Category Archives: Let’s Read

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 32-35

So, it’s been a while, admittedly, but I never forgot about this project, and now is (finally) the time to get back to it. Right now, I’m hoping to finish Titus Groan by the end of the summer, at which point I’ll figure out a workable schedule for the other two books in the trilogy. I’ve also still got G. Peter Winnington’s biography of Mervyn Peake (Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies) to read as well, and I haven’t decided yet if I want to read it after Titus Groan or wait until I’ve finished the entire series on my own. That is a decision for Future Bridget to make, though. Present Bridget is busy focusing on parsing all the shades of irony, melancholy and sly humor in chapters 32 through 35 of Titus Groan.

Chapter 32: ”The Fir Cones”

“The Fir Cones” is a chapter made of two distinct and disparate parts. The first is a character sketch of Steerpike, largely concerned with how he spends his nights while living with the Prunesquallors. This is followed by the story of the meeting between Lord Sepulchrave, Flay, Nannie Slagg and the infant Titus, a story which ends with a sad commentary on the character of Sepulchrave.

Much of what I call character sketch of Steerpike is, in fact, description of how Steerpike sees himself. Like Fuchsia, Ladies Cora and Clarice, and even Sepulchrave, Steerpike has an intense and active imagination that deeply informs the way he moves through his world, no matter how much he may think of himself as a man of logic with a mind “like an efficient machine.” As Steerpike spends his evenings walking the grounds of the castle, inventing poisons, reading books and polishing his [marvelously phallicly-described] “swordstick,” he’s also scheming and planning, imagining the ways in which he may manipulate Gormenghast’s other inhabitants for his own gain. However, perhaps the most compelling thing about the Steerpike passages in this chapter is the way Peake paints Steerpike as a man of deep contradictions: patient but also short-sighted, full of grandiose ideas but also self-absorbed, brilliant yet superstitious. These kinds of contradictory dual natures seem to be common in Gormenghast, but this chapter and the next are heavily focused on exploring the multitudes contained in their individual characters.

The meeting between Sepulchrave, Flay and Slagg—as observed by (read: spied upon by) Steerpike—contains just a kernel of plot: Sepulchrave wants to have a celebratory breakfast for his son. This is literally the only actual event that occurs in this chapter, and it’s really just exposition about a future event. What this section is about, to the degree that it’s about anything at all, is Sepulchrave, his depression, and his failings as a father. Sepulchrave’s idiosyncratic gift of fir cones to his infant son is about as well-received as one could expect. Nannie Slagg is effervescent in her gratitude, but the cones are of little interest to three-month-old Titus, who simply chews on them a little while the adults talk—or, rather, while Slagg and Flay listen to Sepulchrave’s specific-yet-vague instructions for Titus’s breakfast party.

The chapter ends with Sephulchrave sending Slagg, Flay and Titus away when he becomes overwhelmed with his feelings of anger and inadequacy over what he seems to understand as Titus’s rejection of the gift of fir cones. This is explicitly related to Sepulchrave’s depression, even as Sepulchrave lashes out in anger, externalizing his feelings of shame and failure in a violent outburst only to then double down on the very behaviors that caused his feelings.

“He was too proud and melancholy to unbend and be the father of the boy in anything but fact; he would not cease to isolate himself.”

Sepulchrave isn’t able to fully externalize his feelings, however. The final line of the chapter—“He sat back again in the chair, but he could not read.”—suggests that he is deeply effected by his emotions, to the point that his preoccupation is even preventing him from engaging in his most cherished activity. It’s a wonderfully effective note on which to end the chapter.

Chapter 33: “Keda and Rantel”

“When Keda came back to her people, the cacti were dripping with the rain.”

Let it not be said, however, that Mervyn Peake’s best sentences are final ones. Chapter 33 opens as marvelously as the previous chapter closes and then goes on to end as beautifully, as well. “Keda and Rantel” is Peake’s prose at its best, full of gorgeous imagery and evocative turns of phrase. Peake often subordinates story and plot to moody, atmospheric descriptions of setting, but here he balances these concerns. The story of Keda’s love triangle is a compelling exploration of Keda as a character and a thoughtful rumination on what “freedom” means for a young woman whose choices have been as constrained as hers have been.

Darkness and gloom are common features of Gormenghast, and here Peake combines them with vivid nature, seasonal and weather language to convey Keda’s emotional state as she leaves the castle and returns to the Mud Dwellings. “This was the darkness she knew of,” Peake writes, a sentence simple enough by current standards to be cliché. Similarly, Peake’s explicit way of mirroring Keda’s mood in the weather—at one point, clouds literally part as Keda’s feelings shift—feels unfashionably on the nose. Light and darkness and the changing of weather and seasons are classic natural symbols and metaphors, and Peake utilizes them, but it’s easy for any writer to slip into hackneyed phrases. It’s the less obvious ideas and words that stand out on reading this novel in 2018, such as the way Peake describes Keda’s apprehension about her homecoming and how it changes to something less bleak and more hopeful, or at least alive with possibility:

“This, the very moment which she had anticipated would fill her with anxiety—when the problems, to escape which she had taken refuge in the castle, would lower themselves over her like an impenetrable fog and frighten her—was now an evening of leaves and flame, a night of ripples.”

That last line, “and evening of leaves and flame, a night of ripples,” is particularly lovely, evoking warmth, change, and movement. With the chapter opening with an image of water (albeit not still water), this sentence also positions Keda as a metaphorical stone from whom change reverberates when she enters the place of water. She is an actor whose agency affects her surroundings, which is appropriate in a chapter that centers so closely on her and her decisions, both past and present.

This chapter also functions as an exploration of dual natures, and it’s layered with language to that effect. The Mud Dwellings are a place both comforting and frightening. The dwarf dog that Keda encounters is disgusting, yet lovable. The detailed description of the ancient horse and rider statue that is “the pride of the Mud Dwellers” paints a picture both beautiful and horrifying.

Keda’s predicament, as well—a love triangle in which she must choose between two suitors—points to duality, though Rantel and Braigon don’t represent aspects of Keda’s personality or possible paths for her life in the same heavy-handed fashion that characterizes most more modern love triangle stories. Rather, both men seem to be equally appealing options, and Keda’s preference for each of them is dependent more on which one is in front of her than on any particular qualities the men possess. Keda herself recognizes the tragedy of her situation when Rantel and Braigon determine to duel over her, and the bird motif that’s been so persistent throughout the novel reappears in the final paragraph of the chapter:

“Keda,” she said to herself, “Keda, this is a tragedy.” But as her words hung emptily in the morning air, she clenched her hands, for she could feel no anguish and the bright bird that filled her breast was still singing… was still singing.”

Chapter 31: “The Room of Roots”

This is a chapter mostly about Ladies Cora and Clarice Groan and mostly in their POV, which is an interesting perspective that provides ample opportunities for Peake to showcase his sense of slyly humorous irony. The sisters’ misdirected resentment towards Gertrude is expounded upon some more, but perhaps what’s most compelling about this chapter is the way in which it picks up and carries on the sense of uneasy nihilism that the previous chapter ended with. There’s a growing sense throughout Titus Groan that nothing means anything at all, that events in the book simply happen, that characters simply exist and that the setting—suffused as it is with a sort of timeless, dour gloom—could be any time or place or none. There’s a sort of nonsense logic to it all that obviously recalls the work of Lewis Carroll, a writer of similarly surreal landscapes and characters, though Peake seems somewhat more concerned than Carroll ever was with communicating some kind of truth about the human condition.

The theme of duality continues to be explored through the characters of the twins, and the story of the Room of Roots interestingly combines the bird motif that has continuously threaded throughout the novel with the botanical nature imagery that has appeared in the previous few chapters. The titular Room is dug out from the roots of, presumably, an enormous tree, and Cora and Clarice’s resentment of Gertrude is reiterated to be about the birds that the twins think Gertrude has stolen from them.

The showpiece of this chapter, however, is Clarice’s story about how she tried to humiliate Gertrude by throwing ink on her, only to find that Gertrude was wearing a black dress. It combines all the things that are delightful about Peake’s portrayal of Cora and Clarice: dry humor, irony, nonsense logic, and the implicit suggestion that life is meaningless and struggle against fate is futile.

Chapter 32: “Inklings of Glory”

Chapter 32 finds us back in Steerpike’s point of view as he hatches a plot with the twins to destroy Sepulchrave’s books by burning the library, which makes it about as plot-focused a chapter as any in the book. It also contains Steerpike’s realization that Cora and Clarice truly are both stupid and mad, though he still believes that he can manipulate and control them. It remains to be seen if this is true.

Miscellany:

  • One day, I want to write a book on the fantasy trope of things being ancient and unchanging for centuries. It’s one of those tropes that I never thought about as a child and young person but that always reads as absurd to me as I approach middle age. Just the idea that any culture would remain largely in stasis for hundreds of years is patently silly, whether it’s being described by Mervyn Peake or J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.
  • So, I guess the “old dark-skinned lady” that is Cora and Clarice’s servant might be the only person of color in the book so far. It’s not surprising, but there’s also not much to comment on here. This is a pretty run-of-the-mill example of the ways in which people of color are included in a lot of medieval-ish fantasy work, and it’s always unfortunate.

Let’s Read Gormenghast! Titus Groan, Chapters 22-26

These chapters begin with yet another flashback in the story, this time to focus on Fuchsia Groan’s reaction to her brother’s birth before setting her on a trajectory that has her meet Steerpike, who talks her into introducing him to Doctor Prunesquallor, who eventually takes Steerpike into his service. To the degree that Titus Groan has any plot at all, this constitutes a significant development, and these chapters seem to mark the end of the introductory saga of Titus Groan’s birth and christening, the immediate reactions to those events, and Steerpike’s rebirth as something other than a kitchen boy. The overall impression of the first two hundred pages of Titus Groan is of a season of change within Gormenghast, but within these few chapters, the story is focused on the contrasts between Fuchsia, the scion of a strange and ancient nobility, and Steerpike, the ambitious interloper who might as well have sprung fully formed from the bowels of Gormenghast itself for all we know of his history.

Chapter 22, “The Body by the Window,” finds Fuchsia absolutely distraught over her brother’s birth, and this offers us some insight into her psychology. Fuchsia is passionate in her hatred, which extends to everything: “I hate things! I hate all things! I hate and hate every single tiniest thing. I hate the world!” In her next breath, Fuchsia expresses a desire to live alone: “Always alone. In a house or in a tree.” And she fantasizes about a man who will come and rescue her from her exile. She sees herself as separate and different from the rest of those around her, and she hopes for “someone from another kind of world—a new world” who will fall in love with her because she lives alone, because of her differentness and, she says, because of her pride. Further requirements for this imaginary lover include great height—“taller than Mr. Flay”—strength and yellow hair “like a lion” and big feet—to make Fuchsia’s own big feet seem smaller. Fuchsia’s fantasy man is also clever, and he must wear dark clothes to enhance the brightness of her own.

On the one hand, Fuchsia’s outburst and her fantasies may be typical of a spoiled and sheltered fifteen-year-old. On the other hand, they are the beginning of a great deal of work in these chapters to show us who Fuchsia is and explain her place in Gormenghast and its narrative. Fuchsia’s place in the story of Gormenghast—both in her understanding and the reader’s—is deeply tied to her sense of self, which is in turn deeply tied to her connection to the place of Gormenghast. For all that Fuchsia verbally expresses feelings of alienation and a desire to be left alone, she doesn’t fantasize about leaving Gormenghast. Indeed, just a page after she dreams of a lover who will come fall in love with her where she lives alone, she writes herself onto the very walls of the castle: “I am Fuchsia. I must always be.” We’ve already had an inkling of Fuchsia’s feelings about her hidden attic rooms, and in Chapter 23, “Ullage of Sunflower,” there is even more evidence of the way that Fuchsia’s identity and sense of self are intimately connected with the places she considers her own. Her feelings of violation when she finds Steerpike in her rooms are palpable and vividly conveyed; Fuchsia has a visceral reaction to Steerpike and his transgression on her space, which is only a couple uses of the word “penetrate” away from being an obvious rape metaphor.

Instead, the interactions between Fuchsia and Steerpike in Chapters 23 and 24 (“Soap for Greasepaint”) could perhaps generously be interpreted as a seduction of sorts, as the cold, calculating Steerpike tries to charm Fuchsia into helping him rise above his present station. At the same time, there’s something decidedly unsexual—certainly unsexy—about all of this. While Fuchsia is a girl who has entertained romantic ideals, there’s no evidence that Steerpike ever has, and it’s quickly revealed that Steerpike’s grasp on the workings of Fuchsia’s mind is shaky at best. They are set up as opposites—Fuchsia’s imagination and passion versus Steerpike’s base cunning—but not in the way of opposites that attract. Fuchsia in fact finds Steerpike repellant; though she’s charmed by his clowning, she never trusts him and has an almost instinctual suspicion of the boy, who she pegged immediately as cleverer than herself. Steerpike’s instincts serve him well enough, however, as he does manage to achieve his objective of an introduction to someone who might give him different employment. In a different novel, I might suggest that Steerpike’s failure to fully understand Fuchsia—and his subsequent failure to even suspect that he might have failed—might be the seeds of his undoing. In this novel, peculiarly non-linear and plotless as it is, it’s hard to say.

What seems most important about these chapters is the illustration of contrasts between Steerpike and Fuchsia and the way these contrasts serve as an illustration of the class and station dynamics within Gormenghast. In the absence of a strong plot, it’s easier and more rewarding to interpret Titus Groan as a book about Gormenghast the place rather than as a story about Gormenghast’s people. Rather, the characters are all simply ancillaries to the setting, which actually has very few characters when you think about it. The Groans and their servants inhabit vast empty spaces within the walls of Gormenghast, even going years without seeing each other at times. The Mud Dwellings outside the castle are inhabited by unnamed crowds, and Swelter’s kitchen, while a veritable hive of activity, is a hellish place and once again mostly filled with nameless masses.

It’s an emptiness that is both literal—there just aren’t very many people in Gormenghast—and metaphorical—the lives of the family of Groan and their closest retainers are variously empty of employment or meaning, filled with nonsense and absurdity and hollow traditions. It’s this world that alienates Fuchsia, who escapes into a fantasy world in which she imagines being rescued through marriage, perhaps the only ambition a sheltered and neglected girl of her station can imagine or, perhaps, the only ambition the author could imagine for her. It’s also this world that the outsider, Steerpike, wants to infiltrate, but one can’t help but feel that he is going to be sorely disappointed by what he finds. In the end of this section, it’s this empty, lonely world of Gormenghast that leads the Doctor and Irma Prunesquallor to employ Steerpike at all; they’re educated, relatively lively people who are hungry for intelligent and stimulating society of a kind that doesn’t exist within Gormenghast, and they hope that Steerpike will fill that void in their lives.

Miscellany:

  • There are some lovely turns of phrase in these chapters. Personal favorites include Steerpike’s “clever imitation of a smile” and the description of the Doctor’s gift to Fuchsia as “a ruby like a lump of anger.”
  • I would be fine, just fine, if I never had to read another description, ever, of the awakening of an adult man’s sexual interest in a barely-pubescent girl. Just saying.
  • These chapters were almost entirely devoid of most of the descriptive and thematic motifs I’d identified so far, but the bird motif comes back at the end of Chapter 26 when Irma Prunesquallor is describing her plans to dress Steerpike in grey: “the hue of doves.” With Steerpike having been both specifically described as predatory and then shown to have a rapacious ambition, the connotations of this description are clear. Within the broader bird motif, if Steerpike is a predator, then to dress him in “the hue of doves” paints him as the avian equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Update

I am bogged down (in a good way, though) this week with other projects and some housekeeping stuff here at SF Bluestocking, so I’m taking a break from Titus Groan while I wrap up my Spring Reading List and get out my Summer Reading List. I’ve also got a couple book reviews and at least one  giveaway in the works in the next week or so, so be on the lookout for those.

New Titus Groan posts will appear after the 4th of July.

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.