her eccentric choice of habitation (a whale) and the eccentric choice of habitation suggested by the architect (an Italianate model village on the Welsh coast). In the same way, the wild behaviour of the children in Hughes’s stories is not distinguished from the wild behaviour of the rabbit-wrestling, white-elephant-collecting, magic-rocket-owning adults. The Spider’s Palace was written before surrealism came to Britain, but its tacit acceptance of the domination of human culture by the riotous unconscious is entirely of a piece with the surrealist activities going on at the time in France.

Its politics, too, is at times as radical as that of the surrealists. Being a prince, a queen or a child does not guarantee its characters a happy ending, and cooks, maids, gardeners, farmers and poachers have as ready access to magic adventures as the youngest children of reigning monarchs. The most openly political story in the book is ‘The Glass-Ball Country’, which focuses on the political implications of ignoring limits and boundaries. A charcoal burner and his wife live in the almost inaccessible ruins of a castle on a cliff, where they shelter from the pointless wars being waged between the nations that surround them. At one point an elderly pedlar seeks shelter with them in the castle, and in their paranoia about discovery they almost kill him as a spy. Instead they reluctantly let him go free, and in return he gives them a glass ball as a present for their daughter. When a band of soldiers approaches the castle, threatening the charcoal-burner’s family with discovery and death, the little girl informs her parents that there is a country inside the glass ball, ‘only about an inch across’ (p. 60), where the family can hide from their military oppressors. They do so at once by reducing themselves to a suitable size, and live happily there for a while, until one of the soldiers decides to throw the ball from the castle window and watch it smash on the rocks below. The tiny country falls out of the globe and begins to grow, and as it grows the little girl invites a wounded soldier to take shelter with her family inside its expanding borders. The soldier soon reveals himself as the pedlar who gave her the ball, and explains that the land is called the Peace Country, a place where no citizen is permitted to fight. The Peace Country continues to expand, absorbing ‘farmers and other quiet people’ as it does so, and soon covers the whole of the ‘old warry country’, pushing its occupants into the ocean where they drown (p. 62). The charcoal burner and his wife are elected king and queen, while their daughter – now a princess – seeks out the soldier to be her husband as a way of sealing the happy ending, only to find that he has ‘disappeared for good’. The trajectory of this narrative is from confinement to liberation, from narrow limits to the removal of all unnecessary borders and constraints, a process orchestrated by a strange man who cannot be restricted to a single role (he is first a pedlar, then a soldier, then one of the ‘quiet people’, then an enigma) or time of life (he fluctuates between old age and youth). It provides a miniature working model – like the glass ball it describes – of a non-militaristic democratic community, whose exemption from the rules of physics and geography aligns it with anarchism. Anarchy here is liberating – just as elsewhere in the collection it is intimidating, allowing the spontaneous dissolution of restraints on the sometimes antisocial behaviour of children, adults and animals, such as rabbits, goats and spiders. The anarchist credentials of the collection are nowhere more evident than in its recognition that anarchy itself can be a force either for mutual support or for untrammeled Hobbesian brutality.

Performance

A High Wind in Jamaica pits the anarchy of childhood play against the most anarchic of adult communities, that of pirates. A group of white British children on their way to England from Jamaica – sent ‘home’ to prevent them being transformed into ‘savages’ by the joint influence of the tropics and emancipated Black people, formerly enslaved – gets accidentally abducted by pirates, and the story traces the relationship between these two sets of outlaws, ending with the execution of the entire pirate crew for a murder they did not commit. Innocence, then, is on trial in this narrative, as its original title (The Innocent Voyage) makes quite clear: the innocence of the children, the innocence of the pirates, both of which are problematic. The murder for which the buccaneers are executed was in fact committed by one of the children, but the pirates were certainly responsible for the accidental death of one child, the sexual assault of another, and the rape and attempted murder of a third. At the same time, the pirates are represented as in some ways more responsible and sympathetic in their treatment of the children than the respectable adults who had charge of them on land. Yet both pirates and respectable adults are united in their abhorrent treatment of the girl who is raped. The girl’s chief offence (it seems) is that she is both adolescent and a person of colour, and therefore aware of sex, racism and male violence in a way that the younger children are not; so she does not fit neatly into the categories of innocence and experience which govern the Victorian perception of childhood, and thus becomes an outcast both on the pirate ship and in the British society into which she is transplanted from her Caribbean birthplace. In this novel, the notion of innocence and experience, innocence and guilt, savagery and civilization, as simple binaries clearly distinguishable from one another by easily understood signs, is exposed as a pernicious fiction – even a fantasy, in that it cannot be safely applied to the complex business of existing in a stubbornly non-binary world.

Innocence, as a concept, tends to distract its loyal adherents from what is happening under their noses, and like The Spider’s Palace Hughes’s novel is designed to draw attention to the disparity between what’s expected or imagined by conventional minds and what ‘really’ takes place in both adult and childhood settings. The book explores a series of spaces that exist in the interstices between recognized structures or conceptual frameworks – the economy, class, gender, and especially race, as we shall see. Like the story collection it’s full of dwellings that get utterly transformed by the intransigent refusal of things to fit into the preconceived cultural shapes they are meant to occupy. A British house in Jamaica, with the delightfully Home Counties name of Ferndale, is abruptly torn to pieces by a violent hurricane on the same night that a half-tame cat called Tabby is torn to pieces by his wild cat-cousins. A pirate ship gets transformed into an elaborate playground-cum-circus by the children on board, then seamlessly transitions into a murder scene, much as a playground can imaginatively metamorphose into a scene of carnage or a circus into the setting for a horrific accident or a bloody assault by carnivores. The relative size or prominence of different characters in the book changes constantly, as different figures dominate a setting by becoming its focus, then recede into the background – sometimes disappearing entirely, as happens to the child called John when he falls to his death while watching a show and is at once expunged from the memory of his traumatized siblings. The land proves as unstable as the sea, with earthquakes and high winds shaking the ground and demolishing jungles. Victorian society conceives the world in terms of orderly hierarchies, clear divisions, architecturally rigid conceptual containers, all capable of being accommodated within the organized parameters of scientific, legal and philosophical discourses. The book’s world, by contrast – like the world of The Spider’s Palace – is in constant flux, and no philosophers or scientists exist who can make consistent sense of it.

This resistance to philosophical consistency or control is emphasized by the voice of Hughes’s narrator, who fades into and out of focus constantly, refusing ever to take up a stable position in relation to his characters or the events that overtake them. He identifies himself as Victorian in the opening chapter, where he tells us he hasn’t visited the Caribbean since 1860, ‘which is a long time ago now’ (p. 7); his text, then, is well out of date by the time High Wind was published in 1929. The phrase also implies that he is very old, since other comments in the text imply that he is still alive in the 1920s. The world-weary tone he adopts – together with his impatience for conventions he has too often seen flouted – confirms this impression. And his narrative style is torn between the stances of the 1860s and the 1920s. At times he seems to have the unimpeded spatial vision of the Victorian omniscient narrator, telling us exactly what the children’s parents are thinking, what the children are thinking, what the pirates are thinking, even when reporting incidents he could not possibly have had access to: as when John is the only child to catch a glimpse of an amateur operation on a ship’s monkey – an experience he could not possibly have conveyed to the narrator, since he dies a few pages later. At other times the narrator professes perfect ignorance, most often about the motives of the children in his story. He is dismissive of adult attempts to make sense of their actions and words, and freely confesses when he himself cannot explain why they do the opposite of what he might have anticipated. At one point he implies that there is simply ‘no means of knowing’ why children act as they do – why the youngest child Laura, for instance, conceives a passionate affection for the pirate Captain (pp. 99-100) – because adults have not yet learned to understand how a child’s mind works, caught as it is between the nascent consciousness of a human adult and the animal mind of a tiny baby: ‘babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind’ (p. 99). At the end of the novel the narrator withdraws completely from all his characters, becoming a detached observer who makes no claim to special knowledge about any of them, until in the final paragraph he loses sight even of his protagonist, the young girl Emily, professing himself quite unable to read ‘her deeper thoughts’ (p. 169), or even to distinguish her from the other children in the English boarding school where he leaves her. This fading out at the end balances the fading in that takes place at the beginning, where he describes the situation in Jamaica through a series of vignettes – the death of a pair of elderly plantation owners at the hands of the people they once enslaved, the gradual disintegration of the plantation buildings – then gradually homes in on the English family, the Bas-Thorntons, which will be his subject in the rest of the novel, as if his verbal picture of them will be just another vignette, or as if they are nothing more to him personally than the decaying buildings of the estate they live on. Overall, then, the narrator’s position is one of sceptical detachment, born from a recognition acquired over a long lifetime that most human ‘terms and categories’ are frankly inadequate as analytical instruments, knocked to pieces by (among other things) the publication of Darwin’s theory of Evolution in 1857, which smashed the biblical boundaries between humans and beasts.

The fluctuating world of the novel, whose terms and categories are always changing in response to changing circumstances, is underpinned by the references to stage performances with which it is filled. Each episode is cast as a piece of theatre: a pantomime (p. 61, p. 65), a peep-show (p. 68), a nativity-play (p. 69), a movie (p. 69), a religious ceremony (p. 122), a melodrama (pp. 23-4), a tragedy (p. 168) or a circus (p. 108). An earthquake witnessed by young Emily early in the novel takes place in a natural arena, a semi-circular bay called Exeter Rocks, and elicits an impromptu performance by the children who witness it: Emily breaks into a dance, John turns ‘head over heels on the damp sand, over and over in an elliptical course, till before he knew it he was in the water’ (p. 18). The attack of the wildcats on Tabby is played out before the children’s horrified eyes like a Roman gladiatorial combat, and Emily seeks to exorcise the horror of it from her mind by another kind of dramatic ‘performance’ (p. 25), retelling the tale of ‘her’ Earthquake to the ‘awed comments’ of an ‘imaginary English audience’. Meanwhile the hurricane destroying the house plays out as a ‘lightning-lit scene’ glimpsed through the ‘gaping frames’ of windows bereft of shutters – a melodrama seen through several proscenium arches. Mrs Thornton seeks to distract her children from it by reciting a poem by Walter Scott, the versified fairy tale The Lady of the Lake (p. 26). In each of these performances, however, the fourth wall of the theatre gets broken down. The children who witness the Earthquake are also in the middle of it, since the arena in which it happens ‘had no outside, it was solid world’ (p.17). The wildcats refuse to confine their murderous hunt for Tabby to the ‘lightning-lit scene’ of the garden, but burst through a skylight above the front door and land in the middle of the dining room table just as the family are settling down to dinner. The storm forces its way into the house, tearing shutters from windows and pictures from walls; while outside fairy tales get murderously enacted on members of the Thornton household, such as the nameless Black servant, a ‘fat old beldam’, who gets ‘blown clean away’ by the mounting wind, ‘bowling across fields and hedgerows like some one in a funny fairy-story, till she fetched up against a wall and was pinned there, unable to move’ (p. 26). We never find out if the ‘beldam’ survived being bowled like this, though we do know that another servant, Old Sam, has been killed by lightning, since his dead body is brought into the house by Mr Thornton. As the white man carries it in, the Black corpse becomes yet another spectacle; the children examine it in fascination, entranced by the old man’s limpness in death as compared with the arthritic stiffness of his limbs when he was alive. Like a circus audience they are ‘thrilled beyond measure’ by the unusual behaviour of his arms and legs (p. 24), and have no sense of him as a person whose life has just ended. By this time in their adventures, in fact, the distinction between performance and reality has fallen apart, with lethal consequences. And as the book goes on, those consequences get increasingly visited on the children.

The schooner from Alexander MacKendrick’s movie of the novel

The pirate schooner places the children at the centre of the performances rather than largely outside them. It makes them performers rather than spectators, in other words; and by the time this happens we should perhaps be conscious of the implications of this transition, since several performers – possibly the beldam, certainly Sam, the unfortunate Tabby and a sick ship’s monkey on the ship to England – have already been killed in shows like the ones the children now take part in. The schooner itself is a kind of performer, since it repeatedly masquerades as something it is not: an ordinary passenger ship full of attractive women, for instance, which is the pose it takes when it attacks the Clorinda, the ship that is carrying the children home; or a merchant ship called the Lizzie Green of Bristol, which is the guise it adopts when approaching a British steamship with the aim of persuading its reluctant captain to take the children off the pirates’ hands. And the captains of the vessels attacked by the schooner help to enhance its theatrical qualities. The pirates’ ship carries no guns, but the captains whose cargoes it purloins tend to reinvent it as a full-scale warship, capable of opening ‘ten or twelve disguised gun-ports’ and thereby unmasking ‘a whole broadside of artillery trained upon us’, as the master of the Clorinda puts it in his report to the children’s parents (p. 39). The behaviour of the pirates is also transformed in the report into the kind of casual brutality expected of marauders. The master asserts that they have murdered all the children in cold blood, and that he watched it happen; and this tendency to turn them into pantomime villains proves ultimately fatal to them in the arena of the courtroom.

Meanwhile the ship’s potential as a circus is first discovered by Emily’s brother John, who writes in a letter to his parents that he can ‘hang from the ratlines by my heels which the sailors say is very brave’ (p. 37). Later in the book he is killed by falling on his head from a height of forty feet, in the process neatly demonstrating the danger involved in hanging upside-down from the ratlines. John is an inveterate seeker after thrilling spectacles to witness as well as take part in: the operation on the gangrenous tail of the Clorinda’s monkey, for instance, which involves sailors plying the beast with rum until it’s so drunk it falls on its head and breaks its neck, in eerie anticipation of John’s demise; or the nativity play put on by a priest in the pirate town of Santa Lucia, which John also manages to be the only child to witness, burrowing through an excited crowd to reach his vantage point – then inadvertently completing the spectacle himself with his fatal dive. In between, John takes part in a spectacle mounted by the pirates when they auction off the goods taken from the Clorinda (he is the child who weighs the coffee offered for sale). This show begins as a ‘pantomime’ performed by the haughty Spanish-speaking dignitaries who come to view the goods on offer (p. 61), and the children are delighted when the mate of the schooner, Otto, decks them out in ‘fancy dress’ to join the performance (p. 63). But things later get unnerving as the adult actors consume a potent cocktail mixed by the pirate captain, Jonsen, until eventually there is ‘something a little nightmare-like in the whole scene’ (p. 67), and the children retreat from the drunken mob to the relative safety of the ship’s hold. In this incident the distinction between theatre and auditorium, performer and spectator blurs again, pointing the way to John’s terminal performance as actor-spectator. Later still, a circus spectacle completes the disintegration of the distinction between theatre and life, play and earnest. The pirates seize control of a ship full of circus animals and try to goad a couple of big cats into a fight for the children’s amusement. Eventually a tiger loses patience with Otto’s goading, and ‘Quicker than eye could see, it had cuffed him, rending half his face’ (p. 110). The first mate survives, none the worse for his ‘rending’; but the last performance he takes part in – the pirates’ trial for kidnapping, robbery and murder, avidly watched by the British public and the press – ends more drastically, largely as a result of a child’s dramatic departure from the prepared script she has been assigned, a spontaneous transition from an act of theatre to the articulation of inward trauma.

Each of these dramatic episodes summons up visions of the death of Tabby on the night when the high wind struck, a performance that ended in bloodshed and that reshaped Emily’s understanding of the world she lived in. As the book goes on, Emily finds herself increasingly conscious of her own affinity with poor Tabby: only half tamed, but deeply vulnerable to far wilder and more lethal forces than the ones she embodies. Her response is to defend herself by any means at her disposal, from telling herself stories to committing murder. One of the modern fairy tales in The Spider’s Palace provides an analogy for the various shifts she undergoes between passive audience and dynamic actor. It concerns a man with a bright green face who works in a circus and is horribly bullied by the circus owner, and who later teams up with a performing elephant and an engine driver to exact revenge. The story ends with the circus owner being magically transformed into a weird giraffe with the face of a man, then displayed to paying customers by his former victims, including the titular ‘Man with a Green Face’. ‘Everybody came to see him’, Hughes concludes,

and paid [a] whole shilling each; and they kept him in a cage. There were soon so many shillings that the man with the green face and the elephant and the engine driver got very rich indeed, and were ever so happy. (p. 45)

But the ending is not so happy, perhaps, for some of its readers. After all, it leaves them pretty much where it found them: in a world where performers are forced to take part in shows and where the happiness of one person is always obtained at the expense of another. A rich man with a green face who claims to own another man is an authentic monster; conversely, a one-time bully trapped in a cage can be seen as a victim; and the grotesque institution of the circus freak show remains untouched by Hughes’s narrative, its function as a vehicle for justice hardly detracting from its nastiness or from the nastiness of the world that lets it exist. It’s a similar world to the one in which Emily finds herself, even if the physical laws that govern it – where some men have green faces and others can be turned into giraffes with human heads – seem very different.

At the end of the book, Emily herself becomes a performance, a stage show suffused with all the strangeness such shows can encompass. Her testimony is essential to the pirates’ wrongful conviction for murder, and she delivers much of it in the eerie sing-song tones of an amateur actor. But when she departs from the script written out for her by her lawyer she releases the dramatic potential that has been in her since her rescue. Her father sees this potential clearly before the trial; he thinks of her as ‘the stage of a great tragedy’ (the analogy coming naturally to him, since he works as a theatre critic), and while he pities her for what she has endured he would not have missed her performance in court ‘on any account’ (p. 168). Of course, actors in tragedies are never really the victims or perpetrators of the events they act out on stage, so the analogy does not in fact work for Emily. Her father is superimposing the tragedy on her body, so to speak, like a director organizing actors ahead of a show, or a puppet master investing his dolls with life. And when Emily departs from her script at the pirates’ trial, the audience – including her father – reads into her broken shrieks of horror (‘He was all lying in his blood… he was awful! He… he died, he said something and then he died’, p. 171) the hackneyed story they have in their heads: the pirates’ murderousness, the girl’s abuse, the children’s courage, all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama. At the same time, like that of an actor Emily’s mind remains impenetrable to them despite her outburst, and their assumptions based on her shrieks are quite mistaken. The narrator knows this, and the father suspects it, half conscious that his view of her as tragic is no more than a symptom of his own ‘fantastic mind’ (p. 170). His knowledge that he has no real access to her thoughts and memories comes into focus when he admits, ‘with a sudden painful shock’, that he is in fact ‘afraid of her’ (p. 170). As a child subjected to experiences adults neither expect a child to suffer nor can really imagine her suffering, she poses a threat to the adult view of the world itself; and the theatrical metaphor can be seen as exposing the radical break between the way she acts and the way she thinks, or feels, or remembers, as well as the fantastic nature of most adult assumptions – about children, about pirates, or about the orderly, ethical, tranquil lives they themselves lead.

Edward Lear, illustration from The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World

The relationship between A High Wind in Jamaica and fantasy is in fact a close one. Fairy tales intrude on the narrative several times. We’ve already witnessed Scott’s fairytale poem The Lady of the Lake play a crucial role in distracting the children from the hurricane. On another occasion the cross-dressing Cuban men who help the buccaneers fool the crew of the Clorinda into letting them on board are referred to as ‘Fairies’ (p. 59), rendering them strange as well as lovely in the children’s eyes. Later still, Emily is wandering around the pirate ship ‘thinking vaguely about some bees and a fairy queen’ (p. 85) when she is suddenly struck by a recognition of her own identity as a separate person, a distinct individual; after which she at once returns to the bees and the fairy queen, perhaps with a new awareness of the relationship between the hive’s lonely leader (also a queen) and her many subjects. At various points in the narrative the children tell themselves and one another fantastic stories to divert their attention from things they can’t cope with. At other times their occasional outbursts of random behaviour take on all the traits of a nonsense narrative, like Alice in Wonderland or Edward Lear’s extraordinary Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World; and this randomness reflects their refusal on many occasions to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and their consequences – at least until the moment when Emily’s newly-acquired self-consciousness begins to change her attitude. Even then, however, she remains an enigma, like the stranger with the glass ball in The Spider’s Palace. A young woman on the steamship tries to get to know her, but when she dubs her a ‘Little Fairy-girl’ (p. 154) it’s not so much a piece of affectionate whimsy as an oblique acknowledgment of her oddness, the impenetrability of her mind, the possibility, even, that she is some sort of changeling, her conventional girl-nature switched on the pirate ship for something less comforting, less apparently familiar.

The strongest link in the book with fantasy, not surprisingly, is with a story that started out as a theatrical performance: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Hughes’s narrator shares with Barrie’s narrator in the novel of the play, Peter and Wendy, a willingness to shatter myths of childhood; and Barrie’s protagonist, Peter Pan, has a lot in common with the Thornton children. Peter is always forgetting things as he transfers his attention to new interests, and sometimes his forgetfulness is almost fatal to other people – as when he is flying with the Darlings on the long journey to the Neverland and keeps disappearing to take part in other adventures, leaving his inexperienced companions literally hanging in mid-air. In the same way, Hughes’s children are always changing tack, both imaginatively and physically, and their forgetfulness is sometimes fatal: not so much when they forget about John after his death as when they forget, or even consciously set aside, the pirates’ instructions not to say anything to the passengers on the steamship about their abduction. Peter’s delight in killing is transferred to Hughes’s Edward, who is constantly enacting in his mind far bloodier adventures than those of the buccaneers among whom he lives. The Darling children and the Lost Boys, meanwhile, are always changing affiliations and swapping roles in their games on Peter’s island – becoming pirates, Indians, or feral children as the mood takes them; and Hughes’s children too are always discarding and resuming loyalties, as when Emily spontaneously decides that all men and boys are disgusting – which makes her confidentially inform her new female friend aboard the steamship about the abduction – or when Edward stops describing his adventures on the pirate ship as if he were one of the pirates and instead starts to tell them as if he had heroically resisted his abductors. There are major differences, meanwhile, between Hughes’s Emily and Barrie’s Wendy. Wendy is cloyingly maternal, and this quality is transferred in A High Wind to one of Emily’s younger siblings, Rachel, who is always making babies out of random objects, and whose motherly instincts very nearly kill her older sister, when she accidentally drops a heavy spike she has been nursing and it slashes through Emily’s calf as it falls to the deck (in the process producing useful evidence of the pirates’ brutality for the trial). Emily, by contrast, likes to imagine herself as a pirate, though she is increasingly concerned that this career path may be closed to her because of her sex (p. 117). She also gets increasingly concerned that real-life pirates are much less easily contained than the pirates of her dreams – something that gets driven home to her when Captain Jonsen, in a drunken haze, tries to assault her, prompting her to bite his thumb and make her escape, like Peter Pan evading Hook (though in Barrie’s book it is Hook who bites Peter Pan, p. 150). The discrepancies between Emily’s imaginings and the cold hard facts of the adult world align her with Peter, too, in her mounting resistance to maturation: ‘Why must she grow up?’ she asks herself, ‘Why couldn’t she leave her life always in other people’s keeping, to order as if it was no concern of hers?’ (p. 118). Admittedly, Peter is deeply opposed to being ‘ordered’, but so too is Emily, as it turns out. Her resistance to adult control is what finally kills the pirates, just as Peter’s tendency to resist any limitations placed on his pleasure in violent play ends up by destroying Captain Hook, whose status as the villain of the piece means he can never, in Peter’s world, be granted mercy.

The grown-up characters in Hughes’s novel, meanwhile, both pay homage to and mock the adult characters in Barrie’s narrative. In Peter and Wendy, Mrs Darling has an almost supernatural insight into her children’s minds, to the extent that she can even tidy up their mental landscapes after putting them to bed (pp. 72-3). Mrs Bas-Thornton, on the other hand, is constantly making wrong assumptions about her children; in fact she is ‘constitutionally incapable of telling one end of a child from the other’ (p. 30), the narrator claims. She is certain the children idolize her, when in fact they feel much closer to the doomed cat, Tabby. When parting with her offspring on the ship bound for England she is convinced that her eldest son is too full of grief to say goodbye: compared with his sister Emily, she tells her husband, ‘John is so much the more sensitive’, since he is clearly ‘too full to speak’ (p. 37) at the point of parting. The narrator, meanwhile, has already told us that John’s silence stems from his eagerness to get away and climb the rigging. Mr Bas-Thornton, meanwhile, is very much like Mr Darling, not least in his poor head for business. Mr Darling spends long hours trying to calculate whether he and his wife can afford to have children, but his conclusions have little bearing on the final decision (pp. 70-71); while Mr Bas-Thornton has ‘every accomplishment, except two: that of primogeniture, and that of making a living’ (p. 30). Like Mr Darling he feels a great deal but cannot express his emotions freely without compromising his manhood, which means that both men are always breaking out in fits of temper and making sarcastic comments, sometimes to their own embarrassment and chagrin. Hughes’s pirates, meanwhile, are promiscuously constructed from Barrie’s crew of assorted misfits. Captain Jonsen is an amalgam of Captain Hook and his shipmates; like the mild-mannered bosun Smee he is genial but dangerous, shuffling around in home-made slippers wringing his hands and whimpering a little at times of crisis (p. 66), but capable too of a drunken assault on a ten-year-old girl – just as Smee is capable of tying up Wendy while insisting he will release her if she promises to be his mother. Jonsen’s appearance has the grotesqueness of the rest of Hook’s associates, with a ‘sad, silly face, […] great spreading feet’ and a perpetual stoop, ‘as if always afraid of banging his head on something’ (p. 47). Most distinctive of all, he carries ‘the backs of his hands forward, like an orang-outang’, which recalls Hook’s shipmate Noodler, whose hands are ‘fixed on backwards’ (p. 114). Jonsen is full of cunning stratagems, like Hook himself, and like Hook’s they all go wrong, most spectacularly his plan to return the children to their parents without revealing his complicity in their abduction. Like Hook, again, his origins are respectable – he has served on English vessels and acquired the language before quietly drifting into illegal habits. As with Hook, conventions plague him and can be said to be his downfall; Hook becomes convinced at Eton that he can never possess gentlemanly ‘good form’ or even understand what it is (pp. 188-9), while Jonsen is killed, in effect, by the myth that pirates behave less like gentlemen than legitimate sailors, as represented by the master of the Clorinda, whose report on the children’s abduction is a tissue of lies from start to finish.

Jonsen could even be said to be plagued by a crocodile. The Bas-Thornton children are fascinated by reptiles: Emily collects lizards in Jamaica, and when she and her siblings arrive at port to board the Clorinda they hear that crocodiles have been sighted in the vicinity, and keep peering around the town in the hope of spotting one (p. 33). Much later, when taken on board the English steamship, Emily borrows a baby alligator from a boy named Harold. The alligator’s baby teeth are harmless, but it snaps at Emily’s finger just as she snapped at Jonsen’s, and when the pair of them stare at one another the narrator stresses the resemblance between beast and child, and the reptilian inscrutability of both:

What possible meaning could Emily find in such an eye? Yet she lay there, and stared, and stared: and the alligator stared too. If there had been an observer it might have given him a shiver to see them so – well, eye to eye like that. (p. 146).

Alligators, the narrator concludes, are ‘utterly untameable’ (p. 147), and so are young children. Barrie implies something similar in the famous last sentence of Peter and Wendy: Peter’s adventures will go on, he tells us, for ever, ‘as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless’ (p. 226). Emily’s fascination with the predatory reptile suggests that she shares its untameable heartlessness at some level; and although she does grow up, unlike Peter Pan, the radical difference she exemplifies between adults and children – Hughes seems to suggest – will always remain. Which is not a promising prospect for adults or children.

Race

Peter Pan is now recognized as a racist text, its hackneyed view of native Americans reaffirming the myths that sought to justify their oppression and erasure from history. High Wind, too, has racism at its core. The book’s central characters – a group of white British children – have imbibed racist assumptions from their infancy, and underpinning all their adventures is the contempt they have been taught to feel for Black Jamaicans. At the same time, as the book goes on they become increasingly identified with the African victims of the slave trade as well as its perpetrators. Violent episodes in the book point up the status of violence as the unacknowledged founding principle of the country that shaped them, and Hughes implies that this same violence continues to drive the British imperial machine decades after the purported ending of the slave trade. As the children mature – in particular the older girls, the teenager Margaret and ten-year-old Emily – their awareness of this fact increases, and they find themselves caught up in the cycle of violence and oppression, feeling it in and on their bodies just as Emily felt the Earthquake in her ears (‘a strange, rushing sound’, p. 17), her lungs (‘the children held their breath’, p. 18), her nervous system (‘things vibrated slightly’, p. 18) and her belly (afterwards Emily felt ‘like a child who has eaten too much even to be sick’, p. 21). The girls internalize British racism and imperialist violence in the course of the book, carrying it forward with them into adulthood, just as the heritage of Victorian colonialism gets carried forward into the time of the book’s composition, the second decade of the twentieth century.

The opening of the novel drifts across the landscape of Jamaica, noting the impact of emancipation on its geography (‘ruined slaves’ quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses’, p. 5) and its inhabitants (the narrator tells about the elderly white sisters, the old Miss Parkers, who were starved to death or possibly poisoned by their ‘three remaining faithful servants’, p. 5). Later, Black Jamaicans do their best to educate the Bas-Thornton children in aspects of African culture. Old Sam teaches them how to set snares for birds and tells them stories about the trickster-spider Anansi, which Emily remembers vividly later. The kids find out about duppies – vengeful spirits of the dead – a concept which they initially deride as a silly superstition, but which later returns to haunt them after the murder of the Dutch captain. On her tenth birthday Emily discovers a lost community of formerly enslaved people hidden in the jungle near her home. An elderly man tells her the history of the community, giving its name as Liberty Hill – a beacon of hope in a time of British tyranny; but Emily is interested only in the worship offered her by the community’s children, or what she takes as worship, though the narrator assures us they are not so much worshipping as vastly curious. Emily returns from this adventure confirmed in her conviction of her own importance: ‘Her heart bubbled up, she swelled with glory: and taking leave with the greatest condescension she trod all the long way home on veritable air’ (p. 13). The attitude that ranks Black families below white families and their pets is reflected in the Bas-Thornton children’s response to the deaths of several Black servants in the hurricane. The woman who gets blown away is merely comic, and even the death of Sam dwindles to nothing compared with the death of Tabby: as the narrator sums up, ‘there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favourite cat’ (p. 29). The hurricane episode, in other words, underscores the endemic racism of the climate in which the children grew up, and sets itself against the sentimental vision of the relationship between Black adults and white children in a post-slavery setting in the hugely popular Uncle Remus books, which were still being read in vast numbers by British children between the wars.

As the book goes on, however, the children’s racism gets turned against them, much as the wild cats turn against Tabby, their half-tame relative – or as the children turn against the pirates in the final chapter. The process begins when the Bas-Thornton children are sent to meet another white family on the island, whose name – Fernandez – marks them out as not ‘purely’ Anglo-Saxon. The Fernandez family are Creoles, defined by the narrator as white families who have lived in the West Indies ‘for more than one generation’ (p. 13). They have been somehow contaminated by their long stay, the Bas-Thorntons believe: the children ‘would often run about barefoot like negroes’, and they have a governess ‘whose blood was possibly not pure’ as well as a ‘brown nurse’. The Fernandez child who most clearly suffers from the racist attitudes of the Thorntons is the girl Margaret, who at thirteen is three years older than Emily, and three years more knowledgeable, both about Jamaica and about the changing female body. Emily’s jealous contempt for this older girl is obvious from the moment they meet, when she is disgusted by Margaret’s finely-tuned sense of smell – another piece of evidence, as far as she is concerned, for her suspected racial ‘impurity’. Margaret can tell by smell that there is going to be an earthquake, and when the earthquake duly strikes shows little recognition of its massive impact on Emily’s feelings. Emily frames the older girl’s familiarity with earthquakes as a racialized sign of obtuseness: ‘How funny Creoles were! They didn’t seem to realize the difference it made to a person’s whole after-life to have been in an Earthquake’ (p. 20). She later associates it with Margaret’s ability to tell by smell which item in the family’s washing belongs to which family member. Ironically, Emily shares this ability – she can tell by smell, for instance, which towel belongs to her and which belongs to her older brother; but she doesn’t articulate such matters, and in her view ‘it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way’ (p. 19). Clearly the distinctions between the Bas-Thorntons and the Fernandez children are both minimal and vastly exaggerated by the British immigrants, in the interests of confirming their own sense of their superior position in Jamaica; a position which has been threatened both by the end of slavery and by their own financial precariousness, their uncertain position as middle-class landowners in a land that refuses to submit to their incompetent efforts to control it.

Margaret in the movie, played by Viviane Ventura

The racist perception of Margaret gets intensified on the pirate ship, where her Creole identity becomes mixed up in Emily’s mind with the older girl’s awareness of sex, and above all with her fear of rape. Non-Creole white people, Emily claimed, do not talk about bodily functions, and not talking becomes a prominent feature of the children’s life among the buccaneers – a way of imaginatively protecting themselves from danger by not mentioning it: not talking about a child’s death, not talking about sex, not talking too directly about the fact that the sailors on board might possibly be pirates (Emily tells the younger children they are in fact pilots, though she has only the vaguest notion of a pilot’s function). Margaret, by contrast, has the fear of rape in mind from the moment she sets foot on Captain Jonsen’s schooner. The girl’s awareness of erotic desire and its economics first emerges on the Clorinda when she notes the handsome appearance of Mr Bas-Thornton – come on board to see his children off – as well as his lack of money. When the children get transferred to the schooner, she is the only one aware of the sexual threat posed by their piratical captors. She sobs in the darkness of the fore-hold, and tells the others they are ‘too young to know’ why she is upset (p. 57) – but again not talking prevents her from stating exactly what they are too young to know. Later still, when the inebriated Captain Jonsen confirms her fears by entering the children’s quarters with rape in mind, Margaret alone has any inkling of what is going on. She turns as ‘yellow as cheese’ (as if to confirm her ‘racial difference’ from the other children), her eyes grow ‘large with terror’, and at that moment Emily remembers ‘how stupidly frightened Margaret had been the very first night on the schooner’ (p. 90). Afterwards, Emily finds her behaviour even more puzzling, as the older girl first seems ‘exaggeratedly frightened of all the men’, then takes to following them around like an affectionate dog, especially Otto, the first mate. She soon transfers all her possessions to the cabin Otto shares with Captain Jonsen, and from this moment her fate is sealed. She is no longer a ‘child’, and so no longer protected (however precariously) by the social obligation to support the weakest in the community. But she is also still somehow a child who has been ‘spoiled’ or rendered ‘impure’ by her sexual awareness. From this point in the book she ceases, in effect, to be part of the conversation between the pirates and the children. She loses her voice, both literally – in that she very seldom speaks – and symbolically – in that the pirates and later the law-abiding British rescuers of the children cease to listen to her. To save herself from rape she has ‘submitted’ to rape, thus ceasing to be ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the patriarchy, becoming instead invisible and inaudible, like a ghost; and nothing she says or does can restore her innocence.

This is largely a result of the consensual silence around what has happened to Margaret – that is, around the fact that she has now become Otto’s sexual partner, effectively enslaved by him. The pirates never mention it, and neither do the children’s rescuers on the steamship, while both adult communities make it perfectly clear that they are always picturing for themselves the sordid details of this ‘debauchment’ – while always presuming that it was in some sense a willing act, that Margaret somehow ‘debauched’ or spoiled herself. Silence is also, of course, a widely practised response to the slave trade after abolition, a means of erasing all evidence of slavery from a country’s past in the interests of absolving its citizens from guilt: whether the silence of misnaming, such as describing the people formerly enslaved by the old white ladies who starved to death as ‘faithful servants’ (p. 5), or the silence of concealment, like the hiding of Liberty Hill in the heart of the jungle, or the silence of oblivion, like the silence that sidelines Sam from the children’s memories in favour of Tabby. The event that leads to the silencing of Margaret – Jonsen’s assault on Emily – is effectively described as if it, too, had been erased from history. The only episode in the novel that’s narrated in retrospect, out of its proper chronological position in the sequence of events that befall the Bas-Thornton children, it is placed immediately after the moment when Emily becomes self-conscious for the first time, as though her discovery of her independent mind and body were a direct result of the attack. The dawn of Emily’s self-awareness takes place at the beginning of Chapter 6 – pretty much in the middle of the novel – and is described as being ‘of considerable importance’ to her, occurring as it does after a period of time when things have apparently ‘ceased happening’, when Emily and the other children have simply ‘settled down […] to grow’. Only after gaining self-awareness does Emily recall the other event that happened recently, an event that an adult reader might well expect to have greater ‘importance’ in her mind, but which she has evidently suppressed. This is the moment, one week earlier, when the pirate Captain she worshipped betrayed her by coming down into the fore-hold and laying hands on her, lifting her chin and stroking her hair. That was when she bit him and made her escape, after which the other children refused to speak to her for several days, horrified by her unwarranted assault on their grown-up friend. Emily’s period of being sent to Coventry is only temporary, unlike Margaret’s; her ignorance of exactly what happened, of what the threat was to which she reacted, allows her to reintegrate herself quite quickly among her ignorant siblings. But it’s also the point in the book when she comes closest in her mind to the status of the enslaved people from whom she has been taught to consider herself entirely distinct – comes closest, in fact, to the historical facts that have been jettisoned by the culture that raised her.

The reason for Emily’s closer approach to the experience of slavery is the ongoing threat of violence exposed by Jonsen’s attack. The event in the fore-hold redefines the Captain in Emily’s mind as a deadly feral cat, a ‘waiting tiger’ rather than the bumbling be-slippered father-figure she has always thought him. In the process it reveals the endemic aggression that underpins not only the pirate’s trade but the wider culture inhabited by children, especially girls. As we’ve seen, Margaret was already aware of the presence of this aggression before the attack took place; and the teenager expresses this awareness in the tales she tells. Asked by the younger children for a story at bedtime, she conjures up a narrative more like a nightmare than a fairy tale,

A very stupid story about a princess who had lots and lots of clothes and was always beating her servant for making mistakes and shutting him up in a dark cupboard. The whole story, really had been nothing but clothes and beating, and Rachel had begged her to stop (p. 89).

‘Stupid’ though it may be, the tale proves prophetic. The attractive protagonist of fairy tale tradition, the princess, becomes a tyrant in it, and in the middle of the narrative the kindly Captain comes down the ladder with some other sailors, who are urging him to do something that fills his voice with ‘suppressed excitement’ – urging him, that is, to act the tyrant himself. Emily’s swift and violent response puts a stop to his actions; but all the same her world is turned upside down, her fairy tale existence transformed into something closer to Margaret’s house of horrors or the unpredictable tales of The Spider’s Palace. Biting the Captain makes her a ‘wicked girl’, one of her younger sisters tells her (p. 90) – though something tells Emily that the Captain too had been doing something ‘wicked’, which makes her own behaviour harder to judge. But the incident also changes the Captain’s attitude to Emily. The bite doesn’t lead to punishment or retribution; instead it fills Jonsen with remorse, so that for a long time – between his shame and Emily’s embarrassment – they cannot resume anything approaching friendly relations. The episode changes Margaret too, as we’ve seen – she becomes Otto’s silent, unacknowledged sexual partner; and about a week later it seems to effect a change in Emily herself. Part of her discovery of her own identity involves a new interest in her body: ‘The contact of her face and the warm bare hollow of her shoulder gave her a comfortable thrill, as if it were the caress of some kind friend’ (p. 86). The ‘thrill’ may seem ‘comfortable’ to her, but there’s an uncomfortable echo here, too, of Jonsen’s predatory touch in the fore-hold, which might also be described as the ‘caress of some kind friend’. Shortly afterwards, Emily’s awareness that she can decide things for herself without recourse to adult authority leads her to speculate that she might in fact be a kind of God. But the discovery of independence also brings fear. If her body is no longer organically connected to its surroundings – which can carry on without her when she is absent, as the life of the ship carries on without her when she’s aloft in the rigging – then when she comes down from the mast there might be ‘disasters’ waiting for her on deck, perhaps at the hands of stronger bodies like those of Otto and the Captain (p. 87). Being distinct from the other children makes her noticeable, and being noticeable puts her at risk; and when the narrator goes on to describe the attack in the fore-hold, we can see what has made her think so.

A little after the account of the attack, we learn how Emily now remembers her time in Jamaica. Suddenly the story of her life has become a sequence of connected events that provides a scenario for vivid nightmares. She recalls the Earthquake, and suddenly thinks it may have contributed to the collapse of the house at Ferndale. She recalls her visit to Liberty Hill ‘with a startling clearness’ (p. 95); but she also remembers the death of Tabby at the teeth and claws of his monstrous relatives. In her dreams, the wild cats become embodiments of the deep-seated fear of Black people experienced by white enslavers: they are ‘horrible black shapes’ which have ‘flown in through the fanlight and savaged [the tame cat] out into the bush’ (p. 95). Also in her dreams Tabby turns into Jonsen, staring at her ‘with the same horrible look on his face the captain had worn that time she bit his thumb’. Margaret, meanwhile, completes her transformation into the Black Jamaican she has always been associated with in the Bas-Thornton children’s minds. As Emily flees from Tabby down endless avenues of soaring cabbage-palms, ‘Margaret sat up an orange tree jeering at her, gone as black as a negro’. By this stage in her dream-life, the Captain’s attack has become for Emily a reenactment of the horrors of the British slave trade, with Emily the representative white girl against whom the formerly enslaved people seek retribution. Jonsen’s assault, then, leads not just to Emily’s self-recognition as an independent person but to a faint apprehension on her part of British atrocities in Jamaica; atrocities with which she has aligned herself by her treatment of Margaret.

As a result, Emily sees herself as both complicit with and potentially subject to the treatment she has always seen meted out to Black people in Jamaica. Her new sense of vulnerability gets confirmed when her leg is injured by a falling spike, accidentally dropped from the mast by her sister Rachel; and this in turn leads to her confinement in the ‘comfortable’ yet disturbing setting of the captain’s cabin. The cabin also happens to be the scene of Margaret’s rape, and hence the indirect cause of the older girl’s silencing and the mood of the crew that has turned against her ever since. This change of mood is exemplified when Jonsen carries the injured Emily into the cabin and snarls at the teenager ‘Get out!’ in a ‘low, brutal voice’ (p. 104). Margaret is mending clothes at the time, ‘humming softly and feeling deadly ill’, but the men show no interest in her illness, and when she disappears from the room the narrator can only proclaim his ignorance of her fate: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] had been banished into’ (p. 105). This erasure of her experiences again aligns the teenager with the victims of slavery, and Margaret’s unwilling demonstration of what happens to a girl when she reaches puberty has already been preying on Emily’s unconscious. Then, soon after the younger girl’s instalment in the cabin, something happens that brings her fear of becoming a second Margaret to a crisis. The Dutch captain of a ship seized by the pirates is trussed up and left alone in the room with Emily, while the pirates set up a circus show on the captured vessel. The Dutchman is bound and helpless, but he resembles Jonsen to some extent – as a nautical ship’s master who is both funny and frightening in equal measure; and the fact that he’s a prisoner makes him somehow more of a threat than if he were free: ‘There is something much more frightening’, the narrator suggests, ‘about a man who is tied up than a man who is not tied up – I suppose it is the fear he might get loose’. An enslaver might well agree. Emily’s terror of the struggling captive contrasts with the pleasant feeling of power she felt as she approached the hidden Black community, Liberty Hill, on the day she turned ten. Entering the village behind a crowd of fleeing children, she felt ‘Encouraged by the comfortable feeling of inspiring fright’ (p. 12). In the cabin, by contrast, she herself is frightened, aware that the man on the floor may break his bonds, and that if he does he may prove as vindictive as Margaret was in her dream, as well as too strong for Emily to resist, even with her teeth. The scene becomes another ‘nightmare’ (p. 109), and Emily reacts for a second time with a burst of violence. Leaping from her bunk, she seizes a knife and stabs the captain ‘in a dozen places’ (p. 110). He dies under the horrified gazes of Emily and Margaret, who appears at this moment in the entrance to the room with her ‘dulled eyes staring out from her […] skull-like face’ (p. 111). Emily leaps back into bed and faints at once from the pain of her newly-opened wound. And soon afterwards it becomes clear that other old wounds have been newly opened by the murder: the wounds inflicted by the British slave trade.

The murder in the cabin, after all, has been the outcome of several forms of entrapment or bondage. In it, Emily is trapped in her bed by her injured leg, as well as by the subliminal fear of men that was planted in her by Jonsen’s betrayal. The Dutch captain is trapped on the floor by the ropes that bind him. Margaret is trapped in her role as the despised outsider, hovering in the entrance to the cabin, neither inside the room nor outside it, symbolically replicating her exclusion from both communities on the schooner – the adult community and that of the children. Emily’s violence, then, could be seen as springing from two causes: a desire to free herself from entrapment – entrapment by fear, entrapment by the risk of becoming Margaret – and a desire to stop the man she kills from gaining his freedom. Instead it entraps the pirates, who are doomed by it to atone with their lives for the crimes of the slave-trade, while also trapping Emily herself in the nightmare prison of her guilt.

‘The Slave Ship’ by Turner, representing the Zong massacre

Meanwhile, the two girls both suffer a further descent towards the condition of enslaved Black Africans in the earlier part of the Nineteenth Century. When the pirates discover Margaret at the scene of the murder, they assume at once that she is the murderer and toss her overboard in a fit of retribution, fear and disgust. The girl is only rescued by sheer chance when a passing boat, full of pirates who aren’t aware of the murder, finds her swimming in the ocean and returns her to the schooner, physically unharmed but emotionally traumatized. The episode recalls a number of notorious incidents in the history of the British slave trade, most notably the murder of more than 130 Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in 1781, who threw them overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. After this, Margaret’s own erasure from history is complete, as adults increasingly assume (without much evidence) that she has been driven mad by her ordeal, and hence an unsafe witness of what happened on the schooner. Emily, meanwhile, takes refuge in telling stories as a means of blotting out the memory of murder; and the tales she tells are the ones she learned from Sam, the Black servant who died in the hurricane. ‘She could recall the Anansi stories Old Sam had told her,’ the narrator informs us, ‘and they often proved the point of departure for new ones of her own’ (p. 115). She recalls, too, the stories of duppies or vengeful spirits which she and her siblings had mocked when they first heard them in Jamaica. Her experience of violence makes the stories suddenly convincing, and she even catches herself ‘wondering what the Dutchman’s duppy would look like, all bloody, with its head turned backwards on its shoulders and clanking a chain’ (p. 115). But this kind of tale is of course less comforting than the trickster stories of Anansi, and she swiftly replaces them with an imperialist fairy tale in which she sits ‘on a golden throne in the remotest East’, as if in an Orientalist revision of the Thousand and One Nights. The narrator even refers to the Arabic classic, using it as an analogy for the endless stories the young girl conjures up in her bid to stave off nightmares (p. 114). But although the notion of occupying a throne may be pleasurable – a welcome return to the state of power she imagined for herself on her return from Liberty Hill – the situation of the storyteller Scheherazade is not so attractive, given that she told her tales as a means to stave off death. Emily’s nightmares accordingly come back with increasing frequency, and she responds by retreating from any kind of power, whether monarchic or simply adult, instead taking refuge in early childhood to the extent that any stranger who met her would have considered her, the narrator observes, ‘rather young for her age’ (p. 119). Despite this apparent immaturity, she is disturbing to Jonsen and Otto. She sings and shouts too loudly and too often, ‘like a larger, fiercer lark’ (p. 119), and the effect is presumably less like Shelleyan strains of unpremeditated art than the noise of a second madwoman on the schooner.

Jonsen’s disturbance at the girl’s behaviour may be partly at least the effect of guilt. Of course he is guilty of the attempted assault in the hold; but at other times, too, his actions bring him close to the caricature of the pirate captain from which he so assiduously seeks to dissociate himself. In one incident, soon after the murder, Captain Jonsen chases Emily’s younger brother Edward round the ship’s deck with an iron belaying-pin in hand, and is only prevented from doing him fatal damage by an unexpected display on the part of Edward’s sister Rachel (p. 122). Later, Jonsen tells Otto as a joke that he plans to murder all the children and drop them overboard (‘sew them up in little bags […] and put them over the side’, p. 137); and though he is chuckling as he says it, Otto half believes him, an assumption presumably based on the time when he and Jonsen threw the unfortunate Margaret into the sea. And all the time Jonsen harbours a terrible secret that gets mentioned only once, and with studied casualness, by the narrator. The pirate captain, it turns out, has first-hand experience of working on a slave ship – an illegal one, which was still shipping enslaved people after abolition. The sighting of a frigate recalls this time to his memory with sudden vividness: ‘He remembered another occasion, fifteen years before. The slaver of which he was then second mate was bowling along, the hatches down across her stinking cargo, all canvas spread, when right across the glittering path of the moon a frigate crossed, almost within gun-shot’ (p. 131). On that occasion the ship’s ‘stinking cargo’ had been men, women and children on their way from Africa to the Caribbean; this time it is abducted white children from Jamaica. Like the Africans, the white children are stowed away in a hold as ‘hot as an oven’; and later in the book, when for reasons of his own the Captain again battens down the hatches, the heat makes the hold into a potentially lethal space, a latter-day ‘Black Hole’ (p. 135). The reference here is to the Black Hole of Calcutta, an incident when racial tension in British India led to the imprisoning of multiple British soldiers and Indian civilians in a cell meant for one or two prisoners, which resulted in the deaths of most of the incarcerated men and women. The phrase also recalls the narrator’s remark about Margaret’s new sleeping arrangements when banished from the cabin: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] was banished to’ (p. 105). There are times, then, when the children’s experiences among the pirates explicitly echo major atrocities in British colonial history. And the echoes continue after their transference from the schooner to the British steamer. A British lady imagines the children on the pirate ship as being ‘Chained, probably, down in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water’ (p. 151). For this white woman, even after abolition the natural place for ‘blacks’ is to be chained up in darkness, while the thought of white children being treated likewise is so appalling precisely because of the imagined difference between people from Britain and people from Africa. Representing their plight in these terms ensures that the lady continues to highlight the enduring presence of the British slave trade in British minds long after it has been expunged from British history books.

There’s no sign, however, that the slave trade ever gets mentioned in so many words by anyone in the book – no more than that the word ‘rape’ gets uttered in relation to Margaret. Shrouded in silence, slavery acquires the status of a childish fantasy – a nightmare or a fairy tale, the sort of thing that only happens in the Thousand and One Nights. Children, however, the narrator tells us, are supremely good at keeping secrets, despite adult assumptions that they are not: ‘A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection’ (p. 88). They know far more than adults give them credit for, and are far better at keeping their knowledge to themselves. Children, meanwhile, believe that adults are even better liars. As Emily contemplates Jonsen and Otto in the cabin, she thinks: ‘It would be so easy for adult things like them to dissemble to her. Suppose they really intended to kill her: they could so easily hide it’ (p. 118). The narrator is not so sure, believing that ‘Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail’ (p. 88). In fact, however, both adults and children fail and succeed with equal frequency to keep their secrets in Hughes’s novel. Emily spills out verbal evidence of her act of murder at the trial, but it isn’t properly heard; Margaret’s behaviour convinces her rescuers she has been raped, but this is not acted on; Captain Jonsen fails to keep his identity as a buccaneer under his hat, his scheme to get the children to say nothing about it falling apart with fatal rapidity. The slave trade, too, is both silenced – kept under hatches, like the enslaved Africans or the white children in the schooner’s hold – and constantly issuing stark reminders of its enduring presence. The fairy story of British imperial history that keeps it suppressed, stressing only the role of Britain in its abolition, cannot be sustained in face of the evidence of persistent racist attitudes. In The Spider’s Palace, a little girl can attend a clandestine party thrown by mice in an upside-down palace, and return to her bed without being detected (‘no one heard her’, p. 106). In High Wind, fairy stories like the Anansi tales or the Thousand and One Nights are circumstantial proof of past atrocities and their survival in the storyteller’s imagination. Few white British writers of the twentieth century better illustrate these things than Richard Hughes.

Cooks

It’s worth ending, I think, with a few more thoughts on race in Hughes’s novel and story collection, with special reference to cooks. Almost the last word in High Wind uttered by anyone but the narrator is almost the first word uttered in the book by a Black character. When the pirates are led out to execution, it’s the ship’s cook who shows the greatest courage, according to a report Hughes quotes from The Times. Until now, the narrator has barely mentioned the cook except as the man who accidentally threw his whetstone overboard in a misguided attempt to rescue a pig, and on that occasion the colour of his skin was never mentioned. Suddenly, however, the Black sailor’s story comes to the fore in the final chapter, with an effect as startling as if Margaret had suddenly been invited to utter her opinion of her life at sea. In The Times’s account, the cook has eloquence and wisdom as well as courage, though neither can save him from execution – despite the fact that several other members of the crew were ‘reprieved and transported’ at the last minute. These are his words – translated, it’s implied, from his native Spanish:

We shall certainly end our lives in this place: nothing can save us. But in a few years we should die in any case. In a few years the judge who condemned us, all men now living, will be dead. You know that I die innocent: anything I have done, I was forced to do by the rest of you. But I am not sorry. I would rather die now, innocent, than in a few years perhaps guilty of some great sin. (p. 173)

The cook’s execution, this implies, is the final murder in the book that can reasonably be ascribed to the toxic influence of the slave trade. He was effectively enslaved by the pirates, forced to work for them against his will, and his innocence has been noted by the law-abiding Britons working for a major newspaper, though not by the magistrate who condemn him. The other pirates, then, may be innocent of the murder for which they are hanged, but they are not innocent of practising slavery. The British legal system, too, is not innocent, being more guilty of murder than Jonsen: the Captain only attempts to execute Margaret, while the judges successfully execute an entire shipload of foreign nationals. The passage reminds us, then, that innocence is an unstable term; but it also emphasizes the fact that criminal acts have long been practised by the British state, and that institutional racism is a major factor in such acts. By 1929, seizing the opportunity to die with a clear conscience had never been trickier for white British subjects.

Mervyn Peake’s rendition of the sea cook, Long John Silver

In The Spider’s Palace, cooks are deeply implicated in the racism of 1920s British society. In the story ‘Nothing’, a cook chooses to conceal the fact that seven children living in a white middle-class household have among their toys a ‘dead Chinaman’ and a ‘live Chinaman’, in defiance of the wishes of their parents. The erasure from scrutiny of these unsettling playthings is referred to in the story’s title, and while the presence of two Chinese people in the list of the children’s toys is clearly meant to be comic, their concealment by the cook – who ‘hid them under her apron, and when the father and mother were gone […] gave them back to the seven children’ (p. 67) – might invoke for a twenty-first century adult reader the concealment of racist incidents in British history from adult knowledge, through their exclusion from the curriculum in schools and universities as well as from family anecdotes. In another story, ‘The Dark Child’, a boy who exudes darkness when he stands upright and brilliant light when he stands on his hands is saved from his condition by a resourceful cook, who mixes the darkness and light together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, thus rendering the child completely ‘ordinary’ (p. 22). The child is definitely not Black, the narrator tells us: ‘He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either: he was much blacker than that’ (p. 17). Indeed, he spreads darkness around him like a miasma, to the consternation of his relatives, and it’s implied that his restoration to ‘ordinariness’ involves a return to the condition of being a white middle-class schoolboy, a state that makes his family ‘pleased as pleased as pleased’ (p. 22). A twenty-first century reader of this story might well think about racism in white middle-class families, as exemplified in the covering up of interracial relationships and offspring that took place in white households in the early twentieth century. The presence of a cook in both these stories that touch on race points towards the inside knowledge of private family affairs acquired by these working-class interlopers in middle-class homes, the kitchen servant in each case being privy to awkward racial facts that have been shunted aside or covered up – much like, in historical terms, the scandalous fact of British interference in the Chinese economy from the Opium Wars to the 1920s, or the widespread refusal in the same period to acknowledge Black citizens as fully British. It seems appropriate, then, that it’s a cook who ensures that the narrative of High Wind ends with a focus on race as well as gender. Of all people in the bourgeois household, the cook has the most unfettered access to the various ingredients that go into the occupants’ bodies. Hughes’s cooks also have unfettered access to the contents of middle-class minds. As a result, they are acutely conscious of the disconnect between the rules by which British society claims to abide and the hidden prejudices and obsessions that really drive its actions. Hidden, often, in the basement of the family home – its ‘hold’, so to speak, or underground regions – kitchen servants gain a unique insight into what has been suppressed and silenced by their masters and mistresses. Hughes enjoins us to listen closely to what they have to say.

Richard Hughes

 

Editions

J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, ed. Peter Hollindale, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (aka The Innocent Voyage) (St Albans: Triad/Panther Books, 1976).

Richard Hughes, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974).

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

[This essay was first published in Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]

Wartime sketch

Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945.[1] Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’.[2] It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood.[3] Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality.[4] In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic.[5] Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?

Sketch

Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:[6]

Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood

The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’.[7] And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.

Recently discovered sketch (c. 1940), with centaurs and soldiers

Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.

The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier[8] – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:

I Was Not There

When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.

When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.

Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.

In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.

‘Mother and Child’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Work by the Artist Adolf Hitler (1940)

Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date.[9] The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947.[10] I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art.[11] He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.

Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:

For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.

The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.

We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.

And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –

And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.

The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show

Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.

Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.

Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.

‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?

‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’

Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’

And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.

‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’

The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.

‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’

His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.

‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.

‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.

‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from

And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.

Long John Silver

This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore.[12] The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.

‘Self Portrait’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Works by the Artist Adolf Hitler (c. 1940)

But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.

It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.

‘Coming Up to Scratch’, from Figures of Speech (1954)

The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.

The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.

For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:

‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.

‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”

‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.

‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’

So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’.[13] The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:[14]

Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart

Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.[16]

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

NOTES

[1] Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

[3] See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).

[4] For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.

[5] See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.

[6] UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.

[7] ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.

[8] For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.

[9] The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.

[10] The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.

[11] See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.

[12] Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.

[13] Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.

[14] Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.

[15] The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.

[16] Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy

[This is the text of a keynote I gave recently at a terrific conference in Edinburgh, ‘Deeper than Swords: Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore’. It’s also a rough sketch, I hope, for something larger. Warm thanks to Anahit Behrooz and Harriet MacMillan for inviting me to give it!]

I’d like here to consider the work of Mervyn Peake as an extended exercise in what I’m calling the ‘poetics of piracy’. Peake had a lifelong obsession with pirates, born in part from his boyhood obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson: he is said to have known Treasure Island by heart, and his illustrated edition of that text, published in 1949, confirmed its continuing centrality to his imaginative life and artistic practice. The first book he wrote and published was a pirate story, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). One of his earliest surviving experiments in prose fiction, the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1933-6), links piracy to the work of the artist in disturbing ways. His early verse is filled with the vocabulary of piracy, and pirates continue to emblazon and trouble his visual and verbal art throughout his career. It seems to me that thinking about what piracy meant to Peake can help us map out his peculiar relationship to what has come to be known as fantasy literature; to pin down its elusiveness, much as the map in Stevenson’s novel pins down the whereabouts of Captain Flint’s buried treasure – though it’s worth remembering that in the novel the chart obtained by Jim Hawkins proves an untrustworthy guide to the current location of the treasure in question. But then, that’s the point of the poetics of piracy; it’s all about the elusive, the illegal, the unsettling and the endlessly alluring, as seen in relation to the seemingly fixed and inviolable rules that govern the authoritative discourses of society, religion and science. I don’t promise, then, that I’ll be able to offer a conclusive account of Peake as a writer of fantasy; but his fascination with buccaneering literature and folklore can certainly explain why he so exasperatingly refuses to locate himself at the epicentre of any genre, which is itself, I think, a crucial quality of good fantasy fiction.

Peake’s most celebrated works of fiction, the Titus novels, have always had a vexed relationship to the fantastic. Nothing explicitly impossible takes place in them; they contain no magic; and indeed one of Peake’s few uses of the term ‘fantasy’ in the texts – when Titus encounters a wild girl known as the Thing – seems firmly to differentiate the physical environs of the titanic castle of Gormenghast from the immaterial fabrications of the human mind:

He was propelled forward by his imagination having been stirred to its depths by the sight of her. He had not seen her face. He had not heard her speak. But that which over the years had become a fantasy, a fantasy of dreaming trees and moss, of golden acorns and a sprig in flight, was fantasy no longer. It was here. It was now. He was running through heat and darkness towards it; to the verity of it all. (673)

 For Peake, then, the imagination is stimulated by what exists, by the rich evidence of the senses which forms the basis of the visual artist’s training, as he or she scrutinizes live or inanimate models with the aim of populating the mind with the precise proportions, textures, contours and colours of the real. At the same time the Thing, as represented to Titus’s imagination from his first sighting of her at the age of seven, has come to represent a range of qualities with associations to the pirate stories Titus loves as much as Peake does. A thief, a rebel and an outcast, the Thing’s opposition to the monumental authority of the boy’s ancestral home is embodied in the free-ranging agility of her frame, its seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity as well as of the books of ritual that restrict the daily movements of the castle’s denizens. Rooted or earthed in the real, despite her airiness, she represents the liberty to spin dazzling new structures from the materials afforded by empirical observation. And she is also deeply disturbing to him, as pirates are, even to lovers of pirate stories. In both these associations – with liberty and with inward disturbance – she has affinities with the faculty of fantasy which has been placed at the heart of a peculiarly modern literary genre.

Fantasy has always been a disreputable object. Its ancient Greek roots meant ‘making visible’, an exposure of that which has been hidden, perhaps for good reason; while in later Greek the word associated itself with the concept of having visions, as well as with the less alarming process of showing, demonstrating, pointing out. When used to refer to the imaginative faculty, the source of its disreputability comes to the fore. For early modern English speakers the Imagination or Fantasy was the part of your brain that received the evidence of the senses; but it was also capable of representing to your mind the images of things not actually present, which would seem to ally it with the faculty of Memory. The difference was that Memory was an orderly faculty full of shelves and files labeled in alphabetical and chronological order, grouped under headings and carefully connected with one another through a range of logical associations. The business of organizing mental images was that of the Understanding, which interposed itself between the unruly space of the Fantasy or Imagination and the storehouse of the Memory. Understanding, then, was a kind of sorting office staffed by efficient functionaries; while there was a wildness about the Fantasy before the Understanding got hold of it, an innate tendency to disconnect the mental image from all association with its original contexts, or to link images together which had never been conjoined in reality: tacking a fish’s tail or a horse’s body onto a human torso; assembling elaborate fusions of elements from different life forms to create griffins, dragons, and chimeras of all kinds. Memory was associated with maturity, with a settled awareness of one’s intellectual, social and moral responsibilities. Fantasy was associated with the playful, sometimes destructive or self-destructive exuberance of youth.

Some thinkers, like the Elizabethan poetic theorist George Puttenham, have always warned against inventing fictions altogether, since this could permanently distort one’s judgement of what is real. He split the fantasy into two kinds: the good sort, which conveyed things to the understanding ‘right as they be indeed’, and the bad sort that filled the analytical parts of the mind with false impressions. Poets, he said, should confine themselves to drawing on authentic memories or accurate representations of extant things when composing their verses; they should be historians. Writing about what never happened or could happen distorts not only the past but the efficient functioning of the present. Lawcourts could have their findings compromised by made-up testimony. Religions could become corrupted, as Plato said had happened in ancient Greece when poets allowed themselves to reimagine the gods. Governments could find their policies determined by non-existent threats or possibilities. For Puttenham as for Plato, irresponsible poetic fictions can proliferate like viruses, spawning insurrections, illusions and errors as they spread.

For the modern poet Jeffrey Robinson, Puttenham’s distinction between responsible and irresponsible fantasy – between the practice of poetic and intellectual realism and what we now call ‘making things up’ – endured in a subtly different form into the age of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements that arose from it. Robinson identifies the famous distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) as a struggle to distinguish between the orderly functioning of the imaginative faculty as, in effect, a tool of authority, imposing its unified vision on everything it comes in contact with, and its deployment as an instrument of exploration or discovery, a light skiff or launch capable of skimming from image to image, from one idea to the next, irrespective of the accepted relations between the various objects of its attention. The Fancy, which is etymologically linked with Fantasy, is for Robinson the precursor of twentieth-century modernist poetic experiment; but his list of its qualities could also serve as a description of how the genre of Fantasy Literature has often been perceived in modern times:

A faculty that acknowledges ‘the referent’ through the playful, unpredictable, erotically engaged, unregulated mind of the subject, without a ruling regard for the socially acceptable […] The Fancy […] begins to emerge as whimsical, playful, trivial, physical, sexual, and popular, more than enough reasons for the poetry of the Fancy to trouble the cultural police. […] Indeed, its triviality and whimsicality is precisely what keeps it from remaining a polite ornament of the literary aristocracy. […] Poetry of the Fancy isn’t about ‘work’ or ‘usefulness’ but about play. As do children, poems of the Fancy play seriously.

The qualities of ‘fancy’ as Robinson describes them here have survived from the early modern period to the present day in attitudes to the word fantasy, which is now a term of opprobrium in ordinary discourse, no longer dignified by association with a necessary mental function but used to denounce the childish failure to take proper account of the material conditions that govern our economic, social, political or even physical circumstances. Fantasy is irresponsible, fleeting, flippant, self-indulgent, infantile, wayward. As a result it’s also dangerous, especially when used as a guide in our daily actions. Too much fantasy can make you go blind.

The poetics of piracy are not the same as Robinson’s poetics of fancy, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the fantasy genre as we now understand it, since the folklore of piracy springs from what are deemed to be real people and real social practices, rooted in history. The origins of modern pirate folklore lie in an early eighteenth-century book, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1725), which recounts the purportedly factual adventures of a number of buccaneers whose names have passed into common currency: Bartholomew Roberts (better known as ‘the Dread’); Blackbeard; Calico Jack; William Kidd; and Israel Hands, who lent his name to the man shot dead by Jim Hawkins on the rigging of the Hispaniola. I don’t know if Peake was familiar with Johnson’s book, but all three of the principal texts he drew on for his boyhood dreams of piracy certainly were. Treasure Island is the first and foremost. The second, mentioned in Peake’s short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ (1948), is that classic account of survival, piracy, and the healing powers of missionary work, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island; while the third is J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. To look at Peake’s work through the prism of these three novels is to recognize the dominant role played by buccaneers not just in his plots and images but in his aesthetic philosophy, not just in his early years but throughout his life. His poetry, prose and pictures owe an incalculable debt to the figure of the sea-wolf as imagined by Ballantyne, Stevenson and Barrie, and a full understanding of the development of his most celebrated creation, Gormenghast Castle, can only be achieved by asking oneself why the notion of piracy should have proved so endlessly suggestive to this quintessential mid-twentieth-century artist.

What, then, do the pirates of legend and literature bring with them? First of all, they’re associated with boyhood and youth, as Peake knew very well. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was a pirate book for children, and he drew dozens of pirate pictures for his sons in the Sunday Books – exercise books in which he sketched for them on Sundays – to such an extent that Michael Moorcock’s recent novelization of that document was more or less forced to take pirates as its subject. Like children, pirates have no sense of responsibility, breaking laws freely, abandoning families, friends and partners whenever they feel like it, killing each other on the slightest of pretexts without a qualm (children do this in play). Their resistance to convention is given physical expression by their mobility: pirate ships sail the seas at the whim of the crew, not in obedience to instructions from outside authorities as is the case with most seagoing vessels. At the same time there are severe constraints on a pirate’s freedom, the chief of these being the ship itself, which confines its crew within a narrow circuit more effectively than any building or institution. Pirates are also often subject to tyranny. The imposition of the captain’s will by force, widely practised on other vessels, takes its most extreme form in the spontaneous and inventive acts of cruelty practised by certain legendary leaders among the buccaneers – though there’s also a folkloric tradition of more or less democratic practices under the sign of the Jolly Roger. Rituals govern them: the necessary rituals associated with the everyday running of the ship, supplemented by additional oaths, codes, rules or agreements enforced with threats of appalling violence. Pirate ships are often represented as all-male communities, and this too imposes constraints: certain forms of behaviour are associated with masculinity in any given culture or period, and the lack of any alternative gender perspective can mean that notions of ‘manhood’ govern the pirate’s thoughts, desires and actions. Same-sex desire is perhaps more widespread under these conditions than in mixed-sex communities, and though this has traditionally tended to be eschewed in children’s fiction, it’s worth noting how central it is to Peake’s own children’s book, Captain Slaughterboard, which is one of the few narratives of the period to place what is clearly a homoerotic romance at its centre. Other piratical concerns are economic (they indulge in plunder – a word Peake uses repeatedly in his verse to describe the process of absorbing the physical wonders of the world through the eye – and conceal their treasure, which clearly works against the principles of capitalism); geographic and artistic (treasure maps are as inseparable from pirate culture as their icon, the Jolly Roger); and dramatic (pirates like to dress up and make theatrical speeches, and everyone else likes to dress up as pirates). To sum up: breaking national, international, moral and sartorial laws is what pirates do – sometimes by imposing laws of their own – and they do it as flamboyantly as possible. That, at least, is the folklore, and it’s from folklore as conveyed through literature that piracy derives its energy.

In the literary folklore there’s another association with pirates that hasn’t been much discussed, which is their complicated relationship with the middle classes. It’s Stevenson, I think, who’s responsible for this link. The young hero of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper – the kind of job in the service industry that a retired pirate might well choose for himself, as in effect Long John Silver has done when Jim first meets him; but when mutiny breaks out he decides to throw in his lot with the ‘gentry’ rather than the sea dogs. Jim’s allies in the book are the local landowner, Squire Trelawney, a physician called Doctor Livesey, and Captain Smollett, and his adventures see him make the transition from servant (he is employed before the cruise alongside the squire’s gamekeeper, and serves as cabin boy on board the squire’s ship) to junior partner in the economic enterprise of seeking the titular treasure. At the same time Jim is strongly drawn to the charismatic ship’s cook, Silver, who has an astonishing ability to make himself equally attractive to the working men of the crew and to their masters, and who switches sides between them at a moment’s notice when it suits his interests. Silver, in fact, represents another aspect of pirates: their ability to merge with other communities, springing spontaneously out of the disciplined ranks of a legitimate crew and melting away into anonymity as soon as they disembark at the end of a voyage. Whatever his class origins, Silver’s easy relations with all classes, his predatory focus on economic self-interest, his insouciant pleasure in legal and economic risk-taking, his constant reinvention of himself as innkeeper, cook, friend, conspirator, captain, rebel, trusty servant and eventually fugitive, all stand to endear him to the guilty bourgeoisie who secretly share many of his values and even some of his techniques. The ease with which Jim might find himself on Silver’s side can be measured by the speed of Ralph’s capture and impression as a pirate in The Coral Island; but where Ralph never feels at home aboard the pirate ship – at least until he acquires it for himself – one can imagine Jim feeling thoroughly at home with Silver once committed to his cause.

Piracy, in fact, can represent the middle classes’ flirtation with working class culture; and this is confirmed by the personality of that most middle-class of pirates, Captain Hook, who is haunted by his failures during his schooldays at Eton, and who shares his persona in crucial ways with Peter Pan: both feel the lack of a mother, both enjoy a little swordplay, and both tyrannize over their social inferiors, giving vent to their moods whenever they feel like it and indulging in occasional bouts of disloyalty or outright betrayal. Both, too, thrive on having enemies, to the extent that Peter’s bereavement of Hook at the end of the novel compounds the sense of desolation generated by his effectual marooning on his island by Wendy and the Lost Boys. Hook and Peter represent the middle-class view of piracy – a temporary game in a contained alien space which arouses forbidden lusts (for blood, dictatorship, extreme risk-taking, imaginative self-indulgence) only to suppress them as the book draws to a close, allowing its young reader to return, perhaps a little embittered, to his or her preordained role in polite society.

Mervyn Peake’s attachment to piracy is everywhere apparent in his poems. Pirates and the poetics of piracy as I’ve sketched it out enable him to articulate his fierce resistance to the economic and social pressures that threaten to curtail his practices as an artist, and to acknowledge the link he sees between the destructive energy of violence and the creative stimulus he derives from the natural world. The earliest verses in the Collected Poems figure the dawn as a potentially piratical act of murder: ‘The’invisible scimitar of Morn, / Again had passionately torn / And slashed the Sky’s pale neck’, which culminates unexpectedly in a birth: ‘And in that welter of living fire / Be-jewelled and robed to his heart’s desire / Was born – young Day’. This three-way link between blood, fire and new life continued to resonate in Peake’s mind into the 1940s, finding its most startling expression in the encounter between a decidedly piratical sailor and a newborn baby in the fires of the Blitz in his 1947 ballad, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. An equally troubling association between beauty and violence emerges from Peake’s frequent references to the artist’s absorption of information through his senses as a process of piratical looting. In ‘If I Could See, Not Surfaces’ (1937), for instance, he speaks of his desire to ‘plunder splendor / At the womb’, and of how this activity promises to feminize him so that he can ‘give bold birth / To long / Rivers of song’ (so birth comes into the equation here too). These are neither of them specifically buccaneering references, but there are plenty of those, from the description of the artist Mané Katz’s Paris studio as ‘a pirate’s glutted locker’ (1937) to the account of unemployed young men in ‘The Cocky Walkers’ (c. 1937) as skidding ‘Their careless privateer’ down the ‘seas’ of London streets ‘Agog for a gold island / Or a war / With penny pirates on a silver sand’. In 1942, when Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, he pictured himself and his fellow patients at Southport Hospital as sickly sea-dogs, ‘The swashbucklers / Who have to be in bed by half past nine […] The unconvincing pirates of the ward’. And if in his last known poems pirates aren’t mentioned by name, the imagery of the sea and its devastations lingers on, as in ‘Great Hulk down the Astonished Waters Drifting’ (c. 1958), which records what could well be the aftermath of a life of piracy:

Where is her captain and the golden shore
Where danced the golden sailors? Where’s the sea
That sang of water when the heart was free
And mermaids sang where mermaids swim no more?

In all these verses, creativity and the artist’s receptiveness to beauty have an intimate connection to wandering, illicit adventures, flamboyant masculinity, playfulness, mutiny, pain and bloodshed – a potent and disturbing fusion that testifies to Peake’s sense that there is no officially sanctioned place for his kind of art (imaginative, grotesque, inflected by the influences of romanticism and popular culture) in the mid-twentieth century, any more than there is a place for psychiatric patients in the military machine.

For Peake as for Barrie and Stevenson, piracy is both at odds with and strangely attuned to the values of the middle classes. His most elaborate working-out of his buccaneering aesthetics was the eccentric and unfinished prose narrative Mr Slaughterboard (not to be confused with Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor), whose titular pirate captain sails the oceans with a cargo of books lovingly preserved in a seaborne library, where he spends his days discussing literature with his manservant Smear, ‘An eyeless deformed creature dressed as if about to catch a train to London Bridge’. The narrative culminates in a massacre, Mr Slaughterboard having been assailed by an attack of creativity (‘the Captain was becoming aesthetic. Always dangerous’) which makes him command his crew to swim repeatedly under his vessel in a series of ever more demanding competitions until they are all wiped out. The captain claims to have a conscience, but it’s the kind that favours his leather-covered volumes of Dickens above human lives, that celebrates the aesthetic at the expense of his crewmembers, and that privileges the accumulation of an ever-increasing and diverse plunder of beauty – literary and visual – over everything else. Self-centred, murderous and godless, Mr Slaughterboard nonetheless shares the tastes of the bourgeoisie for all the components of conspicuous consumption – high culture, good clothes, congenial company and attractive surroundings – with a bourgeois disregard for the material processes by which they fall into his hands.

If the link between beauty and death lay at the heart of Peake’s aesthetics, then the outbreak of war must have come as a shock for him – not least because what it represented for him was a drastic extension of aesthetic ‘plunder’ for his inward piratical treasure chest or locker. As war swept over Europe he wrote two fine sonnets which responded with simultaneous horror and exhilaration to the beauty of warplanes: ‘The Metal Bird’ (c. 1937) and ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’ (c. 1939). During the Spanish Civil War he wrote a sonnet on the Spanish mannerist painter El Greco (1938), which reads his strangely elongated and brightly-coloured saints as premonitory visions of the bombing of Guernica: ‘Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere / A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven’. When World War 2 broke out Peake responded with a series of drawings in the style of Goya, showing works purportedly painted by ‘the Artist Adolf Hitler’ using the fields and towns of Europe as his canvas, in which standard studio subjects – ‘Family Group’, ‘Reclining Figure’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – are reconceived as images of atrocity, modeled on the real atrocities Hitler had sanctioned in his quest for power. Peake’s poetics of piracy had found a rival in the irresponsible, lawless, plunder-loving artist figure from Austria, who reproduced in actuality, using human material, the aesthetics of piracy as practised by Mr Slaughterboard. The collision between one version of piracy and another – between the buccaneering spirit of the lonely heart and the cold privateering of a would-be pirate dictator – provides the plot of the first two Titus books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). The books delineate an epic struggle over Peake’s imaginative territory, embodied in a monstrous post-medieval castle which doubles as a middle class household, its seemingly interminable rooms occupied by doctors, teachers, poets, and lonely children who are clearly modeled on the inmates of British boarding schools. And it’s suffused from beginning to end with the poetics of piracy, shared freely between the youthful upstart Steerpike and the rest of the castle’s denizens, as if Peake is concerned to find a way to rescue his beloved buccaneering from its enforced association with the aesthetics of Nazism.

As G Peter Winnington has shown us, Gormenghast is an island full of natural wonders, prowled by bizarre creatures (all its denizens get linked to beasts at one point) and subject to violent natural forces, some of them as awe-inspiring as the tidal wave in The Coral Island (a calamitous snowfall, a period of scorching heat, a flood). As the novels proceed it becomes a territory ripe for exploring, inhabited by various tribes, each with its own exotic customs and cultural practices: the teachers of Gormenghast school, for instance, who can be seen ‘squatting like aboriginals upon their haunches’, or lurking in the shadows ‘like bandits in a bad light’. Despite being made of stone, it also resembles a ship by virtue of its creaking timbers, its cargo of unexpected treasures, the piratical manners of its crew. Like a ship the place is full of hammocks, from Rottcodd’s in the Hall of the Bright Carvings to the hammock Steerpike slings under the table at the Dark Breakfast, or the hammocks occupied by Bellgrove and Irma when the flood waters rise in the second volume. Even authority there has a piratical aura. The Master of Ceremonies, Barquentine, is named after a ship – the kind Captain Cook used when he sailed to Australia – and stumps around on a wooden leg like an elderly Silver, cursing and threatening violence wherever he goes. Lady Gertrude is a giant pirate with a booming voice, who has a horde of affectionate birds instead of a parrot, a bevy of white ship’s cats and an utter disregard for any authority besides her duty to what is effectively her ship – the castle itself. She is constantly being compared to a vessel, and her language is a pirate’s, as when she swears to track down the killer of her husband at the end of Titus Groan: ‘Let them rear their ugly hands, and by the Doom, we’ll crack ’em chine-ways’ (p. 347). Her daughter Fuchsia, meanwhile, is sometimes one of the natives of the territory colonized by the sea-wolves, sometimes the sea-wolves’ young accomplice, a female Jim Hawkins. She enters her private attic like a pearl diver entering the sea, ‘his world of wavering light’, and moves through it with the confidence of a Cherokee or a Sioux, knowing every inch of it ‘as an Indian knows his green and secret trail’. One of the items she keeps in the attic is a pirate portrait of ‘the twenty-second Earl of Groan’, who has ‘pure white hair and a face the colour of smoke as a result of immoderate tattooing’ (p. 57). Once ensconced in her lair beneath the rafters, she reads a nonsense poem about a seaborne cake who is pursued by an amorous and deadly piratical knife; and the poem proves prophetic, since it’s there that she encounters Steerpike, who presents himself (after reading her books and guessing at her tastes) as a bold adventurer, a rebel and a dangerous would-be lover – a kind of landlocked pirate.

The servant classes of Gormenghast, too, have piratical aspects. The grotesque physical appearances of Flay and Swelter recall the bizarre bodies and outlandish manners of Mr Slaughterboard’s crew, and its inspiration, Captain Hook’s crew in Peter and Wendy (‘Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed […] Gentleman Starkey, once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing […] Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards’). The climactic battle between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders evokes the random duels to the death between grappling pirates in Treasure Island. They turn the Hall into a feverish nocturnal tropical island, full of ‘lianas’ of trailing thread, oppressive heat and reflections from water:

As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make, face to face, their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browned with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank webs impeded.

In this context Swelter comes into his own, moving ‘more and more like something from the deeps where the grey twine-weed coils the sidling sea-cow’. He also acquires a distinct resemblance to Long John Silver, who had, if you remember, ‘a face as big as a ham ’; so too, as Swelter stalks Flay we learn that he has a ‘great ham of a face’, which seems at odds with its earlier representation as a place of opening and closing cavities of fat. At the climax of the battle Swelter moves yet further into pirate territory. His freshly-slain corpse becomes a vessel, with Flay’s sword sticking out of it ‘like a mast of steel’ (p. 318). Flay’s own piratical apotheosis has to wait till he becomes marooned, transforming himself into a ragged and hairy Ben Gunn whose cave contains not treasure but – in the end – the Thing – for it’s in Flay’s cave that Titus finally catches hold of her, acquiring in the process the sort of imaginative ‘plunder’ Peake recorded in his poems.

The central form piracy takes in the Titus books is its embodiment in two boys: the upstart Steerpike and Titus himself. Both are rebels who dream of taking charge of their own destiny; both rove freely across the landscape of the castle; both detest the oppressive weight of authority, and both trigger acts of treason and rebellion again and again throughout the two novels. Steerpike, at the beginning, is the one who discovers the castle’s potential as a setting for romance, scaling its precipitous walls like a young adventurer scaling cliffs, unveiling its hidden wonders such as the terrace open to the sky, and spinning exotic yarns to Fuchsia like the old sea-cook Silver in his galley (and of course Steerpike begins the book in the galley or kitchen too). But Steerpike is also a thief, who steals other people’s romances – notably Fuchsia’s – and uses them to further his own ends, thereby destroying their imaginative landscapes as he destroys Lord Sepulchrave’s library. In the second book he seeks to supplant young Titus as the protagonist – and it’s striking how he seems if anything to get younger in that book, as if to make this possible: playing games such as walking on his hands for no good reason, tormenting the Twins like a bullying schoolboy, cutting off Barquentine’s hair in clumps with a pair of scissors as he walks behind him, acquiring a catapult which he uses to deadly effect. The analogy to Peter Pan grows increasingly obvious. As he approaches Barquentine’s bedroom, planning to murder him, his shadow gains an independent life of its own in one of Peake’s most astonishing virtuoso passages (the shadow grows and shrinks until it becomes a ‘thick and stunted thing – a malformation, intangible, terrible, that led the way towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a while, be ended’, p. 567). Later Steerpike learns the pipe, Peter Pan’s instrument; and before the end of the book he has started to crow like a cock, Peter’s trademark cry of triumph: first over the corpses of the Twins he murdered – then, fatally, as Titus plunges towards him through the ivy in the final showdown between the two young men.

Meanwhile, he retains both the adaptability of Long John Silver – able to speak to any denizen of the castle in his or her own language whenever he chooses – and his casual murderousness. When Steerpike kills Flay, he does it in much the same way as Silver kills the young sailor, Tom, who refuses to join his mutiny. In Treasure Island Jim watches in horror as John ‘whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back’; and Silver follows the missile ‘agile as a monkey’ and ‘twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body’ (p. 97). In the same way Steerpike flings a knife at Flay, watched by the horrified Titus, and ‘while the blade […] still quivered in his heart […] following the path of the flung knife, as though he were tied behind it, sped over their shoulders and was in the upper room before they could recover’. Once a fugitive after the killing, Steerpike seems to come into his own; he finds his Satanic solitude in the deserted places of the castle utterly congenial, and embraces it so completely that he generates a Silver- or Pan-like aura around himself even as the manhunt closes in, convincing his pursuers that he could ‘hide in a rudder’, as the Countess puts it.

Titus too is a rebel, an explorer of the castle, a congenital loner, and a player of games (though his game is marbles, not theatrical posturing). His imagination, much more than Steerpike’s, is possessed by pirates. As he muses in a sun-drenched classroom, one of his marbles spawns another astonishing flight of fancy – sunny and colourful, in marked contrast to the passage about Steerpike’s shadow:

Wading towards him, dilating as they neared until they pressed out and broke the frame of fancy, was a posse of pirates. They were as tall as towers, their great brows beetling over their sunken eyes, like shelves of overhanging rocks. In their mouths were hoops of red gold, and in their mouths scythe-edged cutlasses a-drip. […] And still they came on, until there was only room enough for the smouldering head of the central buccaneer, a great salt-water lord, every inch of whose face was scabbed and scarred like a boy’s knee, whose teeth were carved into the shapes of skulls, whose throat was circled by the tattooing of a scaled snake.

Following the pirates’ example, Titus breaks out of the ‘frame of fancy’ – making his daydreams real by playing hooky on Gormenghast Mountain, seeking out the castaway Flay in his cave, evading the rituals that are meant to define his days, and finally tracking down his rival Steerpike in feverish delirium, as if infected by the pestilent marshes of Treasure Island, to engage him in single combat. In the process of pursuing his piratical dreams, Titus sees the castle fulfil its potential as the stronghold of liberating romance, as against the authoritarian prison of the policed imagination – or the grim playground of a dictator, which is what Steerpike seeks to make it. At the beginning of the second novel, Peake points out how the castle holds all the ingredients of an adventure story, a boy’s own thriller: ‘Here all about him the raw material burned: the properties and settings of romance. Romance that is passionate; obscure and sexless: that is dangerous and arrogant’. By the end of the book the potentialities of that material, which lay dormant at the beginning, have been activated by the twin energies of Titus and Steerpike. As the floodwaters rise around it, making of it a fitting stage for the conclusive fight between them, Gormenghast becomes a true island, not just the copy of one; the morose Bright Carvers become pirates or Indians, skimming about the castle’s perimeters in the canoes they have carved; the Professors take to the water, steering their dilapidated boats through corridors in fulfillment of their own daydreams of liberation from their sun-drenched classrooms; Bellgrove and Irma take to their hammocks and find new contentment in their marriage; and the Countess becomes the pirate captain she was always meant to be, issuing orders for the summary execution of the traitor she has vowed to gut.

The interesting part about all this is that Titus, too, is a traitor, who proclaims his hatred for the castle’s ritual to his mother at the very moment when he brings her news about the whereabouts of the traitor Steerpike. If Steerpike was Fuchsia’s would-be seducer, Titus is the Thing’s, and both the women they covet end up dead. If Steerpike is a bundle of contradictions – cold and calculating yet whimsical, murderous yet capable of astonishing empathy, treacherous yet ready to master every detail of the pointless rituals he despises – Titus is full of contradictions too, in his love and hate for Gormenghast, his pride at and disgust with his inheritance as the Earl of Groan. This ‘terrible antithesis within him – the tearing in two directions of his heart and head’ – is made up of a ‘growing and feverish longing’, an ‘ineradicable, irrational pride’ in himself and his lineage, and ‘the love, as deep as the hate, which he felt, unwittingly, for the least of the stones of his loveless home’. The antithesis brings him so close to his enemy Steerpike that before long the other young man has stolen his boat – the light canoe or skiff he associates in his mind with the Thing – and paddled off in it as if to take his place at the centre of the narrative. Antitheses are the stuff of the poetics of piracy, as I hope I have shown. In placing them at the centre of his narrative, Peake made an enduring statement about the state of things – especially, perhaps, about the state of England in and after the Second World War – which he could have articulated in no other way.

Mervyn Peake at Southport

[I’ve been busy marking this month, which hasn’t given me much time for blogging. Here, then, is an essay I wrote for Peter Winnington’s journal Peake Studies; the full version with notes can be found in Vol. 12 No. 1 (October 2010), 3-24. There will be more on Peake in January.]

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Sapper Peake

Mervyn Peake lived his life surrounded by eerie foreshadowings and replicas of Gormenghast castle.  His biographer Peter Winnington describes the hospital compound where he spent his early childhood in Tientsin as ‘a world surrounded by a wall with China on the other side; as in Gormenghast, the emphasis is on enclosure’.   Not many miles from the compound was Beijing, and the Forbidden City where the Boy-Emperor lived in seclusion as Peake grew up nearby; and the city inspired the setting of the BBC Gormenghast series along with a ‘Tibetan-style monastery in Ladakh’.   In the 1930s Peake joined an artist’s colony on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, whose geography has often been compared to that of his imaginary castle;  and in the 1940s he moved back to the island with his family.  When he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in the late 1950s, he was treated in the Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water: a spectacular palatial building decorated with astonishing grotesques, hailed by Pevsner as one of the crowning achievements of late Victorian architecture.  As with all great literary creations, once it was summoned up Gormenghast castle proceeded to generate doubles of itself through time and space, and Peake himself inhabited more than a few of these topographical echoes of the imaginary fastness.

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Southport Promenade Hospital today

One of the Gormenghasts he occupied, however, has remained more obscure than the rest.  This is the neo-Gothic building where he lived for one summer in the middle of the Second World War: the Convalescent and Sea-Bathing Hospital (later known as the Promenade Hospital) at Southport, Lancashire.  An imposing red brick Victorian structure at the seaside resort a few miles up the coast from Liverpool, the infirmary was administered after the outbreak of war as an emergency hospital, with beds for 600 patients, whose presence transformed it into a bustling miniature city with high-ceilinged nightingale wards and an enormous dining room.  To this place Peake came as a patient in the spring of 1942, after suffering a breakdown while on military service at a camp near Clitheroe, Lancashire.   The windows at the front of the building looked out on the promenade, which ran alongside a large artificial lake where you could go boating in peacetime.  Beyond the lake lay the vast expanse of the Southport sands.  Spanning the lake and stretching out across the sands was the Southport pier, one of the longest in the British Isles.  In the other direction, behind the hospital, you could stroll along Lord Street: a magnificent tree-lined shopping avenue once frequented by the future Emperor Napoleon III, who is said to have been inspired by it to fill the centre of Paris with spacious boulevards.    At any other time Peake might have liked Southport; but its brightness came to him at a time of emotional and intellectual crisis, and the works of art he produced there are as anguished as they are beautiful.

Writing SoldierTill now, most of what we have known about Peake’s time at Southport has come from his letters, the most informative of which was addressed to his old school friend Gordon Smith shortly before he left.  In this letter he lists some of the symptoms that landed him in a sickbed: ‘sleeplessness at night and tired all day (ironically) – irritable as a bereaved rattle-snake and apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.   He found himself unable to work on the various illustrations he had been commissioned to produce because he was so ‘jittery’ – a word that might imply (Peter Winnington suggests) that his hands were shaking as they would do again in the 1950s, in the early stages of the Parkinson’s disease that ultimately killed him.   In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Peake attributes these symptoms to the ‘perpetual frustration and […] wastefulness’ of army life: ‘two years of trivial routine’ during which he was perversely refused all opportunity to deploy his talents in the service of the war effort, condemned instead to fritter away his time at a succession of tasks and training exercises for which he had no aptitude.   ‘I am sick, sick, sick of it,’ he told Smith, ‘the perpetual littleness of the life – the monotonous conversation of what I suppose are my comrades who are with me polishing buttons and blancoing the webbing in our fight against world tyranny […] I just want to cry when I think of the stupidity of the whole bloody, ghastly, sordid business’.   Isolation, boredom, a sense of wasted time, combined with the ‘bloody, ghastly, sordid business’ of war to plunge him into a state of acute emotional vulnerability which left him unable to sustain the farce of pretending to participate in what were for him the senseless rituals of the army – a mood comparable to that of Titus Groan as he rebels against the meaningless rituals of Gormenghast castle.

This mood was intensified when Peake’s second son Fabian was born in April 1942 and he was refused permission to visit his family in Sussex.  Peake promptly went absent without leave and headed South; but when he arrived home his wife Maeve found him strangely distant and distracted, a condition he describes from within, as it were, in several powerful poems of the period (‘O, This Estrangement’; ‘Absent From You’, etc.).  Returning to Clitheroe, he accepted the routine punishment dished out to him by his regiment – he never said what it was – and continued his descent into depression.  The breaking point came at the end of May, when he found himself struck down with an attack of involuntary insubordination: ‘I bent down to do up my boot-lace, when I suddenly realized that I could never obey another order again, not ever in my whole life.’   He reported to the Medical Officer, and was admitted to Southport Hospital on 27 May, suffering from what he called a ‘nervous collapse’.

At the Southport hospital, patients were dressed in a distinctive uniform that caused Peake extreme embarrassment when he wore it in public: ‘shapeless “suits” of peacock blue with crimson rag ties’, unfurnished with pockets, which made their wearers ‘very noticeable in this artificial town with its sea on the horizon’.   The pyjama-like garments drew the unwelcome attention of the local women, who would look ‘very lovingly’ at Peake until they learned that he wasn’t wounded at Dunkirk.  He mentions the clothes in several letters, and wrote a poem about them too, as we shall see.  No doubt they contributed to his sense of being confined in an asylum, which was exacerbated by the behaviour of the other patients, who went about ‘gesticulating or grinning suddenly at nothing’, as Peake did not (at least, he didn’t think so).   One of the pictures he sent to Maeve showed him ‘with his fellow sick-men queuing up for their meals, in long nightshirts, huge army boots, and cropped hair’.   After collecting their meals on trays they would take them back to their wards, to eat in bed after taking off the boots.  It was the oddness of their physical appearance, as much as their eccentric actions, that marked out these men as distinct from the nattily uniformed ‘healthy-men’ of the British Army.

gormenghasttext_6805Other aspects of hospital life proved more congenial.  Peake was prescribed as treatment for his condition the task of getting on with his half-completed novel, Titus Groan; and some of the finest chapters in that book bear the inscription ‘Occupational therapy, Southport Neurosis Centre’ (a name for Southport Hospital which he seems to have invented).  He learned to play a pipe – ‘It’s the most thrilly thing in the world’, he told Smith  – and made two for himself, one in A and one in D, from which he could produce simple tunes such as ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.   Evidently the carving of the pipes gave him as much pleasure as playing them.  ‘I want to make one of black walnut,’ he declared, ‘brace-and-biting it right through (one inch diameter) and then cutting away, rasping, etc., until I have a perfect tube, very slender’.   At other times he drew pictures of strange animals, cut them out and sent them home in letters to his sons.   Meanwhile he was taking an interest in poetry, spurred on perhaps by the good sales of his first collection, Shapes and Sounds, the year before.  He recommended to Smith a new anthology, Poetry in Wartime, singling out the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins – a friend of his friend Dylan Thomas – for special praise.  One of the manuscript pages of Titus Groan carries the injunction ‘Get Trahern’ [sic], signalling his intention to familiarize himself with the seventeenth-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne.  He gave a copy of the Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice to a woman called Dora Street (was she a nurse at the hospital?).   And he was also writing poems himself.  Until recently none of the verses he wrote at Southport have been identifiable; but now a number have come to light, and they offer an intriguing insight into his existence on the Lancashire coast during his enforced four-month stay.

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Long John Silver by Peake

One of these poems is a fragment which brings us right into the ward where the ‘sick-men’ ate their meals side by side in bed.  Maeve tells us that Peake’s next-door neighbour in the ward was another sufferer from breakdown, a spiritualist who received regular visits from his dead mother.  Because of the army timetable, the man’s mother had been unable to find him while he was on military service; but since his hospitalization ‘they had been able to re-establish their old routine, and she came to see her son every evening at six o’clock promptly’.   The anecdote conjures up a vision of solidarity among patients who had been subjected to the intolerable pressure of conforming to the inflexible schedule of military life; Maeve reports it as if the mother’s visits were a secret shared by the bedridden neighbours in defiance of the hospital officials, and in broader defiance of the notion of sanity imposed on them by a manifestly insane environment.  This sense of conspiracy is consolidated in the fragment of verse I mentioned, which has never before been published.

WE ARE THE LIFELESS GYPSIES

We are the lifeless gypsies.  The swashbucklers
Who have to be in bed by half past nine
These summer nights – we are the grievance crew
Of love and filth, of plot and secret sign,

The unconvincing pirates of the ward
Where nurses whisper of their own intended
In cubicles when the ward lights are out

These verses repeatedly juxtapose tremendous vigour with passivity, building up to a crescendo of specifically sexual frustration in which patients and nurses find themselves confined in an artificially sexless environment, their proximity to one another strictly regulated to prevent any fraternization beyond the ‘plot and secret sign’ exchanged between patients.  The sick are represented as displaced persons in the disciplined hospital environment: gypsies and swashbuckling pirates, both groups associated with energetic wandering and often romanticized acts of courageous lawlessness, but here hobbled by adjectives that drain them of their traditional vitality: lifeless, unconvincing.  The pirates’ potential for swashbuckling has been buckled, as it were, to a strict routine (they ‘have to be in bed by half past nine’) which pays no attention to their maturity or the changing seasons (in north-western ‘summer nights’ the light remains strong till late, accentuating the earliness of the swashbucklers’ bed-time).  The sexual frustration of the patients, whose ‘grievance’ at their confinement manifests itself in outbreaks of ‘love and filth’ – abortive romance and furtive fantasy – leads them to listen intently to the conversation of the nurses after lights-out, as the women discuss their own love-lives in the seeming privacy of ‘cubicles’.  There is something satisfying in the way this poetic fragment peters out, just as the whispers inevitably drift into the silence of sleep.  There can be no satisfaction or closure for the hospital’s segregated inhabitants, and the form of the fragment as we have it mimics their inconclusive existence.

The fragment is written in the five-stress line, iambic pentameter, which could be described as Peake’s default metre in his ‘serious’ poems (as opposed to his nonsense).    In the letter he wrote to Gordon Smith from Southport he shows himself uncomfortably aware of the extent to which this metre dominates the music of his verse.  ‘My chief problem,’ he tells Smith,

is one of Form, and I find myself to be expressing things overmuch in the five-beat line, irrespective of the core of the notion.  Not really quite as bad as that, but a lack of being able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by.  I want my poems to create this form in a growth way, out of the very nature of the thought, unfolding as they continue from line to line, from idea to idea, and then to close in gradually (or swiftly) like the petal of a flower at night…

Another poem to emerge from his Southport period is both a striking example of Peake’s weddedness to the ‘five-stress line’ and the extent to which he could make it seem to have grown quite naturally from the ‘very nature of the thought’ it embodies.  Published for the first time in the Collected Poems,  the poem has since been found on the reverse of the manuscript leaf that contains ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, confirming them as products of the same period of invalidity:

BLUE AS THE INDIGO AND FABULOUS STORM

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.  We move –
See how the sick kingfishers take the air! –
In brilliance past the Southport pier
Yet we are shapeless in our azure suits
Which hang in monstrous folds.  Around our throats
The twisted snakes of fire burn all day long,
And tenderness recoils from our preposterous boots.

Jim and HandsRead in the context of Peake’s institutionalized summer at Southport the poem becomes a dazzling evocation of the sense of alienation imposed both by the condition of being a patient and by the state of being a visionary artist: a Blake or a John Clare with a distinctive perception of the world which he struggles to convey through word and image.  This sense of alienation is present in many of Peake’s poems, but is here exacerbated by the ‘monstrous folds’ of the vivid blue uniform that makes the hospital inmates stand out even from the blueness of sea and sky on a northern summer day.  Their costumes transform the patients into grotesque parodies of a vision that was of intense and lifelong interest to Peake: the ‘fabulous waters / That lap the inner skull-walls’ of a young boy, an imaginative ocean which dims the brightness of the actual summer day to a mere ‘un-focused twilight’, and which for Peake were specifically associated with the favourite book of his childhood, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

As the poem proceeds, its focus shifts repeatedly from the outward appearance of the patients in their blue suits and fiery neckties to the boy’s interior landscape, whose brilliance is both challenged and alluded to by the ‘brilliance’ of the ‘sick kingfishers’ the patients have become.  The fantastic energy of the boy’s vision of a piratical picture book, where palm trees resemble explosions and ‘brimming summer’s / Dazzling rollers’ reduce the daylight of the room in which he is reading to ‘an un-focused twilight’, is more than matched by the monstrous vitality of the patients’ costumes, which are ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ imagined by the child reader.  At the same time, the boy’s imaginative world and the patients’ real one seem to merge as the fabulous waters are described in greater detail, becoming the account of a vision which invalids and children share:

Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

At first hard to visualize, after rereading it becomes clear that these lines evoke with astonishing precision a breaker lifting its ‘rippling acre of naked jelly’ in front of a summer sun, so that the sun is seen through the advancing wave.  Wonderfully, it is not made clear whether we’re to think of the ‘transparent eyelids’ as a metaphorical description of the wave or as a reference to the actual eyelids of the spectator/poet, closed against the dazzling brilliance of the vision he has been granted.  In the same way, it is not clear whether ‘O fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’ refers to the fierceness of the sunlight seen through water, or whether it refers back to the blueness of the patients’ uniforms, which were ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ of the boy’s imagination, and perhaps fiercer than them too.  The confusion is a productive one, because it mimics the bedazzlement brought on by the vision of the wave against the sun.  Spectator, wave, sun, and the imagined vision that the wave and the sun represent, become fused in a single scene where the explosive inward landscape of the child reading a picture book and the incongruous brightness of the patients at the sea front are equally at home, and equally alien to the ‘un-focused twilight’ of the ‘dull… day’ that surrounds them.  Implicitly, child and patients share common access to the ‘lit core of fantasy’, and a common desire to turn away from the everyday world to face the searing brightness of the inward picture.  The quasi-visionary nature of the experience described here may help to explain Peake’s interest, while he was at Southport, in getting hold of the work of the visionary poet Thomas Traherne.

0472The link forged between hospital patients and a young boy in this poem brilliantly denotes the infantilization of the institutionalized – one of several kinds of infantilization to which Peake was subjected before ever he came to Southport.  His first self-illustrated book had been a child’s picture story full of metaphorically exploding palms, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor; but when he tried to interest Chatto and Windus, the printers of his poetry collection Shapes and Sounds, in publishing illustrations to his poems, they rejected the idea as too radical: illustrations were too closely associated with publications for the young to be admissible in a serious publication  – and besides, there was a shortage of paper (though this didn’t prevent Eyre and Spottiswood from publishing his illustrated collection of nonsense verses, Rhymes Without Reason, in 1944).  With the exception of the jacket drawing, the illustrations he sent to Chatto’s disappeared, only for two of them to resurface decades later disconnected from the poems they were meant to embellish.   The same infantilizing view of his talents was shown by the army in wartime, who set him to painting signs for toilets as if this were the most suitable outlet for his artistic energies.   It’s hardly surprising, then, if the patients in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ end up as the kind of half-terrifying clowns Peake loved to draw throughout his life, whose shapeless suits hang in ‘monstrous folds’ and whose throats are encircled by actual monsters, the ‘twisted snakes of fire’ which externalize their inner torments.  Even the outsized boots which in clowns are comic have been transformed in this context to the kind of preposterous spectacle from which ‘tenderness recoils’, rendering their wearers bereft of emotional or sexual succour.  These clowns, like the murderously clownish pirate Captain Slaughterboard in the opinion of some contemporary critics, are both the stuff of infantile fantasy and at the same time wholly unsuitable for consumption by the young.

clown-oil-paint-on-canvas-by-mervyn-peake-1950s1Peake’s use of iambic pentameter in the poem is masterful, as is his subtle use of rhyme or half-rhyme throughout.  It’s easy not to notice the rhyme scheme when you first read it (although the division of the text into stanzas in the recently-discovered MS accentuates the rhyme);  and the repeated use of enjambment renders the five-stress line as fluid as its subject, the oceanic mental riot that the grotesque hospital uniforms both signal and seek to contain.  This fluidity makes it easy for Peake to break the ABAB rhyme scheme whenever he feels like it, or to add an extra foot to the last line – an entirely appropriate gesture given that it refers to the outsized boots described by Maeve as an integral part of the ‘sick-men’ of Southport’s uniform.  Here, then, despite his self-doubts, Peake has shown himself ‘able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by’ – even if that form happens to be the five-stress line he deploys so frequently.

Two more poems from his time at Southport make equally skilful use of iambic pentameter; and although each is only a sketch that survives in a single manuscript, scribbled in a hand that is sometimes hard to decipher, each shows a similar mastery of its chosen metre, and throws similar light on his mood at this troubled moment in his creative development.  The first, scrawled on the marbled cover of an exercise book, describes a woman seated by a window, irresistibly conjuring up the many images of Maeve her husband sketched throughout their marriage (although it is always unwise to make assumptions about the identity of the women in Peake’s poems).  Because it is written in the second person, it reads like an act of mesmerism, whereby Peake seeks to affect Maeve’s actions across the war-torn miles that separate them:

CURL UP IN THE GREAT WINDOW SEAT

Curl up in the great window seat, your heels
Beneath you in the cushions while you watch
The summer rain fall with unnatural darkness
Beyond the pane.  Move your dim arm and touch

The glass that shields you from the violence
Of the primeval gods.  Then turn your eyes
To the book upon your knees, and make pretence
To read, but do not see it.  Then heave such sighs

As the melancholy drifts of water heave
As they draw back their salt drifts from a cove
Of clashing shingle – then, my darling, leave,
And suddenly, the room, and weep, my love.

Water and isolation dominate this poem, as they did ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’; and once again a visual impairment is described – though in this case connected with premature darkness rather than excessive light.  The first stanza sketches a comfortable homely scene with impressive economy.  The detail of the woman’s ‘heels / Beneath you in the cushions’ implies a tender familiarity with her habits (going barefoot indoors, sitting in certain favourite spots and attitudes), while the ‘unnatural darkness’ of the rain beyond the window pane only accentuates the cosiness of her situation.  But her touching of the glass, beyond which the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ is being visited upon the elements, abruptly changes the poem’s tone.  Soft summer rain is suddenly transformed to a tempest from which the watcher needs to be ‘shielded’.  The domestic calm is shattered.  We never learn exactly what makes the woman unable to read while pretending to do so – while trying to keep up the appearance, at least, of the cosiness of the first stanza; but by the third stanza the chill and damp of the weather outside has definitely penetrated the room she occupies, as her sighs become those of the cold ‘salt drifts’ of some retreating tide, which are powerful enough to make the shingle clash as the waves heave backwards from a cove they once filled.

0106At the end of the poem, the salt drifts have begun to vent themselves in the salt tears the woman weeps when she leaves the room.  Meanwhile the brokenness of the last two lines, achieved by commas and awkward syntax, is accentuated by the tender phrases that occur in them: ‘my darling’, ‘my love’, each confirming our suspicions as to the cause of the woman’s sudden melancholy (she is in some way separated from someone close to her).  There’s a violence about the last two lines, too, that is accentuated by these terms of affection.  If the poem is indeed a conjuration or a set of instructions, what kind of ‘love’ on the part of the writer would be prepared to call down such suffering on his absent ‘darling’?  Coldness, an inability to touch or be touched, seems here to be as much a product of the alienated state of mind of the writer as it is of the long enforced separation of Maeve and Mervyn brought about by his hospitalization.  Gothic creepiness replaces cosiness at the close, and we might well be reminded of the fact that Peake was writing some of the most powerful evocations of isolation in the Titus novels – the section he calls the ‘reveries’, in which guests at the baby earl’s birthday breakfast each find themselves locked away in their own thoughts, unable to communicate their hopes and fears to the people sitting next to them – at about the time when he wrote this poem.

The other poem in iambic pentameter he wrote at Southport has a very similar topic and mood.  Until now it has been known only in typescript, but I found a manuscript copy of the poem, in Peake’s hand, while looking through the Peake Archives at Sotheby’s, and the manuscript is written on the same paper, in the same ink, and with the same handwriting as the sole surviving manuscript of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ (which was also in the Archives, and had likewise not been available to me when I edited the Collected Poems).  Given the immense variations in Peake’s handwriting at different times of his life  (by turns confident, aggressive, shaky, sprawling, minuscule, painterly, and insectile), and in the paper and ink he used throughout his career, this makes it likely that the two were written in the same period; and although the grounds of the Southport Emergency Hospital do not seem to correspond with the landscape described in the poem, the state of mind Peake here articulates closely resembles his description to Gordon Smith of his state of mind at Southport: exhausted, irritable, emotionally hypersensitive, and unable to engage with any consistency with his various creative projects (even his work on Titus Groan stalled while he was at Southport, after completion of the ‘Reveries’ section).

Here is the poem, transcribed for the first time from manuscript, and thus differing slightly from the version in Collected Poems:

FOR GOD’S SAKE DRAW THE BLIND

For God’s sake draw the blind and shut away
The beauty that is crowding through the window:
A score of rain drenched elms and four drenched pastures,
All apple green against the leaden sky[.]
I do not want it – I am out of tune
With all this loveliness.  To hell with it.
Draw the thick blinds, put on the light – I will
Not watch the green leaves fluttering in the dark,
I will not watch it.  I am far too tired
For the responsibility for miracles[,]
O vulnerable when nature comes to me
And lifts the corner of her common veil.

The last two lines are particularly hard to read, which explains some of the differences between this transcription and that of the anonymous typist whose typescript I used for the version in the Collected Poems.  It seems clear, however, that the poem is not complete – although once again its fragmentary status renders it curiously eloquent, enacting the lassitude it describes, the refusal to continue to ‘take responsibility for miracles’.  And the subject of the poem seems clear enough too.  On a rainy day, the extraordinary beauty of a pastoral scene outside the window – the kind of scene Peake had been writing fine poems about only months or weeks before (consider ‘Leave Train’, ‘With People, So with Trees’, ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’) – suddenly becomes oppressive, carrying with it the burden of ‘responsibility’; presumably the artist’s responsibility to capture scenes like these in verbal or visual form.  That Peake is referring to a loss of artistic energy and confidence is suggested by another poem on the same subject, ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’,  which describes his loss of the ‘power’ to access the inner resources that might make him great as an artist or a writer, and perhaps specifically as a poet, since he tells us the power might manifest itself as the ‘high flame of an oracle’, a prophecy that traditionally takes the form of verse.   In this poem, his hope that the power of oracular speech has not been lost for ever is twice called ‘the hope of miracle’, a phrase recalled by the Southport poem’s reference to ‘responsibility for miracles’.  But in the Southport poem the plural noun distances the speaker from the processes he is describing.  The creative ‘miracle’ of ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’ takes place inside the writer; it is the sudden outbreak of ‘inner fire’ into artistic form.  The ‘miracles’ of ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ take place outside not just the writer but the room he sits in, in a rain-washed space where ‘nature’ is attempting to seduce him into participating in her ‘loveliness’ – into being in tune with it, as if he were a well-made pipe – at a point when he finds himself too weak to respond to her advances.  The tone of sexual alienation accords well both with the tone of ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, and recalls Peake’s account of his awkward encounters with the respectable women of Southport in his letter to Gordon Smith.

‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ resembles ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ in that both take place at windows, beyond whose panes events are taking place which trigger a strong emotional reaction in those who are watching them: the seated woman, the hospital patient.  Peake’s most well-know window poem, ‘Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room’,  describes the whole of human existence as framed by glass, implying that ‘we’ share a sense of separation both from our fellow human beings and from the ideal landscape we would like to inhabit, a place of ‘green pastures’ where ‘the birds and buds are breaking / Into fabulous song and hue /By the still waters’.  In the version of this poem published in Collected Poems, the phrase ‘green pastures’ echoes Psalm 23 (‘He maketh me to lie down by green pastures’), and the biblical echo is confirmed by a later reference to the occupant of those pastures, ‘the Lord’.  An unpublished earlier version of the poem, however, does not possess these religious connotations; and the isolation it describes is a personal one, not collectively experienced by ‘we’ or ‘us’ but encountered on a daily basis by a single first-person speaker:

EACH DAY I LIVE IS A GLASS ROOM

Each day I live is a glass room
Unless I break it with the thrusting
Of my senses and pass through
The splintered walls to great landscapes
Where the birds and buds are bursting
Into Song and into Shape and Hue
Vivid and lasting.

Each day is a glass room until
I break it – but there’s many a day
I have no power to smash the walls
Of cloudy glass, and make my way
Into my own, into that vibrant country

Lesley Hurry’s illustration for ‘September 1939’

The landscape here is not the psalm-inspired pastureland of the published version but a grander, wilder expanse which Peake dubs ‘my own […] vibrant country’.  This sounds very like the private inward space described as a person’s ‘world’ in the celebrated chapter of Titus Groan entitled ‘The Attic’.  Here Peake speaks of the love ‘that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply.  It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world.  For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame’.   In Fuchsia’s case, her world is a suite of rooms in a hidden attic of Gormenghast castle; the one place where she can allow her imagination free rein, where it can burn with the brightness of the sea-refracted sun in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.  Fuchsia can access her suite of attic rooms with enviable ease.  In ‘Each Day I live’, by contrast, ‘my own country’ may be visited only sporadically and with considerable effort, when the strenuous ‘thrusting / Of my senses’ smashes the glass cell to which the speaker is confined.  Interestingly, though, both Fuchsia’s ‘world’ and the poet’s share a common concern with the fusion of shape and sound, word and image.  Fuchsia’s attic contains a ‘big coloured book of verses and pictures’, two of which (‘The Frivolous Cake’ and ‘Simple, Seldom and Sad’) we are privileged to read, the first through Fuchsia’s, the second through Steerpike’s eyes.   In ‘Each Day I Live’, the birds and buds of ‘my own country’ are always bursting ‘Into Song and into Shape and Hue / Vivid and lasting’; a fusion of sound, shape and colour which gets lost in the published version, where the green pastures contain birds of ‘fabulous song and hue’ whose shapes are never mentioned.  The combination of shape, sound and colour here recalls the title of Peake’s first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds, and seems to suggest that poetry’s unique ability to combine shape with sound, on the page and in the writer’s and reader’s brain, makes it for Peake the imaginative space that most completely defines him – the ultimate expression of his ‘world’.   Presumably this poetic space would be even more defining of Peake if it were accompanied by illustrations, as Shapes and Sounds was meant to be – and as several poems by Peake were when they first appeared.  His friend Lesley Hurry illustrated three of his poems in the 1930s, including ‘September 1939’, which Hurry framed in a surreal watercolour landscape, thus enclosing it in its own glass room.

ForS+S1941
Illustration for ‘The Craters’

It would seem, then, that the ‘nervous collapse’  that took Peake to Southport was particularly disturbing, like the war in which it occurred, because of the violence it did to his inner landscape – a violence given external expression in the damage that was also being done to the urban landscapes Peake knew so well (the link between outward and inward damage is well expressed in his poem ‘The Craters’).  Fuchsia’s attic world is a place of tranquillity, where she can act out plays, tell herself stories, and read her illustrated poems without interference or regulation; and when Steerpike bursts violently into it from outside – reading her ‘book of verses and pictures’ to gain access to her mind – its magic is lost for ever.  Peake’s own country in ‘Each Day I Live’ is an energetic but peaceful place where only buds and birds are bursting, not bodies or bombs.  The visionary seascape he evokes in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ is far more tempestuous, with palms exploding and islands bursting from the waves instead of buds; but then it has been afflicted by the psychological condition of the patients it describes, whose privacy has been violated first by war and military service, then by parading them along the seafront in abominable suits.  The landscape beyond the glass in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ is more tempestuous still, ravaged by the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ like the embodiment of the woman reader’s inner turmoil.  And though the four pastures in ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ are tranquil enough, the speaker cannot respond to their tranquillity, traumatized or nerve-wracked as he is into acute vulnerability – a word derived from the Latin vulnus, wound, returning the poem to the theatre of war from which it seems at first to be secluded.  The Southport poems show Peake exiled from the ‘vibrant country’ of himself, having been brutally pressed into performing absurd and inappropriate services for his nation.  The cloudy glass that surrounded him at Southport Hospital, separating him from his home and the people around him as well as from his creativity, must sometimes have seemed unbreakable during his prolonged confinement.

One more unpublished poem, though, shows how he fought to acclimatize himself to the physical and psychological landscape he inhabited in 1942.  Unlike the other Southport poems, it is not in iambic pentameter, but wends through various metres and rhyme-schemes, perhaps in an attempt to ‘create form in a growth way’, as Peake put it to Gordon Smith: that is, to discover a form of verse that grew organically, as it were, out of its subject, and out of the time and place of its composition.  Such a form would have a better chance than the five-stress line, he thought, of flowering and producing fruit; in other words, of spawning future works of art, especially poetry.  Certainly no other poem of his Southport period – not even ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ – more obviously grows out of the specific location it was written in.  Those who have visited the beach at Southport will remember the great expanse of sands which is bared there at low tide, where even from the end of the pier it is possible to lose sight of the sea altogether, or see it only as a narrow strip of brightness on the horizon.  Southport is a place of immense vistas – as is the coastal part of Lancashire where it’s located, whose wide flat fields look like a green extension of the beaches that lie beyond them.  The ‘distant tide’, the ‘far, portentous sea’ in this poem, of which one remains acutely conscious despite its farness, is something that clearly springs from the land and seascapes of western Lancashire.

Here it is:

GATES OPEN AND LOVE’S VISTAS SPREAD

Gates open and love’s vistas spread
To the mournful barely heard
Tides that lap the bay of death
Where the wanderer through pastures
Wades and makes an end of breath
And the bodies thousand gestures
Many many years away.
But between the great gateway
Which has opened suddenly
And the far, portentous sea
Like a grey curtain filling up
The space where all the sky should be –
Spreads the dazzling woof and warp
Of the days and of the hours
And of the months and of the years
The rainbow and the diamond showers
And the tears
Of our love which are the river
That makes green the fields of lovers
When they wander through the world[.]
For what are tears but proof that we
Are alive to everything
That we hear and that we see
In each other’s entity
Where the purple heart takes wing[?]

Unlike the other poems of the Southport period, these verses enact not confinement but liberation.  Where the others are full of shut windows, this begins with an opening, rather like the generous opening of gates which Milton links with Heaven in Paradise Lost – or the gates of God’s house in Psalm 24.  The landscape revealed by this opening (we never find out in the poem which gates are being opened – perhaps they stand for the experience or recollection of falling in love) is a representation of the lover’s life, reaching through ‘many many years’ to the far-distant ‘Tides that lap the bay of death’.  These tides provoke thoughts of suicide, since at the end of his or her life’s journey the wanderer through love’s vistas wades into them voluntarily, as if eager to put a stop to the act of breathing.  They resemble a ‘grey curtain’ (covering another window?); but the panorama spread out in front of them is a dazzling confusion of shifting shapes and colours, reminiscent of the dazzling confusion of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.

But the reason for the confusion is here quite different.  It arises from the tears that blur the speaker’s eyes; tears that have little in common with the tears that occur in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’.  There they seem to flow from the ‘salt drifts’ of the woman reader’s melancholy.  She leaves the room suddenly to shed them in private, and there is nothing in them capable of mitigating the gloomy condition either of the woman’s mind or of the storm-surrounded room she has just left.  In ‘Gates Open and Love’s Vistas Spread’, by contrast, the tears utterly transform the landscape that is seen through them, giving it the ‘dazzling warp and woof’ of an exotic fabric, watering it with ‘rainbow and… diamond showers’, and greening its fields with irrigating rivers.  In Southport Hospital, tears were proof of disordered nerves: the symptoms of Peake’s breakdown as he described them to Gordon Smith included being ‘apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.  In the poem’s transmuted Southport, tears are instead a proof of life; proof that those who shed them possess the most acute form of hearing and vision, the sensory acuteness of the lover, which is capable of breaking through the isolation of the individual and experiencing the whole of another person’s being (‘entity’ recalls the word ‘entirety’ or wholeness as well as being – health, then, instead of sickness).  So acute is the lover’s sight, in fact, that it can see the motions of the loved one’s ’purple heart’ as if it were the flight of a brightly coloured bird across wide-open spaces.   The poem closes with a phrase, ‘takes wing’, which is the direct obverse of the entrapment articulated in the other Southport verses.  Clearly, then, Peake had at times recourse to stratagems – born perhaps of his love for Maeve – capable of freeing him mentally from the confines of Southport Hospital.  And we may count ourselves lucky to have been granted a glimpse of one, at least, of these liberating moments.