Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast by Clare Peake

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Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast by Clare Peake

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A memoir of the daughter and youngest child of author and artist Mervyn Peake, recounting her childhood and teenage years and also the family life and tragic breakdown in her father's physical and mental health.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 243 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 9781780333854

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To many of us, the very name Peake on the cover of a book will immediately suggest the creator of ‘Gormenghast’ and his family. We have had the occasional biography of Mervyn Peake from others, plus the recollections of his widow Maeve, and to join them, here is the story from another perspective altogether – that of their youngest child, daughter Clare.

In this fairly short memoir, she tells the story of the family from the birth of her paternal grandfather in 1874, to the aftermath of her mother’s death in 1983. Ernest Peake, born in Madagascar to missionary parents, studied at Edinburgh University, then went to work as a doctor in China and Hong Kong, where he married Amanda (Bessie) Powell. Their two sons, of whom Mervyn was the younger, were born there, and the family only came to England when the latter was aged twelve.

Of her mother’s early life and family, Clare was able to find out but little. The story therefore takes off in earnest when her parents met and married, and he first began to make a name for himself as an artist. Maeve was also a talented artist and sculptor, and they were ideally matched in interests and temperament. Mervyn applied to become an official war artist, but was conscripted in the army, and then discharged after a nervous breakdown. As one of the first British civilians to witness the suffering of the dying prisoners at Belsen at the end of the war, his artistic talents were put to good use when he was commissioned to draw several of them. It is unnecessary to add that he found the experience profoundly upsetting, and it almost certainly left its mark on him more than anybody appreciated at the time.

Nevertheless, the next few years were relatively trouble-free for the family. ‘Titus Groan’ was published in 1946 to some success, ‘Gormenghast’ four years later, and with a wife and three small children to support, Mervyn was able to supplement his modest income by producing illustrations for other books as well. Clare writes evocatively of her happy early years on Sark, where she was born, and then in London, and the liberal upbringing she and her brothers enjoyed with two quite different but very affectionate parents.

Her first seven years passed, she writes, “without the merest hint of a cloud”. The change happened literally overnight in 1957 after Mervyn’s play ‘The Wit To Woo’ was staged in London to a good reception from the audience, but was greeted by dismissive critical notices in the press the following day. Although he had always been able to take constructive criticism up to then, somehow the disappointment and shock proved too much for him and, in her words, he literally crumbled, physically and metaphorically. It was the start of a debilitating nervous breakdown, periods of hospitalization, and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, possibly aggravated by early senile dementia. Another theory is that he had been infected with an unusual virus during his early days in China which generally lay dormant for some years but could prove quite virulent if the patient was to suffer severe shock or trauma. For a man in his mid-forties, and no less for his wife and children, the effect was devastating.

From this point, the book could so easily have become a mere misery memoir. That it did not is largely testimony to the courage and determination of Maeve to carry on and help them all lead as normal a life as possible. Quite often, Clare notes, “her mouth was smiling but her eyes were dull with sadness”. Her father had become a pathetic figure, aged well beyond his years, his memory gone, his speech often barely intelligible, shaking uncontrollably, dribbling when he ate, running baths he then forgot about, and pacing the floor at night, oblivious to the disturbance caused to others. It is even sadder to relate that when the family went for a short holiday break one summer, Maeve was informed by the hotel staff that they would have to pack up and leave, as his behaviour was upsetting the other guests too much.

Yet Maeve did her best to ensure that Clare would have as normal a childhood as possible. She was unhappy at school, but as a teenager she lived her life to the full. These were the days when every teenage girl was mesmerized by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and for me one of the highlights of the book is an unexpected and very amiable encounter backstage with several of their idols, all at once. Later that decade she and her boyfriend were among the thousands at the Isle of Wight Festival headlined by Bob Dylan.

Throughout these years the presence of her semi-invisible father still looms in the background. In 1968, after the first two Gormenghast books were published by Penguin, they were an immediate success and Mervyn Peake suddenly became a cult name. It was a long-overdue reward for the family to see his talent recognized at large, but sadly much too late for the frail, prematurely aged invalid who had long since been institutionalized and was living in a twilight world. Later that year he died, his passing a blessed release for all.

Like many of the best memoirs, I found this book a delightful, amusing read in places, very poignant in others. Some of the photos are a little less than clear, but they were taken from family albums. (One of Mervyn and Maeve together in 1965 is particularly sad). As an insight into the world of one of the most extraordinarily talented writers and artists of his time, and his family life, it is an enchanting book which anybody who has ever been intrigued by his work should not miss.

Out thanks to Constable for sending Bookbag a review copy.

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