Gormenghast Read-along: Week Two

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Groan

Dust and Ivy – Preparations for Arson (p101 – p194)


This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Helen Leech, a librarian from Surrey Library Service. This is my local library system so I was really pleased when Helen offered to write a post for this read-along. Librarians are wonderful!

I think the one sentence I would use to sum up this chunk of the book is “Steerpike positions himself”.  He’s clearly up to no good.  He’s plotting something, and he’s building up to it:  weaselling and grovelling his way into the Prunesquallor’s house , polishing his deadly swordstick, mixing up all kinds of poisons, and planting seeds of bitterness and destruction in the ears of Cora and Clarice.

It’s a guilty confession, but I have to say that Steerpike is my favourite character.  I’ve tried to work out why, and I think I might have him down as a working-class hero.  Maybe Gormenghast is full of inbred weird aristocrats and their decaying servants, and Steerpike is the revolutionary force which is going to blast them away.  I’ll reserve judgement, though, until later.  Bad things are going to happen, and it’s clear Steerpike is going to be right at the centre of them.

Meanwhile, Gormenghast itself is emerging as the biggest presence in the book.  It looms in every scene, providing the backdrop and atmosphere for each set piece:  the clutter of Fuschia’s attics, the vaguely Georgian elegance of Prunesquallor’s house, or the bleak stone coldness of Sepulchrave’s library.  Even when Keda leaves,  the castle looms and dominates her village.  I’ve never seen Edinburgh castle without thinking of Gormenghast.

Photo Credit: Chilli, Flickr


And the scene where Keda goes home made a big impression on me too… it seems to me that the only place where there’s any life, any vigour and growth and love, is in the village and the carvings of the mud-dwellers.  Whatever love is in the castle is warped and puny.  But the villager’s lives are  overshadowed by impending age and death, in much the same way that the village is overshadowed by Gormenghast.

Here’s some questions for you: 

Why does Steerpike pretend to be unconscious when he meets Fuschia?

Why doesn’t Prunesquallor see right through Steerpike?

Do you think Peake identifies with any one of his characters?

A big thank you to Helen Leech for writing this post!

Please let me know if you’d like to write something for a week in this read-along.


22 replies on “Gormenghast Read-along: Week Two”

Helen, Don’t worry, you are not alone – Steerpike is my favourite character too! I think you are right about him being a working-class hero whilst everyone else seems a bit spoilt. I can see myself changing sides at a later stage of the book though!

I also think Edinburgh Castle is a good representation of Gormenghast, but Gormenghast seems to be on a much larger scale. I’m picturing bigger cliffs, a castle 10x the size and a much more isolated location. The dark, oppressive stone is a very good match. Perhaps I’ll find future visits to Edinburgh a bit more creepy once I’ve finished these books 🙂


My guesses to your questions would be as follows:

I think Steerpike pretends to be unconscious when he first encounters Fuschia in order not to scare her or to put her on guard. He may also be trying to provoke a sympathetic response to her.

I see Prunesquallor as a deeply self-satisfied character, someone who is rather pleased with himself for his position in the castle hierarchy and someone who has too high an opinion of his own intelligence. Consequently, he is a perfect victim for Steerpike’s brand of flattery and wheedling.

I rather hope Peake didn’t identify too much with any of his characters!

Your assessment of Prunesquallor startled me, because I really like him – he’s intelligent and sympathetic and good fun – but on thinking about it you’re quite right… I suspect he’s easily flattered. It certainly explains why he doesn’t scrutinise Steerpike too closely and allows him a free hand in the laboratory. How disappointing, though: I do like my heroes to be unsullied.

I’m afraid that I really dislike Prunesquallor at the moment too. I hate his mannerisms and agree with Falaise’s assessment of his character. Smug is the one word that springs to mind. But he must also be quite innocent if he is so willing to fall for Steerpike’s brief flattery. He can’t have come across anyone that has tried to manipulate him in the past.

Steerpike isn’t my favourite character. He’s manipulative and an opportunist, but I don’t dislike him. I really haven’t got a favourite character yet – I said it was Titus in my comment on the first post, but that was because he’s just a baby so far. The characters as a whole are not very likeable, may with the exception of Fuchsia, but it’s early days for her too.

I agree that Gormenghast is the biggest presence in the book, but I hadn’t thought of it as Edinburgh Castle – like Jackie I see it on a much bigger scale.

I love the descriptions – everything comes to life through Peake’s words. I haven’t quite got up to the end of this section yet, having got to the Room of Roots – what an amazing room!

Prunesquallor is maybe too self-satisfied to see through Steerpike, who is the master of flattery, as well as being such a determined personality.

Yes, every time I find a character I start to like, they go and do something I disapprove of. I was warming to Keda but her behaviour with her two lovers – well, really.

But all the characters are so well drawn – as you say, Peake brings them to life. It doesn’t matter that they disappoint me, I’m still fascinated by them.

I wonder if there will be any characters that we like by the end of this book? I think this is going to be one of those books where we end up hating them all! It is so rare to enjoy reading about characters that we hate, but I am really enjoying the experience. 🙂

Ah, but babies are easy to like. Especially with violet eyes. Personally I’d like to rescue him, install him in a nice normal little cottage somewhere in Crawley where he can play with the neighbourhood children and have a dog – a small Jack Russell, not a Gormenghastian wolfhound – and grow up to be an accountant. I really don’t think the castle is going to do him any good at all.

I think it would do Lord Sepulchrave a world of good too, if he lived in a little housing estate and shopped at the Co-Op and got a job at the library. Might lift him out of himself. Lady Sepulchrave would get into trouble with the neighbours, though, I’m sure.

LOL! I’m not sure about that idea….I’m sure it would do them a lot of good, but the story would be a bit dull. I suppose it could make a very funny satire though. I can just imagine Lord Sepulchrave peering out at the world through his net-curtains!

Isn’t it tempting? Like Sue Townsend did with the royal family. But the characters are so huge that it would be hard to see them fitting into suburbia. Even the more subdued ones like Keda would stand out like some exotic tropical flower. Maybe that’s why Fuschia is called Fuschia. (Or Fuchsia. Why did Peake spell it like that? Wikipedia doesn’t say.)

Happy to report that enjoyed this week’s section and that’s because things began to happen and there were more than a few insights into Steerpike’s mind.

BTW – I’m completely horrified that it’s possible to still nominate him as favourite character given the crime he’s about to commit at the end of this section. I could live with a “most fascinating” label but not favourite! Call yourselves booklovers. Tut, tut! 🙂

The question I’d like to ask is where did he come from before he landed in Swelter’s kitchen? His sophistication just beggars belief.

What an interesting question. Isn’t it curious that there hasn’t been a hint, so far, of any kind of background to Steerpike? I think he seems much more malevolent as a result – if we knew he had a weak-willed alcoholic mother and a tyrannical father who spent all his time at the office I might be inclined to go a bit easier on him. Maybe Peake did this on purpose, left his background blank.

Lizzie, Yay! I’m really pleased to hear that you are starting to enjoy it.

I’ll defend my love for Steerpike by saying that he does clearly love books – he even rescued a few and hid them in the wood. He may have an evil streak, but I still admire him for doing something to change his life. He could have been rotting away in the kitchen for the rest of his days, but instead he is using his brains to manipulate these snobbish aristocrats.

I’d love to know where he comes from too. Perhaps it will all be revealed at some later stage? I keep imagining him as the secret child of one of them. I’d guess he is really Titus’s brother and deserves it all anyway.


An alternative reading of Steerpike’s actions would be that he stole a number of valuable books from a library (heinous crime) for his own selfish gratification before before plotting to burn the remainder.

I’m not sure whether I’d go as far as to call him evil thought rather than amoral in his lust for advancement and, whereas I can admire the initial urge to better himself, I think the way he goes about it is something to be conemned.

Also, I don’t really want to know his background. I think Peake may be showing how a lust for power and riches corrupts the soul and, if we could give Steerpike a free pass by blaming his bad character on his parents or his upbringing, it would weaken Peake’s argument.

Having said that, we’ll probably meet his parents in the next instalment and I will sound a right berk!


“he stole a number of valuable books from a library (heinous crime) for his own selfish gratification”

You’re probably right. But if he plans to read them then that still shows a love of books. I don’t think he took them because they are valuable and he wants to sell them for a quick bit of extra money.

I’d also agree that he isn’t evil…YET! But I have a strong suspicion that he will become evil later in the book. I look forward to seeing how he develops and if his ancestory is ever revealed.

I think a lot of the characters in the more privileged positions are quite naive and have not dealt with a lot of dishonesty so they’re not prepared for a cuckoo in the nest!

I like the scene where they have to walk through the forest to take Titus to see his father. It really gives a sense of scale to Gormenghast, especially as Nannie needs a lie down once she gets there! I’m also liking all the references to trees growing everywhere and love the idea of the Room of Roots. Reading Gormenghast is making me want to start drawing again!

Ellie, I’m loving the trees too – I wish it were a real place I could visit. The Room of Roots sounds like an amazing place – the descriptions of all the colours sounded stunning.

I agree about the naivety of the characters, but I almost feel they deserve what they are going to get (depending on what does happen to them – don’t wish death on any of them) Sometimes it is good for people to get a wake-up-call at get some idea of the real world.

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