Pratchett’s Women IV: His Henpecked VoiceDecember 5th, 2011 at 9:52
Both Jingo and The Fifth Elephant missed their mark entirely with me, when I first read them on first release. Which meant that on my recent reread, I at least had fairly low expectations for them.
Jingo on the whole fared much better than the first time around, at least as far as a Vimes and City Watch novel is concerned. The prose is clever and tight, and there are many crunchy themes surrounding war, patriotism, etc. It’s one of those Discworld books that transcends the comedy to have a deeper philosophical meaning, plus as many Leonardo Da Vinci jokes as any sane person would ever want in one place.
However, the thing it doesn’t have is much in the way of… you guessed it, women.
Sybil appears in a few scenes, and is largely reduced to the role of nagging wife. I do love the bit where she chides Vimes for treating her as if she is nagging him and points out how unfair it is, but that’s Sybil for you, grasping any attempt to be awesome, in the face of difficult circumstance. She very much there to point out how awkwardly Vimes is assimilating into the upper classes, and in some cases how well he is assimilating, and to wave a few warning flags that his current workaholic lifestyle is unsustainable. This at least will be followed up in later books.
Cheery sadly barely appears at all, and there is little to follow up on her interesting debut back in Feet of Clay. Again, this is something that will be addressed later.
Angua’s role in Jingo was the greatest disappointment, as Pratchett does that thing where he introduces her POV early on and suggests that her character has some intriguing issues to deal with, and then largely forgets about her for the rest of the book. This is not the only time he does that thing. I was especially irritated that she was put in the narrative role of damsel in distress. I can see how the Watch and Carrot’s attitude about how Angua’s awesomeness means she can never ever be in danger is the kind of complacency that begs to be challenged, from the point of view of telling a good story. However, when you started out with a subversive character, subverting her main feature by making her vulnerable and a captive is not actually all that revolutionary when she is, in fact, the blonde girl.
I liked that she ultimately rescues herself, but that didn’t entirely make up for the fact that she serves the narrative role of damsel in distress, and her own POV is rarely used.
The most poignant and/or problematic treatment of women in Jingo is the sub-plot where Nobby Nobbs has to (well, “has to” is perhaps too strong a phrase) dress up as a lady as part of his spying activities for the Patrician, and is so stunned to see what life is like from that different perspective (especially how he is treated by the men around him, including those who know exactly who he is) that he turns into a radical suffragette and refuses to let go of his feminine identity.
I still haven’t decided yet if this storyline is hilarious, offensive or a smart bit of characterisation. It’s an oddity, really. It’s also something Pratchett doesn’t let go of, returning in later books to the cross-dressing (and occasionally feminist) tendencies of Corporal Nobbs.
Which brings us to The Fifth Elephant. I have no idea why I wasn’t keen on this one last time around, because while the story and writing isn’t quite as tight as in Jingo, it has major plotlines surrounding Angua, Sybil and Cheery, plus OTHER female characters, and that kind of awesomeness needs to be encouraged.
Sybil’s role looked unpromising at first. The story revolves around the whole gang going on a diplomatic junket to the mysterious Übervald, a country loosely based on Translyvania by way of Germany, France, Wales and judging by Stephen Briggs’s voice performance (I’m still on the audiobook kick) basically anywhere with an accent. Anyway, for the first part of the story, Sybil’s role mainly involves packing, and settling in at the embassy. But while everyone knows that having Vimes as a diplomat is a colossal joke, Sybil proves invaluable in that role. The scenes where she shows her deep appreciation of dwarf opera, something that proves to be essential in a moment of diplomatic crisis, are wonderful, as are Sybil’s mighty heroics at the end.
I also like that we get deeper appreciation of who Sybil is as a person. The very unpleasant Baroness von Überwald (AKA Angua’s mum) sees her as a foolish, overly friendly person, and we later see her perceptions of Sybil’s behaviour sharply deconstructed through her own POV. It’s very important to get these scenes through Sybil’s eyes, and indeed through those of the Baroness, as we were in danger otherwise of having her character almost entirely portrayed through the POV of Vimes.
The further story of the Sybil-Vimes marriage is also developed. In amongst the obvious problems they face, whereby Vimes is married to his job first and to Sybil second, we get to witness some lovely scenes that show why their marriage works, and how it has improved life generally for both of them. My favourite is the scene told mostly through dialogue in which they, in bed at night, hear the various bumping noises happening in the embassy below them, and take turns guessing which of the appalling stuffed heads are being removed (at their request) based on sound alone.
There’s also the running almost-joke about Sybil having something to tell Vimes, which she is finally able to do only at the end of the story: they are having a baby! While this is telegraphed quite clearly and hardly likely to be a surprise to the reader, that’s not the point of this reveal. After a rather adorable conversation in which Vimes tries as diplomatically as possible (so not his strong point!) to ask how safe the pregnancy is considering her age, she puts him down very sharply by insisting that breeding is pretty much what her family were designed for, and he should stop asking silly questions. But beyond this, Vimes has to make a new choice about how to life his life, and that’s something we will see reflected in his later books: when they leave Übervald, rather than racing right back to his work at home, he gives Sybil a real holiday by suggesting they travel back by the slower and more touristy route (or, as Nanny Ogg would put it, they went the long way and saw the elephant). Vimes as a father is going to be trying rather more strenuously to achieve a work-life balance than Vimes in his early days of marriage, and this is the first sign that he is willing to make that change.
I am glad for all the Sybil awesomeness in The Fifth Elephant because I have to say, I wasn’t happy with how Angua’s storyline was handled. This is the book that takes us to ˆÜbervald, where Angua comes from, and shows us her family. I found it really bizarre, then, that so much of this important character development and the reveals happen without Angua’s involvement at all, or without her POV. She literally disappears from Ankh-Morpork, leaving the focus of the storyline on Carrot and Gaspode’s quest to find her. Then, when they catch her up, and she and Carrot finally get a chance to discuss what her emergency is, how it ties in with her family history, and how all this affects their relationship, the whole scene is told from the point of view of Gaspode the freaking Wonder Dog.
Now, I’m a big fan of Gaspode. And this is a natural result from Pratchett’s traditional method of using the omniscient point of view – because he has the choice of any of his characters, he usually chooses the one whose take on the scene is most likely to be funny. Which is fair enough. But it’s only since I started this reread looking specifically at the portrayal of female characters in the Discworld that I realised the downside of his technique. He sometimes uses a character’s point of view only a few times, and doesn’t necessarily follow up on them – as long as the plot is tied up, the character point of view occasionally gets lost, and Angua is a definite casualty of this.
It could be argued that this works just fine narratively – there is a theme running through this book that Angua is not, for instance, talked about amongst her family, as Vimes notices when he tries to mention her to her mother. Angua is also a necessarily private person. And there is no denying that, by the end of the novel, there is a great deal of resolution between her problems with Carrot (I am giving her the benefit of the doubt and suggesting that her complaints about him being too nice and tolerant are merely masks for her real concerns about the unsustainable nature of their relationship, otherwise she does come off as pretty damn unreasonable in their fight) and her feelings about her family.
But… yeah. It feels like there are gaps in the story that could only be fulfilled by a little more Angua. Considering that one of the main bad guys is her brother, and fellow werewolf, and that trying to kill him so that he stays dead is a main thrust of the final act of the story, ultimately this didn’t feel like the truly satisfying book I wanted it to be, and I still feel that Feet of Clay is a better showcase for her character.
Thank goodness for Cheery! Our favourite feminine dwarf has some wonderful scenes, and while she doesn’t quite have a storyline of her own, the subplot she does have is dealt with so cleverly and with such thoughtfulness that it brought me joy. And, considering she’s only there in a sneaky subplot, she steals the stage towards the end when the whole dwarf politics storyline turns out to be far more relevant to Cheery’s gender choices than anyone suspected.
Basically, if you found the ‘coming out as a female dwarf’ plot strand in Feet of Clay interesting, then The Fifth Elephant has it in spades, if you hang in there towards the end. We see Cheery’s discomfort and rebelliousness in returning to her homeland of Übervald as a female dwarf, and are shown quickly how the Ankh-Morpork dwarf community, which has fast adapted to the trend of femaleness despite some resistance, is far more liberal than those dwarves back home. Dwarf culture is definitely something Pratchett has put a lot more thought into since Guards Guards, and I loved the idea that their greatest romantic opera was between two DWARVES, and it was culturally important not to question which of the two dwarves was female.
Which leads to the double whammy reveal at the end of the story, not only that the dwarf who perpetuated a key crime is a woman, and that a large part of her motivation is a frustration at how the changing times has allowed other dwarves to reveal and revel in their own femininity, but also that the quietly liberal king they have managed to keep on the throne is, say it with me, ALSO A WOMAN.
Pratchett really loves doing this. He did it in Feet of Clay – the joke that you think a character is male, but is really female. Later (and I will get to it eventually) he structured an entire novel around that reveal, over and over again. I am intrigued with his fascination with what has basically become a Discworld trope, because it allows you to say (and not say) so much about gender and gender politics, and for the most part these kind of gender-bending games are mostly found in the literature of the more avante garde and hardcore feminist writers.
It might have started out as a joke, but as with many Pratchett joke, it’s a soft centre wrapped around a sharpened axe.
I want to squee more about Cheery, but I’m running out of space. Suffice to say: I love that she becomes Sybil’s ladies maid, I love the scene at the end where she decides to dress ‘as a dwarf’ (ie present as male) in front of the king because she knows she will have the support of her friends and allies if she wears a dress, but has moved past feeling the need to do so for every single occasion, and I LOVE the fact that her first response to the reveal about Dee (the villain dwarf) is to comfort her, one girl to another.
And, as she is only a little embarrassed about later, that she was actually only doing that to give Dee a chance to hand over really important information. Because she’s a dwarf, and a woman, but she’s also a damn good copper, and that comes before the other things.
I now think that Cheery Littlebottom may well be my favourite Discworld character. I so didn’t see that coming.
Some other female-character-highlights of The Fifth Elephant include the glamorous vampire-on-the-wagon Lady Margalotta, and Angua’s bitchy Baroness mother. Nice to have some antagonist characters in these books who are female from the start, rather than only being revealed as such in the last five pages.
Other posts in this series:
Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, The Bad and the Broomsticks
Pratchett’s Women II – Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening in Lords and Ladies
Pratchett’s Women III – Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves in Guards, Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay
Pratchett’s Women V – The Seamstress Redemption (Night Watch)
Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls & the Family Man (Thud & Snuff)