Archive for the Gormenghast journey Category

‘Titus Groan: The 76th Countess of Groan’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by echostains

Gertrude by Mervyn Peake

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.

Celia Imrie as Gertrude

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

‘Titus Groan – Fuchsia

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , on January 21, 2010 by echostains


fuschia - very nearly beautiful

I’m speeding on with my re reading of Titus Groan.  I’m now on page 110.  Steerpike has escaped the locked room and is now on the roof of the castle, Lord Titus has fallen from the book of Law onto the floor with no injury and Flay has struck Swelter around the face with his chain of office!  Oer – getting exciting isn’t it.  Unfortunately my writing is not keeping pace with my reading.  I shall still be writing my observations when I’ve finished this book  and I’m on to Gormenghast!  But I am getting ahead of myself here.  On my way to page 110, I have met more characters – and these shall be covered.   Now where was I up to?  Ah yes, Fuchsia Groan, the daughter of Gormenghast;-

“As his lordship stared at the doctor another figure appeared, a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair.  She was gauche of movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly become beautiful.  Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.

A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck.  Her shapeless dress was a flaming red.

For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch.”

This is our first encounter with Lady Fuchsia and already Peake has whetted our appetite for more information about this strange-looking girl.  Will her personality match up to her appearance?  Peake does not disappoint;-

“Oh here and there father,” she said staring at her shoes………………

“Here and there?” echoed her father in a weary voice.  “What does ‘here and there’ mean?”………..

“N the libr’y and ‘n the armoury, n’ walking about a lot,” said Lady Fuchsia and her eyes narrowed.  “I just heard silly rumours about mother.  They said that I’ve got a brother – idiots! idiots!  I hate them.  I haven’t. have I?  Have I?”

Impetuous highly strung Fuchsia.  She feels so passionately about things.  The idea of not being an only child seems terrible to her, and yet she is lonely.  At fifteen, you would expect her to take the news – a bit better.  It’s not as if she is spoilt by her parents.  The relationship with her mother is almost non existant.  The one with her father only develops slightly closer and is tinged with tragedy…….  The chapter about her room provides further information about this lonely girl.

‘Titus Groan: Dr through the spyhole’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by echostains

Dr Alfred Prunesquallor by Mervyn Peake

Several clues to the next characters of the castle are given in this chapter.  Flay approaches one of the portraits in the octagonal room, pushes the frame to one side, to reveal a round hole in the panelling;-  

From his vantage point he was able to get a clear view of three doors in a corridor, the central one belonging to the chamber of her Ladyship, the seventy sixth Countess of Groan.  It was stained black and had painted upon it an enormous White cat.  The wall of the landing was covered with pictures of birds and there were three engravings of cacti in bloom.  This door was shut, but as Flay watched the doors on either side were being constantly opened and closed and figures moved quickly in and out or up and down the landing or conversed with many gesticulations or stood with their chins in their curled palms of their hands as though in profound medication.  

We are then introduced to Dr Prunsquallor and Lord Sepulchrave.   The whinneying laugh which the Dr interjects into his dialogue is strange (to say the least).  But this gives his character a uniqueness – it’s the sort of individuality that Dickens imbues in his own characters – a kind of quirkyness which Dickens exploits mercilessly.  I adore the description of the neighing Dr Prunsquallor;-  

His great vague eyes swam about beneath the magnifying lenses like a pair of jellyfish seen through a fathom of water.  His dark grey hair was brushed out over his eyes like a thatch.  For all the indignity of his position it was with a great sense of style that he became seated following with his eyes the gentleman who had begun to walk around him slowly………  

There is not much detail of Lord Sepulchrave’s personality, except that he carries a silver stick with a black jade knob and is prone to melancholia.  But more about him later.  

Best dialogue;-  

“Still here are you?  Still following me?”  

“You suggested that I should,” said Steerpike.  

“Ch! Ch!” said Flay, “What do you want Swelter’s boy?”  

“Nauseating Swelter,’ said Steerpike between his teeth but with one eye on Mr Flay, “vile Swelter.”  

There was a pause during which Steerpike tapped the iron banister with his thumb nail.  

“Name?” said Mr Flay.  

“My name?” asked Steerpike.  

“Your name, yes, your name.  I know what my name is.”  Mr Flay put a knuckly hand on the banisters preparatory to mounting the stairs again, but waited, frowning over his shoulder, for the reply.  

“Steerpike sir,” said the boy.  

“Queerpike eh? eh?” said Flay.  

“No Steerpike.”  


“Steerpike, Steerpike.”  

“What for?” said Flay.  

“I beg your pardon?”  

“What for, eh?  Two Squeertikes, two of you.  Twice over.  What for?  One’s enough for a Swelter’s boy.”……..

Apart from this early misunderstanding, these two characters come to understand each other only too well…..

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

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

‘Steerpike – the high shouldered (soon to be high handed) one’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2010 by echostains

Mervyn Peake's Steerpike, what a truly wonderful artist he was

When we first encounter Steerpike the kitchen boy, he is trying to escape from Swelter’s kitchen.  Using Flay’s footsteps as a marker to get  into the upper world of the castle, he seems well – just a boy.  He is seventeen years old with high shoulders, smouldering eyes and obviously intelligent.  From this first meeting, Steerpike seems harmless enough.  He is quick to observe Flay’s dislike of Swelter though and play on it.  Indeed, this quickness coupled with keen observation helps him insinuate himself at every opportunity.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike

In the BBC adaptation, Steerpike was played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who I felt was much too good looking (though these looks do ‘improve’ as the story unfolds).  There are many sides to Steepike’s character and  none of them sentimental.  He is indeed an opportunist – even creating opportunities where none exist, – which shall be seen. 

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

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

‘Titus Groan: Swelter – poetry in slow motion’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by echostains

Mervyn Peake's wonderful Swelter drawing

 Deep in the bowels of the castle,  Flay looks on furtively at  the drunken revelry  going on around him.  The celebration of the birth of the heir to Gormenghast is well underway now, the kitchen has celebrated all day and it really shows.  Peake is at his most descriptive here: you can almost feel the heat raging from those open doors  as joint after joint are forced into the already bulging ovens.  The floors are littered with mixing bowls,  grease and mounds of food covered in sawdust.  The Grey Scrubbers who see to the cleansing of the kitchen are blind drunk and sleeping it off.  There are eighteen of these men.  They are deaf by birth and their faces resemble the grey slabs that they scrub.  I find them intriguing.  I always imagine them scrubbing in a line – as one body, or like one relentless wave ebbing slowly backwards as they scrub.

The big quivering mound of white flesh, holding forth with a bottle in his huge fat hand, which he swigs from is Abiatha Swelter.  What a strange Christian name Abiatha is, I must google it and see if it’s a real name.  Peake’s depiction of the fat cook is almost Dickensian.  The cook is so wordy and disgusting at the same time.  The taciturn Flay is no match for him.  I really enjoy the contrast between these two characters: one fat, the other stick thin, one verbose the other almost monosyllabic.  The only common ground they share is their loyalty to the stones and tradition of Gormenghast.  They are woven like slubs into the fabric of the place – though perhaps in Swelter’s case – a fat silk worm content in his own roomy chrysalis.

swelter-as-played-by-richard-griffiths in the BBC adaptation

The characterisation of Swelter is masterly.  For example – the cook addressing the kitchen boys;-

“Now tell me thish, my stenching cherubs.  Tell me thish and tell me extshtra quickly”

Stenching cherubs is a great description of the young scullions, coupled with description of the smells and sounds – the senses are heightened and the being immersed in the whole noisy stinking cauldron of the kitchen.

Shilence,’ roared the chef.  ‘Shilence, my fairy boys.  Silence, my belching angels.  Come closer here, come closer here, come closer with your little creamy faces and I’ll tell you who I am.”

He then proceeds to tell the rapt audience exactly who he is – Abiatha Swelter!

Best description concerning the chapter ‘Swelter’ well, one of many;-

Swelter lowered his head yet again into the hot spindrift and then held up his right hand weakly.  He made one feeble effort to heave himself away from pillar and to deliver his verses at a more imposing angle, but incapable of mustering the strength he sank back. and then, as a vast inane smile opened up the lower half of his face, and as Mr Flay watched him, his hard little mouth twisted downwards, the chef began to gradually curl in upon himself, as though folding himself up for death.  The kitchen had become as silent as a hot tomb.  At last, through the silence, a weak gurgling sound began to percolate but whether it was the first verse of the long-awaited poem, none could tell for the chef, like a galleon, lurched in his anchorage.  The great ship’s canvas sagged and crumpled and then suddenly, an enormousness foundered and sank.  There was a sound of something spreading as an area of seven flagstones became hidden from view beneath a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber’.

This makes me think of a great whale being harpooned or punctured air balloon capsizing.  For Swelter to cover seven flagstones he is either a considerable size or the flagstones in Gormenghast are smaller than normal ones – and I doubt that!

Best dialogue; again, spoilt for choice;-

“I am Swelter’ it repeated, ‘the great chef Abiatha Swelter, shcook to hish Lordshipsh, boardshipsh and all sortsh of ships that shail on shlippery sheas.’  Abiafa Swelter, man and boy and girls and ribbonsh, lots of kittensh, forty years of cold and shunny, where’sh the money, thick and hairy, I’m a fairy! I’m a shongster! Lishen well, lishen well!”

It is obvious from this diatribe that Swelter is blind roaring drunk.  I couldn’t imagine what ‘shunny’ was at first.  The man is a poetry in slow motion!  Swelter is one of my favorite characters in the book, and he just seems to get better and better.

Update:  I have just Googled the name ‘Abiatha’ and it is indeed a real name.  It’s a Hebrew expression meaning ‘abundant father’  He is indeed abundant, and a ‘real’ father to those poor kitchen boys….

HERE is the wonderful website of Gormenghast

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

Handy site for finding the meaning of names HERE

‘Re Reading of ‘Titus Groan/Gormenghast’ – background information’

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by echostains

I first read these books many years ago – and loved them.  Every couple of years I would read them again, totally immersing myself in them.  It has been quite a while since I last read these books now.  I have read the third book in the trilogy about three times  – but though I have persevered, I found I could not seem to get into Titus Alone really.

It is not my intention to narrate the actual books here (there’s no point).  My intention is to track my personal journey through Gormenghast (and other books) and if it inspires anyone to read these books themselves – good!

“Flashback Challenge: Titus Groan/Gormenghast: First impressions”

Posted in Flashback challenge, Gormenghast journey with tags , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by echostains



As soon as I read or should I say re read, the first few pages of the ‘Gormenghast’ novel, I was immediately back among the ghosts: the characters that had died.  Lord Sepulchrave among the bats, Sourdust, Clarice and Cora and others all lost in the first book Titus Groan.  I realised then that I just HAD to start from the beginning, even though ‘Gormenghast‘ is my favorite of the two books.  The level I have chosen for the ‘Flashback Challenge’ is the Literati, that’s over 6 books.   Well, I guess that  ‘Titus Groan’ will be the ‘over’.  I am going to chart my progress and review my hopefully new impressions as I go along. Originally I had planned to put this on the Echostains blog but I fear it shall take up a lot of room.  Here is what I’ve written so far.  I started reading last night (7th January 2010) 

Well I am reading the first of my books for the Flashback challenge, Titus Groan.  At the moment I am deeply ensconced in the room of Bright Carvings with a strange little fellow with a bullet shaped head, I believe his name is Rottcodd.  He is the curator of this room.  I must say he is really keeping these halls immaculate.  No sooner does a  mote  of dust fall,  it is smitten by Rottcodd.  That feather duster of his is a formidable weapon, he even sleeps with it under his arm  – I really must be careful he doesn’t see me. 

 I wonder at all these bright carvings.  These are the cream of the crop: the others are burned.  The prize? The prize awarded to the winning three carvers is  the absolute privilege of  being allowed to walk the battlements of Gormenghast castle on a certain day of alternate months, PLUS the honour of having their work displayed in this museum (which is really nothing more than a long loft).  How loudly  the little man snores in his hammock, undisturbed, forgotten by the rest of the castle.  Doesn’t he know that today is a special day?  This eighth day of the eighth month is the day a Groan is born and Lord Groan’s butler is here to bring the news.

flay the faithful retainer

  Creaky, shiny coated loyal Flay, the master’s personal servant.  How old is this man? the book doesn’t say.  He cannot be so old really because despite his creaking joints, he manages to live in the woods for some time when he gets banished.  Christopher Lee played this part in the BBC adaptation with great success – inspired casting!

Going down into the kitchen, the senses are assaulted by a steamy quagmire of broths, blood from the slaughterhouse and sweet loaves, mingled with drunken singing and revelry all celebrating the birth of the son and heir to Gormenghast, Titus Groan. 

 I love this first re encounter of the castle kitchen.  The grey scrubbers with faces all alike scrubbing away as one huge wave.   The sounds, the smells – and I haven’t even met the gigantic Swelter yet – and I am really looking forward to seeing him after a few years absence.

Best description of the kitchen (lots to choose from);- 

“On a fixed table running along a length of the wall were huge bowls capable of holding fifty portions.  The stock-pots were perpetually simmering, having boiled over, and the floor about them was a mess of sepia fluid and egg shells that had been floating in the pots for the purpose of clearing the soup.  The sawdust that was spread neatly over the floor each morning was by now kicked into heaps and soaked in the splashings of wine.  And where scattered about the floor little blobs of fat had been rolled or trodden in, the sawdust stuck to them giving them the appearence of rissoles.  Hanging along the dripping walls were rows of sticking knives and steels, boning knives, skinning knives and two-handed cleavers, and beneath them a twelve foot by nine foot chopping block, cross hatched and hollowed by decades of long wounds. 

 Rissoles – a very descriptive image, like they’ve been dipped in flour ready to fry. It is taken for granted that all these knives are razor-sharp by the idea of them giving ‘ long wounds’ 

 Best dialogue;- none in ‘The Great Kitchen’ chapter as Flay who doesn’t say much at the best of time is merely observing.  

Best dialogue from ‘The Hall of the Bright Carvings’;-  

Rottcodd flicked ash from his shoes with a feather duster and tilted his bullet head.  ‘Ah’ he said in a non-committal way.    

 ‘You say ‘ah’, said Flay, turning his back on Rottcodd and beginning to walk down the coloured avenue, ‘but I tell you, it is more than “ah”  

 “Of course,’ said Rottcodd. “Much more, I dare say.  But I fail to understand.  I am a curator.’  At this he drew his body up to full height and stood on the tips of his toes in the dust.  

 A what?’ said Flay, straggling above him for he had returned.  ‘A curator?’  

 ‘That is so’, said Rottcodd, shaking his head.  

 Flay made a hard noise in his throat.  To Rottcodd it signified a complete lack of understanding and it annoyed him that the man should invade his province.  

 ‘Curator’ said Flay, after a ghastly silence, ‘I will tell you something, I know something.  Eh?’  

‘Well?’ said Roddcodd  ‘I’ll tell you’ said Flay.  ‘But first, what day is it?  what month and what year is it? Answer me.’  Rottcodd was puzzled at this question, but he was beginning to become a little intrigued……..‘Come closer Rottcodd, I will tell you.  You don’t understand Gormenghast, what happens in Gormenghast – the things that happen – no, no.  Below you, that’s where it all is, under this north wing…..’  

 There is not a lot of dialogue in this first chapter, but from what there is you can get an impression of Rottcodd’s personality (insular and mostly disinterested in anything which invades his world or disrupts his routine) and a bit of a false impression of Flay’s.  Flay doesn’t make long speeches, this is probably the most he has said all day.  

 Gormenghast itself is a puzzle, there are many descriptions that give an impression of the castle.  I shall put these together in a separate post.