Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies:
corrections and additions
Page 13, last line of the first paragraph: ‘Mervyn Peake Review’ should be in italics.
Page 25, line 8: in ‘the London Missionary Society, founded by the Congregationalists in 1807’ the date should be 1795. It was the LMS’s mission to China that was launched in 1807. Although the LMS was predominantly Congregationalist, some 10% of the missionaries that it appointed came from churches outside the Congregational movement.
Page 115: the portrait of Maeve is in fact signed, but way down to the right and not visible in this reproduction.
Page 273 n.2 and 306 (index entry): I have MP’s grandmother as ‘Emilie Caroline’ (née Scheiterberg), whereas it turns out that she was Emilie Charlotte.
Page 30: It is not surprising to learn that there was but one Protestant mission in Henchow in 1902. During the Boxer Rebellion it was the scene of a Catholic martyrdom: on 4 July 1900 Cesidio Giacomantonio (b. 1873) was caught trying to consume the Blessed Sacrament to prevent its desecration; he was beaten, then wrapped in cloth soaked in oil, and set alight. Hardly an attractive prospect for missionaries of any persuasion (except for Pearl Buck’s father, who seems to have courted – and narrowly escaped – such a fate on numerous occasions – see Hilary Spurling’s biography of Pearl Buck, Burying the Bones (2010). Pearl and her parents regularly summered in Kuling, where Peake was born; although there is no record of the paths of the two families ever having crossed, it must have been a near thing).
Page 36: I mention that the Kong Mansion was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1887. There’s another parallel with Gormenghast here, for it too suffered a ‘great fire’ ‘seventy years ago’ (p.67 in the Penguin and Vintage editions). Peake was writing this just over fifty years since the fire in the Kong Mansion.
However, it would seem that these parallels, striking and detailed though they may be, are pure coincidence. Even an experienced sinologist like Peter Neville-Hadley has been unable, despite years of diligent research, both in China and elsewhere, to show any way in which Peake could have known (even by repute) of the lives of the Kongs and their Mansion (see his article ‘Finding Gormenghast and the Groans in China’ in PS 12:iii pages 28–38).
Page 132: Two of the drawings for the illustrated book of ‘Kings from A to Z’ (The King of I, and the King of Y) were shown in MP’s exhibition in the Calman Gallery, eighteen months before Clark’s visit.
Page 173: Discussing ‘A Reverie of Bone’ I should have mentioned that, since the publication of Peake’s Collected Poems (2008, edited by Rob Maslen), it now makes more sense: Rob included several key stanzas which had previously been omitted.
Page 174: According to John Brown (whose memories are recorded on the BBC’s ‘World War II Memories’ site), the mill was also used as a vast dormitory. He ‘joined up [as a Sapper] in 1942 and reported to Clitheroe, Lancashire in Low Moor Mill – an old stone cotton mill where we slept 200 to a room.’
Page 191: About this time Mervyn drew at least two illustrations for The Mystery of Obadiah, which was Richard Armstrong’s first novel for adolescents. When the book was published by Dent in 1943, it was illustrated by Marjory Sankey – so I suspect that Mervyn’s work did not appeal to the author or possibly the publisher. The one illustration I have seen (reproduced in Sotheby’s sale catalogue for 18 December 1984, item 796) depicts a not unfriendly tramp with countless objects in his pockets and strung about his body. There is something about him which recalls the Baker in The Hunting of the Snark, which Peake had illustrated in March 1941.
John Grome was just four months older than Peake. He was born in London and educated at a public school for clergymen’s sons. He went on to study at Goldsmiths School of Art under Clive Gardiner. Then he taught English in India for nearly five years. A conscientious objector he was an ambulance driver in London during the war. In 1945 he returned to painting, renting a studio beside Peake’s in Manresa Road. Two years later he visited Italy, met the neo-realist painter Renato Guttuso and was bowled over by the postwar Italian figurative movement. Soon he made Italy his home; the Mediterranean light and landscape were a major source of inspiration. He married Mave Beadle in Rome in 1950 and remained in Italy for the rest of his life, apart from the years 1965–8 which they spent in England for the sake of their children’s education. Grome’s last public exhibition was a retrospective in Rome in 1986. He died in 2004.
Page 210: When I wrote that Caroline Lucas, née Norton, was Peake’s model for Alice (of Wonderland fame), I was unaware that she was the daughter of Mary Norton, author of The Borrowers. It is so characteristic of Peake’s world that, quite unwittingly, he linked the most famous nineteenth-century story about a little girl’s adventures underground with the most famous twentieth-century fantasy about another little girl’s adventures beneath the floorboards!
Page 221: Arne Keller (whose translations of the Titus books into Danish are much admired) has spent years tracking down the 1946 Danish translation of Titus Groan. It was apparently completed by someone from Aalborg, but it was rejected by the publisher Klim – they were not prepared to take the financial risk – and so it just disappeared.
Page 268 (bottom): at Brighton, Mervyn was accommodated (in April 1962) at the Convalescent Home for Officers.
Page 271 (middle): the memorial service was held at St James’s Church
(where William Blake was baptised) in Piccadilly, London.
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