Pratchett’s Women by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Once upon a time, someone linked me to a set of essays on Pratchett’s female characters. I forget entirely why, although it’s probably due to being next door to being religious about his work. Anyway, I read them.

Then I put up links on forums I used so people could read them.

Then I read them again, and recently I read them again and noticed they’d been collected into an ebook with a bonus essay on Monstrous Regiment, so I went and brought it. Now I urge you do to the same thing. These essays are fun, insightful, and fairly comprehensive about the books they cover. They work as critiques of Pratchett’s characters, they work as advice on how to write your own. I feel like my female characters definitely took a step forwards for reading how these characters – and Pratchett wrote some of the best, most memorable female characters I’ve ever read – looked like to a thoughtful woman.

That’s it really. That’s the review. Go buy. However, since that’s quite short, I’m going to put up a few thoughts I had on some of the essays, and maybe a few general ones.

  • The Boobs, The Bad, and the Broomsticks (The Colour of Magic to Moving Pictures):

    Well, for one thing, I don’t think I ever realised that was meant to be Herrena on The Light Fantastic cover.

    I came into Discworld a good while after Rayner Roberts, long enough that Feet of Clay was one of my first Discworld experiences. Possibly partly as a result of that, I never truly fell in love with this period of Pratchett. I recall Ptraci, Conina, Bethan, Keli et al. I didn’t love them and I didn’t hate them. I never thought “wow, that’s the sort of woman I’d like to meet in real life” (which I did occasionally with other authors’ female authors), which could be a triumph of Pratchett showing them as more than mere sex figures, or could be a failure of Pratchett adding depth to them. (I think I might have liked Conina a bit more than the others but not particularly liked Sourcery so am mildly in the dark). Indeed, I think I’d echo Rayner Roberts’ comments about thin characterisation and parody that mainly ended up in the same place as the actual thing about a lot of the books beyond the women. The only three books I am very fond of from this period are Wyrd Sisters (where Rayner Roberts is correct), Guards!Guards! and Mort. And since I mention it, Ysabel might be my favourite character in Mort, being the one most in touch with reality. I think I see the first draft of a character Pratchett would return to multiple times – the bigger woman, eminently sensible (for a permanently sixteen year old woman) and overlooked for both. Pratchett would do that idea better with Sybil Ramkin and Agnes Nitt, but like Ysabel I do.

  • Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening (Lords and Ladies):

    This is all correct and this is one of the best Discworlds. The only thing I have to note is that until reading this essay, I rather brought into Granny’s view of Magrat as innately impractical. Still might do slightly. A recurring theme, at least from memory, from this series is Magrat learning about things from books and getting it all wrong, then learning from experience and getting it right; this is partly what happens here. Would she had got it right if Granny and Nanny had told her? Again, going from memory, Magrat tends to kick back against the idea that Granny is automatically right. But that’s just how I saw it. I have a Witches reread planned with some friends for when our lives settle down, so I’m looking forwards to revisiting.

  • Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves (Guards!Guards! to Feet of Clay) and His Henpecked Voice (Jingo and The Fifth Elephant):

    I am idly wondering if Sam Vimes’ reluctance to admit his attraction to Sybil at the end of G!G! is part remaining self-loathing, part a subconscious acknowledgement that that the Sam Vimes he is at that time doesn’t know how to be in love with a woman and his job/city at the same time, something Rayner Roberts points out as a big thing in Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. That is a view of Vimes though; I agree it feels very unfair on Sybil, although to a certain extent that is the point. I suspect that, should Rayner Roberts reads this, she will go “well why not show it from Sybil’s eyes” and all I have is “well, why not”. Pratchett doing so in The Fifth Elephant is part of what makes that book. And, well, part, of it is society teaches men to be reluctant about admitting to finding a fat woman attractive.

    I would be one of those people who cite Angua as an awesome Discworld female character; she’s smart, strong, vulnerable, entertaining, and so on. I would also agree with a lot of the criticisms Rayner Roberts makes, and think that at this point Angua is in many ways the final evolution of the Coninas and Ptracis that parodied the sexy female secondary character but ultimately reinforced it. Arguably she never evolves beyond it, which is a huge shame. She is definitely very hard done by in The Fifth Elephant, and to an extent I wonder if Pratchett came to the conclusion he simply couldn’t write her properly outside of certain arcs and therefore dodged doing so, as not getting a major PoV arc here is just baffling. I don’t think her complaining about Carrot’s constant positivity is entirely a mask; given how aware of people’s monstrosity Angua is, it must be very wearing. Unreasonable of her? Probably, but also true to herself.

    The moment at which Angua is her best is her friendship with Cheery in Feet of Clay (and all later installments). Rayner Roberts is right about awesome they are, and how awesome Cheery is both in that book and The Fifth Elephant.

    Incidentally, I find Carrot’s anti-Undead sentiment logical enough; partly because he just seems that ‘natural order’ type of guy, partly because I find it logical that just about everyone in the Watch series is prejudiced against something. Its not fully explained but I never needed it to be. And whatever else Nobbs’ feminine suffragette leanings may be, I certainly think its very smart characterisation of Nobby.

    Finally, those essays have made me realise that if I could summon Pratchett from the grave and persuade him to write one more Discworld story, it’d be a story in which Carrot and Angua have to run the Watch in Vimes’ absence, and we get to *really* see how their relationship works beyond the idealised not-King and ultimate fantasy prize.

  • A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair (Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum)

    I would submit the theory that it’s not Magrat’s marriage and queenship that pushes her out of the witches in Maskerade, its Magrat developing beyond the impractical younger witch constantly butting heads with Granny, and therefore losing her narrative role as Granny’s foil. Or maybe it’s both.

    I agree with everything said about Agnes and reading it might have been my favourite part of this collection of essays. No wait, maybe it’s everything said about Carpe Jugulum. Both? I have so little to say here other than Rayner Roberts has enhanced my understanding and enjoyment of the Witches series to a large degree, adding weight to things I maybe at times half-grasped and didn’t understand the power of.

    I would note in passing that if you want to see me really indecisive than the best way, short of asking me to pick a restaurant for a group, is to ask whether I think Lords and Ladies or Carpe Jugulum is the better book.

  • Has Scythe, Will Teach School (Soul Music to Thief of Time)

    The first time I tried to write my thoughts, I grouped Angua and Susan together, as I think they share that sense of being beloved but underused. Part of me wonders if Pratchett shied away from overly competent characters who could rip through plots like paper (I don’t know how to square that one with the time spent with Granny). Part of me wants to say that the love for them demonstrates Pratchett’s ability to create beloved characters from not many pages; part of me wants to say that there’s simply not enough characters like them, and we latch onto what we are given. Maybe both.

    Other than that, I don’t have a lot of observations to make, other than to note Susan pretty much never has a foil on the page (other than briefly Unity). She is a one woman band. The Rat and the Raven barely count. I wish she’d been given that foil. Sure, having her as a protagonist would be great, but just one person to talk to… eh.

    Incidentally, if I had a second Discworld novel I could persuade the shade of Pratchett to write, it’d be one where Susan and Lobsang are mentors in a parody of the YA “mysterious orphan discovers divine heritage”. Because I can more easily see her as a prominent mentor than as a protagonist, I guess.

  • Socks, Lies, and the Monstrous Regiment (Monstrous Regiment)

    My other favourite read in this collection. And it brought home how, in its own way from a certain viewpoint, this is one of the most man-centered books in the whole series, because it’s all about women thinking about men. While being all about women. Which is genius.

    Again, I don’t have a whole lot to say here. I just want people to know this essay is great. It’s well worth buying the book just to get this essay, rather than reading them all online.

It’s well worth buying in general. Why wouldn’t we we want to encourage people to give intelligent thoughts about our favourite books? Right now I’ve got too many books on the go to drop everything and re-read Thud like I want to but when I do, I’ll be coming back to this book afterwards. And probably again at some point later.

A must have for a Pratchett fan.

And maybe I’ll have a stab at doing a series on Pratchett’s men at some point. After all, Rayner Roberts is right that somebody should…

6 thoughts on “Pratchett’s Women by Tansy Rayner Roberts

  1. It’s a testament to how much I enjoy your blog and reading about your thoughts on stuff that I’ve literally read one Pratchett book in my life but enjoyed this whole post immensely despite having no frame of reference.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I dunno, it wasn’t a conscious decision or I didn’t like the one I read. It was the Wee Free Men when I was about thirteen and I recall liking it, even if I don’t remember any of it now.

        I’d actually never thought about how many holes there are in my fantasy read list when it comes to the giants of the genre til I started blogging. Sanderson, Rothfuss, Jordan, Hobb, Erikson. Never read anything by any of them, and I could probably go on and list a lot more. Again, not consciously, I just read other stuff somehow 🤷‍♂️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think I’d trust anyone without some holes tbh; too much to read, nobody’s gonna like everything. Jordan’s the only one out of those five I’ve majorly read because I don’t particularly enjoy the other four.

        I think Pratchett might be worth going back to for yourself if you have a rainy day; he’s marching to a different beat to the rest of the fantasy, has wonderful imagination and characterisation, and has a sharply satirical way to him at times. I’m not sure you’d love everything he’s done, but having a go at some of the later satire stuff like The Truth or Going Postal would be deffo worth a shout.


      3. I think I will go back and give him a go. Can’t say when exactly, what with everything else I also say that about, but it’s definitely on the cards.

        Liked by 1 person

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