Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
I completed the first installment of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series with a sense of exhaustion. It is a colossal book, written with such dense language that reading through it is like gorging on words. It was the book equivalent of eating a very rich, very large chocolate cake. Behind all the intricacies and techniques of the language is an equally strange story, one that does not easily fit into any particular genre. In my local bookstore at least, it is shelved in the “fantasy” section, seemingly because no one knows where else to put it.
These days (after the publication of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) the word “fantasy” is used to classify books that are concerned with magical creatures, the fight between good and evil, and vast sub-created worlds. Mervyn Peake has none of this, unless you count the stronghold of Gormenghast, filled with its sense of social and political machinations, its detailed descriptions of claustrophobic rooms and passageways, and its vast history of culture and ritual as a “created world” — which you easily could. But I’m more tempted to call it a Gothic novel — there’s plenty of intrigue, dark romance, and murder most foul. Yet, as the line between Gothic and fantasy fiction is often blurred — we’re right back where we started. Suffice to say, Titus Groan (and its two sequels Gormenghast and Titus Alone) is one of a kind.
The story is set at Gormenghast Castle, the immense stronghold of the Groan family. Ruled over by ritual and tradition, life at Gormenghast can best be described as stagnant. Nothing ever changes. Even if someone dies — whether it be a member of the Groan family, or a lowly servant — they are immediately replaced thanks to the strict guidelines of hereditary inheritance. Life grinds on, ruled by complex and obscure ritual, with only minor hobbies providing any sort of relief against the monotony of existence for the residents of Gormenghast — hobbies that include reading (for the melancholy Earl Sepulchrave), devotion to pets (for the Countess Gertrude, who cares more for her birds and cats than her own daughter Fuchsia), pointless scheming (for the Earl’s twin sisters Cora and Clarice) and petty feuds (for the manservant Flay and the grotesque cook Swelter).
But two agents of change are about to be introduced to this stifling atmosphere. One is the newborn Titus, the future Earl of Gormenghast who — despite being the title character — has little to do with the action of the story (it’s hard to be a properly developed character when you’re an infant!) The other is the much more intriguing figure of seventeen-year old Steerpike, a lowly kitchen boy with high ambitions. Taking every opportunity he can to spy on the Groan family and make himself indispensable to various members of the household, the Machiavellian youth begins his climb to power and control — and the only way I can describe him is to combine Macbeth’s overwhelming ambition with Scarlett O’Hara’s disregard for morality when it gets in the way of personal gain. Naturally, he makes for a fascinating character, just a tad too unsympathetic to be called an “anti-hero,” yet compelling nonetheless.
Although Steerpike’s manipulations are main storyline of the novel, there are plenty of subplots, predominantly the story of a young “Dweller” (a member of the peasantry) who is brought in as wet-nurse to the infant Titus, but eventually leaves to return to her feuding lovers. Likewise, there are the characters of Doctor Prunesqualler, Nannie Slagg and Sourdust (much like Charles Dickens, Peake must have had a great time assigning appropriate names to his characters) who each have their part to play in the vast tapestry of familial and class relations throughout the novel.
However, it does seem as though much of this particular story is set-up. I have yet to read Gormenghast, but several of the characters and situations introduced in this novel (and the lack of resolution assigned to them) give the impression that they are being “saved” for later books — as Peake certainly planned out these works in advance, having always intended them to be part of a multi-book series. Sadly, this plan never reached fruition due to Peake’s untimely death that cut Titus’s life-story short — but there is still plenty here to intoxicate a patient and discerning reader. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a chore to struggle through the density of the language, some of which appears needlessly self-indulgent. But when Mervyn Peake has something profound to say, he says it in a way that will stay with you forever: “There is a love that equals in its power the love of a man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.”
So basically: the pace is slow, the characters range from irritating to loathsome, and the language is sometimes nigh incomprehensible. Yet something drew me in and made me keep reading: this fascinating world of Gormenghast (which could easily be set in the past, the future, or another planet entirely), the extraordinarily dreamy and even psychedelic prose, and an alternative way of classifying “fantasy fiction” that is void of dragons, elves and magic-filled quests. Who knows? Had Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings not been so popular (all but creating the term “fantasy genre” as we know it today), Mervyn Peake’s incomplete cycle may very well have been the template for popular fantasy authors everywhere.
This past fall, my friend handed me Titus Groan, the first book of the GORMENGHAST series by Mervyn Peake, and said, “You need to read this. It’s amazing.” We used to work at the same bookstore, so she knows something about my taste in books. I took it home, read the first chapter, and, disappointed, put it aside. It seemed dense and meandering, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to continue.
I am so glad I eventually did.
Which is not to say that Titus Groan isn’t dense and meandering, because it is. But those qualities don’t mean, as I suspected on my first experience, that it is also boring and pointless. Instead, Peake is creating a layered masterpiece of atmosphere that twists back on itself in the way a symphony builds on earlier chord progressions.
Peake tells the story of the Groan family, a dynasty who live in an ancient labyrinthine castle called Gormenghast, and the servants and other functionaries who live in and just outside the castle. At the beginning of the book, Lord Sepulchrave Groan, the 76th Earl of Groan, and his wife, Countess Gertrude, have just had a baby: Titus, the heir to the Groan title. Although Titus is the title character, he has very little to do with the plot, as he’s just a baby throughout the book. Instead, the novel focuses largely on the machinations of Steerpike, a kitchen boy determined to rise through the hierarchy of the castle. Steerpike does this by manipulating members of the House of Groan, such as Fuschia, Titus’s 15-year-old sister, and Cora and Clarice, the twin sisters of Sepulchrave, as well as trusted servants of the family, such as Doctor Prunesquallor and his vain sister Irma. Titus Groan also tells us the story of the bitter enmity between Flay, the head servant, and Swelter, Gormenghast’s chef; and the sad tale of Keda, an outsider to the castle who has come in for a few months to be Titus’s wet nurse.
Peake’s character studies are brilliant and strange, a host of eerie eccentrics to rival any by Edward Gorey. The chef, Swelter, is described as a mound of sweating flesh, while his enemy Flay is as dry and thin as twigs, with knees that crack as he walks. Steerpike, the novel’s main antagonist, is preternaturally agile, strong, and cunning, despite being only 17 at the start of the series. He is high-shouldered and red-eyed, and reminded me continuously of that other obsequious teen antagonist, Dickens’ Uriah Heep. The female characters of Titus Groan are equally odd. Cora and Clarice Groan are the ultimate creepy twins, who, when they stand next to each other as mirror images, are described as:
…a dead and endless frieze whose inexhaustible and repetitive theme was forever, eyes, eyes, eyes.
They speak as one yet are always arguing with each other, concerned solely with their precedence and privilege in the castle. They view Lady Gertrude, Sepulchrave’s wife, as an unwelcome intruder in the Groan lineage. Gertrude herself is an imposing woman, with a tower of red hair, who surrounds herself with birds and a living carpet of white cats. Irma Prunesquallor, an unattractive woman past her prime, nonetheless simpers and sways when she meets a likely suitor. When Steerpike flatters her, it awakens a feeling of attraction long dead:
Somewhere in the vaults of her bosom a tiny imprisoned bird had begun to sing.
Since the society of Gormenghast is formal and highly ritualized, sex and sexuality don’t appear often in Titus Groan. However, the tone of the book is sensual, at times overwhelmingly so. Fuschia and Keda are particularly in tune with their physical environments and sensations. The passage that first hooked me is from Fuschia’s point of view, as she makes her way to a hidden attic in the castle, her special sanctuary:
As Fuschia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully. This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.
This language of impregnation, faintness, and burning all gestures towards physical arousal without specifically naming it. It reminds us that Fuschia is a teenager, in the throes of an awakening that even she doesn’t have a name or context for.
Keda, on the other hand, is going through a different sensual awakening. As one of the peasant class — and as Titus’s wet nurse — she is portrayed as more earthy, physical, and nurturing than the buttoned-down castle residents. She is aware of her own mortality to a degree that the privileged class are not. In the course of the novel, she suffers a horrific blow when her two suitors, rivals for her hand, take each other’s lives in a duel. This tragedy sends her on a transformative journey through the forest and mountains around Gormenghast as she ponders her hard existence.
The narrative itself is preoccupied with dense description that edges into poetry at times. A ruby necklace is “a lump of anger,” and Titus’s newborn ugliness is “a fragment from the enormous rock of mankind.” A room in the castle is so still that “the only life … lay in the throats of the flowers.” Peake’s thick description becomes as important as the story he’s telling. In fact, many reviewers consider the sprawling castle Gormenghast another character in the novel. Via the many and varied descriptions of the castle, the atmosphere subsumes the plot, transforming it into something different and strange the way Twin Peaks transformed the murder mystery or Wes Anderson transformed the family comedy.
The role of the castle turns interesting-enough parts of Titus Groan — like Steerpike’s escape from the kitchens, or the battle between Swelter and Flay — and makes them into epic set pieces. Peake goes on tangents like improvised jazz solos that are so transcendent and breathtaking in their oddity. For example, here is the moment that Swelter and Flay first catch sight of each other before their ultimate deadly showdown:
Swelter’s eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr. Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl’s door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred — broken into flame and circled about one another in the ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets.
That quote is only two sentences, in case you didn’t notice. The second sentence is ten lines long, describing the hatred between Swelter and Flay as a race and a dance between flying, flaming eyeballs. It’s moments like this that make the book such a pure delight.
However, my delight is not everyone’s. I recommend Titus Groan most strongly to readers who enjoy rich language, who dig weirdness, who can be patient with slow plot, and most especially those who appreciate the value of setting in fiction.
The Gormenghast Trilogy — (1946-1959, 2011) The first three books contain the original trilogy. In January 2010, Peake¹s granddaughter found four composition books in her attic which contained the fabled fourth volume Titus Awakes in its entirety. Peake had outlined the novel for his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who had at last finished Peake’s masterpiece. It was published in 2011. Publisher: An undisputed classic of epic fantasy, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels represent one of the most brilliantly sustained flights of Gothic imagination. For the first time in years, Titus Groan, the first book in this timeless series, is available in an individual paperback volume, complete with striking new packaging. As the novel opens, Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave, has just been born. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle. Inside, all events are predetermined by a complex ritual whose origins are lost in history and the castle is peopled by dark characters in half-lit corridors. Dreamlike and macabre, Peake’s extraordinary novel is one of the most astonishing and fantastic works in modern English fiction.
Excellent review, Kate. Spot on with my own experience of reading the trilogy. The summary paragraphs in particular: rich language and weirdness, indeed!
Excellent reviews of this extremely strange, unique and rich book. I’m so glad I read it back in high school, when I could really immerse myself in Peake’s umbrageous and cloistered world. It was a transformative experience, and I think it boosted my SAT verbal score as well. Plus, the characters’ names are so great: Prunsquallor, Steerpike, Flay, Titus & Sepulchrave Groan, etc.
I really would like to revisit the entire trilogy as it’s now available on audiobook, and that heady language could be magic indeed with the right narrator.