History: This book was published in 1946. It is the first in the Gormenghast series.
Plot: The book is set in the huge castle of Gormenghast, a vast landscape of crumbling towers and ivy-filled quadrangles that has for centuries been the hereditary residence of the Groan family and with them a legion of servants. The Groan family is headed by Lord Sepulchrave the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading in his library. His wife is the Countess Gertrude. A large-framed woman with dark red hair, she pays no attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection. Their daughter is Fuchsia Groan. At times snobbish, annoying, and self-absorbed, she can also be extremely warm and caring. Also in the castle are Sepulchrave's identical twin sisters Cora and Clarice Groan. Both suffered from epilectic fits in their youth, as a result of which their left arms and legs are “rather starved”. They have virtually the same personalities and neither is very intelligent – they are perhaps even mentally impaired. Both crave political power and dislike Gertrude, believing that she robbed them of their rightful place in the hierarchy of Gormenghast. Also important to the life of the castle is Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant, Mr. Flay who believes in strictly holding to the rules of Gormenghast.
At the beginning of the novel, two agents of change are introduced into the stagnant society of Gormenghast.
The first, more obvious agent of change is Titus Groan, the heir to Lord Sepulchrave. His birth interrupts the daily rituals which are practised at all levels of the castle society, from the kitchens to the Hall of Bright Carvings in Gormenghast's upper reaches. However, the novel only covers the first two years of Titus' life, and he plays a minor role.
The second is Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy, who is the driving force for the plot of Titus Groan. His entry into Gormenghast society, at the same time as Lord Titus is born, introduces a steady rate of change into a stagnant world. Steerpike has an intelligent, Machiavellian mind and a talent for manipulation, but he can also appear charming and sometimes even noble.
As the book starts, two important events occur in the castle: Firstly, an heir is born to Lord Sepulchrave, Earl of Groan and the monarchical ruler of Gormenghast, and his wife, Countess Gertrude. He is named Titus and put into the care of the old nurse, Nannie Slagg. Nannie Slagg is an ancient, tiny woman who serves as the nurse for the infant Titus and Fuchsia before him. She is somewhat senile and has an inferiority complex. Her first duty is to go to the dwellings of the Bright Carvers just outside the walls of Gormenghast to choose a wet nurse for Titus (Gertrude has no interest in raising him). She chooses Keda, the widow of a well-respected Carver who has recently lost a child from her late husband. Keda comes to live in the castle for a time helping to raise Titus. Later, she leaves the castle walls and is impregnated by one of her previous two suitors. The suitors promptly kill each other in a duel for her hand in marriage.
On the same day as Titus' birth, an ambitious kitchen boy of seventeen by the name of Steerpike escapes from the kitchens and the grossly fat, sadistic Chef, Abiatha Swelter. Lord Sepulchrave’s chief servant, Mr. Flay (Swelter’s archenemy), comes upon Steerpike who has become lost in the confines of the castle, and takes him through the castle (large parts of which are uninhabited) to a room outside the quarters of the Earl and the Countess. Here, Steerpike takes the opportunity to spy on the Groan family.
Despite having led him there, the fiercely loyal Flay is angered by Steerpike’s eavesdropping and locks him in a small room. Steerpike, however, escapes out of a window, risking his life above a sheer drop. He manages to climb up onto the roofscape of Gormenghast, and from there begins his rise to power.
After spending a long time walking and clambering on the roof searching for a means to enter the castle, Steerpike manages to climb in through a window- and ends up in the secret attic of Lady Fuchsia Groan. Fuchsia is Titus’ fifteen-year-old sister, who has the large area of long-abandoned attic space all to herself.
A little later, Steerpike accompanies Fuchsia to the house of Dr. Prunesquallor, and becomes his apprentice for a while. Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor is the castle's resident physician. He is an eccentric individual with a high-pitched laugh and a grandiose wit which he uses on the castle's less intelligent inhabitants. Despite his acid tongue, he is an extremely kind and caring man who also is greatly fond of Fuchsia and Titus. (In a few places in the text, Dr. Prunesquallor is given the first name of Bernard, but this was an error by Peake.) He lives with his sister Irma Prunesquallor. Though she is anything but pretty, she is considerably vain. She desperately desires to be admired and loved by men. In this position, Steerpike is able to come into close contact with members of the Groan family, in particular Lord Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice Groan. The sisters are not very bright and are power hungry and resentful, believing that Countess Gertrude holds the position that they rightfully deserve.
Burning of the library
Steerpike manages to use the twins' ambition for his own ends. He promises them power and influence, and convinces them that they could achieve their goal by burning down Sepulchrave’s beloved library. Steerpike prepares meticulously for the act of arson. He arranges for the burning to happen when the entire Groan family and their most important servants are inside the library for a family gathering (Steerpike intentionally failed to tell the twins that they were invited as well, strengthening their feeling of bitterness towards Sepulchrave and Gertrude). He intends to lock the doors to prevent an escape, and then come through the window and save everyone inside from the fire, appearing as a hero and possibly strengthening his position and granting him more power in the castle.
Everything goes according to plan: The entire Groan family (including the Earl and his heir) and most of the retainers are saved. Sourdust, the old Master of Ceremonies, dies of smoke asphyxiation and all the books in the library are destroyed in the flames. This comes as a great blow to Sepulchrave, a rather melancholic man, to whom the library was the only joy in his otherwise monotonous life, dominated by the ritualistic duties he must perform every day, every week, every month and every year at appropriate times.
Steerpike hoped to become Master of Ritual (a very prestigious job in Gormenghast) after Sourdust died, but the title, like so many things in the castle, is hereditary, and so goes to Sourdust’s seventy-six-year-old son Barquentine, who has lived almost completely forgotten in a remote part of the castle for sixty years. He is lame in one leg, hideous, and unbelievably dirty. Barquentine is a consummate misanthrope who only cares for the laws and traditions of Gormenghast.
During the weeks following the burning, Lord Sepulchrave becomes increasingly insane, starting to believe that he is one of the Death Owls living in the Tower of Flints (the tallest tower in the castle).
Flay versus Swelter
Flay learns that Swelter intends to kill him. Flay had hit him across the face with a chain before Titus’ christening, escalating a mutual loathing into plans for vengeful murder. Flay observes Swelter practicing the blow with a large cleaver, and so prepares himself for an attack, acquiring a sword for his protection, in case Swelter should ever attempt to murder him while he is sleeping in front of his master’s door.
Things happen differently though: Steerpike, now a full-time retainer of the twins, having quit Doctor Prunesquallor’s service, angers Flay by sarcastically imitating Sepulchrave’s madness. Flay loses control and hurls one of the countess’ white cats at Steerpike. At that moment, the Countess enters the room, and seeing that one of her beloved cats has been abused, immediately banishes Flay from Gormenghast.
Flay is forced to learn how to survive outside the castle, and he sets up various homes in the nearby forest and on Gormenghast Mountain. Having a strong attachment to the castle, and feeling a need to watch over Steerpike and to protect Titus, Flay returns secretly to Gormenghast during the night. Four nights after Titus’ first birthday, Flay finds Swelter wandering the castle with a meat cleaver. Swelter does not know of Flay’s banishment, and expects him to be sleeping where he has always slept up until now. Flay follows him to just outside Sepulchrave’s door, where Swelter discovers that Flay is not there, and soon realizes that he has been followed. Flay lures Swelter to the Hall of Spiders (making use of the fact that Sepulchrave — who is by now quite insane — is sleepwalking), and there they fight a long duel. Eventually, Flay kills Swelter. Lord Sepulchrave arrives on the scene, and decides that Swelter’s body should be taken to the Tower of Flints. After helping Sepulchrave carry the body to the tower, Flay is ordered to stay where he is. The mad Earl babbles about possible reincarnation, bids Flay farewell, and then drags the body into the tower by himself and is attacked and eaten by the starved Death Owls, along with Swelter’s remains.
After the disappearance of the Earl and the chief cook (the exiled Flay is not able to tell anyone what has happened), Steerpike leads a search for them. Naturally, their remains are not found, but Steerpike is able to gain a good knowledge of all the rooms in the castle.
Nine days after Sepulchrave's disappearance, Steerpike has a conversation with Barquentine. The Master of Ceremonies tells Steerpike that Titus is now to become Earl of Groan, despite the fact that he is only one year old. He also gives Steerpike the position of his assistant and heir to his post, since Barquentine does not have a child. As the apprentice to the Master of Ceremonies, Steerpike has a good, stable position in the castle.
Steerpike fears that Cora and Clarice are too careless and may tell others that he convinced them to burn down Sepulchrave’s library. Steerpike dresses as a ghost and convinces the twins they will die if they ever speak of the fire. By this stage, Steerpike has considerable influence in the affairs of Gormenghast, even if he is not yet a recognized figure of authority. He still has to influence people to do his work for him. Despite this, both the Countess and Dr Prunesquallor are disturbed and uneasy about all that has happened, and disturbed about Steerpike's sudden rise. Yet neither is able to connect Steerpike as the cause of the tragic events, as he was their apparent savior from the fire in the library.
Soon afterwards, the “Earling” takes place, and young Titus is officially made Earl of Gormenghast. In a ridiculously elaborate ceremony on a nearby lake, little Titus holds aloft the sacred symbols of his status - the stone and ivy branch, and to the horror of observers, promptly drops them both into the lake. At the same moment, his wet nurse Keda gives birth to his 'foster sister' who will grow up to be the feral child called 'The Thing'.
Review: Perhaps much of the reason that the Gormenghast Trilogy has been more obscure to today's fantasy readership than Tolkien is due to its unconventional narrative, plus its unrelenting darkness. There is nothing in Titus Groan in the way of a clear-cut hero, no brave Conan, no crafty Frodo out to save the world from the forces of evil, neatly encapsulated in the figure of a dark lord in his dark fortress or some similar silliness. Virtually all of the players in Titus Groan seem corrupted, drained of life and goodness in some way. In fact, Titus Groan can in many ways be seen not merely as a nightmarish fable, but as a sinister allegory of our own modern society. Then again, as many critics before me have said, this trilogy works so well on such a multiplicity of levels, that one could run through dozens of possible interpretations.
From its opening chapter, though, futility seems the order of the day, as Peake scathingly attacks the rigidity of an overly soft and conventionalized society as a pointless beast perpetuating its own existence for nothing. The nearly city-sized castle is surrounded by a village of hovels whose inhabitants have no contact with those inside the castle except once a year, during a festival in which brightly painted carvings by the town's feuding craftsmen (the carvings seem the town's only artisanry or industry of any kind) are judged by the castle lord. The winner receives the dubious honor of being allowed to pace the castle walls, and the winning carving itself is shunted off to a room in the castle and never viewed again, except by a little old man who cares for them, who himself never leaves the room and is never seen.
Throughout, the theme of real things being forgotten and lost (entire wings of the castle are unused and falling into disrepair, and even some of their inhabitants are never seen) clashes with that of meaningless rituals repeated for their own sake. And within, there is precious little human closeness. Lord Sepulchrave, the reigning lord, and his wife, Gertrude, have no real relationship at all, he being blanketed by a pall of almost unrelieved melancholy (which finally becomes full fledged madness), and she an already delusional and pathetic creature who takes her only solace in the company of birds and a veritable army of white cats. Other characters are just as fragile, just as profoundly alone.
Yet out of the castle's darkness three characters do attempt to emerge. Fuschia, the introverted adolescent daughter of Sepulchrave and Gertrude, seeks first to withdraw into a world of her own dreams, poems and fantasies, then finally allows herself to be more open in her resentment of the senseless and interminably old traditions that have squeezed the life out of Gormenghast and Castle Groan. Keda, a young woman from the village brought into the castle as a wet nurse for Titus, finally leaves with a brave declaration entirely out of character with her surroundings: "I must have love." Yet even this desire is not without tragic consequences. But the most memorable player here is Steerpike, a youth who rises from a menial position in the castle to one of greater power and influence through the crassest and most brazen acts of manipulation and deception he can contrive. As Castle Groan becomes mired deeper and deeper in its moribund, rigid, and ineffectual tedium, Steerpike's sinister machinations hit everyone like a shock wave, with devastating consequences. Few fantasy writers have the ability to juggle readers' emotions with the dexterity of Peake.
Great fantasy can simply entertain, but great literature is that which not only entertains but explores, reflects, and illuminates our own lives. It's in this regard that the Gormenghast Trilogy takes its place not merely as a masterpiece of the literature of the imagination, but quite plainly as a masterpiece of literature...period
Opening Line: “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 circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.”
Closing Line: “And there shall be a flame green daybreak soon, and love itself will cry for insurrection, for tomorrow is also a day, and Titus has entered his strong hold.“
Quotes: "Lingering is so very lonely when one lingers all alone."
"Oh how I hate people!"