Compared to Titus Groan, Gormenghast gets off to a rather bitty start, only hitting its stride at the midway point, with the first of the great set-piece scenes, Irma Prunesquallor’s soirée. These big, long-built-up scenes are what Peake does best. (And afterwards, the book hits an amazing patch of tension as Flay, Prunesquallor and Titus track Steerpike through some of the castle’s uninhabited regions — thirty mostly dialogue-free pages of pure suspense.)
The main focus of this second book is young Titus’s struggle to break free of the “rotten ritual and everything” of the castle he calls home, but for me the most affecting character is the “harrowingly human” Fuchsia. In the first novel nothing but a tempest of fondness and fury, she got her one brief moment of connection with another human being — her mournful father — the instant before he went insane. In Gormenghast, as Titus grows from seven to seventeen and realises that the only way for him “to live… to be myself, and become what I make myself, a person, a real live person and not a symbol any more”, is to escape the cloying world of the castle, Fuchsia seems ever more trapped in a permanent adolescence (despite the fact that over a decade has passed since the first book) whose constant emotional back-and-forth has worn her out, and it’s heartbreaking:
“I love you, Titus, but I can’t feel anything. I’ve gone dead. Even you are dead in me. I know I love you. You’re the only one I love, but I can’t feel anything and I don’t want to. I’ve felt too much, I’m sick of feelings…”
When, on top of this, we get a glimpse of Steerpike’s cynical plan for her, it’s one of Peake’s most shocking moments.
Titus escapes Fuchsia’s fate by having a vision of freedom in the shape of “the Thing”, the wild-spirit force of nature that is (unbeknownst to him) his foster-sister, outcast by the Outer Dwellers, living free in the forests surrounding the castle and scavenging off her own people, but so bereft of human contact she’s more animal than human. Titus, though, is rarely interesting or affecting — certainly not when compared to Fuchsia, or even, for that matter, Flay, whose utter loyalty to the castle sees him return in secret to sniff out the rottenness he senses within, even though he knows that, to Gormenghast, he is an exile, a nothing. His story shows that Titus’s attitude to Gormenghast — that he must be free of it to truly be himself — isn’t the case for everyone. It’s hard to imagine Flay finding any sort of fulfilment without a thing to serve, be it an Earl or the abstraction of one.
I used to be surprised at how the Second World War seemed to have had no discernible impact on Titus Groan, which Peake began writing whilst serving as a soldier. But near the end of Gormenghast, there’s this passage:
“That the flood had once threatened their very existence was forgotten. It was the labour that lay ahead that was appalling… The flood was descending. It had caused havoc, ruin, death, but it was descending.”
The flood that overwhelms Gormenghast, causing “havoc, ruin, death”, and leaving a world in need of such a labour of rebuilding, could easily be an echo of World War Two, impinging on the intense personal dramas of Gormenghast castle just as the real thing impinged on so many in our world. As the storm that causes the flood begins, it kills “the Thing” with a flash of lightning (just as meaningless and instant a death as the flash of a bomb, or a gunshot). The death of the Thing, who has come to symbolise all that Titus longs for — freedom & a fierce individuality — marks the end of the young Earl’s childhood and idealism, just as the beginning of the War would have marked a sudden jolt into a very harsh adulthood for so many young conscripts. And by the end of the flood Titus, like many a homecoming soldier, is physically scarred and has “killed and had felt… the touch of death”.
Plotting the novel, Peake saw things differently. In some notes made during the writing of the book (quoted in John Batchelor’s 1974 study of Peake), he summarised the start of the flood:
The story continues: Titus and the Leaf [an early name for the Thing].
The Leaf is killed in storm.
Titus returns through downpour.
The Universe weeps.
Here, the flood is the world itself weeping as something meaningful is destroyed. (But if the rain is the Universe weeping, it was the Universe’s lightning that killed the Thing in the first place.)
Titus Groan got its power from the brooding, shadowy stasis of everything — even the main story of that novel, Steerpike’s rise from kitchen boy to apprentice Master of Ritual, feels more like the fulfilment of the castle’s own shadow side than a challenge to its nature — but Gormenghast, in its second half, does the unthinkable and turns all that weighed-down Gothic murk into tragic action — and often very suspenseful action, at that. It becomes that impossibility, a page turner written in gorgeous, grandiose prose.