In Praise of Pratchett: Maskerade

I’ve managed to get several of my Discworld books signed, with a variety of messages (especially the time the whole family attended and we got a bunch of books signed in one go, there being five of us). Maskerade holds something of a pride of place among such books as it was bought as a present for my fortieth birthday (even if I had to buy it myself), and Sir Terry signed it to me with a Happy 40th Birthday wish (and a quick sketch of Death’s scythe).
It’s another book about the Three Witches or, as Pratchett takes quick pains to establish with a parodic gesture to the opening of Wyrd Sisters, the Two Witches. Magrat Garlick is now busy being Queen and, five months after the wedding, presumably no longer qualifies for the Maiden part of the traditional Maiden, Mother,… Other One line-up. But, wet hen that she was, Magrat was right about one thing: the basic unit of witches might well be one, but the correct number for a coven is three, and that means there’s one missing.
Granny Weatherwax is getting nervous, and that is making Nanny Ogg worried. Granny’s bored. There’s nothing in Lancre to challenge her, and without that her mind may be prone to Wandering. Nanny reckons that her friend needs a distraction, such as training up a new Third Witch. Fortunately, there’s an ideal candidate in the village, with the touch of the craft already, ideally suited to be the Maiden’s role.
This is Agnes Nitt, she who was wont to call herself Perdita in Lords and Ladies. There’s just one little problem. Agnes has enough of the craft already to see where her future lies and she’s not in the least bit keen to spend it running around at the beck and call of two old ladies, who don’t actually do any magic at all, just this stupid headology and coloured water. So Agnes – or rather, since she can re-invent herself, Perdita – has run away to seek her fortune, in Ankh-Morpork.
Now Granny’s certainly not going to stoop to run after Agnes, not even when Nanny paints a picture of a naive young Lancre girl, on her own in the city, in need of protection, but fortunately there’s another factor that satisfies Granny’s pride. For Nanny Ogg has become an author.
Yes, Nanny has sent a bunch of recipes to a printer in Ankh-Morpork with two dollars to cover the cost of printing them up. Being Nanny, all the recipes have one common effect, an effect that has led to the book being entitled The Joye of Snacks and selling like, er, hot cakes. So much so that the printers have generously returned Nanny’s two dollars with an additional three, that she’s holding onto very tightly in case they realise their mistake.
The book has been published as by ‘A Lancre Witch’, which raises Granny’s hackles, despite Nanny’s fine distinction that Esmerelda Weatherwax is in fact THE Lancre witch. And Granny has a harder-headed attitude to publishing than Nanny, to the extent of calculating that her friend has something like three thousand dollars due to her. And whilst she won’t go chasing after Agnes, she has to see that Lancre Witches aren’t being disrespected, whether Gytha Ogg likes it or not. And if they bump into Alice in passing, they can help her out as well.
Speaking of Agnes, after the usual embarrassing mistake about the Guild of Seamstresses, she’s ended up taking her one undeniable talent to the obvious place: Perdita has joined the Opera. Not quite in the manner she would have liked, since her appearance is against her when it comes to the business of stepping out on stage and getting the plaudits due her, but her voice – and the control she can exercise over it – is superb, so she can’t be excluded.
At least, not physically. Since the true *star* role is reserved for Christeen, who can no more keep a tune than she can keep a thought in that pretty head of hers, but is both skinny and blonde, Agnes is allowed to sing though Christeen. It’s both embarrassing and insulting, but Agnes accepts it because she is endowed with a wonderful personality. As for the insults, well, everybody does this, openly to her face.
Pratchett has great fun with the Opera, its tensions, pressures and craziness, its complete divorcement from reason and rationality, and there’s plenty to laugh about, though the only ‘truth’ he extracts in demonstrating what Opera truly consists of is that it spends its entire time surfing the edge of the catastrophe curve of Impermanence. No wonder that everybody is so incredibly tense when any day, every day, could be the last. The last day that those finely trained talents which make up one’s life are the perfection your being, Opera itself, demands. The first sign of a crack isn’t simply the beginning of the end, of transition: it is the end, and everybody lives on on the blade of forcing that not to happen, not now, not today.
The story, as in the plot, comes from the inevitable existence of a Phantom.
Here, he is the Opera Ghost, and in suitable fashion there are actually two of him, one benign and caring only for the music, the other cynical and homicidal. Agnes finds herself trying to unravel the mystery of the Opera Ghost, and indeed successfully identifies him with the person who is such an unlikely figure for the role, only to fall foul of her own senses. It takes Granny and Nanny, the former posing as an extremely rich Opera patroness with the latter’s royalties, to see through the extremely simple fact about masks.
Given that the story involves murders, and is set in Ankh-Morpork, we see the first instance of what Pratchett later identified as a bit of a problem: if the story comes to the Big Wahoonie, how do you keep the City Watch out? That side of things is dealt with here by restricting the Watch’s overt presence to such obvious characters as Colon, Nobbs and Detritus, but Pratchett provides a far-from-overt Watch presence in the form of Andre, the organ-player at the Opera, who will turn out to be a member of the Cable Street Particulars, the Watch’s new undercover branch (secret policemen for secret crimes, as the off-stage Vimes puts it).
That’s an interesting, and fully logical development, though Pratchett undercuts it by having Andre implicitly distracted away at the end to become a full-time musician. The Cable Street Particulars is a revival of an old name in Ankh-Morpork history, whose true provenance won’t be encountered until Night Watch, and other than a passing mention in the next book, the new version drops out of sight, never to be used again. Then again, the developing City Watch strand does rest heavily on the public performance of Justice, making the Particulars an anomaly.
Mentioning the Opera Organ, which is a Bloody Stupid Johnson, reminds me that the Librarian also pops into the story, but even though we’re in Ankh-Morpork, home to Unseen University, neither Mustrum Ridcully nor the Faculty appear, having featured in six of the last eight books.
One thing that’s struck me most forcefully on this re-reading, to an extent I’d never fully appreciated before, is how savage Pratchett is with Agnes, and just how much that has to do with her size and weight. The key characteristic with Agnes, indeed the only thing anyone can think of whenever they so much as think of her, is that she is fat. Of course she was always going to be fat: Magrat Garlick was resolutely skinny, with stringy, uncontrollable hair, so Agnes would naturally have to be fat, albeit with good hair.
But Agnes isn’t merely fat. Though Pratchett never directly says it, even through the mouth of the most nasty person in the book, Agnes is beyond ‘fat’. She’s hideously, discomfortingly, unhealthily fat, fat as an object of scorn. It’s plain beyond measure that Agnes is perfectly suited to be the Maiden because, let’s face it, no bloke will ever want to shag that, even in a darkened room.
And everybody keeps saying it, even when they’re being at their nicest, to Agnes’ face, over and over: you’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat fat fat.
I wouldn’t mention this if it wasn’t so emphatic, so unending, and it’s carried on to an extreme which is extraordinarily unusual, in fact wholly uncharacteristic of Pratchett, whose anger and disgust is usually reserved for those who deserve it, and not someone who’s supposed to be a heroine. But there’s no denying it, on a level he may not have consciously understood, Pratchett is disgusted with Agnes, and nowhere is that more drastically demonstrated than in a tiny piece of offhand cruelty near the very end.
Agnes has tried to make a life of her own, and the prospect of it is there. She has her voice, she has talent oozing out of it, though her fatness is a barrier to its proper deployment. Agnes will only ever be the voice for someone more photogenic, like Christeen, a life for which Granny has a disinterested scorn.
So Agnes is beaten, and has to return to Lancre to take up the life ordained for her, but before she can do this she has to not merely be beaten, but broken, defeated absolutely, crushed. Granny and Nanny travel back to Lancre in the comfort and dryness of a coach. Agnes has to walk, drenched to the skin in incessant rain – yes, go on, make the fat girl walk, get some of that pork off her – and when the coach passes her, it passes her. Agnes defied Granny, and has to be made to pay.
And given that Agnes only ever appears in one more book, the cruelty is all the more blatant for having no ultimate purpose.
To end on a brighter note, returning to the Opera aspect, Pratchett, as I said, has great fun satirising its foolishnesses and foibles, especially the outlandish and implausible plots. By the end, though, the real Opera Ghost has found an antidote to Opera, in the form of the invention of musicals, which Pratchett, half-seriously, presents as Opera That People Enjoy And Which Sells.
If you’re going to riff off The Phantom of the Opera, I suppose you’ve got to expect a bit of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, even when, over here, a bit of Lloyd-Webber is way too much. This may be another generational thing, but whilst I don’t like Opera, that’s because it operates on a musical level high above my tastes, and I wasn’t sympathetic to the diss of suggesting that Lloyd-Webberesque stuff is better somehow.
My, I’ve got all creaky about this book, haven’t I? And yet it’s another Pratchett stormer. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
Though I’m obviously not as large as Agnes Nitt…

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