Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 14-16

[Note: I had originally planned for this section to include through Chapter 17, but there’s a natural stopping point at the end of Chapter 16, “Titus is Christened,” and it turns out that Chapter 17 fits in better with the chapters following it than those that precede it. Apologies for any confusion this might cause to anyone who is reading along and making plans based on the schedule I shared in the most recent State of the Blog post. I will continue to alert readers to similar changes in the future with a note at the top of any impacted posts.]

Today’s chapters concern events that occur on the day of Titus Groan’s christening, which is fascinating, as worldbuilding and as character study, but doesn’t mark the kind of plot development that I was hoping to see after the end of Chapter 13 had such a feeling of significance. In fact, these chapters introduce even more characters—the gardener Pentecost as well as Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice—and continue to expand upon the setting. They also elaborate on thematic threads from earlier chapters and expound upon the connections and conflicts between various characters.

The first part of Chapter 14, “First Blood,” introduces the head gardener, Pentecost, and describes the room in which the christening will take place. While descriptions of Gormenghast and its environs have, until this point, held that the whole place is hot, humid and stinking to various degrees, the Christening Room is also called the Cool Room. Unlike the rest of the castle, this one room is a place of peace and quiet, frequented only by the gardener, who refreshes the flowers every day. No one else in the castle goes there, though Fuchsia sometimes observes Pentecost from her hideaways under the roofs and Lord Sepulchrave (very) occasionally stops in for a quiet moment. For Titus’s christening, the room is decorated mostly with lavender, which is purple (a color symbolizing nobility as well as matching Titus’s purple eyes) and has a scent associated with peace and calmness, and with golden orchids (exotic flowers that could represent a new beginning).

Perhaps what’s most notable about this room, however, is that it’s not a church or chapel of any kind, despite the peacefulness of it in comparison to the rest of Gormenghast. It’s a space not cared for by a priest or chaplain, but by a gardener, and even on the day of the christening, the preparations are overseen by Mr. Flay, a manservant. The actual christening ceremony is performed by the Librarian, Sourdust, and while there is a baptism with water, no Christian words are said throughout the event. While the term “christening” is used for this ceremony, it’s a profoundly atheist event, lacking even any identifiably pagan overtones. Titus isn’t being dedicated to God, and though water is used, it lacks the usual symbolism of rebirth or cleansing associated with either religious baptism or pagan rites. Instead, Titus is dedicated to Gormenghast itself in a ritual that foreshadows madness (the “ancient word of the Twelfth Lord” in particular speaks of the lord of the castle hearing voices “when his ear is tuned to Gormenghast”) and suicide (“until he dies across the Groan’s death turret”) while exhorting the infant to hold nothing sacred except Gormenghast and its traditions.

Early on while reading Titus Groan, I pointed out that there’s a sense of the profane about Gormenghast, and these chapters feel like a culmination of that. The Cool Room is the only place of peace and quiet and beauty in Gormenghast, a refuge from the heat and dankness and chaos to be found elsewhere in the castle. Pentecost, whose name is the only explicit nod to Christianity in these chapters, is the closest thing Gormenghast has to a holy man (of the hermit type), and he notably comes from the mud huts outside the castle. Pentecost’s artistic soul and his deep connection to the earth are a stark contrast with the Groans’ worship of their own nobility and the rituals that uphold their position as Lords of Gormenghast. Pentecost has the heart of a Bright Carver, and his connection to the earth is deep and spiritual, a reverence for where he came from; the Groans’ connection to their land is facile and centered in connecting with things, like the stones of the castle or the very book in which their endless schedule of rituals is recorded.

A major theme throughout these chapters is power: who in Gormenghast has it, who doesn’t, how it’s structured, and, perhaps, how to get it. The introduction of Cora and Clarice brings this theme to the forefront. Sepulchrave’s sisters, these two older women (their ages aren’t given, but they do have grey hair) have been nursing a grievance for some years against their sister-in-law, Gertrude. “Gertrude has all the power,” the twins intone, a sentiment repeated several times. They want it, and they insist that Gertrude has it, even though it’s Sephulchrave who inherited it, just as Titus will inherit over his sister Fuchsia. It’s hard to say just yet why Peake chose to pit female characters against each other like this. English inheritance law and its effects on women has been a fraught issue in the British fictional landscape for centuries, so it can’t be that there isn’t a wealth of material to draw from in crafting the twins’ discontent with their lot. The words with which their grievance is introduced—“Gertrude has what we ought to have”—could be read as a suggestion of incestuous interest in their brother, but they never interact directly with him. Instead, all of their disappointment and resentment is projected onto Gertrude and, to a lesser extent, Fuchsia (presumably for being Gertrude’s daughter).

The thing is, it’s not entirely clearly what power Gertrude actually has. She lives as something of a recluse, lavishing any tender feelings she possesses on her birds and cats. While Gertrude must have had sex with Sepulchrave at least twice in the last couple of decades, they haven’t directly interacted in 130 pages of novel. The order in which guests for the christening enter the Cool Room is said to signify their importance in the castle (with the least important entering first), and Gertrude is the last to enter, just after her husband, but it’s a decidedly odd way for the power system in the castle to be organized. Any power Gertrude has comes from her husband, and we’ve already seen that it’s Sepulchrave whose responsibility it is to maintain the traditions and rituals of Gormenghast. If Gertrude was an active manager of the household, it would make more sense for her to be considered the “real” power in Gormenghast, but she isn’t; indeed, she seems totally indifferent to everything but her birds and cats, is an indifferent mother (at best), and the only household servant she’s interacted directly with is Nannie Slagg, who (not incidentally, I suspect) enters even later than Gertrude, suggesting (by the explicitly stated rules of this fantasy world) that Nannie Slagg’s position as the primary caregiver of the future Lord may in fact be the greatest position of power in the castle.

Gormenghast is a place, I would argue, where even the concept of what power means is nebulously defined. Sepulchrave, as Lord of Gormenghast, has the title of Earl, which is only a mid-ranking noble title in the real world and, so far, is rendered meaningless in the novel by the extreme isolation of the castle and its people. There’s no mention whatsoever of the outside world, and while Gertrude is perceived as an interloper by her sisters-in-law, there’s no information given about where she came from, and Gertrude feels so much a part of Gormenghast and fits in so well to its eccentric culture that she seems quite native to the place. As Sepulchrave’s wife and a countess, Gertrude ought to have some power, but there’s no textual evidence so far that she does so except to arrange for her own comfort—namely, to be left alone with her animals. Cora and Clarice define power as being able to “tell people what to do,” and both Sepulchrave and Gertrude can do that, but, again, neither Lord nor Lady Groan seem to have much interest in active ruling.

As in previous chapters, this all feels like setting up the kind of conflict that generates a plot, but I’m, frankly, done guessing when that might develop. It also continues to be unclear what message, if any, Mervyn Peake wants to communicate about his subject matter. Titus Groan might be a biting satire of the antiquated rituals of an inbred upper class, but Peake turns an equally critical eye upon those of the servant class in Gormenghast, who are, on the whole, just as disagreeable as their masters. At the same time, all of Gormenghast’s characters are crafted with a sort of gleeful affection that inspires the reader to love even the most despicable of them, or at the very least care what happens to them and avoid harshly judging their actions. The overall effect is one of what I’m currently thinking of as gloomily cheerful nihilism. It’s weird, but I like it.

Miscellany:

  • Flay and Swelter’s enmity for each other comes to a head before the christening, with Swelter’s subversive insolence provoking Flay to strike Swelter across the face with a chain—the “First Blood” of Chapter 14. I was somewhat disappointed that that chapter title didn’t have a more multilayered meaning.
  • I keep thinking that I’m going to have to write about the way Peake uses disability and disfigurement as a tool for characterization, but I’m still forming an opinion on the way he does it.
  • Word and phrase repetition are extremely important in Titus Groan. I’m making lists of key words and phrases that I expect to write more about at a later date. Similarly, words and phrases with double (or even triple) meanings are important to note; some of those are also repeated throughout the text.
  • Titus tearing a page as he falls out of the book is only “his first recorded act of blasphemy.”
  • Fuchsia’s fierce love and protectiveness of Nannie Slagg at the end of Chapter 16 is my favorite scene so far in the book. “You’ve made her cry, you beasts!” is a powerful ending note to the christening drama.

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