Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. So we perhaps have to imagine an anachronistically prosperous Caprona, in the valley of the turbulent Voltava (a witty conflation of words derived from the Italian voltare ‘to turn’ and the Czech river Vltava, ‘wild water’), based on the grander ground plans of Florence and other Tuscan cities.

I’d forgotten how well Jones can sometimes draw you into a story before you’re aware of it, even on a second reading. Borrowing from the familiar trope in Romeo and Juliet, with its two noble but feuding families alike in dignity, The Magicians of Caprona is narrated from the viewpoints of young Tonino and Paolo in the Montana family, which suspects arch-rivals the Petrocchi family of plotting the downfall of their state. Needless to say, the Petrocchi clan believe the same of the Montanas. The whole is complicated by the secret romance between two members of the opposing families.

Interweaving this trope are other strands: the White Devil, Punch and Judy, and the Angel of Caprona. The first obviously draws its inspiration from Webster’s revenge tragedy The White Devil, itself based on a Jacobean proverb which declared that “the white devil is worse than the black,” the White Devil of Jones’ story dissembling in just such a way. The second thread concerns the Punch and Judy puppet theatre. Originally the show was based on Italian Commedia dell’Arte marionettes, but in England evolved into the glove puppet version; in Jones’ alternate world fiction the glove puppets have become familiar in Italy, and the Duke of Caprona’s childish obsession with this miniature world is employed to great effect, both in the plot and in its metaphorical guises.

Another thing I loved about the book’s plot was the concept of the song ‘The Angel of Caprona’ which, true to the root of the word ‘enchant’, had the power to effect magic. The Latin text was concocted by Diana’s husband John (to whom the book is dedicated), helped by another academic the late Basil Cottle (one of whose lectures I remember attending when I lived in Bristol, Diana’s home). The words conveniently fit to the Medieval Latin hymn Tantum Ergo Sacramentum (which I used to sing when I was an angelic Catholic schoolboy; alas, now I am neither angelic, Catholic, nor a schoolboy). Even the English ‘translation’ earlier in the book fits to the tune. (It would be interesting to know if the words in I maghi di Caprona, the 2002 Italian translation, also scanned to fit the same tune.)

Like the appearance of the figure of Chrestomanci, the Angel of Caprona itself functions as an expected deus ex machina (though its existence sits uncomfortably with Jones’ professed atheism) in the climax of the story. On one visit to Tuscany I remember being impressed by the giant angel at the top of Lucca’s cathedral façade, and that may have been an inspiration for Caprona’s angel. Or it could have been the gilded angel on the spire of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Or, closer to home, the massive bronze angel on the façade of Coventry Cathedral in the West Midlands.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression, however, that, wonderfully rich though the book is in its diverse cultural references, that these were essential for its appreciation as a work of fiction. Especially for its young target audience The Magicians of Caprona has to work on its own merits, drawing the reader in with its sympathetic characters, its narrative power and its language. On the basis of these alone I’m confident that it does succeed for young readers of all ages.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that, as this is a title in Jones’ Chrestomanci series, there is of course an appearance by Chrestomanci himself, at the highpoint of the story; and that one of the characters puts in an appearance in a later short story, Stealer of Souls.

My edition has a cover illustration which is inaccurate and misleading. It presumably shows the duel between the heads of the two magical households, Casa Montana and Casa Petrocchi but in such a way that displays the influence of the Harry Potter books: the duellists wear hoods and use wands, familiar from Rowling’s wizarding world but entirely inappropriate for the Chrestomanci tales where wands are significantly absent. Earlier and later British editions don’t make the same mistake, revealing that the cover artists had actually read the book carefully.

Review first published March 2013

10 thoughts on “Alike in indignity

  1. =Tamar

    Somewhere I can’t find right now, but it was online, I read that Diana Wynne Jones made up the name Caprona and was very surprised to learn that it was a real place.


    1. Yes, I was surprised too, but was glad I checked because there is nearly always a reason for every name that she gives to a place or a person — she weaves her observations and experiences and her life into her stories, as every true writer does.


      1. =Tamar

        No, what I poorly expressed was: Diana Wynne Jones herself said she was surprised when she found out it was a real place. She thought she had independently made up the name.
        However, I find on Google that the placename is in Dante [ Commedia (Hell, C. xxi.)], and she was extremely well-read, so maybe the name stuck in her mind.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was prompted to re-read Jones’ books by participating in DWJ March, and I had forgotten (even though I have re-read many of my favourites) just how fantastic her books are, and how one can read them with enjoyment and attention as an adult, as well as when a child. Your review reminds me of the complicated relationships of this book, and just how terrifying the Duchess is.


  3. I find the Punch & Judy sequence deliciously creepy, and loved the huge noisy families depicted here, as they remind me of my mother’s side of the family (My dad also has a large family, but they’re notably less loud.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, we too had big noisy extended family get-togethers when I was a kid, but I found them a bit overwhelming — I was a rather over-sensitive and inward-looking child. Now, of course, with my own family of kids, their partners and our grandkids get-togethers are altogether much more enjoyable — for all, I hope!


  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    One of Jones’s somewhat simpler works, but I find it beautifully constructed and satisfying. For anyone who loves cats and music as well as magic, it’s an ideal fantasy. I want a holiday in Caprona!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cats, music and magic — well, Rome has loads of cats (mostly feral, many south of the Forum), Venice has music round every corner it seems to me, but magic? Yes, Caprona it has to be!


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