Review – Titus Groan
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  • November 4, 2012
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“Why break the heart that never beat from love?”
– Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Titus Groan is the first book in the infamous Gormenghast “trilogy” (that is now four books long) by Mervyn Peake. I’m sure that many of you have not heard of it. In my experience of working in a bookstore I find that nobody has heard of it. However, this is something you really should put into your reading world because of one, very important reason.
This is the best series that I have ever read.
I love it.
I first picked up Gormenghast about ten years ago because I wanted to watch the BBC mini-series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Yep… ten years later I’ll admit it. That’s the reason. However, that aside, it’s still the best thing I have ever read.

Mervyn Peake was an artist and an illustrator, a contemporary in the fantasy genre of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. During World War II he began to work on this powerful and daunting achievement. He completed hundreds of illustration for the books alone. Peake’s writing style lends itself more to poetic purple prose and lengthy description. It’s not surprising to learn that he was also a poet. It took several years but the entire trilogy was completed before his death in the sixties due to complications with Parkinson’s disease. He intended to write the character of Titus Groan from his birth to his death. He only made it to the character’s late teens/early twenties. His wife, Maeve Gilmore, wrote a fourth book called Titus Awakes, published in 1972 and again in 2011. She was originally not encouraged to publish the manuscript.

Gormenghast is an expansive kingdom where the House of Groan has ruled for seventy-six generations. The current Earl, Sepulchrave, and Countess, Gertrude, have given birth to their second child – a boy whom they christen Titus. Their elder daughter, Fushcia, is not happy about this. She has been an only child for fifteen years. While she disappears into the forgotten wilderness of the massive castle we are introduced to the inhabitants of Gormenghast, a haphazard assortment of people devoted to tradition and propriety. There is Irma and Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor, siblings who live with one another, Clarice and Cora Groan, Sepulchrave’s bizarre younger twin sisters, Sepulchrave’s man-servant Flay, The Master of Ritual, Sourdust, Keda (a wet nurse), Nannie Slagg, and many others.

The day of the birth we also meet Steerpike, a young man who works in the kitchens for Swelter, a cruel and abusive man. Steerpike is not from Gormenghast and he has only come with one single minded goal – to bring the entire house to the ground, no matter what it takes. Steerpike begins to worm his way through Gormenghastian society with polished machination, manipulating his way through every opportunity. Some of the inhabitants suspect his motives but Steerpike continues to climb to the top, crawling over everybody in the process.
Gormenghast is a great metaphor for the importance of change – if one doesn’t change one grows stagnate and far too comofrtable. The book is all about what happens when we introduce a few elements that can completely alter a world. It’s like reading chaos theory in motion. Titus and Steerpike are the wheels of change. Their presence shakes up the entire household, one by accident and one on purpose.
– Steerpike, as illustrated by Mervyn Peake –
Much of the book follows the interactions of the characters. Luckily, they are all very interesting. Steerpike is the most Machiavellian and horrific villain to come along in all of literature. He rivals Iago for the most devious means of achieving an end. Reading him makes ever fibre of my skin crawl, yet I can’t look away. It’s so awesome how far he goes to be awful.
– Fuchsia Groan, as illustrated by Mervyn Peake –
Fuchsia is also an interesting character. She has such emotional development in this book alone (and there’s three more). At first she is a spoiled, self-centered waif angry that she has lost her inheritance to the throne. Now she must deal with everything that has been impacted by Steerpike and it completely upends her. She’s the character that grows the most in this setting. It’s very interesting that she’s the youngest, besides Titus. Clearly, youth adapts far better than age.

This is a very character centric novel and I love it. It’s Gothic, it’s powerful, it’s beautifully written. Gormenghast is a world of ritual and tradition, and this is clearly a comment on the corruption that comes from stasis. I plan to read the next one in a few weeks, which I love better than this book, but only just. I am so glad I reread this.

5 out of 5 stars.

It’s still the best thing I have ever read.

– BP

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