Titus Groan – Climb upon my knee Nannie Slagg

Nannie Slagg played by June Brown in the BBC adaptation

The reading is now 18 chapters ahead – the writing is following at a slower pace.  In this chapter we get another glimpse into Fuchsia’s bedroom;-

The sunlight was streaming through the eastern turrets and was lighting the Carvers battlements and touching the sides of the mountain beyond.  As the sun rose, thorn tree after thorn tree on Gormenghast mountain emerged in the pale light and became a mass until the whole shape was flattened into a radiant jagged triangle against the darkness.  Seven clouds like a group of naked cherubs or sucking-pigs, floated their plump pink bodies across a sky of slate.  Fuchsia watched them from her window sullenly.  Then she thrust her lower lip forward.  Her hands were on her hips.  Her bare feet were quite still on the floorboards

‘Seven,’ she said, scowling at each.  ‘There’s seven of them.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.  Seven clouds.’

It is curious that Peake uses the term ‘sucking-pigs’ instead of ‘suckling’, but I love the juxtaposion of them against the grey slate.  It’s not often we get a glimpse outside Gormenghast.  The battlements being  the hallowed ones used by the lucky  Bright Carvers who have earned the privilege to walk them.

Fuchsia loves to scrawl on her wall.  Scribblings which mean something only to herself.  She is superstitious too in her counting of clouds, rather like we count magpies – I can only get up to 10 myself and the tenth one is very dubious (being a bird you cannot miss), I talk of the children’s programme ‘Magpie’ now, popular many years ago.

But back to Nannie Slagg whose chapter this is.  When Fuchsia is trying to remember what the seven ‘clowds’ are for, old Nannie Slagg is preoccupied:-

Fuchsia stamped her foot and peered into the poor old nurses face.  Nannie Slagg made little noises in her throat which was her way of filling in time and then said “would you like some hot milk my precious?  Tell me now because I am busy, and I must feed your mother’s white cats.  Just because I’m of the energetic system, my dearheart, they give me everything to do.  What did you ring for?  Quickly, quickly my caution.  What did you ring for?’

 

Demanding a big breakfast, Nannie is dispatched to prepare it.  Nannie is an old woman – just how old? we do not know, only that she has been a Nannie for a long long time so was probably Lord Groan’s too.  What  we do know is that she is very small, ancient and of a nervy disposition.  She is prone to tears and much wringing of hands.  Yet both the Groan children are in her charge and she does take her duties seriously, even though she is always compaining about her ‘poor weak heart’.  In her haste to prepare the girl’s breakfast, she collides with strange Dr Prunesquallor.  This gives us an insight into the old nurse’s thoughts and feelings:-

‘Well, well, well, well, well, ha, ha, ha,, if it isn’t dear Mrs Slagg, ha, ha, ha, how very, very, very dramatic,’ said the doctor, his long hands clasped before him at his chin, his high-pitched laugh creaking along the timber ceiling of the passage.  His spectacles held in either lens the minute reflection of Nannie Slagg.

The old nurse had never really approved of Doctor Prunesquallor.  It was true that he belonged to Gormenghast, as much as the tower itself.  He was no intruder, but somehow, in Mrs Slagg’s eyes he was definitely ‘wrong’.  He was not her idea of a doctor in the first place, although she could never have argued why.  Nor could she pin her dislike down to any cause.  Nannie Slagg found it very difficult to marshal her thoughts at the best of times, but when they became tied up with her emotions she became quite helpless.  What she felt but had never analysed was that Dr Prunesquallor rather played down to her and even in an obtuse way made fun of her.  She had never thought this, but her bones knew it.

Poor old Nannie Slagg.  She is surrounded by larger than life characters.  Her whimperings are drowned out by the whinnyings of Prunesquallor, the monosymbolic barking of Lady Groan and the crushing caresses of Fuschia.   Out of all the characters in Gormenghast, Nannie Slagg is probably the most ordinary.  She might not be able to express herself vocally, being overshadowed by one and all.  But she does have feelings.  She feels the weight of responsibility at times, feels helpless at other.  When the mood strikes her she can be full of her own self-importance.  She cries a lot, is frightened a lot, sucks her knuckles a lot and loves babies so much that she could ‘eat them up!’

Nannie Slagg is coerced into sitting upon the long bony knee of Prunesqaullor.  I always find this image very surreal.  How long is the Doctor’s knee?  He is squatting at the time too.  How small is Nannie Slagg? and how frightened she must be of this strange man!  He does his best to put her at her ease though, by talking about her favorite subject:-

‘Do you like babies my dear Mrs Slagg?’ asked the doctor, shifting the poor woman on to his other acutely bended knee-joint and stretching out his former leg as though to ease it.  ‘Are you fond of the little creatures, taken by and large?’

‘Babies?’ said Mrs Slagg in the most animated tone that she had so far used.  ‘I could eat the little darlings, sir, I could eat them up!’

Nannie Slagg is very maternal, which offsets her character against the Countess.  Slagg is the only mother Fuschia has ever really known.  But Fuchsia is now 17 years of age and she has no friends – just her old nurse who she has now outgrown.  The teenager does love her old nannie but she does get frustrated with her times:-

‘Can’t wait until doomsday – you’re so SLOW!’

This is the note left on Fuchsia’s door.  She has given up waiting for her breakfast.

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

Lot’s of information about Peake and his work at Peake Studies

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