Peake excites our anticipation of seeing the Countess, by allowing us a look through the keyhole into the room of white cats. The black door of her room has a white cat emblazoned on it and on the landing outside, pictures of birds adorn the walls. The interior of the room is not as orderly though. Bird seed is piled up, there are wax stalactites and a tottering pyramid of tallow. Peake gives us the most wonderful description of the room and our first physical encounter with the Countess;-
“As the candles guttered or flared, so the shadows moved from side to side, or up and down the wall, and with those movements behind the bed there swayed the shadows of four birds. Between them vacillated an enormous head. This umbrage was cast by her ladyship, the seventy sixth Countess of Groan. She was propped against several pillows and a black shawl was draped around her shoulders. Her hair, a dark red colour of great lustre, appeared to have been left suddenly, while being woven into a knotted structure on the top of her head. Thick coils still fell about her shoulders or clustered upon the pillows like burning snakes.”
What a curious woman the Countess Gertrude Groan is! Obsessed by cats and birds to the exclusion of her children. She certainly does seem to have a way with the wild birds which flock to her. I wonder if subconsciously she longs for freedom herself? If she does, she would be the last person to do anything about it – she seems to have accepted her lot. From her description we know that she is a huge person with green slanting ‘cat’ eyes and wild dark red hair. This part was played by Celia Imrie in the BBC series. I thought the actress put over a wonderful sense of the presence of this character.
Her favorite bird is a rook called ‘Mr Chalk’ who the Countess has a particularly tender relationship with. She talks to the bird like he was her own child;-
“Three weeks it is,” continued the Countess, “three weeks, I’ve been without him; wasn’t good enough for him, Oh no, not for Mr Chalk, and here he is back again, wants to be forgiven! Oh yes! Wants a great treeful of forgiveness, for his heavy old beak and months of absolution for his plumage.”
In this chapter we get a glimpse into the Countess’s personality: we feel her strength and unusually for her, even some tenderness . The Countess sticks to the rules, even though they sometimes interfere with what she really want to do (converse with her animals). She has no time for chit chat and Prunesquallor in particular gets on her nerves – she likes to get straight to the point. This is how she deals with poor old Nannie Slagg (more of her later);
“What?” shouted Lady Groan. “What d’you want? What are you hitting my door for?”
Whoever it was, raised her voice nervously and cried, “Nannie Slagg. it is. It’s me, my lady, Nannie Slagg.”
“What d’you want?” repeated her ladyship, settling herself more comfortably.
“I’ve brought his Lordship for you to see,” shouted Nannie Slagg a little less nervously.
“Oh you have, have you? You’ve brought his lordship. So you want to come in, do you? With his lordship.” There was a moment’s silence
“What for? What have you brought him to me for?”
“For you to see, if you please my lady,” replied Nannie Slagg. “He’s had his bath.”
Lady Groan relaxed still further into the pillows. “Oh you mean the new one do you?” she muttered.
“Can I come in?” cried Nannie Slagg.
“Hurry up then! Hurry up then! Stop scratching at my door. What are you waiting for?”
“A rattling at the door handle froze the birds along the iron bed-rail and as the door opened they were all at once in the air, and were forcing their way, one after another through the bitter leaves of the small window.”
HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast
Lot’s of information about Peake and his work at Peake Studies