Imagining Gormenghast

Four Chinese boys standing in a gateway, Kuling, Jiangxi, China, ca.1900-1932 (Wikipedia Commons)
Four Chinese boys standing in a gateway, Kuling, Jiangxi, China, ca.1900-1932 (Wikipedia Commons)

As I hurtle towards the final pages of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan I have not only been delighting in his panoply of curious names for individuals: I have also, as countless others have too, been captivated by his seemingly detailed descriptions of Gormenghast Castle, so much so that I have been trying to draw up a ground plan of the buildings and surrounds. But, as others have no doubt also discovered, amongst all the circumstantial descriptions, perambulations and measurements the gargantuan edifice remains disturbingly ghostly and mirage-like. All I can offer at the moment are a few thoughts, based on notes taken from the text and from odd research — including from Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (Vintage 1999), which comprises Maeve Gilmore’s A World Away (1970) and Sebastian Peake’s A Child of Bliss (1989).

"Forbidden city map wp 0" by Tommy Chen / 陈祥元 (Sumple) - Drawn by Sumple. As a courtesy, and entirely voluntarily, please notify me if you change this image or its description.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Forbidden city map wp 0” by Tommy Chen / 陈祥元 (Sumple) – Drawn by Sumple. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peake was brought up in China, attending Tientsin Grammar School (modern Tianjin) until the age of eleven. His widow, Maeve — herself an artist in her own right, who died in 1983 — suggests that so many things “which are called ‘Gothic’ in his Titus Groan trilogy must spring from the fantasies which presented themselves to him, years later, from his childhood in China”. She draws attention to “the tragic huts outside the compound, where the poorest [Chinese] lived, and the stray dogs, scrawny with hunger,” sights which may have influenced “the habitation of the mud-dwellers, who carved for their love, and their life, and the dreadful lean dogs, stalking their way through the dwellings” in the shadow of the northern wall of the Castle. And Peake’s son Sebastian tells us that Mount Lu, near his birthplace in the missionary hilltown of Kuling, may have served as a direct inspiration for Gormenghast Mountain.

Did Peake have as one model for the Castle the traditional temples and imperial palaces of China? The Forbidden City in Beijing — with its largely symmetrical layout of buildings, gardens, gates and moat — superficially resembles the Castle with its four wings, lawns, posterns and vestiges of a moat. The imperial city includes a series of extensive river-like lakes to the west, the counterpart perhaps of the river between the Castle and Gormenghast Mountain. Both complexes are furnished with courtyards as well as official buildings with (to many observers) fatuous and pretentious names, and both are, or rather were, subject to obscure and archaic rituals which circumscribed life within their domains.

"Eltham College UK logo" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
“Eltham College UK logo” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

When Peake moved to England he attended the School for the Sons of Missionaries (now Eltham College, Mottingham) in southeast London. Based around an 18th-century mansion, the curiously-named Fairy Hall, the school has as its motto Gloria Filiorum Patres, “the glory of the sons are the fathers”. Not only is this supremely apt for the two-thousand-year-old Groan line, but the coat-of-arms includes a cross fleury — a cruciform device with flowery ends — which to me suggests a possible inspiration for the ground plan of the Castle. Try as I might, I can’t recreate a blueprint of Gormenghast following conventions for either stately homes or medieval castles. The fabric of the Groan residence has, as well as a main body as core (with hall, kitchens, chambers and so on) but also wings to the north, east, west and south. How else to fashion the plan other by reference to a cross? If there is another way I’d be glad to hear of it.

Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard
Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard

So, if the plan of Gormenghast Castle was indeed inspired by imperial Chinese architecture and by the heraldry of a secondary school, what of the fabric of the crumbling edifice? At least one English site suggests itself: the castle Arundel in Sussex, where in 1940 Peake began Titus Groan. This impressive fortification, continuously inhabited for a thousand years by the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors, must have played its part in Peake’s vision for the seat of the long-established Groans. But, unlike Gormenghast, Arundel has been restored and remodelled so that it isn’t in the parlous state of so many of Britain’s medieval castles.

These are the broad brush strokes that delineate Peake’s creation, but the details — the Tower of Flints, Sepulchrave’s library, the Hall of Spiders, the Great Kitchens, Fuchsia’s attics, the Room of Roots — and their relationships with each other remain vague colour washes. And they will remain so until at least the middle title, Gormenghast, is under my belt.


8 thoughts on “Imagining Gormenghast

  1. An interesting insight into Peake’s inspirations, there. I always assumed it would be British castles that prompted the Gothic in Gormenghast — never dreamed it mght be Chinese. A really interesting post.

    1. Thanks, Lynn! I know that many authors include many of their life experiences in their fiction, and it seems that Peake was no exception.

      Needless to say, though, knowing about these experiences only enhances one’s understanding of the text and is never a substitute for a close reading: and the pages are full of delightful descriptions and vivid word painting.

  2. It is a sign of good writing that one becomes really familiar with a setting. Over-description can be horribly boring. Some well-read writers will go into a wealth of detail about a village passed through and never revisited during a quest adventure. What, I find myself asking, is the point?

    1. I’m neither the first nor probably the last to note that the Castle is virtually a character in its own right. Peake’s loving descriptions of its byways and environs underline its role in determining outcomes, much as any human character. I hope to expand a bit on this in my review.

      But I do agree with you about the common mistake of some debut writers of giving undue emphasis to transitory details that don’t move the story forward. Peake at first appears to break this rule, but he does — so far — make amends by showing how those descriptions eventually give significance to later developments.

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