There are few trilogies more uneven, more challenging and frustrating than the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake. Three books, clearly linked by a single character, but as different in nature and tone as chalk from cheese from Chablis, this massive master-work has suffered, in part, from the demands it makes on its readers, and that may be why the third book in particular, Titus Alone, has become a neglected final (but not ultimate) part of the three. Oh, and in my view the three are: Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. Boy In Darkness and Titus Awakes are ‘flyers’, attempts to explore and extend the narrative line in a variety of directions, the chosen one of which led Peake to Titus Alone. This is a contested view, with several people considering that there are four books in the series, not three, but my version makes sense to me so I shall stick with it.
In a very classic and much pastiched fashion, the book opens with the birth of its hero, Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast. From that point the reader is taken on a bewildering and very non-classic journey through the habits and mental confusion of many of the castle’s inhabitants, from the misanthropic and solitary Lord Sepulchrave, to Titus’s sister Fuchsia; borderline autistic (as we would now say) sensitive, brave and yet terrified of life, clinging to childhood and seeking the love of an absent father, on to hideous and yet utterly believable kitchen denizens – domestics with limited power that they wield with absolute ferocity and total brutality.
This is by no means Gothic writing, although it has its Gothic elements, partly because Peake chooses to descend, at times, to the hilariously bathetic and at others becomes rhapsodic, but not about the classic themes of nature and love, rather about the interiosities of some of Peake’s characters, the obsessive Rottcodd who dusts statues, Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother and her somewhat absent-minded love of cats and birds, and Keda, whose desires for a ‘normal’ life lead her to, and from the Castle where she serves as Titus’s wet nurse and in the end, lead her to despair.
Peake is a profoundly powerful writer – he refuses to offer any simplicity in the narrative line and changes points of view and even moral standpoints whenever he chooses; sometimes his antihero Steerpike is manipulative and cruel, at others noble and heroic. He was also a talented artist and some of the strongest parts of his work are the intense portraits of his characters that accompany many editions.
One of the great strengths of Titus Groan is this refusal to do more than delineate – Peake offers pictures of his characters that are clear, complex and coherent but not likeable or predictable. The reader is required to form an opinion on each person introduced, and then to change that opinion in light of later events – not so much unreliable narrator as unreliable narration! Above all, this sweeping, grotesque and monumental story amplifies normal characteristics so that we recognise the cooing kitchen bully, the emotionally absent father, the sulky teenage girl but see them emblematically large, like the castle itself. Our very familiarity with the details of these personalities makes what they do, and what happens to them, increasingly uncomfortable for the reader.
Darkness seeps into every part of Titus Groan, and by the end of this book were are pretty well in darkness – but it’s been an exciting journey and the reader feels they’ve experienced something completely new. Even today, this novel, originally published in 1946, has an astonishing scope.