I’m always happy when I somehow, fortuitously, manage to arrange my section breaks in these projects in just the right way to have interesting things to talk about. These four chapters do something neat; Chapter 10, “Prunesquallor’s Kneecap,” essential presses a restart button on the day through which we’ve already followed several characters and, together with Chapters 11 through 13, tells the story of Titus Groan’s day of birth from a new set of character perspectives, particularly Fuschia’s and Mrs. Slagg’s, but also introducing something of the points of view of Doctor Prunesquallor and Keda, a woman from the Outer Walls who is to become Titus Groan’s wet nurse.
The book’s 1946 publication date puts it far too early to have been influenced by Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) and its novel blending of the stories of the upper class and their servants, but there’s definitely something akin to that beginning to emerge in this novel. The sharp divisions between characters and groups of different social status within and without Gormenghast continue to figure largely in the narrative, and by the end of these chapters it feels as if we’re intended to have a distinct idea of the organization of Gormenghast as well as of the relationships and dynamics between the various characters. At the same time, it’s not at all clear what, if anything, Titus Groan has to say about the class distinctions it’s highlighted so far. The palpable distinction between the nobility and servants within the castle and between the castle servants and the people of the Outer Walls, along with their respective disconnection from each other, feels significant, but nearly a hundred pages into the book we’re still quite without a definitive plot. Things happen, but these chapters continue to feel introductory to the actual story. That said, by the end of Chapter 13, “Keda,” it finally feels as if all the pieces are in place, motivations are established, and a plot is about to emerge.
After her introduction, I rather expected Mrs. Slagg to be more of a cardboard character, but starting in “Prunesquallor’s Kneecap,” she emerges as perhaps the closest thing to a clear protagonist to appear so far in the book. While Mrs. Slagg is introduced as a somewhat doddering and much put-upon elderly caregiver, which is a fairly standard stock character, when the story shifts to her point of view, we find a character with a rich and complex, if deeply eccentric, inner life. Her love for Fuchsia, her distrust of Doctor Prunesquallor, and her reinvigoration at the prospect of a new baby to care for suggest a depth of feeling that wasn’t obvious at our first sight of her from a more removed point of view. When, in Chapter 12, “Mrs. Slagg by Moonlight,” we learn even more about her—her vanity, her slyness, her disdain for those she considers below herself—she becomes (by rather a lot) the most developed character in the book so far. Indeed, it’s Mrs. Slagg’s moment of awareness—rather, alarm—when she realizes that she didn’t choose Keda as Titus’s wet nurse that suggests perhaps the most interesting potential conflict of the book so far, and it’s the comparison and contrast between Mrs. Slagg and Keda in Chapter 13 that seems to confirm the conflict between these two women who will be raising Titus Groan together for his first few years of life.
We also get more insight into Fuchsia in these chapters, which detail a general routine of hers as she awakes, is an affection tyrant to Mrs. Slagg, and then goes about her business only to slowly work out that something is different in the castle today than on previous days. The creepily sexual language used to describe Fuchsia continues to be off-putting, especially as so much of her material in this section highlights just how much of a child she is. We begin with a description of her bedroom and attic (which we later learn is a series of multiple attics that Fuchsia has turned into playrooms and hideaways for herself) before segueing into her brief interaction with Mrs. Slagg. Fuchsia is artistic and sensitive and has been left, apparently, to run quite wild for much of her childhood, with only Mrs. Slagg as company. The fierceness of Fuchsia’s affection for Mrs. Slagg is matched only by Fuchsia’s love for Gormenghast itself; she is intimately familiar with the castle, its inhabitants and its routines, and she’s built a richly imaginative play world of her own in spaces that leave her above and separate from the rest of Gormenghast’s inhabitants, where she watches and loves them from afar. It’s tempting to try and read Fuchsia’s rage at the news of her brother’s birth as the frustration and protest of a girl just realizing that the home she loves will never truly belong to her because of antiquated inheritance laws, but the text seems determined to miss that opportunity in favor of Fuchsia’s upset being more a case of childish jealousy—informed by an eccentricity that borders on madness—than anything else.
In the final two chapters of today’s selection, we get a decent picture of the wet nurse, Keda, who by the end of Chapter 13 seems poised to become an influential character in the life of Titus Groan. However, much of what we learn of Keda is about her people, with much time spent on describing the inhabitants of the Outer Walls as prematurely aged. Peake positively dwells upon these descriptions; everyone is old-looking and ugly except the children, who possess “an unnatural brightness” as if being burned up from the inside out. This brightness only remains deep inside the adults of the Outer Dwellings, and perhaps not in all of them, as “the hotness of creative restlessness” that is expressed through the Bright Carvings from Chapter 1. Among these people, Keda isn’t extraordinary. She’s young, about twenty, her beauty already fading, and she’s recently lost her own child. What is notable about Keda, at least so far, is the way in which she takes immediately takes charge of Mrs. Slagg, steering the older woman back to the castle before Mrs. Slagg can object to Keda’s self-appointment as Titus’s wet nurse. This multi-layered conflict between Mrs. Slagg and Keda is a conflict of personalities, but it’s also a conflict between old and young, castle and town, hidebound tradition and new ideas.
Mrs. Slagg is unsettled by Keda’s assertiveness and agency in a way that makes Keda’s simple actions feel subversive, a threat to the way of life within Gormenghast in much the same way that Steerpike’s ambition is portrayed as threatening. So far, the narrative hasn’t taken any particular position on the rightness or wrongness of the established order of things in Gormenghast, however, which makes it impossible to guess what, ultimately, the message of the book is going to be. Instead, these first ninety-nine pages are a fantasized portrait of English gentry and their servants and tenants that casts a satirical eye on nearly all its subjects. It will be interesting to see how things play out now that a game finally seems to be afoot.
- There’s a nonsense poem, “The Frivolous Cake,” in Chapter 11 that is nicely reminiscent of Lewis Carroll and similar, but I’m so far resisting the urge to try and analyze it. I may return to it later if something occurs to suggest that it’s more important than it appears at this time.