If there is such a thing as genius, then Mervyn Peake certainly qualifies, believes William Gray, Professor of Literary History and Hermeneutics at the University of Chichester.
“To produce that amount of original work in so many areas is almost inexplicable,” says Bill who is masterminding the nation’s celebration of Peake’s unique achievements.
The celebration - Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition: A Centenary Conference - will make Chichester the centre of Britain’s Mervyn Peake scholarship (July 15-16),
The conference is hosted by the university’s English & Creative Writing Department and also the university’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy.
Over the Friday and Saturday, the gathering will celebrate, explore and discuss numerous facets of Peake’s rich creativity, including his work as fantasy novelist, children’s writer, playwright, poet, writer of nonsense verse, artist and illustrator, both of his own books and classics such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Hunting of the Snark, the Alice books, Treasure Island and the Grimms’ Household Tales.
A big part of the fascination in Chichester is that Sussex was so important to Peake. He lived at Wepham near Arundel and is buried in Burpham. It was in Sussex that he lived while writing the Gormenghast books.
Another part of the fascination, for Bill, is that in many ways Peake was an innocent: “He just didn’t understand finance. They got a car and they didn’t understand that you had to register it or license it or pass a test. They were let off because he just came over as genuinely otherworldly!”
Jane Carroll, Sussex Centre administrator, makes the point: “It’s very tempting to see him as this typical genius, head in the clouds, feet off the ground.
“But you look at his vast output, and he just really did not have a dry period at all. With his picture books, his poetry, his novels, he produced far more than any normal person would - and to illustrate them as well! It is not fair that one person should have so much talent. I think his imagination contributed to his breakdown.”
Whether he received the recognition he deserved is, of course, another thing: “I think his popularity is growing,” Jane says. “He went through a long period of not being recognised at all, but the centenary celebration does help. I think maybe people just didn’t know what to do with him. He defied categorisation. But I think scholarship has now woken up to him. That has prompted a lot of new publications, and his family have been working tirelessly to promote his work.”
As Bill says, “It takes a conference to pull it all together as the work of a single man. One of the great things about a conference is that you are representing all the aspects that come together.”
“The point of a conference is that it makes connections between people,” Jane says, “between researchers and the work, between the researchers and the general public. People come together and it sparks debate.”
Among the speakers at the conference are children’s fantasy author Katherine Langrish, Chocolat author Joanne Harris, writer Brian Sibley and Peake’s son Sebastian.
Bookings for the conference on http://www.chiuni.ac.uk/conference/mervyn.cfm or contact Jane at J.Carroll@chi.ac.uk.