The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peakes’s Imagination

The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination. G. Peter Winnington. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006. Hardcover: xiii + 290 pp. £55.00. ISBN 13-978-1-84631-022-5.

Reviewed by Alice Mills

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 177–79.]

G. Peter Winnington’s The Voice of the Heart is the first critical text to consider all genres of Peake’s art, including his short stories, novels, novella, poems, plays and graphic art. Winnington has long been the main scholarly authority on the facts of Peake’s career, in particular the bibliographical details of his books, and this text is a treasure-trove of finely reproduced illustrations, many not readily accessible elsewhere. Winnington also gives a salutary reminder of the extent of Peake’s achievements beyond his best-known works of fiction, and provides occasional well-argued commentary on their source material, which this reader wished to be far more extensive.

Winnington claims that his book presents for the first time the most significant themes and motifs in Peake’s oeuvre, and it also discusses Peake’s (and some of his fictional characters’) typical strategy of moving between sensory modalities in a particular pattern during the creative process, from its origin in inspiration to its outcome as a realized work. While Winnington’s claims to have included the main structural patterns, motifs and themes in Peake’s work can be challenged, he provides copious, often compelling evidence for each of his cases. There are chapters on Peake’s animals, birds and islands; on perspective, voice and theatre; on love, evil, solitude and identity. Winnington comments that reading Peake from these perspectives has transformed his understanding of the works, and for this reader also, these minutely observed patterns of imagery and technique enrich by bringing to awareness some hitherto unnoticed connections within Peake’s oeuvre, as well as stylistic elements such as his over-fondness for the pluperfect tense. The most persuasively critical section of The Voice of the Heart is its chapter on perspective, with its analysis of the generally adverse effect of the pluperfect on narrative flow.

Serious weaknesses can, however, be found in this book. Although, as editor of the journal Peake Studies, Winnington has published many analytical essays by other scholars, his own motif and theme discussion takes place almost in a scholarly vacuum. His first chapter on Peake’s creative process appears to draw, without acknowledgement, on Robert Dilts’s NLP analysis of the creative process in his three-volume Strategies of Genius. Given Winnington’s final claim that Peake is a genius of the order of Blake and Milton, it would have been appropriate to use Dilts’s work in this chapter to argue for Peake’s genius. As it stands, this claim of genius is not specifically supported within any of the chapters.

Nor does Winnington engage in debate with the various literary critics who have proposed alternative significant patterns, themes and motifs in Peake’s work. This becomes more regrettable as the book moves progressively towards interpretation and judgment, as in the chapter offering a reading of Peake’s novel, Mr Pye, where Winnington does not enter into dialogue with the detailed readings put forward by either this reader or Pierre François. A related lack of critical engagement occurs within specific readings of the textual evidence. An early example occurs in the chapter on the creative process. Here, having established a particular strategy of creativity starting with the cosmic spaces of the heart, Winnington acknowledges Peake’s motif of smashing a glass container which has contained the artist. This is noted without discussing the seeming incompatibility of spatial imagery. Does this element of creative strategy, for instance, lead to artworks with different main themes such as freedom and imprisonment, or might it in some way point to a stifling of creative power? Elsewhere, regrettably, Winnington sometimes ignores evidence to the contrary or alternative interpretations of his material. In the chapter on solitude, for instance, he notes in passing the fact that the Lost Uncle abandons his wife; but surely, what needs to be accounted for in a chapter on solitude is the fact that he enters into this grotesque marriage. Discussing the motif of tree-roots, within his discussion of the bird motif, he concludes that the root polished and preserved by Fuchsia in her sanctuary “is her virgin sexuality” (142). What, though, of the British slang meaning of root as penis, well established since the middle of the nineteenth century? Most damaging to the overall argument of the book is Winnington’s reading of a quotation from Drawings, first propounded at the start of the “Solitude” chapter. Here he argues from this quotation that Peake “saw his activity as analogous to God’s”; however, the most obvious reading of Peake’s simile, where the artist flings out his work “as the earth was thrown from the sun,” aligns it with scientific hypotheses about the formation of the planets. There is no need to bring God into the picture. Winnington’s argument moves from the assertion of a living God here to claims that in Peake’s fictions, God is dead, without considering the contradiction between these two understandings of the world. Nor does he consider an alternative overall reading of the works in which the question of God’s existence simply does not matter, where mentions of hell and Satan are no more than outworn Gothic paraphernalia.

Another serious difficulty within the book is its all too frequent confusion of categories. Winnington’s argument moves between four main categories: what Peake says about himself as artist; what Peake says about his fictional worlds; what Winnington says about Peake’s mental processes; what Winnington says about Peake’s oeuvre. Problems arise when these categories are blurred, as when at the end of the chapter on islands, in which Winnington argues that this motif represents the difficulties of human (particularly sexual) relationship, he says: “To have realized his dream in this world would have been to deny the metaphor he lived by” (78). What can “in this world” and “lived by” mean other than a judgment on Peake’s love-life, brought in without any supporting evidence?

The Voice of the Heart is of value in setting out a series of motifs, themes and other patterns in Peake’s work and in drawing its examples very widely, encouraging readers to explore the lesser known poems and plays; but it could have gone so very much further, and placed itself on much stronger ground, by entering into dialogue with other critics and debating alternative readings.

Works Consulted

Dilts, Robert. Strategies of Genius. 3 vols. Capitola, California: Meta Publications, 1994-5.
François, Pierre. “Mr Pye: An Ovidian Curse for a Dichotomized Evangelist.” Peake Studies 6.2 (April 1999): 39-47.
Mills, Alice, “Literalized Metaphors and the Comedy of Excess in Mr Pye. Peake Studies 6:3 (October 1999): 25-39.

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