Strong Girls for Girl Readers: Part Two
Posted 8 June 2009 in Books by Catriona
(The first part in this series is here, along with my explanation for why the seemingly sexist title is not, in fact, sexist.)
In the first part, I looked at Laura Chant from The Changeover, but in this one, I want to look at Sophie Hatter, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986).
Some disclaimer may be necessary here: I love Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve always loved Diana Wynne Jones. As far as I’m concerned, Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong.
It’s also a great deal of fun to say “Diana Wynne Jones” over and over again.
And I love Howl’s Moving Castle: while I’ve never been disappointed by one of Diana Wynne Jones’s books—and I savour them, so I haven’t even read the two latest ones—this is one of my favourites.
But one thing that always strikes me about Sophie Hatter is how relatively damaged she is in the beginning of the book. “Damaged” is a word that has the ring of psychobabble about it, but I don’t think it’s too misplaced in a description of Sophie, who becomes paler and more tired across the opening chapters, until she’s even afraid of the crowds in the small market town in which she lives.
Sophie has a coherent worldview in which she is inevitably the least and last—at least, she thinks it’s coherent and plausible, and we are almost seduced into believing her, thanks to the tight third-person narration.
But Sophie’s is a worldview built on self-abnegation—almost martyrdom, though her marginalising of herself brings her no pleasures or benefits.
In the early pages of the novel, Sophie too readily takes on herself the thoughts and opinions of others: even when she trusts what she thinks are her own opinions, she’s drawing them from outside sources.
It’s also a world-view built on a narrow definition of genre. This is a magic kingdom, thinks Sophie, so the old, worn patterns of fairy stories and folk tales must come into play: how can I, as the eldest daughter of three, achieve anything noteworthy?
Sophie’s not the only one whose thinking is constrained by a certain narrow approach to genre—look how readily people believe in the wickedness of Wizard Howl.
But Sophie is the one who wears herself down by thinking in these patterns, and it takes a radical change in status and circumstance to break her of these patterns and show her where her strength lies—where her strength has always lain, though she didn’t know it herself and the first person to recognise it has no intention of sharing the information.
Well, it takes a radical change in status and circumstance—and the involvement of Wizard Howl.
I’ve never identified myself as a romantic (though I probably am) and I’m certainly not going to use this blog as a forum in which to argue that a woman can only really reach her full potential by standing behind and supporting a man.
But neither am I going to insist that all fictional women must stand alone and Sophie—the Sophie who break herself of the damaging patterns of thinking to which she holds in the beginning of the book—is never blind to Howl’s character.
Take this discussion she has with the hapless Abdullah in the sequel, Castle in the Air:
They were so high that the world below was out of sight. Abdullah had no trouble understanding Sophie’s terror. The carpet was sailing through dark emptiness, up and up, and Abdullah knew that if he had been alone he might have been screaming. “You talk, mighty mistress of magics,” he quavered. “Tell me of this Wizard Howl of yours.”
Sophie’s teeth chattered, but she said proudly, “He’s the best wizard in Ingary or anywhere else. If he’d only had time, he would have defeated that djinn. And he’s sly and selfish and vain as a peacock and cowardly and you can’t pin him down to anything.”
“Indeed?” asked Abdullah. “Strange that you should speak so proudly of such a list of vices, most loving of ladies.”
“What do you mean—vices?” Sophie asked angrily. “I was just describing Howl.”
Castle in the Air. London: Methuen, 1990. 155-56.
That’s my girl, Sophie.