I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
From time to time I binge on Discworld. This week, on holiday, I’ve been rereading some of the Terry Pratchett novels that tackle bigotry and racism. They are deeply satisfying combings from the beard of his invention. They don’t offer a unified theory of how people could be nice to each other, but they are superb as reflections of the human condition.
Feet of Clay (1996)
This one has a very high joke count, including the immortal ‘We can rebuild him, we have the pottery’, which only readers of 50ish will ever appreciate fully. * Feet of Clay is The One About The Golems, in which Lord Vetinari is incapacitated by a mysterious poison, Nobby Nobbs is raised to the peerage, Cheery Littlebottom is encouraged to express her feminine nature with illicit lipstick, jewellery and high heels, though she refuses to shave her beard off, and dwarf bread makes its terrifying entrance as a fighting weapon.
Cheery transitions from a standard if slightly nervous male dwarf demeanour to a more feminine self-presentation with the help of a well-established non-human, Delphine Angua von Uberwald, the only werewolf on the Watch. It’s not just because they’re both minority females in a professional milieu full of males, but they are both struggling with how to reconcile their natural feelings. Cheery wants to be able to wear a skirt and not be shouted at by male dwarfs who think openly-displayed femininity is disgusting (we’ll find a much more precise sandblasting of this mindset in The Fifth Elephant). Angua would like to not have to hear (muttered) jokes about what and who she eats. Pratchett’s deft slicing apart of the layers of social prejudice is done with the sharpest of filleting blades. Class, sex, lineage, race, species, deadness, aliveness: all participate in a complex plot jostling with remarks about how it’s normal to hate different people because They and Everybody says so.
The golems show this most concisely, since a golem is a not a person, and is not legally alive. Yet how can a machine be accused of murder? Once the religious confraternity have begun fighting among themselves on this question, one golem learns to speak, develops self-awareness, and develops the financial acumen to work out how to free the other golems by earning enough to buy them. This is a rather nice result from a pyramid chain, since Carrot started it by buying Dorfl for one dollar: one good turn produces an autonomous new species. We are only left with the problem of who organised the poisoning.
* The Six Billion Dollar Man? Steve Rogers? Blonde man with permanent sun-squint runs very very fast in slo-mo? YOU remember ….
The Fifth Elephant (2000)
The One In Which Vimes Goes to Uberwald. I love this novel because it has the Igors, the traditional servants of the vampires who are accomplished surgeons and recyclers of body parts. Vimes goes to Uberwald to represent the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, and to solve the crime of the stolen Scone of Stone, without which the Low King of the dwarfs cannot be crowned.
The Lady Margoletta (is that an echo from Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club …. surely not) is a vampire on the wagon, a modern vampire lifestyle about which we will read a great deal more in The Truth. She goes to mutual support groups and drinks a nasty red drink that probably tastes like cough mixture, but otherwise has a keen interest in sporting events involving werewolves chasing Vimes through the snow. Angua’s father, the Baron, is clearly almost completely wolf, while her mad brother Wolfgang is a Nazi with fangs. Pratchett puts black and silver fascist insignia on Wolfgang’s racial purity nonsense to ram that point home: fascism is beastly and savage, and does not belong in civilised society. Wolves, and other dogs, are completely civilised and natural within their own ecological niche. Werewolves are simply terrorists of nature.
The dwarfs have an internal problem, traditionalists versus reformers, and their hardcore deepdowners refuse to look at sunlight or even go above ground. These traditionalists call Cheery Littlebottom some very foul names because she wears a skirt, but under pressure even they are forced to use the feminine pronoun. This is a dark novel, due to the fundamentally uncompromising nature of fanaticism, but accommodations can be made as you step around the bodies.
The deep vein of sardony (from which Pratchett mines his sardonic) can be seen in the plot twists around the stolen, faked and mysterious Scone of Stone. It is a fundamentally silly thing, a super-toughened lump of dwarf dough, carrying the echo of our own dear Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Britain are crowned. Tradition bestows truth and meaning on the most ridiculous and ordinary objects, like a stone and like bread, and people die if these are disrupted or changed. Pratchett’s genius lies in moving his narrative from comedy to tragedy in the flip of an adjective.
The One With ‘Where’s My Cow?’ When you need dramatic tension, you add a baby, psychotic fundo dwarves with flamethrowers, race riots and the steadiest werewolf on the Watch attacked by class consciousness and sexual jealousy. This one has everything. The anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley is approaching, a historic conflict between dwarves and trolls, but no-one knows who won. Dwarves are being murdered underground, and there’s finally – finally! – a vampire on the Watch, and she can hear heartbeats in the next room. The phenomenally attractive but very innocent pole-dancer Tawnee is taught the facts of life, and her choices, by three friendly non-human female Watch officers in a night of dubiously named cocktails. Trolls do drugs, dwarves do religion, and everybody has to show a little bit of adaptation and compromise if we’re going to make progress. Vetinari even uses italics for emphasis, something I don’t think we’ve seen before.
The central idea of the plot – that the historic antipathy between trolls and dwarves is being exploited by somebody or something – is beautifully expressed in the central metaphor of the game of Thud, a board game with two halves. You play your opponent either as a dwarf or a troll, and then you play it again from the other side’s perspective. This seriously brilliant concept leads to young dwarves and trolls playing peace games in a cellar, learning about each other’s culture and mindset. The older generation haven’t done this, and they’re the ones who cause trouble, and keep Vimes from getting any sleep for what seems like a week.
As Pratchett matured his art, his themes became more universal and more perfectly expressed to model human behaviour. I really do think Thud is one of his finest novels, up there with I Shall Wear Midnight (community responsibility and male aggression), and possibly also Lords and Ladies (power and violence do not a ruler make). The debate is open.
I’ve posted reviews of other Pratchett novels here and elsewhere, which you can get at through this link to The Shepherd’s Crown.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m reading a novel of utter frivolity. It’s called Dodo’s Daughter, and is a sequel to the earlier and unforgettably frivolous novel of Edwardian society life, Dodo. Dodo is a ditzy lady, invented by that great chronicler of society silliness, E F Benson. Nowadays he is much better known for his creation of the immortal Lucia and Miss Mapp, and their battles to social death in Tilling and Riseholme in the early 1920s. But Benson had been frivolling for twenty years before Miss Mapp and Lucia were born, and the stories about Dodo are a pretty good introduction to what the Edwardians thought was witty about his writing. In this novel, Dodo, who is about to embark on her third marriage to the man she jilted for his brother as her first, has a problem daughter, from her second marriage. Yes, it’s complicated. She knows when to take herself off to bed, and has a greater awareness of her need for sleep and a happy home life than she did as the epitome of heartless frivolity at age 18.
Dodo’s Daughter is really two books in one. It’s a conventional romantic melodrama, written with a hint of camp tongue in cheek. It’s also a modern story of heartless girls and boys living a meaningless life in which being amused is their only goal. They have a great many things to say about the modern Edwardian girl – her choices in life, why she gets married, and what marriage was really for. Naturally, these are rich girls and boys: all through the novel no-one does a stroke of work because Benson writes about them as an isolated bubble of upper-class society.
Nadine is Dodo’s daughter, a chain-smoker (which was very daring), and the leader of the pack. She is an appalling flirt and an empty conversationalist: her attitudes are really so much like those of a caricature of the 1920s flapper that I had to check the date of this novel twice. But it really is 1913, and prewar. Nadine and Dodo are both totally egotistical, but they both cheerfully admit this, and expect the world to accept them as they are. They aren’t malevolent at all, they are very concerned that everyone has a nice time and gets what they want. But their efforts to get what they want take priority over the desires of anyone else.
The third most important character is Seymour, an early tryout for Georgie Pillson of the Lucia books – with his jade dusting, his embroidery (interestingly contemporary with Peter’s embroidery in Rose Macaulay’s The Lee Shore), his devoted female servant, his effeminate airs – but this (in the gender politics of the day) is all a pose. Seymour is quite aware of how he appears, and seems to rather enjoy allowing the worm to turn. He breaks away from his languid poses to come over all masculine and domineering when he becomes engaged to Nadine. He rages at his tedious mother and sister for assuming that his effeminate pose gives them the right to order him around, and he becomes the most formidable character in the book, because he is simply the most intelligent man on the stage.
Benson does a very well-executed job of mixing styles of writing. He combines the epigrammatic late Victorian style of Oscar Wilde with an unexpected and unstudied close analysis of emotion and social realities. He juxtaposes melodramatic plot details- of attempted murder and an older woman braving childbirth – with intense self-analysis and an almost stream of consciousness dialogue (very ahead of its time). This combination feels abrupt because it’s disconcerting, but it is also completely under control. Benson knows what he’s doing.
The last third of the novel is all about Hugh, who is in love with Nadine but has been jilted by her for Seymour, and won’t stop hanging around suffering. Will Hugh die, or recover, or recover without the use of his legs, after a dramatic sea rescue of a shipwrecked boy? (Whom we never see again, incidentally.) This drama brings out the more interesting aspects of their characters. Hugh develops the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever encountered in prewar popular fiction. Nadine actually stops thinking about herself for minutes at a time. But Seymour becomes terrifically complicated, and takes refuge in bitter campness to avoid being devastated by Nadine’s weather-cock behaviour. He also comes off better than Dodo, by demonstrating the emotional maturity and self-awareness that none of the others possess.
The effect of all these agonies under a light dusting of frivolity is to produce a really modern novel that examines the emotions swirling around inside an eternal triangle. There are clear signs that Benson is struggling to free his writing from the grip of the Victorian romantic novelette, and from the Wildean drawing-room comedy of epigrams. But the novel is clearly Edwardian: the incessant chain-smoking of Nadine and her mother should tell us that at least.
Dodo’s Daughter is also rather interesting if you’re looking for early feminist fiction. Dodo herself is a financially independent woman (thanks to both her former marriage settlements), but she is also an independent woman in terms of making her own decisions, deciding whom she will marry, where she will live, and so on. She keeps having to throw her drunk ex-husband out of the house (that’s the second one, who was a German prince of very Prussian characteristics), and she won’t ask her third husband to do this. She goes downstairs herself and gets rid of the awful tyrant Prussian, time and again.
Her closest friend is Edith, an eccentric composer, who reminded me so much of the suffragette composer Ethel Smyth that I had to read up on her on Wikipedia, and yes! She was! Apparently Benson put Smyth into all his Dodo books, and she loved her portrait. Edith is a monomaniacal composer, and when the muse strikes, she just keeps on composing on the dining room table while her meals are brought to her and placed around the sheets of music paper.
Nadine is a mouthpiece for arguments about the role of women, what girls are to do with their lives, whether there is an alternative to marriage, and whether it’s possible to do without men. It’s a fairly safe guarantee that any time she is in a scene, feminist discussion will begin. Through her, Benson makes some fascinating remarks about the current generation of girls managing without men in the future. Because this novel immediately precedes the First World War and the 1920s, the ‘decade of single women’, this seems like seeing into a very grim future indeed. But it may be that Dodo’s Daughter is anecdotal evidence that even before the war and the slaughter of a generation of young men, women were thinking that life without an obligatory husband or other male authority might soon be a social possibility. Or not. Since Benson was a satirist, who can really tell what he was laughing at, and what he was wistfully hoping might come true?