Reviewed in the United States on August 20, 2017
There are no hobbits. No elves. No fauns. No orcs, dragons or white walkers. There are, however, assorted grotesque humans with Dickensian names such as Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Sepulchrave, Flay and Swelter. They all live in a vast edifice, Gormenghast Castle, atop Gormenghast Mountain in a world that is almost medieval but could occur in any pre-20th century era.
Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus Groan’, published in 1946, is the first of a projected series depicting the growth and life of Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh earl of the house of Groan. Peake published one sequel, ‘Gormenghast’, in 1950, and another novel, ‘Titus Alone’, in 1959, in which the grown Titus travels far away from Gormenghast and takes place in far flung locales that bear little resemblance to the place of his birth. Peake’s struggles with Parkinson’s slowed his progress with the series so that the last ten years of his life he could barely write anything. His wife wrote a fourth novel, ‘Titus Awakes’, based on notes that Peake had left, a few years after his death in 1968.
The “royalty” of Gomenghast consists of a dynasty of Earls of Groan, with their families and heirs. Rooted in a tradition of ritual that has sucked out whatever life they once had. The seventy-sixth Earl of Groan, Lord Sepulchrave (the name evokes the words “sepulcher” and “crave”, evocative words that describe the demeanor of the Earl) is a melancholy man, rendered nearly inert by the weight of his rigidly structured life. He is a prisoner of his tradition, with a loveless marriage and no meaningful relationships with anyone. His only source of solace is the books in his library.
For the occupants and their servants in Gormenghast, ritual reigns more than any individual and change is a threat to this order and must be held at bay. Nevertheless, change is in their midst and is insidiously eating away at their ossified routines in the form of Steerpike, a former kitchen boy who has managed to escape his job, leave the castle and literally climb his way back into someone’s good graces and be placed in a position with the potential for advancement.
First, he crawls in the window of an attic room of the quarters of the earl’s fifteen-year old daughter, Fuschia, an impetuous, brooding and lonely child who is wary of Steerpike initially but reluctantly won over by his charm. She vacillates between borderline infatuation and fear and distrust throughout the rest of the novel.
Steerpike is introduced to Alfred Prunesqallor, the resident physician, a man with a frivolous, superficially verbose manner who is at heart a compassionate man with integrity. He lives in quarters with his strange, insecure and decidedly unattractive sister, Irma, who is immediately entranced by the lad. He works as an assistant in Prunesquallor’s pharmacy long enough to learn the difference between safe and toxic mixtures, then ingratiates himself with the earl’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice. The twins are identical not only physically but in thought and impulse. They are also somewhat slow-witted, enabling them to be easily duped. In fact, in a series of chapters describing the reveries of individual characters at a ceremonial breakfast, after depicting Cora’s thoughts, the chapter describing Clarice’s consists of only one sentence:
“Her thoughts have been identical with those of her sister in every way save only in one respect, and this cleavage can best be appreciated by the simple process of substituting Cora’s for her own wherever it appears in the reverie of the former.”
Steerpike preys on their worst fears of exclusion and their hatred of their sister-in-law, the haughty and insensitive Lady Gertrude. It does not take much persuasion to persuade them to set fire to the earl’s library with Steerpike’s assistance at a ceremonial dinner at which everyone in the family, including everyone except the uninvited twins, will be present. The fire does proceed and Steerpike manages to escape and climb back in to come to the family’s rescue, helping them to evacuate the quarters and earn their gratitude. Prunesquallor, Gertrude, and Fuschia all sense that something doesn’t ring true about Steerpike’s nobility but can’t point their finger to anything specifically that provides evidence of duplicity.
The earl, losing his one source of joy, goes mad and comes to a tragic end, meaning that the now one-year old Titus must be appointed the next earl at a bizarre ceremony in the rain at Gormenghast Lake.
The castle is so vast that it takes up a few miles and is more labyrinthine and sprawling than anything that could be constructed in the real world. Entire lives can be lived in remote areas of the castle by occupants that never know the existence of some of the other occupants. For example, Rottcodd, the curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings (the collection of wooden statuary carved by the Bright Carvers, a community of villagers living just outside the castle), resides in quarters at the top of the castle and only knows of the birth of Titus because the servant Flay has gone up to tell him the news; likewise, the ‘earling’ of Titus a year later when he notices everyone is gone and sees them returning from the ceremony from his window. The opening of the novel is particularly evocative of the anthropomorphic structure:
“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”
Although one can detect similarities to Dickens in its use of eccentric names, and resemblances between Steerpike and his scheming literary predecessors Richard III and Uriah Heep, other than the fact that there is plenty of palace intrigue here as in many previous works, Peake’s Gormenghast novels are in a category of their own. Although Tolkien had been working on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ since the years between the world wars, ‘Titus Groan’ was published eight years before the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy and, partly due to the difficulty of categorization, did not draw masses of readers although it earned a fair amount of critical acclaim. Peake’s prose is possibly even more evocative than his illustrations.
While the doings of the bizarre occupants of the castle are fascinating, Peake’s decision to present the fates of some peripheral characters such as some of the carvers, while intermittently interesting, are not as compelling as the Gormenghast characters and interrupt the momentum of the primary narrative. Despite the detours, ‘Titus Groan’ is a somewhat symmetrical novel, returning to the character that it opened with and beginning with Titus’ birth and ending with his earling a year later.
‘Titus Groan’ doesn’t exactly end as a cliff-hanger—it could be read as a standalone novel—but I would think that anyone that read to the end and liked it would be curious to find out what happens in its sequel, as there is plenty of unfinished business left unresolved by its conclusion. I certainly intend to proceed to ‘Gormenghast’ next.