The Gormenghast Trilogy

To me, it’s the closest that writing has ever come to painting.

~ Estelle Daniel, Producer of the BBC adaptation

The Gormenghast Trilogy ranks firmly amongst my favourite novels. In fact, I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t be studying Literature now if I hadn’t discovered them. It was in the cobwebbed halls of Gormenghast that I truly came to understand the power great fiction wields. This semester I’ll be completing my degree by writing on the novels, focusing on the first two in the trilogy. I plan to study the Gothic motif of the castle, and the dehumanisation of the characters which results from this oppressive setting.

The Machiavellian Steerpike is able to successfully advance through this otherwise strictly-stratified society because he has cast off all semblance of human feeling; his face is frequently described as mask-like whilst his smile is merely a ‘clever imitation’ (1989 [1940] p. 176). Lady Fuchsia, on the other hand, is unable to exert such control. She remains passionate, imaginative, and open to affection. It is this very capacity to feel emotion, to be human, that renders her vulnerable. Once Steerpike’s true nature is revealed, her mind becomes hardened; as a means of protecting herself against further pain, she has ‘to kill at birth all thoughts of love’ (ibid, p. 395). In Gormenghast, you must shed your humanity to survive.

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Fuchsia and Steerpike, as played by Neve McIntosh and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

The BBC filmed a terrific adaptation of the novels, with a cast including Christopher Lee, John Sessions, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (pictured above). I managed to track down a copy of the Radio Times ‘Behind the Scenes’ issue, preserved perfectly since its release in 2000.

As well as featuring interviews with the cast, the writers, and the set designers tasked with mapping out the entire realm of the castle, it contained several of Peake’s stunning illustrations.

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One of the things I found most striking about others’ experiences of the books was that almost everyone who had read them previous to the production had read them young, typically at the age of fifteen. This was the case for both the director Andy Wilson, and Stephen Fry, who played Professor Bellgrove. I was intrigued by the revelation of the producer, Estelle Daniel, that different aspects of the novels revealed themselves to her on each reading. From approaching the novels as an immersive fantasy, she came, upon rereading them in her twenties and thirties, to appreciate the trilogy’s concern with ‘the nature of institutions and governments, about the collapse of the old order and the frightening face of the new’ (‘Radio Times’ 2000, p. 53).

I look forward to returning to Gormenghast ten or twenty years from now, and seeing which secrets I can unearth in the depths of the castle.

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