The Countess of Gormenghast ponders her personal curriculum for her newborn son, after despatching him to a régime of nanny-care for the first five years of his life. She clearly has higher hopes for him than for his neglected sister.
Her capacity for love is primarily channelled towards birds and cats, with some left over for plants. Her children come a distant fourth, and her husband doesn’t really feature. She has practically no demands on her time, just needing to show up a couple of times a year or decade for some pointless protocol or other, and so I laughed at her throwaway comment, ‘If I have the time before he is twelve years old…’ Yet somewhere, despite her self-centredness, she commits to teaching him how to keep his head above the protocol and not be sunk by it.
And I like her ornithological programme: in my dream school, children would learn about one bird, flower, tree, animal, insect and plant per week. They’d also learn a poem and a song each week.
‘And I shall teach the boy to whistle birds out of the sky to his wrist which I have never taught Fuchsia because I have kept my knowledge for the boy and if I have the time before he is twelve years old and if it’s a pleasant evening I might take him to the pool that is as green as my malachite ring with the silver setting and let him watch the lesser-fly-spotted-wag-catchers building their soft grey nests out of moth-wings and dew-twine but how do I know he will be observant and careful with birds for Fuchsia disappointed me before she was five with her clumsiness for she used to ram the flowers into the glass vases and bruise the stalks though she loved them but it is my son I wish to teach for there is no use in revealing my secrets to a girl but he will be so useless for a long time and must be kept away from my room until he is about five at least when he will be able to absorb what I tell him about the skies’ birds and how he can keep his head quite clear of the duties he must perform day after day… ‘
Source: Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (London: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 374
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