Title: Charmed Life
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Originally a standalone, but spawned several Chrestomanci involved books
First Published: 1977
Edition Reviewed: Collins Modern Classics 2001 (illustration is a different edition, but I like it better)
Awards: The Guardian Award (1978), commended for the 1977 Carnegie Medal. It also won the German Preis der Leseratten.
Price: Used prices on Amazon Market Place start from £0.01 at time of posting
This is part of a series of reviews of Diana Wynne Jones’s work that I am doing this year to honour her passing. I reviewed Dark Lord of Derkholm shortly before she died, but she has written so many wonderful, wonderful books that I’ve been avidly rereading them since to remember the incredible gifts she left us with. Although this is not my very favourite work of hers, I do enjoy it immensely, and it is widely regarded not just as one of her best, but as a modern fantasy classic.
Cat and Gwendolen Chant are orphans. Their parents died in a paddle-boat disaster from which they only escaped due to Gwendolen’s magic – or at least, so Cat believes. Their village offers to pay for their upkeep, along with their education, and they go to live with a friendly, but inept, witch called Mrs Sharp. Aware of Gwendolen’s power she arranges for her to have lessons with a necromancer, Mr Nostrom. The town will not pay for magic lessons, so Gwendolen trades three peculiar letters written to her father from an enigmatic and rather important person: Chrestomanci.
Chrestomanci is a nine-lived enchanter. A very special and very powerful sort of magic user. He regulates the use of magic to prevent its abuse, and a lot of people don’t like him, including Mr Nostrum and his brother. They think he is unfairly denying them access to the riches of the other worlds that Chrestomanci is able to reach. At their urging, Gwendolen writes to Chrestomanci with news of the death of her parents, asking to be taken in by him. Co-incidentally, Cat finds himself in the presence of an over-eager fortune-teller. Whilst in a trance, she speaks with the voice of a man: ‘You’ve taken a weight off my mind, lad’ the voice says. ‘There’ll be a big change coming up for you now. But you’ve been awfully careless – four gone already, and only five left.’
Cat doesn’t know what this means – unlike Gwendolen he seems to possess no magic at all. All the spells he tries seem to fail. But the next day a tall, immaculately dressed man appears in their kitchen: Chrestomanci. He whisks them away to Chrestomanci Castle, just as Gwendolen asked. But Gwendolen isn’t happy in the Castle. She’s forbidden to do magic and believes she isn’t getting the attention and praise she deserves. She engages in a series of increasingly unpleasant pranks as Chrestomanci and everyone else largely ignore her outbursts.
What will Gwendolen do next? Why doesn’t Chrestomanci punish her? What is it that the Nostrums want Gwendolen to do for them? And why does everyone at the Castle seem to expect Cat to be able to do magic when he’s never cast a single spell?
What’s so fab about it?
Chrestomanci is an incredibly engaging figure. Tall, handsome, and always precisely quaffed in flamboyant and elegant clothes, even when in his dressing gown, he is also mysterious and reserved. He never quite seems to be paying attention – but perhaps when he’s at his vaguest he is paying the closest attention of all. The figure of an excentric, clever, distant, and powerful man is a common trope in fantasy, and Chrestomanci is an excellent example.
This is also an incredibly inventive story. The edition I have (along with, I think, most modern editions) contains an afterward from Diana Wynne Jones describing how important the book was to her. How she had striven for years to write the sort of magic book she had wanted as a child, but had always been forbidden. At the time she was writing there weren’t many books about ‘great enchanters or children learning magic’ or other worlds. I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how differently a work of art can be read at different times. With books like Harry Potter and Northern Lights being the big children’s fantasy success stories of our times, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to read Charmed Life in a world were such things weren’t simply the natural subject matter of children’s fiction.
Even viewed through modern eyes, the concept and characters, the use of magic – everything has a surprising, original, and engaging flavour that reads totally differently to so many stories that are just using the tropes, rather than making them their own.
It’s not without its flaws, though, and in some ways it definitely has dated. I had forgotten about the scene where [minor spoiler coming up] Gwendolen finally does something so terrible that Chrestomanci reacts. Mr Saunders (the tutor) takes Gwendolen over his knee and spanks her with his shoe, whilst Chrestomanci boxes the ears of the hapless Cat, who is already badly shaken, simply for failing to prevent her. In the context of a retrospective understanding of what Chrestomanci knows Gwendolen to have been doing, it isn’t surprising that he’s angry, but is was still shocking, as a modern reader, to see adults take such a violent form of physical punishment to a child. And they’re not even the childrens’ parents. I say this even though I was spanked as a child myself. The world has simply moved on.
I also find the book somewhat slower to get going than most Diana Wynne Jones novels. It’s still well-written, charming, and accessible, but the main character, Cat, has little or no agency for the first half of the book. Gwendolen is the main catalyst for action, and she’s not very likable. There’s a very good reason for that, but because so much is unknown to Cat it’s not available to the reader, either. I suppose the mystery builds something of a suspense, but it’s just not quite as well-crafted in this regard as some of her real triumphs, such as Hexwood or Howl’s Moving Castle.
Equally, although I was very much drawn to Chrestomanci as a character when I first read this, I felt much more critical of him on rereading. Janet (who isn’t mentioned above for reasons of spoilers) accuses him of making a mistake in not being honest and open with Cat from the beginning, and I have to say that I agree. Reasons are given – interesting reasons – and in some ways it’s interesting if one regards it as a case where adults don’t always get things right, and yet I feel that we’re meant to be left thinking that he made the best decision based on the information that he had, and I’m not sure he did. Even though Gwendolen is a simply frightful child, I can’t help but think she got a rather raw deal. No one ever really sits down and tries to explain to her what she is doing and why it’s wrong, they just ignore her.
Similarly, although Chrestomanci never really loses his temper, it’s clear that his cool, enigmatic manner can make him quite frightening. Which is all very well for children who don’t really understand what his office entails, but at times his wife, Millie, seems to be nervous around him as well. Not that I suspect her of really being afraid of him… I’m just not convinced it’s quite the healthy spousal relationship we’re meant to regard it as.
On the other hand, Chrestomanci is a fascinating character with real depth, of which we barely skim the surface, glimpsing just enough to understand and be fascinated. The sense of contained power built by his rarely employing it throughout most of the book, his general restraint in appearance and action, the great care he seems to take about everything (including his appearance) suggests a man not only very conscious of a constantly public and visible role, but a man whose great personal power requires him to be constantly in control of himself. I’m not entirely comfortable with the accepted patriarchy of the book, but as a character abstracted from the history of powerful, distant, charismatic male figures, he’s very interesting.
In the other Chrestomanci books he loosens up a bit, and becomes more appealing. I especially adore him in Witch Week, which is a book I should review in its own right. I always longed to see a bit more inside his head, though. We get this, to some extent, in The Lives of Christopher Chant which tells of his childhood, and how he came to be Chrestomanci, but I wanted to know more of what he’s like as an adult. As Chrestomanci, we always see him through the eyes of children. I would have loved to see inside his head.
I suppose that’s the crux of it. This isn’t really a book aimed at 27-year-old women who enjoy psychological intrigue and tall, well-groomed men; it’s aimed at children, and Chrestomanci is just the wizard figure in the child world. All the same, I shall forever be a little bit sad that there will be no more Chrestomanci, even as I am glad that Diana brought him into my world. My reservations are slight, and mostly due to the book’s being a little dated beyond its control. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone as a good read to slip easily into, and as a great book for kids.
If Bryan Fuller is listening to my prayers: please turn this into a TV show! The colourful, fantastic, stylish, and sometimes maccabre nature of this book is right up his street.