In this extract, Brian Sibley celebrates a century of Mervyn Peake in his introduction to Titus Awakes, the recently discovered manuscript of the sequel to the Gormenghast trilogy.
"I was handed, simultaneously, a generously measured gin and tonic and a typescript in a blue-grey folder, on the cover of which was written "Search Without End".
This was over 30 years ago, and Maeve Gilmore and I were sitting in what she called the "Petit Salon", an intimate room overlooking the back garden of 1 Drayton Gardens in Kensington, London – the last home she had shared with her late husband, Mervyn Peake.
Both were artists of considerable talent, and Mervyn was a remarkable polymath: in addition to being a painter and an illustrator (reinterpreting classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the 20th century), he was also a novelist, playwright and poet.
The walls of the "Petit Salon" were hung with paintings and drawings, and along the back of the sofa was a troupe of knitted dolls made by Maeve that were vaguely reminiscent of Pierrot and Columbine figures, but also kindred spirits of the tall, spindle-limbed acrobatic dancers that frequented many of Mervyn’s sketch-books. Here it was that, once a month, our conversation would range across a broad spectrum of subjects, from books and paintings to theatre and religion, inevitably returning again and again to Mervyn’s work and Maeve’s devoted endeavours to secure the memory of his reputation as an artist and writer of genius.
The typescript I had just been handed was rather more personal: Maeve’s Search Without End was to be a continuation of the epic saga recorded in Mervyn’s trilogy of novels, Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. In fact, the trilogy was never conceived as such, for the author’s ambitious intention had always been to compose a cycle of novels chronicling Titus’ life and travels, written in a style that is frequently categorised as a hybrid of fantasy and gothic fiction—but one which is unique to its author.
Begun in 1970, two years after Mervyn’s death, Maeve’s continuation and eventual completion of Search Without End was neatly written in sepia-ink, and filled four black exercise books. Although Maeve was initially not writing with a view to publication, the handwritten manuscript was transcribed into an ongoing series of typescripts, such as the one I read in the late 70s, each with its own amendments, deletions and additions. With Maeve’s death in 1983, Search Without End was lost, eventually coming to light more than two-and-a-half decades later, when her granddaughter Christian discovered it in an unprepossessing cardboard box in the family attic.
Today, when sequels to classic books written by other hands are two-a-penny, it might be thought that Maeve had approached the task of continuing Titus’ story with confidence. In truth, the writing began as an intensely cathartic experiment; a humble gesture of unconditional love and— rather in the way that Mervyn had once described the craft of drawing—as a hoped-for means of holding back astonishing and fantastical ideas "from the brink of oblivion”.
As the writing slowly progressed, it evolved. What had begun as an act of homage—attempting to emulate Mervyn’s narrative style—was now being expressed in Maeve’s own distinctive voice, which had already found eloquent expression in her emotionally-charged memoir, A World Away (1970). The final result is a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance.
This quest finds fulfilment in the meetings between Titus Groan and an "artist" who unmistakably represents Mervyn. So, unexpectedly, the creator of Titus becomes a character within Titus’ universe, and at the end of the novel he is the person who, in a mysteriously spiritual sense, gives purpose and meaning to Titus’ existence.
These biographical episodes contain distressingly authentic details, such as the description of the austere institution where Titus works as an orderly. This was inspired by the Friern Hospital (formerly known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum), where Mervyn was, for a time, confined. Less painfully, the depiction of the Abbey is based on Aylesford Priory, where he had earlier spent time working on Titus Alone before his illness claimed most of his senses. In the book, these locations appear in a reversal of the order in which they featured in Mervyn’s life, almost as if Maeve were trying to turn back the clock, so that instead of relentless decline, the artist appears to be recovering, becoming a vibrant, life-embracing person once more, represented in the novel by the man waiting with his three children on the island jetty for Titus’ arrival.
Islands are a recurring motif throughout the Titus novels, with Gormenghast castle being frequently compared to one. It is, perhaps, the sense of isolation—even captivity—that an island can engender that contributes to Titus’ desire to escape. From Maeve’s perspective, however, the island increasingly comes to represent for Titus the opposite of imprisonment: a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe haven from the vacant wanderings depicted in Titus Alone, a place where experiences and encounters can be safely circumscribed.
The book opens with words written by Mervyn Peake as he attempted to set out with his hero on another foray into the world that lay beyond Gormenghast. Maeve Gilmore chose to end the book by quoting Titus’ mother, telling her departing son: "There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home.”
What makes this coda so poignant is the realisation that home is not the crumbling, time-eaten towers and turrets of Gormenghast castle, but the mind and heart of the man who built it in his imagination."
The above is an extract from Brian Sibley's introduction to Titus Awakes (published by Vintage). Please go to www.vintage-books.co.uk for further information.
Brian Sibley is responsible for dramatising "The History of Titus Groan", a cycle of six one-hour plays adapted from the novels of Mervyn Peake (Vintage Classics).
The plays will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as “The Classic Serial”, and are produced by Jeremy Mortimer. The cast includes David Warner, Luke Treadaway, Miranda Richardson, James Fleet, Paul Rhys, Adrian Scarborough, Mark Benton, Carl Prekopp, Tamsin Gregg, Olivia Hallinan, William Gaunt, Gerard Murphy and Maureen Beattie.
"The History of Titus Groan" can be heard BBC Radio 4 on Sundays at 3pm from 10th July, running until 14th August, and repeated on Saturdays at 9pm from 16th July, running until 20th August.
The episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer and subsequently for purchase and download.
For further information visit www.briansibley.com