The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ: Howl’s Moving Castle

I love this version of The Witch of the Waste, by rozefire on deviantART.
I love this version of The Witch of the Waste, by rozefire on deviantART.

This month is, of course, DWJ March, an all-month celebration of Diana Wynne Jones, hosted by WeBeReading. The theme this year is “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ” which is a little overwhelming because A) Diana Wynne Jones populates all of her novels with many fantastic characters and B) as you would expect, there are some females in there.

I’m going to try to post throughout the month, and select one book to focus on to showcase some of the amazing female characters DWJ created. For my first post, I picked Howl’s Moving Castle, as it’s my favorite and also the one I’m most familiar with. Below I’ve tried to show the range of characters in this novel without belaboring the point too much.

The protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is one of my favorite characters in literature of all time, and obviously my favorite in this one. A couple of quotes about some of her key parts of her personality:

‘That was Sophie’s trouble. She was remorseless, but she lacked method.’

And

‘“I’m the eldest!” Sophie shrieked. “I’m a failure!” “Garbage!” Howl shouted. “You just never stop to think!” …. “And you’re too nice,” he added.’

Sophie is hardcore. She’s not a ‘Strong Female Character’ trope, she doesn’t kick butt warrior-princess-style; instead she focuses on whatever she wants to accomplish and then GOES FOR IT with a fierceness that is both fun and intimidating to watch. She is also very compassionate, even to her greatest rivals – she wants Lettie to be happy, even at a big personal cost to herself, and she doesn’t try to ruin Miss Angorian’s life, either.

Speaking of Lettie, one of Sophie’s sisters, she could have been a Mean Girl sort of character, beautiful and boy-crazy and out to take everything good from everyone else. But instead (even though she is beautiful and flawless and boys love her) all she really wants is to become a powerful witch.
‘Lettie looked up, glowing with health and beauty which even sorrow and black clothes could not hide. “I want to go on learning,” she said.’

Martha Hatter, Sophie’s other sister, is good-hearted and affectionate.
“But I discovered that people like me—they do, you know, if you like them—and then it was all right.”
I love how she gets all judgy about Fanny but it’s more her being brutally honest about other people’s flaws than it is about Martha disliking Fanny.

Fanny Hatter is Sophie and Lettie’s step-mother. She is neither the stereotypical Evil Stepmother, nor a flawless Perfect Mother trope; instead she’s just a middle-aged lady with her own life and flaws.
‘Being old gave her an entirely new view of Fanny. She was a lady who was still young and pretty, and she had found the hat shop as boring as Sophie did. But she had stuck with it and done her best, both with the shop and with the three girls—until Mr. Hatter died. Then she had suddenly been afraid she was just like Sophie: old, with no reason, and nothing to show for it.’

Mrs. Pentstemmon, Howl’s teacher, is another older lady character and, though she clearly cares about Howl, is frightening. Fortunately, she uses her powers for good.
‘Mrs. Pentstemmon put both gold mittens on top of her stick and canted her stiff body so that both her trained and piercing eyes stared into Sophie’s. Sophie felt more and more nervous and uneasy. “My life is nearly over,” Mrs. Pentstemmon announced. “I have felt death tiptoeing close for some time now.”’
She does her best to help Sophie and Howl, in spite of her rigid views on the use of magic.

Mrs. Fairfax is another teacher in the story, this time Lettie’s. If you haven’t noticed yet, there are a LOT of mentor-women characters in this novel. Sophie feels some jealousy that Lettie is able to study under her; Mrs. Fairfax is clever in her own way, rigid in her own way, and a chatterbox.
‘She was one of those plump, comfortable ladies , with swathes of butter-colored hair coiled round her head, who made you feel good with life just to look at her.’

Miss Angorian is a terrifying school-teacher demon lady, and if that doesn’t sound like a good time, I don’t know what to say to you.
‘For a fierce schoolteacher, Miss Angorian was astonishingly young and slender and good-looking. She had sheets of blue-black hair hanging round her olive-brown heart-shaped face, and enormous dark eyes. The only thing which suggested fierceness about her was the direct and clever way those enormous eyes looked and seemed to sum them up.’
Miss Angorian is developed just enough to be mysterious and interesting, and pulls off several roles within the story simultaneously, including but not limited to both rival and damsel.

The Witch of the Waste, the villain of the book, is terrifying, formidable, beautiful, and honestly pretty awesome.
“I always bother when someone tries to set themselves up against the Witch of the Waste,” said the lady. “I’ve heard of you, Miss Hatter, and I don’t care for your competition or your attitude. I came to put a stop to you. There.”
She is irredeemable, but she is also a foil to Howl, the hero: the same event happened to both of them, and he could end up just like her if he doesn’t try to redeem himself in time. Even more importantly, Howl could just as easily have ended up the heartless villain and the Witch the hero.

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One thought on “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ: Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. I am always surprised by how realistic Fanny is. You want to be mad at her for not being super supportive and engaged but you can understand why she’s not. I think that’s something you don’t get from many other children’s authors. It’s a little bit cynical to write about realistic character flaws, especially in adults (kind of showing kids “hey, look, adults will probably disappoint you because they’re only human”) but it’s also trusting the young readers with characters that have some depth to them. I love it.

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