These next few chapters of Titus Groan vary in length, further adding to the sense of unease and strangeness that permeates the book, while at the same time slowly metering out more information about Gormenghast and the Groan family. There’s even the glimmering of the beginning of a proper plot, though, like the first three chapters, these contain only a couple of actual events that don’t represent any particular forward motion in the story.
Chapter 4, “The Stone Lanes,” begins with Mr. Flay becoming overwhelmed with disgust at Swelter and the kitchen. He leaves through a door that Steerpike has never used before, and Steerpike follows him into the Stone Lanes, a mazelike set of tunnels within the castle. When Flay discovers Steerpike following him, he takes the boy to see the “cat room,” which is just what it sounds like, and to spy on the Earl and Doctor Prunesquallor as they talk about the baby, who is apparently very ugly, with unusual violet-colored eyes. When Flay tries to send Steerpike back to the kitchen, Steerpike refuses, threatening to spread the gossip about the new baby throughout the rest of the staff, which prompts Flay to lock him up to be dealt with later.
Meanwhile, the Lady Gertrude, 76th Countess of Groan, is chafing at her enforced bedrest after childbirth. She proves herself an indifferent mother at best when her new son is brought to her and she simply names him—Titus—and sends him away, to be brought back to her when he’s six years old. Finally, we get something of a glimpse into the life of Lord Sepulchrave as he meets with the “Lord of the Library,” Sourdust, and plans his day using a set of enormous books that detail routines stretching back generations. Nearly seventy pages into the book, I would expect for more stuff to actually be happening, but there’s still so much that’s delightful about the Mervyn Peake’s lush and atmospheric prose and sharp, often funny worldbuilding that I’m not even a tiny bit bored yet.
The central motifs continue to develop, with strong references to birds and disease, though descriptions of humidity have petered out in favor of just a general pall of ill health. In these chapters, we finally get some appreciable dialogue from characters who aren’t (as Swelter was) drunk, and it gets weird. Time and again, characters talk right past each other in conversations that never quite connect, where the results of a discussion don’t quite logically follow from its content. Words and phrases are repeated for emphasis or as mantras, not quite on the level of catchphrases for each character yet, but the reader is almost certainly intended to associate certain lines and manners of address with particular characters.
- Mr. Flay’s conversation with Steerpike, such as it is, reveals something of Steerpike’s ambition—to be out of the kitchen and away from Swelter—and much about Flay’s obsession with Gormenghast and its history and the preservation of whatever twisted sort of order exists in this place. Flay repeats the question and accusation, “Rebellion,” several times, suggesting that he maintains a level of paranoia about it without having a firm idea of what rebellion might look like.
- Doctor Prunesquallor is a fool and a drunk, prone to sycophantic fawning on the Earl and his family.
- Fuchsia’s theatricality and self-absorption is felt in every line of her brief speech.
- Lady Gertrude’s irascible temper and wry good humor is swiftly established in the way she talks with her birds. Her treatment of Nanny Slag is less unkind than impatient, and again it’s characterization that is managed economically.
- Lord Sepulchrave may be the sanest of the characters we’ve met so far by this point in the novel, though even he is plagued by a pervasive melancholia, burdened by the weight of history and tradition as we find out he is in his short conversation with Sourdust.
Finally, it’s encouraging that there are already multiple female characters introduced, although it’s less encouraging (albeit interesting) the ways in which these women conform to and sometimes defy stereotypes.
It’s Fuchsia who we meet properly first, and she’s little more than a child, petty and spiteful and jealous in the way of some young teenagers, angry at the prospect of having a brother and casually cruel about him when she first sees him. Fuchsia is said to be almost beautiful, though, and Peake goes on to describe her in somewhat creepily sexual terms (“Her sullen mouth was full and rich; her eyes smoldered.”) before then switching tacks and calling her manner “utterly unfeminine—no man could have invented it,” in a direct contradiction to the earlier, sexually-charged description. At the same time, Fuchsia wears a red dress—a color long associated with passion and sexuality—and has long dark hair “like a pirate’s flag,” a descriptor which casts Fuchsia, though only fifteen, as both sexually aggressive and somewhat disreputable. It’s a weird mix of traits for the character, and while Fuchsia may yet grow into such a fearsome description of her person and mannerisms, I can’t help being mildly to moderately squicked out when I remember that she’s only fifteen.
Fuchsia’s mother, Lady Gertrude, may be my favorite character in the book so far. It seems to me that Peake intends for us to understand Gertrude as being at least slightly mad, with her indifference to motherhood just one facet of her madness, but one can also read her as simply repressed, trapped in her role as the 76th Countess of Groan and resentful of it. Peake’s physical descriptions of Gertrude are fascinating. She’s a large woman, and some other writers may have portrayed her as grossly fat, but even in a book where words that connote illness and disease are common, Peake avoids this. Instead, Gertrude is shown as large and rather impressively imposing: “The effect she produced was one of bulk, though only her head, neck, shoulders, and arms could be seen above the bedclothes.” Covered with birds, Gertrude feels almost part of the very architecture of Gormenghast; it’s not clear where she came from before marrying Sepulchrave, but it seems obvious that’s she’s quite gone to root in this place.
She’s got a wry, sardonic wit and a sense of generalized impatience with those around her. She’s bored and irritated by Nanny Slagg—a fairly stock old, doting nursemaid sort of character—and dismissive of Doctor Prunesquallor. Still, like basically all the other characters in the book so far, Gertrude still doesn’t have a story aside from having just given birth, recovered quickly, and refused to raise her own child. There’s no obvious story blueprint for where any of this goes next, to be honest, so it will be neat to see what the next 450 pages of this book are all about.