Titus Awakes – Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake

Titus Awakes

Five words from the blurb: Gormenghast, Titus, bravery, free, past

Earlier this year the fourth novel in the Gormenghast series, Titus Awakes, was published. The book was discovered in a Maeve Gilmore’s attic nearly 30 years after her death and is Gilmore’s attempt to complete the fragments of a novel that her husband, Mervyn Peake, left behind.

Titus Awakes is a short novel in which Titus leaves Gormenghast, meets a variety of people and ends up in a modern city. Sound familiar? Yes! This book felt like a shortened version of Titus Alone. I didn’t enjoy Titus Alone  and I’m afraid that this was even worse. The plot was very basic; Titus was a weak, charmless individual and the descriptions lacked the vivid atmosphere of Titus Groan/Gormenghast.

This book added nothing to the Gormenghast series and I found it a real chore to read to the end. I can only imagine this being of interest Gormenghast scholars – everyone else should stick to Titus Groan and Gormenghast.


1950s Classics Fantasy

Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone (Gormenghast trilogy)

Five words from the blurb: escapes, city, zoo, traitor, home

Titus Alone is the third book in the Gormenghast trilogy, but whilst the first two are amongst the best books I’ve ever read, Titus Alone was a big disappointment.

Titus leaves the wonderfully atmospheric surroundings of Gormenghast castle and arrives in a modern city. Both the city and the people that he meets there lack the vivid descriptions of the previous books. I struggled to connect with the characters and was bored by plot. Reaching the end was a real chore and I only finished the book because I was hosting the read-along.

There were a few paragraphs that grabbed my attention, but overall I found the writing choppy and unconvincing. The world of Gormenghast wasn’t realistic, but somehow Peake made the happenings of the first two books entirely believable. This wasn’t the case with the third book. I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the city of Titus Alone; the fantasy elements jarred and the plot seemed ridiculous.

He strode to the forest verge, his head in his hands, then raised his eyes, and pondered on the bulk and weight of his crazy car. He released the brake, and brought her to life, so that she sobbed, like a child pleading. He turned her to the precipice, and with a great heave sent her running uopn her way. As she ran, the small ape leaped from his shoulders to the driving seat, and riding her like a little horseman using the best equipment from western saddlery Australia.
Ape gone. Car gone. All gone?.

I’m sure that there are some wonderful messages beneath the surface of this book, but it didn’t work for me.


Did you enjoy Titus Alone?

Which bits did you enjoy most/least?


Gormenghast Read-along: Week 9

Titus Alone (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Alone

One – Fifty-Eight (p759 -p854)

I was worried about starting Titus Alone as I knew that it meant leaving the wonderful setting of Gormenghast Castle behind. I struggled to see how Peake could match the amazing world he had created in his first two books and unfortunately my fears were justified. The writing was just as vivid, but for some reason the new city didn’t spring to life in the same way the castle had. Perhaps this was because Titus moved so quickly through the city that I was unable to form more than a blurred picture of his surroundings?

Another problem was that there were too many characters and they hadn’t been fleshed out as well as those in the previous books. The images I have of them in my head are vague and there are few illustrations in this section to help me out. Can you form a mental image of the characters in Titus Alone?

The only time I found myself enjoying this book was when Titus reflected on his life in Gormenghast. These seem to be the only sections with real emotion behind them – or perhaps I’m just longing for him to return there and so enjoy the reminiscing?

I also love the way that the residents of the city have not heard of Gormenghast. The letter from Willy to Filby was the first section in this book that made me smile:

It is quite clear in my mind that this young man is suffering from delusions of grandeur.

We often see this sort of thing in modern literature – those who time travel or come from far away can be seen as mad. This was the most interesting development in the book and it prompted me to to think about the way our status is only relevant to those who know and uphold it.

As much as I loved their misunderstanding of Titus it created problems for me. How can a population so advanced have no idea that a giant castle exists just a short boat trip away?

I am intrigued about how Titus Alone will end, but I’m not as excited about picking it up as I was with the first two books.

Are you enjoying Titus Alone?

1950s Chunkster Fantasy

Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))







Gormenghast is the sequel to the wonderful Titus Groan and it doesn’t disappoint. The writing is just as vivid and the story is, if anything, even more compelling. 

The two books are slightly different in style and it took me a while to adjust to the more intimate feel of Gormenghast. As the book progresses the plot becomes increasingly gripping and for the last 40 pages I was unable to put the book down, totally engrossed in the action. 

It is hard to imagine a book with more complex characters – each one so alive they seem to breathe on the page. The setting is just as good – it is atmospheric and there are many creepy moments.

It is impossible to review this book without giving spoilers for Titus Groan, so I’ll reveal nothing about the plot, other than to say that it is filled with surprises.  

I am enjoying these books so much that I don’t want the experience to end.

All I can do is suggest that you try these outstanding books yourself.


Fifty-Nine – Eighty (p659 – p752)

I can’t believe we’ve made it to the end of Gormenghast! I’m so glad that I took the time to read it slowly and have wonderful discussions along the way. I’m feeling a bit sad at finishing Gormenghast as I suspect that the next two books will not be quite as good – the setting of Gormenghast Castle makes these books special and I can’t see how they will work without it dominating proceedings.

What did you think of the way Gormenghast ended?

I was interested to discover that I was rooting for Steerpike’s death. I loved him in the beginning, but his evil had gone too far by the end. This change in compassion for a character was quite an unusual experience and the fact that all the characters underwent similar transformations shows Peake’s skill as an author.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the central character changes from one stage of a book to the next. Not knowing which character would play a major role and which would never be seen again added to the intrigue of the narrative. I was also impressed by the way Peake chose to kill off almost all the main characters. It was brave to create such a wealth of amazingly vivid characters and then risk upsetting readers by removing them.

The only thing that I didn’t like in the books was Keda and her daughter. I had expected them to play a greater role and so was baffled by the sudden death of “the Thing”. Do you think the books would have been better without Keda and her child?

It was good to have such a hopeful ending. With all that death it could easily have become depressing, but I loved the way that Titus looked to the future and wanted to risk everything to better his life experience. I found myself warming to Titus towards the end of Gormenghast and am looking forward to seeing what happens to him next. Are you looking forward to Titus Alone?

Gormenghast Read-along Schedule

1950s Chunkster Classics Other

Gormenghast Read-along: Week 7

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))


Thirty-Eight – Fitfty-Eight (p565 – p659)



.This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Falaise from 2606 Books and Counting. He is a blogger who, given the average life expectancy of a British man, realised that he will probably only manage to read 2606 books in the rest of his life. He is prioritising the important ones by working his way through 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die.

Jackie has very kindly allowed me to barge into her blog to share some thoughts on this third week of the Gormenghast segment of the Gormenghast Read-along. It’s a good week to have this opportunity as it’s been spectacularly eventful in the book, with Steerpike taking centre stage once again.

I’ve always pictured him as being pale, sinuous, almost serpentine in appearance but, over the past couple of weeks, another image has been elbowing its way into my mind.  You see, I am starting to have these flashes of seeing Steerpike as a villain from the days of silent movies, the kind who wears an opera hat, black cloak and an outré moustache.  I know it’s wrong.  I know he is far more evil and complex than that, but his journey from ambition to Technicolor sadist has been so dramatic and complete that I just can’t help it.

When we first met him in Titus Groan, Steerpike was an escapee from Swelter’s hellish kitchens, characterised more by a strong survival instinct than by anything else.  Now, however, with the slayings of Barquentine and Flay, his treatment of the twins and his twisted pursuit of Fuchsia, his descent into evil is complete.  Fortunately, this has also coincided with his unmasking as a traitor and Fuchsia’s realisation of his true nature.

All this seems quite straightforward, inasmuch as anything in Gormenghast Castle can be straightforward, but there are a few nagging questions that I haven’t quite got my head around.  Firstly, the death of Cora and Clarice doesn’t seem to be quiet as clear cut as I had originally thought it.  We are told that Steerpike stops visiting and that they starve to death, with only their final wails and screams heard by Flay.  It’s shockingly cruel and the implication is obvious.  Steerpike has murdered them.  But, hold on.  We later find out that Steerpike has been sick in bed for weeks, after his killing of Barquentine.  So, maybe he hadn’t really intended them to die, even though they only succumbed to starvation a couple of days after he was up and about.  I still think he is ultimately responsible but am not sure whether this was a cowardly crime of omission (by failing to alert anyone to their predicament) or a cruel crime of commission (locking them away, intending that they should starve).

What do you think about this?  Did Steerpike want them dead? Or was he just indifferent to their fate?  And, if so, does it make any difference to our view of him?

There’s also the question of Steerpike’s physical appearance and emotional state and whether there is a relationship between them and his level of moral turpitude.  At the beginning of Titus Groan, Steerpike is a flatterer, a manipulator, even an arsonist by proxy, but not a killer.  During this phase of his career, he is described as being strong and lithe, almost an athlete.  His killing of Sourdust was accidental, although he was quick to capitalise on it but, after his murder of Barquentine and of the twins, his appearance has been terribly damaged by fire, he is scarred both physically but also emotionally, as his reaction to Fuchsia’s candle shows.  I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray here and the decay of Dorian’s picture as his character is degraded.

Do you think there is a conscious relationship between Peake’s description of Steerpike’s physical and emotional well-being and his moral condition or am I reading waaay too much into it?

I’m not going to dwell too much on the underlying themes of ritual and tradition versus change and freedom this week, save to point out the very different ways in which Steerpike and Titus embody the tension between them.  Both are seeking to break out of the confines in which Gormenghastian law would bind them but in very different ways.  Steerpike wants to bend and rework tradition to his aims to increase his power and to break into the privileged part of traditional society to usurp the legitimate rulers.  By contrast, the actual ruler, Titus, is beginning to realise that he is no different to his class mates and to resent the rules that will govern his life.  He wants to overthrow tradition to find personal freedom and to cast off responsibility.

Leaving aside Steerpike’s methodology for achieving his ends, are Titus’ aims really any better than Steerpike’s?  Is it right that he should want to abdicate responsibility for the people of Gormenghast?  Is this “just” a phase of childhood and a sign of growing up?

I am finding Gormenghast to be an even more enjoyable read than Titus Groan and can see why it is generally accepted to be Peake’s masterpiece.  The castle, which, arguably, was the star of the first book, has stepped back to be a rich backdrop to the central drama of the castle’s inhabitants.  Unlike many authors, Peake is definitely not scared of killing off key characters and is deft at rounding out and developing other characters, notably the Countess.  It is rapidly becoming one of my favourite reads for a very long time.

I do have one issue with it though and an admission to make.  I can see the point of having some school scenes in the book.  I find Irma Prunesquallor amusing comic relief, especially in Doctor Prunesquallor’s reactions to her.  I am, however, struggling to see any meaning in the Bellgrove-Prunesquallor romance and marriage, other than as part of Peake’s surprising comedic tendencies.

Am I missing something here?  What do you think Peake was trying to do with this strand of the novel?  Have you been surprised at the amount of humour in an otherwise dark book?

Many thanks to Falaise for creating such a thought provoking discussion!


Mervyn Peake at the British Library





The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition

On Monday night I was lucky enough to attend a special evening at the British Library, celebrating the work of Mervyn Peake. The night began with a special private viewing of the library’s new The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition.

The exhibition contained many of Peake’s original manuscripts and a lot of information about his life. I made lots of notes so will fill this post with the facts that interested me the most.

The Manuscripts

The majority of the Gormenghast Trilogy was written in lined notebooks and I was surprised to see that his beautiful illustrations were sketched alongside his writing, with the lines from the notebooks running straight through the drawings. I’d expected them to be in a separate sketch pad, but Peake clearly liked to have a strong image of each scene in his head before writing it. Almost all the drawings were done using the same pen that he used for writing. Acrylic Display Stand SIngapore helps to display brochures, posters indoor and outdoor.

I found most of Peake’s writing illegible and so was interested to read that his wife had similar trouble. In one of the notebooks that she used to write Titus Awakes she admitted that she struggled to decipher his notes and after a certain point she gave up:

…..from now on, I, like Titus will be alone in his wanderings.

Places that Influenced Gormenghast

Meryvn Peake was born in China and he lived there for the first twelve years of his life. The country had a big impact on his writing and its influence can be seen in several sections of the Gormenghast books.

The Hall of Bright Carvings was inspired by The Spirit Way at the Eastern Imperial Tombs, near Beijing.

I was also surprised to see Peake’s drawing of Gormenghast Castle. I had imagined it to be based on European castles, particularly those found in Eastern Europe, but his drawing showed it to look more like Chinese Palaces balancing on rocky outcrops. I wish I could have taken a photo of this illustration as I think you’d have been as surprised as I was.

Sark, one of the Channel Islands, was also a favourite place for Peake. Many of the place names in Gormenghast can be traced to Sark and the stacks of rocks found on the island echo those around Gormenghast.

Photo Credit: Beechwood photography, Flickr

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake Exhibition is at the British Library until 18th September and is entry is free.

The Launch of Titus Awakes

After viewing the exhibit we were treated to a wonderful discussion of the books with Sebastian Peake (son of Mervyn), China Mièville and Brian Sibley. Zoe Wanamaker, John Sessions and Miranda Richardson also read some extracts from the books. The power of the words combined with their acting ability makes me wonder if I should be listening to the audio version, instead of reading the print version.

We also heard a snippet of the new Radio 4 have serialisation of the Titus books and I was very impressed. The first episode is available to listen to on iPlayer now.

Titus Awakes, the fourth book in the series, was introduced to us. It was written by Maeve Gilmore (Mervyn Peake’s wife) and has a different feel to the other books. I didn’t realise that Mervyn Peake had plans for lots of different Titus books and I’m sorry that he died before he had the chance to write them. I look forward to seeing how Titus’s journey continues and wonder whether any more books will be written to continue his adventures.

I learnt so much over the course of the evening, but here are a few of my favourite facts:

  • As a child Peake almost lost fingers to a camel, hence the “vile camel” in Titus Alone.
  • The Dark Breakfast to celebrate Titus’s 1st birthday was written in 1942 as “occupational therapy” after Peake’s mental breakdown.
  • Peake held his pen vertically as he wrote and illustrated as this is the way he was shown to do it by a calligrapher in China.
  • Peake loved people spotting – sketching anyone who had interesting features.
  • Graham Greene was the literary talent scout who spotted Gormenghast, but he was also the person who recommended removing all Peake’s illustrations from the original publication.

It was a wonderful evening and I’d like to thank Vintage for inviting me along and making me even more excited about reading The Gormenghast Trilogy.

For this week’s read-along discussion please see posts by other read-along participants:

(Links added as posts are published)