Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones

Witch Week cover artTitle: Witch Week
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Chrestomanci Series (third in order of publication, can be read out of order)
Genre: Fantasy/humour
First Published: 1982
Edition Reviewed: Collins 2000
Hb/Pb: Paperback
Awards: School Library Journal Book of the Year
Price: Used prices on Amazon Market Place start from £2.23 at time of posting

This is (notionally) the third book in the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, and the third book I am reviewing in her memory. You may wonder why I’m not reviewing The Magicians of Caprona first, as that is the second book in the series. There are two reasons for this: 1) although I have read and enjoyed TMoC it didn’t really stand out for me as an exceptional book; and 2) although some of the Chrestomanci books are clearly demarked in relaton to an internal chronology, Witch Week could happen at any time for which Chrestomanci is an adult. (The Lives of Christopher Chant is the first in terms of internal chronology, but designed as a prequel. I read it first, but think it would be more satisfying to read if you were already intrigued by Chrestomanci.) Diana Wynne Jones wrote dozens of successful and lively books for children and young adults; I have no intention of reviewing them all, or even all of the 17 I currently own – these are just some of the highlights.


In a world where witchcraft is punishable by death, a wise witch does not practice his or her craft openly. Nevertheless, many are caught and burnt, often leaving orphans behind. Larwood House is a boarding school that takes in many children who have been orphaned in this way. The history of such children is protected – if it were to be known that their parents were witches, they might fall unfairly under suspicion and be ostracised by their classmates. When someone passes Mr Crossley an anonymous note saying ‘SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH’, it is thus a very serious matter.

Recognising that the note is probably a prank, Mr Crossley is nonetheless concerned about its serious nature. Regardless of whether it is true or not, it’s a dangerous accusation to throw around. Despite his decision to be discrete and to not take direct action, however, word quickly spreads. Many of the students saw that he had received a note about something, and he makes the mistake of telling Miss Hodge, whom he secretly loves. Miss Hodge is somewhat less discrete, and this, combined with instances of actual witchcraft which set the school abuzz, sets off a course of events that gets swiftly out of control.

Accusations fly as some take the opportunity to captialise on existing prejudices, and for those who are startng to discover a power they didn’t know they had the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Finally, as an Inquisitor is summoned following an incident that cannot be ignored, some of the students flee. They hope for solace with an underground group that helps witches escape to a world where they will not be persecuted, but the local agent is now too scared of the authorities to help. All she can give them is one spell, which is simply the peculiar word ‘CHRESTOMANCI’ said three times beneath the Portway Oaks.

Why I like it

What can I say, this delightful little book pushes all the right buttons. Throughout it explores the theme of prejudice in a nuanced and reflective manner, going far beyond the obvious touchstones of bullying and judging people for being of a specific group that is not your own. This is a theme close to my own heart, and it’s a real pleasure to see it treated so well, and without becoming a deep plunge into something that could become very depressing indeed.

We follow many disperate paths through the story, providing a variety of different view points on events. In contrast to Charmed Life, where we’re really offered no redeeming insights into the unpleasant character of Gwendolen, here we’re slowly presented wth events that initally build up our own prejudices (concernng bullies, popular kids, and so on) which are then deconstructed, both through seeing the world through the eyes of those we judge, and through being shown the aspects of their lives that they were keepng secret. This is not to say that everyone is shown to be good on the inside – that would be just as unreal – but we are shown again and again how there is always more going on than there appears. We can never know completely the motivations and pressures that lie behind the actions of even our best friends, let alone our enemies. It’s quite impressive that Jones is able to convey such a complex message so elegantly and in a way so finely-crafted to entertain both children and adults alike.

One particularly effectve technique she employs is via the journals in which students are encouraged to express ther private thoughts (despite the fact that many of the students have worked out that the headteacher reads all the journals in the holidays). This could be an obvious and tiresome ploy, but in the hands of a master like Diana Wynne Jones, each journal entry is an individual delight. I especally enjoyed the entries of Charles Morgan. Charles has developed an elaborate code, via which he is able to express his true emotions in a way that reads like an extremely dull account of a child’s day at school. Thus, an entry like ‘I got up. I felt hot at breakfast. I do not like porridge. Second lesson was Woodwork, but not for long. I think we have Games next’ would mean something to the effect of: ‘I hate this school. At breakfast I thought about the witch I saw being burnt alive. I don’t like Simon Silverson. Later I thought about the second witch I saw, who was nice to me and whom I helped escape. But the good feeling I had from that didn’t last. I think something bad is going to happen.’ With this, Charles is able to express his secret thoughts and emotions. Once we’re famliar with Charles’s code it is used very effectively, at times chillngly and poignantly.

This is a deeply funny book, and also a deeply moving one. It’s surprising how well Jones is able to capture the seriousness and desperation of the stuation without creating a book too dark for children, or losing the simply joy and fun that is the signature of so many Diana Wynne Jones novels. It makes for an interesting contrast with other books about children and magic and schools. Where in Harry Potter children are freed by their ability to do magic, for these chldren their ablities must be hidden and contained if they are to survive. The feelings of frustration at the necessary suppression of their self-expression are ones most of us can probably relate to from our own experiences of both school and prejudice in general.

The book is also to be commended for the range of characters it presents. In addition to a more healthy balance of genders than most books can claim to, it also features a non-white character in a non-token role. Nirupam Singh is an intelligent and laid-back character who’s generally presented as a rather cool dude. Not in terms of popularity or other tradtional signifiers. He is, rather, simply likeable, confident without arrogance, intelligent and good natured. I like that he is neither a nerd or a jock. It would have been dissatisfying if he were made obvously popular simply because of his race, just as it would have been distasteful if he were at the bottom of the social rung for the same reasons. His heritage is not ignored, but neither is it blown up and made a fuss of. He’s a quietly cool dude who happens to be of asian descent. Granted, he’s also the only non-white character, but it’s not bad for 1982.

Chrestomanci’s introduction into this world is a feather in its cap, rather than the centre of the book, and it works well for him. For those who have not read any other Chrestomanci books, he is a nine-lived enchanters – very powerful and able to travel between worlds. He occupies a very important position in his world, where he works to regulate magic and make sure the other worlds are not exploited. As a part of his role, he can be summoned at the mere mention of his name.

In Witch Week, out of his own world and unusually misfooted, Chrestomanc becomes a more interestng character. In addition to his characteristic vagueness (which seems to become only vaguer the more attention he is really paying to something) Chrestomanci also displays a sense of humour and playfulness that overlays the hard steel of strength, control, and intelligence beneath. The character is much richer than the distant figure of Charmed Life, whilst still exuding the same enigmatic charisma.

All in all, this is a wonderful book in its own right, and, for me, the most enjoyable of the Chrestomanci books, too. It’s a wonder that no one has turned this into a children’s TV series.

Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones

Charmed Life book coverTitle: Charmed Life
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Originally a standalone, but spawned several Chrestomanci involved books
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1977
Edition Reviewed: Collins Modern Classics 2001 (illustration is a different edition, but I like it better)
Hb/Pb: Paperback
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.