The Truth, by Terry Pratchett
I almost wasn’t going to write a Pratchett’s Women post for The Truth. Like Night Watch, it’s a marvellous book, one of Pratchett’s absolute best, and happens to be almost entirely about male characters and their issues. Considering that gender imbalance is no longer the case for every Discworld novel or even almost every Discworld novel, (as could be argued that it was the case in his earlier days) it feels churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It is a love letter to moveable type, and a fun take on the history of the printing press, with the usual layers of humour and cleverness, and a rich cast of characters, so I am going to forgive it for being a mostly male cast. This was actually the book that brought me back to the Discworld after a period of what felt at the time to be lacklustre releases but may well have been my own loss of interest in the series, and its many repetitions.
But I wasn’t alone in that. The Truth was a huge success for Pratchett, and one of the books which really helped to cement his ‘legend’ status. While he had previously written other novels with a similar formula (standalone male character faces the Discworld’s version of a particular historical industry and chaos ensues) there was something about this book, and its maturity, and perhaps the solid link to the history it was replicating that made it popular among non-fantasy readers. In fact, apart from the vampire, Death and the other side effects of a Discworld setting, this is largely not a story about magic gone wrong and trying to kill you, which sets it apart from almost every previous Discworld novel. This is instead a story of PEOPLE gone wrong and trying to kill you, and how a new industry can be every bit as terrifying and confrontational and dangerous as anything from the Dungeon Dimensions.
It could actually be argued that the story of William de Worde and The Ankh Morpork Times is very much a story about gender issues, though William himself is unaware of it. This is at its heart a story about the patriarchy, and how much it screws men up every bit as much as it screws up women. If I was writing a blog series about Pratchett’s Men (and really, someone should) I would talk about the way that traditional masculinity and paternal themes are continually addressed and undercut in this story, which is very much about the Men Who Shape The World and the Legacy They Leave Behind and those sort of themes. This is very much part of the Discworld tradition, which has been subverting narratives of masculinity right from the start through characters like Rincewind and Twoflower, Vetinari, Ridcully, Vimes, Moist Von Lipwig, Cohen the Barbarian and even some of the one-off ‘heroes’ like Pteppic and Victor.
But this is not that blog series. So instead, I’m going to talk about Sacharissa Cripslock.
It’s disappointing to me that Sacharissa is the only full-blooded female character in a sea of mostly invisible women in this story (such as the upwardly mobile wife and daughter of Harry King, William’s sister, the dwarves who might not be male after all, a few absent mothers and so on). Mrs Arcanum the landlady and her Opinions represent an important ongoing subplot, though rather more attention in those scenes is given to Mr Windling and his Opinions – Mrs Arcanum is saved mostly for comic relief. Sgt Angua also makes an important cameo appearance, though she looms larger in the books behind the scenes than actually on the page. There is a running joke based on William’s belief that Nobby Nobbs is the rumoured werewolf in the City Watch, and the reader’s presumed knowledge that in fact it is Angua. But sadly as with her own books, Angua isn’t in this one nearly enough, and most of the interesting things she gets to do happen “offscreen”.
But Sacharissa is pretty awesome. Apart from the running gag about her boobs (they are mighty and marvellous to behold, by all accounts) and the oft-quoted line about her face being “eclectically attractive,” she is very much part of the story because of her personality, and what a complex one it is. Pratchett seems at his most comfortable when writing intensely pragmatic women, and Sacharissa is very much in this vein. I found it interesting that her primary personality quirk at the beginning of the story was an obsession with historically ladylike behaviour, and what is ‘seemly’ for a lady to do, wear and say (which pretty much puts her on par with Mrs Arcanum). It’s worth noting that while William thinks such beliefs are frivolous and unnecessary, for Sacharissa they’re probably essential survival skills in a world that veers from medieval to Victoriana to modern attitudes and back again at a moment’s notice, and in a city that still thinks calling prostitutes “seamstresses” is highly amusing.
The best part is watching the way that Sacharissa steals the novel from under William’s feet. Their romance, if you can call it that, is one of those vague baffled courtships that Pratchett does so often, in which both parties spend the whole time loudly thinking about everything except their attraction to each other, and dance around the subject so subtly that you’re not always sure that he MEANT you think it was a romance at all. But for the most part, Sacharissa isn’t bothered about impressing William or finding herself a bloke – instead she, like William, falls deeply in love with the newspaper business.
This romance is a threeway.
What’s enjoyable is that while most scenes are from William’s point of view, and most of the Sacharissa scenes are translated through his perspective, we still see that her love affair with The Ankh Morpork Times unfolds completely differently to his. She’s the one who spots early on many of the practical essentials of the business, like why you report on meetings with lots of names in them, or how to cover the everyday dull parts of city life, and especially how to craft headlines. While William is figuring out from the ground up how to use concepts like Freedom of the Press, or how to report on big, “weighty” political issues, Sacharissa is working behind the scenes to figure out everything else you need to put in a newspaper so that it is more than just a front page. He’d be lost without her, and it’s nice that by the end he has certainly acknowledged that fact.
She’s not just doing the grunt work for no recognition, either. While William still fighting against some of the necessities of the printing and news trade, Sacharissa is often several steps ahead of him. All of this competence is shown clearly, and while William does mutter about Sacharissa using her attractiveness to gain news tidbits from eager young men, it’s quite obvious that there is more to her methods than that. She also has the contacts and experience in the printing industry that William lacks – in fact she only became involved with the Times in the first place because she came over to complain at her father the printer being put out of business.
Now that I come to think of it I’m not ENTIRELY convinced that the novel needed William in it at all…
Sacharissa’s character crescendo in The Truth comes as the resolution of another running gag, that of the hardboiled thug Mr Tulip and his method of swearing (mostly saying “-ing” a lot without bothering to fill in the verb). William sends Sacharissa into what looks like a socially awkward situation, giving her the key to his family’s townhouse and permission to raid his sister’s wardrobe for a suitable dress to wear for a ball. This in itself goes against Sacharissa’s instincts about feminine respectability, and she is so busy trying to deal with the fact that she’s effectively burgling a house (because it didn’t occur to him to go with her) that she ends up caught in a far more dangerous situation, facing down two assassins and being used as a hostage.
It’s here that the Lois Lane analogy, which has been a strong implication all along, looms even larger. Being kidnapped by bad guys was an everyday occurrence for the sassy reporter of the Daily Planet, but Sacharissa doesn’t have a pet superhero to rescue her – and so she throws caution and her last vestiges of “respectability” to the wind in order to rescue herself, along with a healthy bout of yelling and swearing, which she finds rather cathartic.
Then of course it’s up to Sacharissa and William to save their mutual true love, the newspaper itself, from disaster…
I enjoy Sacharissa as a very likeable, complicated and useful character in an excellent novel. But I’m not entirely sure what her character is supposed to represent. Is she a satire on a certain old fashioned kind of young lady who needs to loosen her corsets a bit? Is her character arc to be a bit less worried about what people think of her? Is she a feminist character, or a representative of why the women of the Discworld NEED a bit more organised feminism? Mostly I think she’s far too busy to worry about such things.
When she turned up again in Going Postal, it was noted that she wore a wedding ring, but continued to call herself “Miss Cripslock”. A nice sign of moving with the times, absolutely. If nothing else, Sacharissa is a great example of a practical woman in a fantasy novel who dresses sensibly and is excellent at her job. Which now I come to think about it, makes her a spectacularly important role model. While there hasn’t yet been a movie or other media adaptation made of The Truth (which is a shame because it would be BRILLIANT), Sacharissa’s passing role in Going Postal (in which she is once again shown doing her job as an investigative reporter quite excellently) means that she has been portrayed on the small screen by the comic actress Tamsin Greig – the casting choice does mean she is about 20 years older than she was portrayed in the books, but considering how briefly she appears that’s hardly important, and the essence of the character as a caller-of-bullshit in modest attire is definitely there.
Amazingly, on the original book cover, Josh Kirby managed to draw Sacharissa with at least as many clothes on as she is described as wearing in the book. I consider that a triumph of sorts, compared to his earlier work.
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 IV: His Henpecked Voice in Jingo & The Fifth Elephant
Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption in Night Watch
Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man in Thud and Snuff
Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair – Agnes Nitt Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum
Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School – Susan Sto Helit in Soul Music, Hogfather & Thief of Time
Pratchett’s Women IX: The Truth Has Got Her Boots On
Pratchett’s Women: Unauthorised Essays on Female Characters of the Discworld, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook and paperback. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog, recently revised with an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”