PEAKE, Mervyn. Titus Groan; Gormenghast; Titus Alone. London; Eyre & Spottiswoode. 1946-59.
8vo.; 3 volumes; each bound in original dark red cloth lettered and ruled in gilt to spines, preserved in pictorial dustwrappers by Peake; pp. [v], 6-438; [viii], 9-453 + [i]; [vi], 7-222 + [i]; with vignettes to titles but otherwise unillustrated; near fine, sharp copies with vestiges of expert bleaching of a previous small ink inscription and small and minor evidence of bookplate removal to front free endpaper of volumes I and III, and an insignificant small name in ink to front free endpaper of volume II, otherwise internally fine bar the usual avoidable uniform toning to stock; protected by bright, attractive, and striking, dustwrappers, volumes I and II unclipped (with neat old bookseller's label covering price of volume I; volume II priced 15s.), volume III price-clipped; jackets with some uniform darkening to spines, toning to lower advertisement panel of Gormenghast with triangular thumbnail loss to head (13mm x 11mm), and some nicking to top edge of the same.
First editions, first printings. Titus Groan in dustwrapper marked "Second Impression" to front flap, as usual; the other two in first impression jackets.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are a tour de force of gothic fiction and were originally published to ecstatic critical reviews. They have long been valued among the greatest fantasy works of the twentieth century, and their reputation has continued to grow since Peake's death (aged 57, from Parkinson's disease) cut the series short. The work was not originally conceived as a trilogy but imagined as a neverending account of the life of its eponymous hero, Titus Groan. In fact two further novels, in scant note form, were in gestation when the author succumbed to his premature end. Critics have been unstinting in their praise of the work, with the writer Anthony Burgess hailing the books as 'uniquely brilliant' and proclaiming the work a modern classic.
The action takes place in the Earldom of Gormenghast, in the dark behemoth of Castle Gormenghast, a gargantuan and decaying icy-clad gothic structure that is home to the noble and aristocratic family of Groan. The building's inhabitants are few, but all are unforgettable characters who live forever in the memory of anyone who meets them between the pages of the books.
Titus Groan himself is an infant in the first book, so barely features, but his character develops through the two sequels; Lord Sepulchrave, Earl of Groan, is exhausted by the tiresomeness of his ritual-bound existence and succumbs to an untimely end when his beloved library falls victim to arson; Sepulchrave's wife Gertrude is distant and relates solely to the birds who nest in her hair and the sea of white cats which trail in her wake; the librarians Sourdust and Barquentine are custodians of ritual; the porcine cook Swelter tyrannises his underlings in his hell-kitchen; and Lord Sepulchrave's loyal servant Flay is willing to defend tradition to the death. The upstart Steerpike, a lowly kitchen boy with lofty ambitions, drives the narrative as he cajoles, flatters, and manipulates everyone in his path in his Machiavellian quest to win overall control of the Castle.
The book is a compelling and memorable allegory of British society, satirising its preoccupation with class and blind deference to tradition. In short, it is a triumph.