In a book full of strangeness, perhaps the weirdest part of today’s reading is how disparate its chapters are. Previous sections have had unifying themes or dealt with the same characters throughout or with a short period of time, but these chapters each stand apart from the others. They also each advance the story in the most linear fashion that has occurred so far in Titus Groan. There’s still a lot of worldbuilding exposition, but in this section that is accompanied by copious character work and not just one but several actual events. It’s the most normative section of the book so far, in terms of construction, but it’s a weird turn that I’m curious to see is sustained. After waiting all this time for a proper plot to develop and finally giving up on that ever happening, I’m obviously leery of getting my hopes up.
The section begins with a chapter that feels somewhat out of place and is something of a speedbump. Chapter 27, “While the Old Nurse Dozes,” is primarily devoted to Keda’s story, and we learn something about her life before coming to Gormenghast. A forced marriage according to the customs of the people of the Mud Dwellings, a dead husband and child, and two men in love with her at the same time are the stuff of high drama, but the tale is told quietly and calmly by Keda herself to Nannie Slagg, who falls asleep during the story. It’s an interesting background for Keda and some fascinating exposition on the lives of those who live in the Mud Dwellings and the culture built around the veneration of the Bright Carvers, though it’s also a very generously favorable portrayal of forced marriage and rape. Keda seems more affected by the anxiety of being involved in a love triangle than by being treated like chattel and married off to a much older man.
To be honest, there’s very little about Keda’s characterization in this chapter that feels true. Though Keda makes a somewhat impassioned speech to Nannie Slagg—“I feared my future, and my past was sorrow, and in my present you had need of me and I had need of refuge so I came”—even that is delivered “quietly,” a word used both at the beginning and end of the paragraph that contains this speech. In fact, words like “still” and “quiet” are used many times in Chapter 27 to describe Keda, and she even describes herself in such terms, which is at odds with her more general passion and the impulsiveness of her decision to come to the castle as Titus’s nurse. It’s possible that in the seventy years since its original publication, the book has become dated; perhaps women like Keda were more numerous in the 1940s. However, I’m more inclined to think that an eccentric and often isolated male author just didn’t have enough interactions with real women to convincingly write an adult woman’s pathos.
Keda’s stoicism rings false, and her final, definitive (albeit whispered) statement, “I must have love,” feels hollow in a book that consistently depicts love as anything but desirable. Love in Gormenghast, to the degree that it exists at all, can be fierce and obsessive and often violent, but the only particularly positive example of love that we’ve seen so far is Keda’s own tenderness for the infant Titus. Nannie Slagg’s love for Fuchsia and Titus may be seen as positive, but it’s also self-serving; she loves their nobility and the position that grants her (such as it is) in Gormenghast, which she uses her inflated sense of self-importance to lord over Keda and to imagine herself as superior to the other servants, with whom she rarely interacts. Fuchsia has been shown to love things fiercely, but inconstantly; she’s young and strange and self-absorbed enough that she doesn’t know what love even is, as evidenced by her own fantasies in the previous chapters. This is certainly explicable in light of Fuchsia’s parents’ cold marriage, which is no kind of example for a young girl, but there’s an altogether cynical and unromantic tone that suffuses the whole book and all Mervyn Peake’s depictions of its characters. Keda isn’t treated with quite the same satirical eye as the rest of Peake’s cast, but the earnestness of her portrayal only serves to highlight the ways in which Peake doesn’t really understand her.
Chapter 28, “Flay Brings a Message,” begins with the advent of autumn in Gormenghast. Autumn—or just the change of seasons more generally—is often symbolically significant, and that is the case here as well. Fuchsia is, at least ostensibly, on the verge of running away. Keda has gone. Nannie Slagg is worried. Flay is anxious. Sepulchrave, at long last, wants to see his son. The real star of this chapter, though, is Gormenghast itself and Peake’s superbly beautiful prose as he describes it:
“Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit reentering its stronghold. Its breath could be felt in forgotten corridors—Gormenghast had itself become autumn. Even the denizens of this fastness were its shadows.”
“The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, and their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds moldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone sky-field, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up the hidden walls.”
“From high in the Tower of Flints the owls inviolate in their stone galleries cried inhumanly, or falling into the windy darkness set sail on muffled courses for their hunting grounds.”
I am a total sucker for alliteration, and I’m further enamored of anthropomorphic metaphors, so I adore these descriptive passages. But in addition to being lovely in isolation, these passages also reiterate some of the earliest motifs I identified when I first embarked on my reading and further develop some more recently introduced ideas about Gormenghast the place. The emptiness and the sense of haunting and unholiness are palpable, and early motifs are evident in Peake’s word choices. The profane is succinctly contained in terms like “dark spirit” and images like those of the “tortured trees” that “[burn] and [drip]” and in the inhuman voices of Gormenghast’s owls. The whole place comes alive with words like “become” and “exhaled” and “breathed,” while the pathological weirdness of the castle is shown in word choices like “moldered” and “swarmed” that suggest illness and infestation.
In Chapter 29, “The Library,” we get even more description of Gormenghast—further expanding upon the off-kilter feel of the place and with sumptuous paragraphs about the castle’s Gothic architecture. The main focus of the chapter, however, is Sepulchrave. In a slightly surprisingly modern turn, it’s made clear that Sepulchrave’s malaise is in fact a “native depression” with a history that stretches back to his youth. We learn something about Sepulchrave’s unhappy (albeit fruitful) marriage to Gertrude, which certainly doesn’t improve the earl’s state of mind, but ultimately Peake writes that “…compared with the dull forest of his inherent melancholy it was but a tree from a foreign region that had been transplanted and absorbed.” In today’s terms, of course, it seems obvious that what Peake is describing about Sepulchrave is a clinical depression, with no cause and no easy cure, but what feels most surprising about the portrayal of Sepulchrave’s depression is how sensitively-crafted it is. Sepulchrave’s depression is certainly extreme, and it’s his defining trait, but it’s treated seriously and humanely, without the satirical gaze Peake turns on so many of the book’s other characters. That said, Sepulchrave’s depression is still pathologized in the text: “His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side.” Throughout the book there has been a sense of sickness about Gormenghast, and it would be easy to interpret Sepulchrave—Lord of Gormenghast and the theoretical head of the Groan family and their household—as the source of that sickness based upon passages like this if there weren’t so many other competing potential sources of rot in the place. The next couple chapters explore several of these possibilities.
At the end of Chapter 29, Flay takes a short detour on his journey to request Titus’s presence in the library, and he’s appalled to observe Swelter doing, well, something. Chapter 30, “In a Lime-Green Light,” elaborates a bit upon what Mr. Flay finds so horrifying about the cook. There’s something almost Lovecraftian about the nameless, inarticulable fear and antipathy Flay has for Swelter, the scenes of Flay spying on Swelter as Swelter seemingly plots Flay’s murder see Gormenghast at its worst and most hellish. The green light of Swelter’s underground room and the descriptions of his honing the cleaver and practicing stealth are positively demonic in tone, and Flays utter terror by the end of the chapter feels entirely earned.
Finally, Chapter 30, “Reintroducing the Twins,” returns to Steerpike and the Prunesquallors, who have sat down to a dinner of—perhaps significantly, given the ongoing bird motifs in the novel—chicken. Steerpike’s social climbing has been as successful so far as he could have hoped, and he seems to have made himself quite indispensable to the Prunesquallor siblings, especially Irma, whose vanity has only increased in light of Steerpike’s solicitousness of her. After this dinner, the Prunesquallors are visited by Cora and Clarice Groan, who take an immediate interest in Steerpike, who, for his part, jumps at the opportunity to advance himself still more. He listens to the twins’ grievances (mainly that “[Gertrude] steals our birds”), strokes their egos, and escorts them home with the suggestion that he may be able to serve them and return them to their former glory. The chapter ends with a monologue-ish account of Steerpike’s scheming and a hopeful and powerfully symbolic image of the sky clearing: “…the sky had emptied itself of cloud and was glittering fiercely with a hundred thousand stars.”
- Fuchsia’s eccentricity has taken an interestingly almost-scientific turn. I love the idea of her as a collector and cataloguer of the natural world, though I also think this may be verging on an almost Hardy-esque ideal of the girl as a sort of pure nature or earth spirit, untouched by the corruption of the world around her, especially in the way Fuchsia’s innocence and wildness is set in opposition to the strictures of life within the castle. She seems ripe for corruption or tragedy, and I don’t know if I can bear it if anything terrible happens to her. Still, she remains a fascinatingly trope-defying character. There could be something manic pixie-ish about her in other circumstances, but Fuchsia’s narrative so far is in service to nothing and no one but herself.
- I’m going to riot if I don’t get to read at least one chapter about Gertrude that’s as informative about her as Chapter 29 is about Sepulchrave.
- So far, though at least some of Peake’s influences are obvious (Shakespeare, Gothic romances, Dickens, Carroll, Poe), he’s steered clear of any direct literary allusions, but he alludes to Washington Irving in Chapter 29 when he writes of the east wing past the Tower of Flints as “an Ichabod of masonry that filed silently along an avenue of dreary pine whose needles hid the sky.” I was so surprised I had to Google it just to make certain it wasn’t a more obscure Biblical allusion instead. The Irving allusion makes me wonder how much American literature Peake was familiar with. There are definite shades of Poe, but perhaps Peake also read Hawthorne. And Peake’s fixation on the pathology of place and the quiet horror of ancient spaces suggests he might even have read some Lovecraft, but the book is so far free of any of Lovecraft’s virulent prejudices. Indeed, Peake’s interest seems to be particularly in the foibles and failings of the antiquated system of English nobility, a peculiarly English sort of introspection that doesn’t have much in common with the oeuvres of popular early American writers.
- I guess Steerpike is going to wear black after all.