So this week I put up a revised edition of my Pratchett’s Women collection on Amazon, both Kindle & paperback. And it occurred to me as I was working through the essays that this particular one made a nice crossover with all the other “women & newspapers” themed essays I’ve been putting up to promote my new novella, Girl Reporter.
So here it is! Women who love men who love newspapers! (Who would have thought there were so many pop culture examples of threesome romances between two people and their newspaper?)
The Truth (2000)
I almost wasn’t going to write a Pratchett’s Women piece for The Truth. Like Night Watch, it’s a marvellous book, but I never thought of it as one that had much to say about women or gender. The Truth is a love letter to moveable type, and a fun take on the history of the printing press, with the usual Discworld layers of humour and cleverness, and a rich cast of characters. It’s easily forgiven it for the ensemble being so overwhelmingly male. This was the book that brought me back to the Discworld after losing interest somewhere in its middle years.
I wasn’t alone in that. The Truth was a huge success for Terry Pratchett, and is one of the books that helped to cement his ‘legend’ status among mainstream readers as well as diehard fans. He had previously written other novels with a similar formula (standalone male character deals with the Discworld’s crazy version of an industrial development borrowed from our own history, and chaos ensues) but there was something about this book, and its maturity, that made it special. This is also a story that features fewer overt fantasy elements than any previous Discworld novel—it’s certainly not a story about magic gone wrong and trying to kill you, which sets it apart from the series. Instead, this is a story of PEOPLE gone wrong and trying to kill you, and how societal change can be every bit as terrifying and dangerous as anything from the Dungeon Dimensions.
Did I mention? This novel is magnificent.
On my reread I discovered 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. The Truth is about the patriarchy, and how it hurts men every bit as much it hurts women. If I was writing a book about Pratchett’s Men (and really, someone should, I would read the hell out of that book) I would discuss how traditional masculinity and other 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. This continues the Discworld tradition of subverting narratives of masculinity—he’s been doing this from page 1, book 1, with characters like Rincewind and Twoflower, Vetinari, Ridcully, Vimes, Moist Von Lipwig, Cohen the Barbarian and even some of the one-off ‘heroes’ like Pteppic, Buddy and Victor.
But this is not that book. So I’m going to talk about Sacharissa Cripslock.
Sacharissa is the only full-blooded female character in a sea of mostly invisible women (including 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 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. Sadly, as in the City Watch books, most of the interesting things Angua gets to do happen offpage.
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. Pratchett is at his most comfortable when writing intensely pragmatic women, and Sacharissa is very much in this vein. Her primary personality quirk at the beginning of the story is 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). While William thinks such beliefs are frivolous and unnecessary, for Sacharissa they must be essential survival skills in a world that veers from medieval attitudes to Victoriana to modern and back again without even a moment’s notice. After all, she lives in a city that still thinks calling prostitutes ‘seamstresses’ is highly amusing.
I highly enjoyed watching Sacharissa steal the novel from under William’s feet. Their romance, if you can call it that, is one of those vague baffled courtships that Pratchett writes so well, in which both parties spend the whole time loudly thinking about everything except their attraction to each other, and dancing 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—instead, they both fall deeply and equally in love with the newspaper business.
This romance is a threeway.
While most scenes are written from William’s point of view, and Sacharissa is largely presented to the reader through his eyes, we still see how her love affair with The Ankh-Morpork Times unfolds differently to his. She’s the one who embraces many of the practical day-to-day details of the business, like why you report on meetings with lots of names in them, how to cover the ordinary parts of city life, and especially how to craft headlines. While William is figuring out from the ground up how to manage concepts like Freedom of the Press, and 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 a front page. He’d be lost without her, and it’s nice that by the end he has acknowledged that fact.
She’s not doing the grunt work for no recognition, either. While William struggles against some of the realities of the printing and news trade, Sacharissa is several steps ahead of him. Her competence is shown clearly, and while William resents Sacharissa using her attractiveness to gain news tidbits from eager young men, there is more to her methods. She starts out with the contacts and experience in the printing industry that William lacks—in fact she only joins the Times in the first place after coming over to complain about 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.
Sacharissa’s character arc in The Truth comes to a climax with 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 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 goes against Sacharissa’s instincts about feminine respectability, and she is so busy trying to deal with the fact that she’s burgling a house (it never occurred to him to go with her to make her ‘borrowing’ legitimate) that she ends up in a far more dangerous situation, taken hostage by two assassins.
It’s here that the Lois Lane analogy, which has been strongly implied in her Girl Reporter role so far, looms 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.
After that, it’s up to Sacharissa and William to save their mutual true love, the newspaper itself, from disaster…
I find Sacharissa a 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 journey about worrying less about what people think of her? Is she a feminist character, or an example of why the women of the Discworld need organised feminism? Mostly I think she’s far too busy doing her goddamned job to worry about such things.
When she turns up again in Going Postal, it is noted that she wears a wedding ring, but continues to call herself ‘Miss Cripslock’. So there’s one piece of evidence that she is embracing modernism.
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 means that she has been portrayed on the small screen by the comic actress Tamsin Greig. This makes her about 20 years older than she is portrayed in the books, but considering how briefly she appears that’s hardly important. 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.
Pratchett’s Women is a collection of ten essays by Tansy Rayner Roberts, looking at the portrayal of female characters in many of Pratchett’s best loved books, from the early years of fantasy satire and sexy lamps to the more complex, iconic characters of the witches, werewolves, dwarves and queens.
Contains 10 essays about gender and the Discworld, including “Socks, Lies & the Monstrous Regiment” which is exclusive to this collection.
My recent essays about girl reporters: