Category Archives: Gormenghast

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 17-21

[Once again, I find myself having to revise my planned reading because I came to the end of a chapter that felt like such a natural finishing point for the section that I didn’t want to move on without writing about it. This section, instead of covering Chapters 17 through 23 as I originally intended to, will only cover material through Chapter 21.]

“It seemed to him that all his life he’d been climbing.”

I think I mentioned it already, but I’m giving up on this book ever developing any particular plot. After finally having some forward progress, at least temporally, Chapter 17, “Means of Escape,” resets the clock again, taking us fourteen days back to find out how Steerpike escaped from the room in which Mr. Flay had imprisoned him. Steerpike and his whereabouts are, along with Flay’s rivalry with Swelter, Mr. Flay’s primary anxieties, though both of these can be summed up together as an overall anxiety regarding anything Flay considers to be a rebellion against the established order of things in Gormenghast. Flay fears Swelter’s desire for personal revenge, but he seems to worry more over the missing Steerpike, who is, to Flay’s mind, a force of chaos, a dangerous entropy that must be found and controlled before something bad happens. At the same time, Flay’s fears about Steerpike are so amorphous as to be absurd; Flay isn’t an imaginative man, and he struggles to articulate (or perhaps Mervyn Peake struggled to articulate from Flay’s point of view) exactly what he finds so unsettling about the stray kitchen boy.

Most of this section, however, is about Steerpike himself, starting with some deft characterization immediately after Flay has left the prison room: “Most people would have tried the handle of the door. The instinct, however irrational, would have been too strong—the first impulse of one who wishes to escape. Steerpike looked at the knob of the door for a moment. He had heard the key turn. He did not disobey the simple logic of his mind. He turned from the only door in the room and, leaning out of the window, glanced at the drop below.” It’s the most complete idea of Steerpike so far, and it’s a smart illustration of the type of boy he is: logical, creative and quick-thinking, but also circumspect enough to be thinking about the costs of failure. What follows, over the next several chapters, is a symbolic, obviously foreshadowing journey in turns dreamlike and nightmarish as Steerpike ascends the rooftops of Gormenghast and must find a way back into the castle.

Chapter 18, “A Field of Flagstones,” begins with Steerpike consciously choosing to not think about the risks that gave him pause as he first looked out the window and contemplated the drop, and we quickly find that he’s a character skilled at purposeful, next steps thinking. We’re also reminded of Steerpike’s youth; Peake writes about Steerpike’s “young smile” in a way that can’t help but feel pointed in contrast to how Peake has described everything and everyone else we’ve met so far in terms to exaggerate great age, especially the way that characters, in particular, are described as having aged prematurely. It’s possible that Steerpike is still just young enough to have not been subject to the early aging that affects, but it seems more likely that this is an intentional choice to highlight Steerpike’s outsider status within the world of Gormenghast, which is a running theme in these chapters.

Once atop the roof of the castle, Steerpike finds that everything is bigger than he expected, and things quickly take a frightening turn for him as it gets dark and he must find his way around through intuition and touch. The skies clear shortly before dawn, offering some greater visibility, which lets him pick a window to start working towards. It’s a somewhat arbitrary goal, but as we’re reminded in Chapter 21, “he had been searching for one thing and one thing only—a means of entering the castle.” This singlemindedness in pursuit of a modest goal works for Steerpike in these chapters, but we’re reminded over and over again about the precariousness of his position, the danger posed by the risks he takes, and of his own ignorance—he’s only a kitchen boy, after all, and Gormenghast is extremely large and very mysterious. Chapter 20, “Near and Far,” may liken Steerpike to a predator (picking up the bird motif again) and meditate on the question of whether a predator thinks in terms of a big picture or only focuses on its prey, but Steerpike is just orienting himself so far as he wanders around taking in the sights and sounds of Gormenghast over a full day, which must teach him something about the place.

Taken together, Chapters 17 through 21 encapsulate an ambitious trajectory writ small as Steerpike scrambles across the rooftops, and they end with him finally penetrating the castle, almost by accident, when he falls into Fuchsia’s secret attic. It remains to be seen if the map of Steerpike’s non-metaphorical trajectory will match this one.

Miscellany:

  • I think the unnamed poet in Chapter 20 is Sepulchrave. Certainly, the melancholy poem he recites sounds like him.
  • Cora and Clarice creeping around is oddness of exactly the sort that I’ve now come to expect from this book. It’s also interesting to note that they’re wearing their purple dresses already, even though the events in these chapters are nearly two weeks before the christening. That said, this is the sort of thing that could mean nothing except that Peake intended for the reader to understand the two distantly seen ladies as the twins, without intending any other, deeper importance.
  • There’s a pool with a white horse and foal swimming in it, and I’m not sure if these are literally white horses—as no one in Gormenghast has been described as a rider, and all the characters so far are various types of shut-ins—or if they only look like horses from Steerpike’s high vantage point. If it is a white horse, is it a symbol (white horses figure largely in various mythologies and horses are common symbols) or is it just a horse?
  • I’m now over 150 pages into Titus Groan, and it’s still difficult-to-impossible to identify which characters are protagonists and which are antagonists. Peake seems to be taking the humanist route of examining his characters as people rather than roles, and the shifting perspectives prevent any character from emerging as definitively pro- or antagonistic. Some of this is because there’s still not much of an actual plot going on, but some of this feeling is because of the deliberately humanist care with which Peake writes about his characters. They may be absurd, bizarrely so at times, but they’re never less than fully formed.
  • Peake uses specific numerical descriptions often in this section, and I’ll definitely be watching to see if this precision of language and thought is characteristic of just Steerpike’s point of view of if it’s more broadly characteristic of the author. I seem to remember it being a thing in earlier chapters as well, but nowhere near as prominently notable as it was in these chapters.
  • I have read a little bit about Gormenghast and the idea of place as a character, and these chapters do as much to bring Gormenghast to life as any of the ones before. Mr. Flay may act in an antagonistic way towards Steerpike, but it’s Gormenghast that presents the real challenge to the ambitious outsider. There are a couple of instances of straight up anthropomorphic language being used to describe the castle—most memorably the description of Gormenghast’s towers and buildings as “a stationary gathering of stone personalities”—and I’m looking forward to paying close attention to this sort of thing going forward.

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.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 10-13

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.

Miscellany:

  • 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.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 4-9

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.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 1-3

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.”

Having once read it, there’s no way one could mistake the opening sentence of Titus Groan for that of any other book. For one thing, it begins with the name, “Gormenghast,” simply and instantaneously establishing a setting and setting a tone before continuing in a tumble of words that feel as meticulously chosen as they are off-kilter. “Off-kilter,” of course, may be the best one-word description of these first three chapters. From sentence and paragraph structure to word choice, everything about these chapters feels at least slightly askew and unbalanced from the very first words of the book.

The homes of the common people “swarm” and “sprawl.” The earth is sloping and the roofs are uneven. These buildings are “held back by the castle ramparts” as if they’re assaulting the castle—the poor imposing upon the wealthy, titled and powerful by simply existing—and they’re tenacious, “…like limpets on a rock.” The castle itself complements the ramshackle town around it with its “time-eaten buttresses” and “broken and lofty turrets.” Gormenghast is ancient and enormous, but it’s also crumbling and in disrepair. Worse, there’s something obscene about it; it’s most distinguishing feature the Tower of Flints, which “arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” To round out the picture, the tower is full of owls, noisy at night and quiet during the day.

And that’s all just the first paragraph.

Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Bright Carvings,” continues to establish the setting. Gormenghast is an ancient but decaying seat of power, and every description of it is reflective of its decline. The place is gloomy and dingy, collapsing under the weight of time, and there’s a profound disconnectedness between the denizens of the town and those of the castle. The annual carving contest, through which three sculptures are added to the eponymous Hall, is a tradition without meaning. The townspeople, we’re told, spend all year working on their submitted pieces, only to have the majority of them burned after the Earl of Groan judges them and chooses the winners. The chosen pieces are relegated to an enormous gallery kept up by a Curator, Rottcodd, who obsessively, but joylessly keeps them dust-free. They are otherwise seen by no one, as no one except Rottcodd seems to go to the Hall, and he lives there as well as works there. It’s not only those in the castle and those without who are disconnected from each other.

Within the castle, too, there are sharp divides between the gentry and the staff and within the staff as well. This is shown in Flay’s interactions with Rottcodd, but it’s further highlighted in the next chapters, “The Great Kitchen” and “Swelter.” While the workers in the Great Kitchen may be more in the loop of major events inside the castle than Rottcodd was, at least enough so that they know to get wildly drunk in celebration of the new Lord Groan’s birth, they’re no more emotionally connected to the Earl and his family than the Curator. Their bacchanalian revels are just as empty a tradition as the sculpture contest, and the kitchen staff may work for the Earl, but they worship the Chef, Swelter. Like the description of the Tower of Flints, the descriptions of the Great Kitchen and its Chef have a feeling of the profane about them. The Kitchen—hot, stifling, crowded, smelly, cacophonous—is a Hell, and Swelter is its ruler.

To the degree that these first three chapters have a plot (which is debatable), it is this: a new heir to the Earldom has been born, and Lord Sepulchrave’s personal servant, Mr. Flay, is spreading the news. Mr. Flay is so excited about the birth that he is in search of someone to share it with who won’t have heard of it yet, and this sends him to Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. When Rottcodd’s reaction is disappointing, Flay then heads to the Great Kitchen, where he knows that there will be, if not surprise at the novelty of the birth, at least some appropriate amount of celebratory reaction. It’s not much, as plots go, and 33 pages of story with only, essentially, a single event is an unfashionably (by today’s standards) slow start to any novel. However, there’s so much emotive and atmospheric worldbuilding detail and sly characterization of the first few characters we meet that it’s hard to resent the lack of actual story.

Notable Motifs:

  • Birds – There are owls in the Tower of Flints; Rottcodd uses a feather duster; there are birds (ravens, starlings, a white rook) in the Lady’s chamber; Rottcodd’s head moves back and forth “like a bird’s”; Flay has a “scarecrow frame”; Steerpike is Swelter’s “impatient lovebird.”
  • Pathology/Illness – The buildings in the first sentence “swarmed like an epidemic”; the Tower of Flints is “like a mutilated finger”; the sculpture competition is “rabid”; the afternoon that Flay visits Rottcodd is “unhealthy”; the kitchen has a “sickening atmosphere”; Swelter was at the back of Flay’s mind “like a tumor”; Swelter’s first word is to call the kitchen boys, “Gallstones!”
  • Humidity – It’s a hot, humid day when Flay goes to see Rottcodd; the Great Kitchen is oppressively humid.

Some Notes on Names:

I suspect Mervyn Peake’s naming conventions in this series will provoke either love or hate reactions in readers. I am firmly in the love camp, myself, and I appreciate the wryly ironic comedic absurdity of it all.

  • Gormenghast – An ugly word that suggests both “gorge” and “ghastly” and that seems designed to cram as much information as possible about the place into its name.
  • Flay – A single syllable, but a full, real word. Whether you understand it as “to skin,” “to beat,” or “to brutally criticize,” it seems appropriate for our Mr. Flay.
  • Rottcodd – Suggests both death and the smell of something vile. I’m curious to see if Rottcodd appears later in the novel, as this seems like it could be a foreshadowingly symbolic name.
  • Sepulchrave – From “sepulcher,” obviously, so another death name, with a suffix that could lay equal claim to origins in “craven” or “raving.” Or even “raven,” I suppose, which would fit in with the bird motif.
  • Groan – The family name of the Earl. Like “Flay,” it’s a single syllable real word that seems intended to be understood for any or all of its various connotations.
  • Swelter – A name that implies heat and wetness, size—especially in contrast to the simply named Flay—and a certain grossness. Swelter’s first name is Abiatha, perhaps from the Biblical Abiathar, which means “excellent father.” This would make sense in light of Swelter’s affectionately abusive paternal-ish relationship with the kitchen boys, and it would also jive with their seemingly religious devotion to him.
  • Steerpike – Suggests agency with “steer” and sharpness (like a weapon) with “pike.”