Peake, Prunesquallor, and Pye

Dalrymple’s August 24th BMJ column (subscription required) takes a look at the doctors and medical themes in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and describes Peake’s personal medical difficulties:
Peake’s own medical history was tragic in the extreme. During the war he had a couple of breakdowns, and did once consult a Harley Street specialist, an experience that might have been the inspiration for the Harley Street episode in Mr Pye. In his 40s, Peake began to develop symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and then dementia. Of great charm and good humour, an accomplished draughtsman and painter, a poet and novelist, he spent the last few years of his life in institutions, unable to write, draw, or speak. (He was subjected to both electroconvulsive therapy and surgery that proved useless or worse.) His wife’s memoir, A World Away, published in 1970, is almost too painful to read.
The manner in which Peake’s doctor at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London, breaks the news of the diagnosis to Mrs Peake is an object lesson in medical insensitivity. Mrs Peake asks to meet him but is told that he is too busy at the moment; perhaps he might be able to see her on his way out if she waits in the entrance hall for him. There, in the middle of the busy hallway, he says to her, “Your husband has premature senility.” Peake was 46; she was 39.
She addresses a postscript of her memoir to Peake, describing a visit to him before his death, when he is completely immobilised by the disease: “We sit silently, and then you are restless. You want to move and cannot. You want to speak and cannot, and the silence no longer has peace in it.” Then: “When I leave you, I say ‘Goodbye,’ but goodbye was said many years ago, before we knew we were saying it.”
I have made a resolution never to complain again, but I know that I shall not keep it.

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