The Erotics of Gormenghast

0156If Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan is about solitude, his second novel, Gormenghast, is about communities. But Gormenghast also contains sexual desire, as Titus Groan to a great extent does not. In it, all the would-be rebels against the tyranny of the castle’s ritual are driven by a yearning for physical consummation that was largely absent from the first Titus novel. Eroticism suffuses the air of the sprawling edifice like pollen in springtime. The Professors of Gormenghast School, some of whom haven’t seen a woman for forty years, find themselves galvanized all at once into various postures of grotesque seductiveness by the invitation to Irma Prunesquallor’s party. The party itself represents Irma’s rebellion against the rigid emotional and physical stasis she has cultivated for decades, embodied in the rock-hard bun at the back of her neck. It is her moment of radiance, when she first becomes aware of the ‘riot of her veins […] the wild thorn-throbs’ of burgeoning passion. Even the desiccated Barquentine, on the eve of his murder, remembers suddenly that he was once married, to a woman who expressed her misery with him by making paper boats, which she ‘sailed across the harbour of her lap or left stranded about the floor or on the rope matting of her bed […] a navy of grief and madness’ (570). He remembers, too, that she bore him a son, a boy whose ‘birthmark took up most of the face’ like a foreshadowing of the parti-coloured skin of Steerpike’s face after his burning. Barquentine has forgotten them because of a different lust, his quasi-erotic desire for the castle ritual over which he presides: ‘He loved it with a love as hot as his hate’ (568). But they are present in the book, whereas in Titus Groan we never learned how and with whom Sourdust fathered Barquentine, and the grapplings of Lady Gertrude and Lord Sepulchrave as they struggled to engender offspring are described as a duty and an embarrassment, to be given over as soon as the proper end has been accomplished.

Desire in Titus Groan was concentrated in Swelter, whose unctuous wooing of his kitchen boys was transmuted into a lust for Flay’s death, played out in a ballet of little cakelets; and in young Fuchsia, who found herself drawn to Steerpike by his peerless mimickry of the stuff of her dreams – action, romance and anarchic comedy as well as passion. In Gormenghast, it is everywhere, as if the castle itself has been aroused. Desire in the book has two poles, between which the globe of passion rotates from season to season. The first is the passion for the stones, most eloquently articulated by Barquentine, Lady Groan, and Flay the exile, as he lovingly maps the maze of the castle’s corridors in quest of its hidden enemies and their victims. The second pole of desire is the passion for the human body, which must find some kind of outlet among the stones’ unyielding matrix if the dynasty of the Groans is to continue. It’s appropriate, then, that the ritual of the castle sometimes offers a space for erotic display. The most explicit example of this is the poem recited at an annual ceremony by the castle Poet to Lady Gertrude and the assembled pupils and professors of the school. The poem is spoken aloud, in the words of the ceremony, because ‘poetry is the ritual of the heart, the voice of faith, the core of Gormenghast, the moon when it is red, the trumpet of the Groans’ (501). Verse here gets linked with love of the stones and Barquentine’s passion for ritual, but the Poet’s text itself is concerned with sex and plants, linking itself to the sinuous creepers that insinuate their tendrils into the castle’s mortar, the hairy embrace of the ivy where Steerpike hides at the end of the book, the thorns and weeds that promiscuously thrive in forgotten courtyards. In none of the editions of the novel is the poem given, but it exists in the manuscript now housed in the British Library: a surreal carpe diem celebration of the irrepressible desires of men, women and vegetation through the seasons:

So is it always when the hairfaced hedgerow
Whores with the sucking legions and the hips
Of autumn prick and parry at the bluebud […]
See! the red timepiece on a damsel’s cage
Ticks to the doomsday crack.[1]

In these lines the passion of the body is bound up with time – an entity the walls of Gormenghast barely acknowledge, or record only in layers of velvety dust, in rot and detritus, the opposite of the throbbings of the body; or in the pages of the book of ritual, which prescribe a duty to every hour and minute of the revolving year. It’s time that precipitates Irma into throwing her party, conscious that middle age is encroaching and that the soirée may represent her final chance to secure a partner. It’s time – forty years of cloistered bachelorhood – that reduces the unfortunate Professor Throd to a state of tumescent rigidity at the sight of Irma. And it’s time that links Titus’s fascination with the Thing to his nascent sexuality, transforming her from a fleeting spirit of the forest to a meticulously-observed, ungainly fusion of frog, bird and weasel, an astonishing blend of ugliness and beauty, rendered attractive by its contradictions as he watches her in the shelter of Flay’s cave.

Titus is absent from the ritual at which the Poet recites his verses because he has been drawn to the fertile chaos of the genuine vegetation that clothes Gormenghast mountain. Here he glimpses the Thing for the first time, the only girl of his age to appear in the book. In this first encounter she becomes for him the emblem of the freedom he craves: his foster sister, conceived out of wedlock; his social inferior, exempt from the cages of language thanks to her isolation, but capable of expressing her defiance of the castle with astounding eloquence; forbidden to him as a companion – sexual or otherwise – by every tenet in the castle’s laws. Above all, she is free from time as it is marked in the castle: the calendar of sterile gestures that succeed each other from year to year; the clock that ticks towards Titus’s exclusion from the company of boys his own age when he takes up his immemorial duties as the seventy-seventh earl. Before this happens, she once again interrupts an annual ritual – the ceremony of the Bright Carvings – by snatching away one of the wooden sculptures that has been designated for the fire. Titus follows her with his eyes as she skims away over the castle wall, then follows her with his body through the secret underground tunnel that leads to the mountain and Flay’s cave. Here he is again confronted by her defiance of time. Her interest in the sculpture lasts only minutes – she kicks it away as soon as she realizes she has made it her own. Her diminutive size suggests she has developed less than Titus over the years since he first saw her. And her premature death-by-lightning, dancing her defiance of him in a rainstorm, identifies her as the polar opposite of the immemorial stones of Titus’s heritage. Her death also internalizes her for him as the emblem of freedom, since it both liberates her from being possessed and limited by Titus (who is after all a representative of the castle, like it or not), and liberates him to pursue the promise she offers of self-sufficiency outside the castle’s perimeters. It makes her timeless, no longer the object of the cycles of his lust but a constant source of inspiration for escape from what was presented to him as his destiny.

The Thing is no mere sexual object; she’s been a rebel since birth. From the first she was defined by her community as the offspring of an illicit union, and as she grows older she expresses her disdain for this definition by stealing their most precious sculptures from under their noses. Her illegitimate status connects her to a poem Peake wrote about the sexual effects of war, when fear and opportunity combine to engender lust, resulting in more births out of wedlock than any comparable period of peacetime:

Sired under hedgerows, O
Myriad infants whom
War has engendered.
Sired in the midnight
Alley, O
Children of the world’s
Blackout, you
Are the theme of this,
A dedicated list
Of words my flowing heart cannot desist.[2]

Such unsanctioned babies, begotten in the crucible of crisis, represent a challenge to heredity as unsettling to the authorities as the presence of an armed enemy. Titus’s attraction to a bastard girl is yet more treacherous, representing as it does the urgency of his wish to sever his connection to the seat of the Groans and thus to end the line. He never consummates this attraction, even in the crisis of the thunderstorm that unleashes a flood on his ancestral home; but the Thing’s death by lightning soon after their encounter in the cave signals for him in any case the end of the line, an ending of life as casual and passionate as the coupling between Keda and her lover that first sparked her into existence. If illicit sex poses a threat to the establishment, which seeks to retain control over its subjects’ bodies, casual death is a rebellion yet more absolute, wresting the body wholly out of the world where such control is practised.

OW, RequiescatThe women in Peake’s novels succumb to casual death with unnerving frequency. Keda, the Thing and Fuchsia achieve exemption from the ritual of wedlock by being destroyed – the first voluntarily, the second by chance, the third by a mixture of chance and her own volition. There’s a huge problem, of course, with representing women as prone to premature death, and a greater problem with transforming the death by fire of one of them – the Thing – into an emblem of a boy’s transition into manhood, or his lust for liberty, or anything else. But the Thing is not just any of these things; she’s not so easy to pin down. For the Bright Carvers she is ‘a raven, a snake, [a] witch’ (579); for Titus she ‘might have been a faun or a tigress or a moth or a fish or a hawk or a marten’; she is a ‘frog, a snake, or a gazelle’ (683); she is ‘effrontery’, ‘disparity’ and ‘difference’ (677-8); above all she is ‘originality’ (682), meaning that she is sui generis, springing self-formed from the wilderness where her mother bore her and unbeholden to anyone else, least of all an earl. Her death by lightning confirms her quickness, her untouchability, her power. And if her end marks the earl’s maturity, it’s because it forces him to recognize he could never have had her, hereditary heir though he may be of a thousand acres of crumbling stone.

Steerpike-06This is a recognition Steerpike never really achieves: the knowledge that he’s not the centre, that he cannot have whatever he plans for, that there’s no such thing, in the end, as absolute mastery. If Gormenghast is a book full of sexual desire for the other, Steerpike is narcissistically self-obsessed – although he can play the part of a lover with consummate ease. As Titus matures with the changing seasons, Steerpike stays the same. Or rather he regresses, shocked out of the total control over mind and body which marked him out in Titus Groan by the disastrous miscalculation that almost kills him when he murders Barquentine. Barquentine’s dying embrace of Steerpike – an embrace of fire – grotesquely enacts the old man’s passion for the stones as he struggles to destroy the traitor who would take possession of them. But it can also be read as a peculiar act of love for the young man he has trained as his successor: after all, we have been told that Barquentine’s love for the castle was as fierce as his hate. The flaming embrace transforms the former kitchen boy into the image of the old man’s piebald son, and confers on Steerpike – albeit at Steerpike’s own behest – the onerous duty of performing the rituals which the son never assumed. And for a while after his recovery – a long while – Steerpike performs those rituals with meticulous precision, as if he has finally fallen under the spell of the unchanging stones.

Unnerved by his failure to kill the old man cleanly, Steerpike loses some of his composure, his supreme self-confidence. Unable to sustain his performance as Fuchsia’s would-be lover he lashes out at her and loses her trust. He needlessly returns to the scene of a past crime, visiting the corpses of the twin sisters he starved to death solely in order to dance and play on their ribs as if on a xylophone. He crows in triumph over their skeletons like Peter Pan, whose pipe-playing and propensity for random acts of violence he also shares. His playfulness gets him noticed and he becomes a fugitive, half pirate, half explorer, turning the corridors of the castle into the labyrinthian tracks of some desert island (that’s one of Peake’s adjectives: ‘labyrinthian’). The tools of his rebellion – penknife and catapult – are a schoolboy’s tools, and his lusts are also a schoolboy’s, dominated by the egotistic desire to take risks, to ‘strut and posture’ (742), to expose himself, to make lewd signs:

His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm fresh blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiraling his arms and steaming in the cold air – to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable – and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams. (742)

CratersHe expresses this complicated lust in a second Peter Pan-like ‘blast of arrogance’ at the end of the novel, the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ (743). And it’s this new miscalculation that kills him. If he had stabbed instead of crowing, Titus would have died; and that’s what would have happened if the encounter had taken place a little earlier in the novel. But by this stage in the narrative Steerpike has exchanged places, so to speak, with the young earl. The boy has matured as Steerpike has retreated into adolescence.

Titus’s maturity expresses itself in a desire for intimacy rather than self-display, for freedom rather than power, for someone else’s body rather than his own. His desire for disparity, for difference is what enables him to break free from Gormenghast, whereas Steerpike has remained narcissistically wedded to dreams about himself, his personal strength and energy, his accomplishments as an actor, his acerbic wit. Such dreams would have taken him nowhere, even if he had lived. Titus’s, on the other hand, take him out into the cold communities of Titus Alone.

Rosemary Jackson speaks of fantasy as the literature of desire. Gormenghast confirms her diagnosis of the genre, while drawing our attention to the pain and frustration of desire in an age of warfare, of habitual repression, of petty ceremony. Yet desire flourishes in the novel, in spite of or thanks to its repression, and finds unexpected outlets in the interstices of a severe and immobile social architecture. Eventually it is unleashed in the torrential rainstorm that kills the Thing, and the resulting flood releases the castle from the threat of Steerpike and Titus from the bounds of the castle at the same time. Peake understands that sexual freedom is as painful and dangerous as it’s ecstatic, and underlines that perception by having Titus weep as he rides ‘out of his world’. In doing so, Titus joins the ranks of the confused adolescents of the 1950s, who had no more idea than Peake’s young earl – or anyone else – of the world they were riding into.

[1] Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 156.

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 202.

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One Response to The Erotics of Gormenghast

  1. Alexandra says:

    Teresa, It is good to know I’m not alone in having torlbue with the Keda sections. I actually did find them jarring and whilst reading them wished I was back in the Gormenghast sections of the story. I’m hoping that she is mentioned in the later books and given a real role in the plot as at the moment I’m a bit confused by their presence.

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