John C Adams Reviews 'Titus Groan' by Mervyn Peake
Updated: Aug 12
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946)
On this inaugural Way Back Whensday post, I'm reviewing 'Titus Groan' by Mervyn Peake. Peake is a unique figure in modern fantasy. He's funny, bizarre, often absurd and nowadays principally remembered for his unfinished Gormenghast trilogy, which draws upon Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson as its influences.
'Titus Groan' is the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy. It tells the childhood story of Titus, son of earl and countess of Groan, growing up in the family seat of Gormenghast. The house itself is an additional character beyond those of the little boy, a veritable army of servants and, occasionally, his distant parents. His mother languidly determines shortly after his birth that she needs to have no regular contact with him, apparently already finding everyday life exhausting without the addition of a child. His father is insane. Titus is thereafter mostly looked after by his nanny, just like many an upper class child before and since.
Titus is a relatable and likeable character, finding his feet as best he can in the only home he's ever known and grappling with how little there makes sense. Nothing is comprehensible when judged by the rational standards of our everyday lives, and the quirks simply become part of the entertainment until Gormenghast is the most vivid character of all. Its rules are certainly of its own creation. Titus encounters all manner of strange features in his home, from the Tower of Flints to the Hall of the Bright Carvings. One day he will be master of every inch of the house and every acre of the land surrounding it, but the reader quickly guesses that no one masters Gormenghast. The house is destined to remain in charge.
In common with many novels that portray childhood, 'Titus Groan' encompasses a considerable period of time, from Titus's birth to his becoming earl when his father dies. This gives it something of a drifting feel moving from episode to episode without much sense of direction, not helped by the fact that it is nearly four hundred pages long nor by the fact that each chapter is given a cheeky name of its own which gives a short story after short story feel to the novel. I don't think any of that really matters too much, because characterisation and comedy are the foundations of this tale rather than plot, which is somewhat incidental and was always like to end with Titus's father dying and Titus becoming earl.
Multiple point-of-view characters, both before Titus is born and later when he is growing to adulthood, add to the feeling that this story belongs to all the many people who shelter under Gormenghast's roof. The reader experiences Peake's fiction through the eyes of people like Flay and Fuschia who work there. Sometimes, the point of view is distant enough from any single character to feel more like the house is telling the story. I liked this aspect of the book. Peake understood that in aristocratic households such as the Groans' hundreds of indoor and outdoor staff (at least in 1946, when the book was published) exist alongside the ancestral family. They may enjoy lives so different from each other that it is almost impossible to imagine them finding anything in common, but the house somehow holds them all together.
The comedy is drenched in a liminal horror that is very low-key and at times feels more like absurd fantasy than anything directly frightening. It's odd, frankly sometimes grotesquely so. With its focus on childhood and a persistent (if unsettling) naivety about it, Peake's novel is a difficult one to place. It crosses genre boundaries, as funny as it is scary or fantastical. It's the kind of story a critic attempts to pigeonhole at their peril. I love fiction that doesn't so much cross boundaries as smash them to pieces, so this was probably the element I appreciated most.
The whole book is one long, glorious, amusing and jumbled combination of Dickens, on the part of those living below stairs, mixed with the Gothic style of the house itself. The darkness may be palpable, but there is always a flickering light discernible on the other side, and in between a little giggle that might just be a cackle drifts across to the reader. I loved it.
Thank you so much for reading my first 'Way Back Whensday' blog post!
My next post is this Friday. It's a a Friday Frightener review of a recently published horror novel.