Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett (audiobook read by Stephen Briggs)

Deriders of the Bechdel Test tend to gravitate immediately towards what I like to call The Shawshank Redemption Clause. They cite as many works as possible which are completely awesome, and have no ladies in them, as evidence that the test is stupid.

Me, I see that as evidence that their faces are stupid. And that they have entirely missed the point of the Bechdel Test.

No one would ever deny that it’s possible to create a masterpiece that has no women in it. However… there are few true masterpieces in the world, and there are very few stories in the world that are so VERY good that having more than one interesting female character in them is something that wouldn’t improve the narrative.

I had this in my head upon revisiting Night Watch, because I remembered very clearly that a) this is primarily a story about men and b) this is one of my favourite Discworld novels of all time. And I say this as someone who is meh about Small Gods and Reaper Man, two of the most celebrated of the Discworld novels, precisely because the overwhelming focus on male characters and point of view left those books, in my opinion, lacking something.

Mostly, I was scared that my focus on female characters would spoil this book. It’s not like it would be the first thing that my developing feminist perspective has utterly ruined for me.

But it turned out okay. Because (spoilers, sweetie!) Night Watch is still awesome. It’s mostly a male narrative, AND it’s awesome.

(But, as it happens, it passes the Bechdel Test. Just.)

This was the book, way back when, that got me excited about the Discworld and Pratchett’s writing all over again. It’s not a book to give to beginners. It contains some of Pratchett’s most understated and subtle prose, it is the quintessential Vimes book, it’s a time travel narrative that makes actual sense, and it reveals a secret history that links a whole bunch of Ankh-Morpork personalities in all manner of revealing ways.

Mostly the male ones.

I think that by this stage in his career, even in a novel all about war and police and serial killers and fatherhood and mentorship and men men men, Pratchett had become incapable of reaching for the easy sexism that adorned his early books. Here, he gives a whole subplot around the Seamstresses (a socially accepted metaphor for prostitutes) who have basically been a background joke in every Ankh-Morpork book to date (and the City Watch books in particular), and humanises them.

We meet Rosie, the young woman who will eventually grow up to be Mrs Palm, Carrot’s unseen landlady back in Guards, Guards, the most notorious madam in the city. Rosie is a fabulous character – confident, intelligent and cynical – and despite the book’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude to her profession, she is never portrayed in a degrading or sexualised way. This does admittedly have a lot to do with so many scenes being shown through the eyes of Vimes, who is so completely and utterly married that you (and she) can see it coming ten blocks away, but I respect the fact that there is no attempt to make their interactions flirty, or anything other than a wary alliance.

Then there are the Agony Aunts, a vicious pair of head cases who work as heavies and protectors for the seamstresses, under the employ of a mysterious lady known mostly as Madam. I loved these two, because they are a great example of the kind of freaky throw away background characters that Pratchett does so well, but also because they didn’t have to be female. He could have done anything to illustrate ‘infamous comedy enforcers’ but he went with terrifying old ladies, like the Kray brothers but with scones and knitting.

Another strong if minor female character is Sandra, the payoff for a decade of cheap jokes about seamstresses. She’s the real seamstress who actually does darning and mending, a rarity in the city because the others are all sick of being mistaken for “seamstresses” and have gone off to work in other cities. The scene in which she and Rosie discuss a sexual reference Sandra didn’t understand (mirroring a similar scene between Vimes and his younger self) is the one that helps the book to technically pass the Bechdel Test. And of course there’s more to Sandra than meets the eye – as Vimes discovers when he starts wondering why her laundry basket is so heavy.

Madam herself is a fascinating character and her relationship to the young assassin Vetinari (her nephew) tells us a lot about his past and the formation of his character. The overall subplot, about the conspiracy to put a new Patrician on the throne, is heavy with irony, and serves to demonstrate to Vimes as well as the reader why the present Vetinari’s rule is so important. I liked also that the Seamstresses were motivated by wanting to set up their own Guild, and that the book shows us that we are only scratching the surface when it comes to their political deviousness.

Cheery, like Angua, doesn’t have much of a role in this book, because they are both too new to the Watch to be a part of the colossal backstory on which the novel rotates. However, there is an adorable scene with Cheery at the very beginning of the book, which made me crazy happy.

The whole Watch is on the lookout for a serial killer on the run, a very dangerous man, and when he is located, Vimes is horrified to discover that Cheery is the officer on the spot. Not because she’s female (that thought doesn’t enter his head) but because she’s the forensics officer, not “street” and will do things by the book, which this particular criminal will take advantage of. When he gets there, though, it’s to discover that Cheery has made a succession of very smart and practicaldecisions as to the distribution of officers and resources. This time, when Vimes thinks the word ‘forensic’ to himself, it’s with a small nod of respect.

So yes, Cheery is only in the novel for five minutes, but she kicks seriously competent arse!

Finally, there is Doctor Lawn, who is not female, but whose involvement in the story revolves around women’s themes. Apart from him being a cynical, entertaining character in his own right (an excellent foil for Vimes), the good doctor also specialises in gynaecological services, including (as conveyed in a very understated conversation) contraception and abortion. Considering how often prostitutes are glamorised and set up as sex object window dressing in bog-standard fantasy fiction (the kind that Pratchett’s work has reacted against from the beginning) I thought it was important to note that this was addressed as a necessary side effect of looking at the role of prostitution in society, and that this necessity was kept separate from any moral judgement on the part of the characters or the author.

However, I found myself troubled by the final scene in which Vimes’ friendship with Doctor Lawn reached its climactic payoff. The Bitch Magazine blog has recently done a whole month’s discussion on the representation of childbirth and parenting in TV, and one of the issues they addressed was the pop culture habit of turning labour and childbirth into melodrama. Childbirth can be dangerous, and it is absolutely one of the highest-stakes moments in many people’s lives, but the portrayal of it in fantasy and science fiction is quite problematic, and one of the over-used tropes is the childbirth being about the man and what he can do to save the day, rather than being about the woman doing all the work.

I can forgive Sybil’s labour and birth being turned into a panicky mercy dash scene that’s all about Vimes – after all, he is the protagonist of this book, which is his story of impending fatherhood with extra metaphors coming into play when he becomes the man who taught his younger self how to be a good policeman. And I was delighted (because I had forgotten this bit) that the birth of young Sam was an occasion to bring closure to Vimes’ friendship with Doctor Lawn, just as the scene with the Patrician cleverly provides closure to all the other important bits of the time travel aspect of the novel (though I would have LOVED to see Vimes talking to an adult Mrs Palm, frankly, as Rosie is the only character he spends a lot of time with in the past who doesn’t get closure at the end of the book).

But the thing that breaks Night Watch a tiny bit for me, the thing I can’t entirely forgive, is the way that Sybil’s (unseen) previously competent and practical midwife proves to be suddenly lacking, and it is the doctor who is brought in to save the day. I especially found myself grinding my teeth about the bit where Doctor Lawn is the one lecturing everyone the revolutionary practice of boiling everything and promoting good hygiene. Because, in the history of midwifery, this is NOT WHAT HAPPENED. Historically, when the male doctors elbowed the mostly-female midwifes away from involvement in childbirth, maternal death skyrocketed because of the increase of infections, thanks to doctors not bothering to wash their hands before or after vaginal examinations.

And sure, this is one story, and it works, the narrative is completely cohesive, and the conclusion of Night Watch wouldn’t be as satisfying without it. Not a word is wasted. It’s great writing. But it bugs me, because we end up with yet another narrative in which men know better than women about the female body. I expect better than this from Pratchett when it comes to remembering the sticky bits of human social history. I suspect, in fact, that this is another case of the Double Subversion problem (as seen with Sgt. Angua in Jingo) where the character of the doctor is deliberately set up to be a contrast to Pratchett’s previously conveyed attitudes towards medicine, midwifery, women and witchcraft (say, in the Witches books) but the double subversion means that the character ends up reinforcing a tired and dangerous stereotype.

I feel like I haven’t touched on many of the most important aspects of this story, and why it works so wonderfully well. There’s a reason for that. My remit for these posts (as decided by meeeee) is to look at the portrayal of women in the Discworld books, and while I find the portrayal of women in Night Watch interesting, what makes it such a spectacular Discworld novel has nothing to do with the women at all. Night Watch has more women and female issues in it than I remembered, and for the most part (with one glaring, flawtastic exception) those women and issues are handled respectfully. It’s not quite one of those masterpieces that couldn’t be improved with a greater involvement of female characters, but it is a very, very good book. And I still love it. Hooray!

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.”

One reply

  1. Dragonfallen 5 says:

    Also, female midwives in the 19th centuries didn’t spend as much time poking around in cadavers between births. I’ve often wondered – after a day of doing a delivery, autopsy, delivery, autopsy, delivery – did those doctors wash their hands before meals?

    Also, I can’t think about 19th century gynaecology without thinking about James Barry / Margaret Ann Bulkley.

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