Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet beats away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs...
And darkness winds between the characters.
- From Book two of the Gormenghast Trilogy
The age of literature that brought out the works Brideshead Revisited, 1984 and Animal Farm was the total opposite to the Romanticism of the 19th Century. It was deeper, meticulously dark and made readers think a lot more of what was written down after the books' covers were closed, and took imagination to new levels.
One trilogy took the literary world by storm even after just its first novel was published, and with its disturbing nature, became one of the most popular trilogies ever written.
Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in Kuling, China, where his father was working as a medical missionary at the time. Peake was primarily educated at Tientsin Grammar School, and then at Eltham College in South-east London. With his extraordinary gift for art, he studied at Croydon School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools. When teaching at the Westminster School of Art, he met his future wife, Maeve Gilmore. They married in 1937 and had three children.
While serving in the army during the Second World War1, Peake established himself as a book illustrator. His pictures were often beautiful, and sometimes frightening, as shown in books such as Ride a Cock Horse (1940), The Hunting of the Snark and most memorably, Grimm's Household Tales and Treasure Island.
Titus Groan, the first novel in the Gormenghast Trilogy, was first published in 1946, and was duly followed by its sequel, Gormenghast (1950). They were books that showed in their disturbing text the same detail that Peake placed in his illustrations.
Peake was not a one-off series author, but wrote other novels, namely Shapes and Sounds (1941) and Mr Pye (1953). He also showed an aptitude for poetry with zany nonsensical verse and short stories, as in Rhymes with Reason (1944) and Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948). He also wrote plays, including The Wit to Woo (1957), which failed hideously, inducing a nervous breakdown.
The third, and according to the publishers, the final volume of the Gormenghast saga, was Titus Alone (1959), written nine years after the last book. Peake had intended to write more about Gormenghast, but he was afflicted by a protracted and destructive illness which made that impossible.
Peake continued to illustrate, albeit with great difficulty, and his last work included illustrations for an edition of Balzac's Droll Stories (1961) and others for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962), a narrative poem he had penned during the Second World War.
Mervyn Peake died in 1968, but his work was far from finished.
The Gormenghast Trilogy
A disturbing and macabre fantasy of Gothic imagination, the first two books are based in the fictional realm of Gormenghast, whose landmarks include the black Gormenghast Mountain, the Tower of Flints, home of the death owls, deep Gormenghast Lake, the Twisted Woods, the Mud Dwellers' Village and Gormenghast Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls of Groan. With age-old rituals surrounding the lives of everyone, it is placed on a fragile seesaw that could violently tilt if it is knocked slightly.
The first volume in the Gormenghast Trilogy, and the only one in which the similarly named protagonist does not speak.
Based in the crumbling realm that is Gormenghast, Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, is without a male heir to carry on the ancient line of the Groans. However, nobody in Gormenghast is relatively 'normal'. His wife, the red-haired Countess, talks to animals as if they are people and people as if they are animals; his daughter is a strange, rough teenager of who he has had virtually no fatherly relationship with, and his two twin sisters are described in the book as 'retarded'.
With the Groan law and rituals to carry out, aided by his servant Flay and Master of Ritual, Sourdust, the Groan lineage is in danger of ending with him. However, when the Countess gives birth to a boy, Titus, everything changes. The Castle is alive again, and the line of the Earls of Groan is set to continue.
But, escaped from the smoky kitchens of the Castle, there is a new unknown evil growing in the heart of Gormenghast. Steerpike, the hunched teenager, and his crimson eyes are set on rising up the social ladder. With the sudden disappearance of Sepulchrave, his sisters and his head chef, all on the same night, something is most definitely wrong. Something that is power-hungry, and set on destroying Gormenghast from within, stopping the age-old ritual, and making sure that Titus is the last Earl Gormenghast will ever have.
This is more of a continuation of the hanging ending of Titus Groan rather than a whole new sequel. It jumps seven years into the future. Titus is seven, and learning all about his earldom and condemned to doing ritual every day for the rest of his life. At school he is treated by the professors and pupils as a commoner, and his hatred of Gormenghast and the ritual is growing greater and greater.
Sepulchrave is still missing, presumed dead. Sourdust, the Master of Ritual, was killed by fire. Swelter is dead. Mr Flay was banished by the Countess. A suicide note reputedly written by Cora and Clarice was discovered in their rooms, but no bodies were ever found. The life-blood of the castle is slowly ebbing away, but it is being deviously planned by a rising character who has no love for Gormenghast, and who wishes to wear the iron crown of the Groans on their head, using murder, manipulation and imprisonment to get their way.
However, two people have begun to wonder. There is a connection with these murders and disappearances, and they know it. But will they be able to get to the root of darkness, before all Gormenghast is finally destroyed? And will Irma Prunesquallor ever find a husband? All these questions finally get answered as this book covers the next ten years of Titus' tortured life.
The final book of the Gormenghast Trilogy (and is is considerably shorter than the others). Titus has left his birthplace, turned his back to the black Gormenghast Mountain and his crumbling ancestral home, looking for a different world. There is nothing for him left in Gormenghast, only his red-haired pillar of a mother, Countess Gertrude. Fuchsia has gone, and so the distaff line of the Groans has died. His father Sepulchrave and the Twins have been finally laid to rest. Flay is dead, Steerpike also, and Prunesquallor is wallowing in depression. Titus needs a new life away from the sombre world he was born into.
But what of this new world? A world where Gormenghast is unknown, passion reigns and revenge breeds. The only proof of his homeland is a piece of flint from the Tower of Flints... and even that isn't enough.
However, when Titus meets the erratic Muzzlehatch and the loving Juno, he is entangled in a web of conspiracy and mystery, involving love, lust, murder and torment. Will Titus forsake this new land and cry for his Gormenghast? Or is Gormenghast merely an illusion?
There are many characters, but to list them all would be impossible, so only the main characters of the trilogies are characterised here. The others are listed below them (if a character is in only one book, the book is shown in brackets next to the name).
Main Characters in Titus Groan and/or Gormenghast
Lord Titus, 77th Earl of Gormenghast - Titus Groan, the successor to the Groan crown, and the recurring character in all three books. With such a large realm and wealth to rule, he should be happy. Unfortunately, he isn't. Violet-eyed, unsmiling and disliking his mother, he hates Gormenghast and the ritual and wants to see the world outside2. The only family member his is relatively close with is his elder sister Fuchsia, or his 'dark sister', as he calls her.
When in times of trouble, Titus confides in Dr Prunesquallor or Mr Flay.
Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Gormenghast (Titus Groan) - In four words, lonely, tired, isolated, bookworm. He spends 90% of his time in the Library, where he reads old lore from ancient books. The other 10% is taken up by performing ritual, dictated by Sourdust, and sleep. He has no fatherly relationship with his daughter, and does not see his wife at all.
When his Library is burned to the ground, he goes insane, and finally gives himself up to the owls as unsuspecting dinner.
Lady Gertrude, Countess of Gormenghast - With a room allotted for her large flock of white cats, and a nest for a bird in her pillar of red frizzy hair, Countess Gertrude finds that being in a company of animals is more intelligent than being in a company of people3. Although not of Groan blood, she is very patriotic about Gormenghast. Underneath the large mound of red hair and flock of cats is a brain, and when that brain gets working, it is very calculating indeed.
When the Countess has to discuss something with a human, she goes to Dr Prunesquallor. Her favourite drink is fresh goat's milk.
Lady Fuchsia Groan - As the firstborn of Sepulchrave and Gertrude, before Titus was born she was a typical spoilt child. She is a wild teenager of 15, dreaming of adventure in her secret attic room. As her relationship with her parents is nil, she has a strong relationship with her nanny, Mrs Slagg. On discovering she has a brother, she is shocked and upset, as she is not an only child anymore. Later, she grows to like him and they have a strong bond. Fuchsia also has a strong relationship with the mysterious youth Steerpike.
Fuchsia is very emotional, and is good friends with Dr Prunesquallor. Her favourite drink is elderberry wine.
Lady Cora and Lady Clarice Groan - The Twins are completely identical. They both wear purple satin dresses, they both think the same things, do the same things and even had strokes at the same time and were paralysed down the same side. They always think that one twin is better than the other, when in reality, they are both as stupid as each other. As the sisters of Sepulchrave, they dream of getting their power back from Gertrude. They love their embroidery and their Room of Roots4.
However, to conceive one feeble idea between them would probably cause a brain haemorrhage.
Steerpike - Destined to become one of Swelter's boys in the Great Kitchens, only Steerpike has the common sense to try to escape this horror. A boy of 17, he has a nefarious mind and is an eloquent speaker. With greasy black hair, dark red eyes and shoulders so high he appears to be deformed, he is by no means handsome. He puts his strength in his speech, and it is a very powerful tool indeed. From kitchen boy to apothecary's apprentice, to chief retainer for the Twins to Barquentine's apprentice, and finally the Master of Ritual, Steerpike is a social climber, agile and slippery.
His rise into power lets him into the secrets of the Groans, and he is quick to abuse it regularly. He is seen as an unusual companion of Fuchsia, and his favourite drink is brandy.
Dr Alfred Prunesquallor - Generally known just as Prunesquallor, or the Prune, or even Squalor, Prunesquallor is the Groans' physician. Behind the maddening hyena's laugh, a high-pitched voice and bizarre movement, there is a sane brain. Elegance is his motto, having a cellar of fine wines and a cupboard of deadly poisons. He does not understand the impassiveness of the Groans and finds his sister's incessant squabbling almost intolerable.
Prunesquallor is a bachelor, but he has a soft spot for Fuchsia and is a source of comfort for many of the characters.
Irma Prunesquallor - Irma is as vain as a teenager, thin as a sparrow's leg, sharp-nosed, long-necked, neurotic and practically blind in her black glasses. She lives with her brother, Dr Prunesquallor, and annoys him greatly. She wants to be high on the social ladder, but always falls from grace. She also wants a man to love her.
Other Characters in Titus Groan and/or Gormenghast
- Sourdust, the Master of Ritual (Titus Groan)
- Barquentine, Sourdust's Son and Master of Ritual
- Mr Flay, Sepulchrave's Retainer
- Mrs Slagg, the Nanny of Fuchsia and Titus
- Abiatha Swelter, the Head Chef (Titus Groan)
- Keda, Titus' Foster Mother (Titus Groan)
- Rottcodd, the Keeper of the Bright Carvings (Titus Groan)
The Professors of Gormenghast (Gormenghast)
- Opus Fluke
Main Characters of Titus Alone
Titus Groan, the Abdicator - Titus has changed much from the rebellious boy in Gormenghast. He has abandoned his mother, left Gormenghast and has abdicated the Earldom. He is alone, and likes it that way. Nobody can stand against him, nobody can understand him, until he meets the character who saved him from death. Does Gormenghast exist, or is it all in his mind?
Muzzlehatch - Rich, drives a fast car and an animal-lover. Muzzlehatch drives on the fast lane with his little primate companion. He is also an Outsider, not from the world he lives in. He cares a lot for his friends, including Juno, his ex-girlfriend, and has a special bond with Titus. But there is something that is calling Muzzlehatch away from his life in the fast lane.
Juno - A woman of 40, and she realises it. Juno is not getting any younger, and yet she wants a long-term partner. Muzzlehatch has already gone, and even with her pretty looks, nobody is suitable. Until Titus arrives on the scene. She takes him under her wing, a boy 20 years her junior, but a strange passion develops between her and Titus... and she knows it's dangerous.
Cheeta - Cheeta is the daughter of 'The Scientist'. Domineering, beautiful and vengeful, she will do anything to get her own way. Even when Titus pops in, ranting and raving in a fever, she loved him from the start, just like others had her. But Titus is not like the others. He is very much different.
You've Read the Book. So What is it All About?
The hanging ending of Titus Alone suggested that Mervyn Peake was going to write more about Titus. However, as it stands, the trilogy remains one of the most disturbing pieces of literature ever written, and delves deep into the imagination. On the other hand, it is still unknown what the Gormenghast Trilogy is all about. Since Peake's death, many people have put forward speculative theories, such as the disintegration of the Chinese monarchy, given his upbringing in the area at the time of its progression to a republic. Others think that it is more of the disintegration of the mystery of the old idea of monarchy - relying on outdated, outmoded and long-forgotten meaning, symbolism, pomp and circumstance and completely far-removed from the harsh realism of the rapidly-changing outside world. But the book also appears to show a reflection of Peake's state of mind, as it is shown in his illustrations, both grotesque and elegant in their own right.
Either way, in this Researcher's opinion, it is a damn good set of books, and would certainly be recommended to those who have a lot of time and patience to wrestle with the confusing and distended text. However, it is flowing water to, for example, the treacle-like text of Kafka, and certainly a good book to while away the hours whilst delayed on public transport.