Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The young scullions had heard this roar many times before but had never associated it with anything other than anger. At first, consequently, it had frightened them, but they had soon perceived that there was no irritation in its note today.

When I previously reviewed Titus Groan, in 2011, I wrote:

Titus Groan starts with the birth and ends with the first birthday celebrations of the heir to the grand, tradition-bound castle of Gormenghast; every grand fantasy citadel since owes something to Mervyn Peake (thinking, most recently in my reading, of Isse Tower in Cecilia Dart-Thornton's The Ill-Made Mute, but there are many others). Peake weaves a grand miasma of doom and foreboding over the sterile rituals of the castle, introducing also the villainous Steerpike who seeks to exploit the gaps between the formal rituals and the emotional needs of the ruling family for his own profit.

It's not terribly clear what era Peake imagines the novel to be set in. The internal workings feel rather Edwardian in a way, conscious of past glory and ignorant of the future. The description of the mud-huts of the villagers outside the castle sounds medieval at best. It also has to be said that not a lot actually happens; my memory is that this is mostly scene-setting for the second book.

Titus Groan is a technical [Bechdel] pass. There is more than one woman character; they do talk to each other. Sometimes they talk about Titus, who is a baby not a man, so perhaps such conversations do get through the Bechdel test. The earl's demented twin sisters burble to each other about many things, not all of which are men, but it's not clear that those are really conversations in the full Bechdel sense. Anyway, towards the end, Titus's sister Fuchsia reminisces about her childhood with her nanny, which I guess does qualify in that no men are mentioned.

We've been reading this as a Facebook-led group activity, at the rate of a chapter a day, with a pause between books. That's actually quite a good way to pace oneself (we've previously done it with War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Our Mutual Friend). The 69 chapters took just under ten weeks, and the 80 chapters of the second volume will take a bit longer.

What jumped out at me on this time of reading is that Gormenghast's surrounding countryside seems not to be English at all – the vegetation sounds if anything more Chinese (not that I am an expert on these things); it's certainly warmer and more colonial than Britain. I also find myself asking about the political economy of the castle – if the Earl has power, how is that actually manifested in terms of, well, ruling? And where does the money come from, and where does it go to? I guess it's impressive that it took the third time of reading for me to ask myself these questions.

Anyway, it's fascinating stuff even if the first book is only half the story. You can get it here.

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