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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair

March 12th, 2012 at 7:18

Agnes, fan art by Vic Hill

MASKERADE and CARPE JUGULUM, by Terry Pratchett

Even though Maskerade made me cranky that Magrat’s marriage had written her out of the narrative of the Lancre witches, it’s hard not to be delighted about Agnes “Perdita” Nitt. She’s a fantastic character, one of Pratchett’s most interesting and nuanced portrayals of a younger female protagonist.

Agnes is fat. And while Pratchett’s comic touch is very much in evidence, he brings such empathy to his depiction of Agnes that, even when fat jokes are being made, she herself is never treated like a joke. This is an incredibly rare thing in fantasy fiction, where fat women are rarely seen (unless they are villains or jolly service industry professionals) and young fat women are most definitely an endangered species.

There are so many things to like about Agnes and the portrayal of her character this book. For a start, we don’t get the cliched emphasis on how she eats, or an ingrained narrative assumption that she is the size she is purely through over-eating or laziness. I also liked very much that while the reader is often confronted with the quite awful social ramifications of being a fat girl, it’s never entirely clear cut how much the various perceptions surrounding Agnes reflect reality.

Nanny Ogg, for example, a larger lady herself, muses on how Agnes is a better bet for joining the witches because she’s less likely to lose her maiden status like so many other village girls… but almost in the same breath she also acknowledges that fatness is actually no particular barrier to finding a husband in the Ramtops, especially if that corresponds with a talent for cooking. Nanny’s own figure has never scared men off – even at her advanced age, she’s usually batting men away with her broomstick.

Likewise, while the plot revolves partly around Agnes being less ‘stage-worthy’ than the tone-deaf but thin and beautiful Christine, and thus having to provide her with a fake singing voice from behind the curtain, we hear regularly about the famous (fat) opera singer Gigli, and the power she had to attract as well as to delight with her music.

The undercurrent of the story is that it’s actually not Agnes’ weight that is getting in the way of her happiness – it’s Agnes herself. While she is certainly is being discriminated against because of her weight, and there are some hurtful and embarrassing moments that emerge from that aspect of the story, her ACTUAL problem is the wonderful personality that everyone keeps going on about (a wonderful personality and good hair being synonymous for not thin enough, not pretty enough).

Agnes doesn’t leave the Ramtop Mountains and come to the big city to audition as an opera singer because she is fat, or can’t get a boyfriend, and it becomes evident pretty quickly that it’s not entirely because she dreams of musical stardom, either. Opera isn’t her first choice, it’s just something to do. She is actually desperate to find herself an independent future that has nothing to do with the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who are looking for a third member of their coven – and even before the two of them strike out to follow her to the big city, she can’t escape the witches because she is already one of them.

At every turn, it’s not Agnes’ size that gets in the way of her happiness, it’s her brain. She can’t turn it off, the cynical voice that says the wrong thing; the sharp inner bitchiness that sees all the daftness in the world for what it is. The joke is repeated (a touch too often) that inside every fat girl is a thin girl trying to get out – and the one inside Agnes is called Perdita, the name she is going by in the theatre. Perdita is her imaginary ideal self.

Basically, Agnes is a very intelligent girl who was trapped in a world where getting married was the main concern of her peers, and has escaped to a world where music and looking pretty are the only concern, because the fate of an intelligent girl in her village (becoming a witch) feels dreadful to her. Inventing “Perdita” and joining the opera allows her to feel she has some control over her fate and her identity.

But gradually, as the shine of opera starts to wear off and Agnes discovers that they’re all basically crazy and making her crazy too, serving the capricious god that is ‘opera’ starts to seem as onerous as serving Nanny and Granny as their third witch. And in they march to demonstrate to Agnes that being a witch isn’t as bad a life as it looks from the outside. Being a witch, in fact, means being the smart person in the room, and the village, and getting to help people who might not even realise they have been helped.

It’s about being the person who says “WHY must the show go on?” when everyone else is running around like headless chickens and enjoying the dramah. In short, everything Agnes wanted from her mythical “Perdita” is what joining the witches can give her. She just has to stop sabotaging herself.

There’s a lot of pantomime and humour in the portrayal of the older witches, but it’s rather nice without Magrat (and with Agnes not yet one of them) to get more of an insight into the characters of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as a unit, as friends, and as women who probably shouldn’t spend TOO much time alone together. I particularly love to watch the different ways they approach the mystery, Granny going directly for the insides of people’s heads, while Nanny watching their body language and behaviour.

The sympathy they feel for Mrs Plinge, the woman who knows pretty much everything that’s going on in the theatre, going through her own personal tragedy every day, comes across clearly, demonstrating that Agnes is at least partly wrong about them.

fan art by Kate Hughes

I’m not sure about the characterisation of thin girls in this book – though I do have a soft spot for the line about ballerinas being crazed with hunger. It would be nice to have a book that looks at how weight doesn’t have to be an obstacle for a woman and doesn’t simultaneously judge and deride thin women too.

But while Christine’s thinness gives her unfair advantage over Agnes, she is not an unsympathetic character. Her presence shows prejudice and bias at work – just as we see Agnes overlooked and missing out on opportunities because she’s not conventionally beautiful, we see the way that opportunities are thrown in Christine’s way because of her looks, and way she takes her “luck” for granted without questioning its source. While Christine can be thoughtless, though, she isn’t deliberately cruel.

It’s basically thin privilege at work. Christine’s lack of awareness and her general niceness is what salvages the character from being a cliche – she is actually a good friend to Agnes, despite the situation they are in (and Agnes, thanks to the urging of Perdita, is less than a good friend to her). Agnes might be the one who is blessed with ‘a good personality’ but of the two, Christine is the only one who is actually nice. Of course, Christine can afford to be nice, because everything she ever wants falls into her lap… see? NUANCE. I am impressed once again to see a story this complex about the interactions of women told by a male author.
I also love that, in the end, while we know that Agnes is going to submit to the witches and join them, she is not prepared to go home on their terms. The final scene of her drenched in mud and rain while they sail home in the coach shows her stubbiness, and tenacity, as well as her general tendency to cut off her nose to spite her face. She is going to be a very different kind of third witch than Magrat.
And, speaking of Magrat…

It’s funny how motherhood completely changes your perspectives on what’s relevant, and important. I remembered that Lords and Ladies was the last time Magrat got to shine, and that once she got married, she disappeared out of the narrative of the Lancre witches. I also remembered that Carpe Jugulum was mostly dull, with a few good Granny Weatherwax bits, and not much else of interest.

How wrong I was!

This is one of those Discworld books (like Hogfather) where the mystery doesn’t entirely work as a mystery, so it’s far more powerful as a reread when you don’t have to stop and wonder what’s going on. Granny Weatherwax is under attack from some very smooth vampires who are determined that they will take control of Lancre from under her nose. She responds by disappearing, apparently giving up, leaving the three remaining witches to come together and rescue her, and save the day.

The sneaky twist being that when the vampires bite Granny and leave her for dead, instead of turning her into one of them, she manages to infect them, so they start saying things like “I can’t be having with this” and craving tea. She turns a whole pack of slavering ageless vampires into cranky old ladies.

This fascinates me because of all the stories of a woman getting the better of a pack of vampires, this is the anti-Buffy. It’s utterly passive as a method – Granny literally lies down and lets them drink her blood – and yet the effect is devastating. It’s one of the best examples I can think of how the “strong women characters” trope has rendered so much female strength invisible.

I discovered to my surprise that this is my favourite Granny Weatherwax book, despite the lack of her in much of the story. When she does appear, she is mesmerising. Her not-quite-friendship-let’s-say-alliance with the hapless priest Oats is compelling to watch, especially the way that he is the only person not in awe of who she is – so he can see she’s actually an old lady who needs help, even if he has to circumvent her ego in order to do so. He’s probably the most interesting male character to interact with the witches, not least because each of them have very different responses to him, and what he represents: not only his interesting relationship with Granny as the outsider who sees her for what she is, but also an ongoing thread of tension with Nanny about her objections to his religion and its history of burning witches, and the sort-of-maybe romantic tensions with Agnes, which are incredibly subtle and remain largely unaddressed for the story because the two of them are incapable, basically, of allowing their interest to rise above subconscious level. (Plus she spends most of the book batting a hot vampire away with a stick)

Magrat with Esme, by Lady Snow

Then there’s Magrat, who is the barely-there queen for a good chunk at the beginning of the story, concentrating mostly on her new baby and christening, but later on has to put on her big witch knickers, strap her baby to her back and save the kingdom when her husband yet again falls to magical predators. As someone who has been doing the mother-of-small-children thing in recent years, I’ve become fascinated with how rare it is to see mums with babies on the front line in magical stories, and how they deal with it when it happens.

(I really do have to write that article on Gwen Cooper and the last series of Torchwood some time soon)

The problem with incorporating babies into magical adventure stories is that there is little excuse, most of the time, for taking the baby into direct danger. Unless of course, there is nowhere safe to leave the baby, which is the situation here! Young Esme is in less danger strapped to her mother’s back, with Nanny Ogg at her side, than being babysat by a random female character in a kingdom full of vampires. Indeed, getting the baby to safety becomes a driving part of the story, only leading to more trouble.

There’s some fun to be had with the fact that Magrat isn’t a virgin any more, and thus gets some of Nanny Ogg’s jokes. I like the fact that in amongst the rather silly focus on having to have a maiden and a mother and a crone, there’s some deeper exploration as to how, for instance, becoming a mother or transitioning into a crone are actually quite, well, life changing!

Agnes and Perdita, from a University stage production

Then there’s Agnes. In Maskerade, Perdita was characterised very much as Agnes’ inner voice, the one who says the bitchy and intelligent things she normally tries to damp down, in order to appear unthreatening. By Carpe Jugulum, it’s pretty clear that Perdita has become a powerful personality in her own right, as much as a cross for Agnes to bear as the overwhelming personalities of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.

Perdita also has a role to play in the plot, as she is the only one who is immune to the mesmerism of the vampires, thus freeing Agnes at least partly to realise what is going on, and help the other witches remain free long enough to bring the vampires down. I was glad to see though that now she is a witch, Agnes has taken back her inner snark as part of her own personality, leaving the inner Perdita with the more romantic and impractical views on life. Their relationship and interactions are quite fascinating to watch, and it feels like a bit of a shame to me that Pratchett left the characters here – he continued using Granny Weatherwax in the Tiffany Aching books, but this is the last time we saw Agnes.

Considering all the issues to do with Agnes’ weight in Maskerade, it’s nice to see that this isn’t remotely relevant to the plot in this story. The only time it’s even referred to is when the bitchy female vampire Lacrimosa uses it to insult her – and that tells us a lot more about Lacrimosa than Agnes. Meanwhile, Agnes is seen as a figure of desire by Lacky’s brother Vlad, who spends most of the book trying to seduce her, and there are implications of a quieter and less showy potential romance between she and Oats.

There’s so much to like about this book, which challenges so many of the mythological traditions of vampires, and in particular argues that a world in which the vampires are organised, methodical and POLITE about taking the blood of their victims is far more horrific than one in which they acknowledge that they are in fact, the monsters.

One of my favourite feminist moments of the Discworld occurs in this book – well, two. The first is Granny Weatherwax taking out a horde of vampires by lying down and letting them bite her; the second is the big finale, where Vlad is trying to convince Agnes to let him go, to prioritise their romance over the safety of others.

fan art by Thibaut Loïez

Vlad looked imploringly at Agnes, and reached out to her.

‘You wouldn’t let them kill me, would you? You wouldn’t let them do this to me? We could have… we might… you wouldn’t, would you?”

The crowd hesitated. This sounded like an important plea. A hundred pairs of eyes stared at Agnes.

She took his hand. I suppose we could work on him, said Perdita. But Agnes thought about Escrow, and the queues, and the children playing while they waited, and how evil might come animal sharp in the night, or greyly by day on a list…

‘Vlad,’ she said gently, looking deep into his eyes. ‘I’d even hold their coats.’

=====

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 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 VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School

Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook from Fablecroft, Amazon and many other great e-retailers. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog plus an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”

Square 130x126Maskerade (Discworld Novels)Maskerade (Discworld Novels)Maskerade: Playtext (Acting Edition S.)Carpe Jugulum (Discworld Novels)

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3 Responses to “Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair”

  1. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    This post reminded me of this collection – http://crossedgenres.com/announcements/fat-girl-in-a-strange-land-is-released/

  2. tansyrr Says:

    That’s awesome, Sean! I hadn’t heard of that book at all.

  3. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I really like the cover artwork actually, the style as well as the content.

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