Category Archives: Gormenghast

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.”