Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1982)
a parallel world
where they persecute witches
and children aren’t safe
Witch Week was the first Chrestomanci books to focus solely on a female protagonist’s point of view, and is much the better for that. It feels as though Diana Wynne Jones has included a lot of autobiographical material in her treatment of Nan, an orphan witch girl who is at Larwood House, a boarding school in Hertfordshire. Nan is much more of a rounded character than the young male leads in previous books in the sequence, Christopher, Cat and Conrad, who sometimes come across as pleasant wimps or clueless actors in the unfolding story. True, Nan is largely pleasant and clueless in her attempt to discover the truth about the magic that is happening around her, but I get more of a sense of a real person here than the ciphers that are Christopher, Cat and Conrad.
The premise of the story is that Nan and her classmates exist in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists. When it is suggested around Halloween that someone in class 2Y is a witch, the ball starts rolling that inevitably leads to a literal witch-hunt, in which not only Nan but several other students are put under suspicion. Add to that the tedium of lessons, the institutionalised bullying and the sense of control slipping away, and we have the inevitable conflicts that drive the story forward towards its denouement and final resolution. Along the way we have Jones’ confident handling of themes, personalities and atmosphere that makes her writing such a joy to read, not to mention the puns and other examples of humour that contrast with the fear that grips the heart when witch-burnings are mentioned.
I’m going to mention the dreaded P word, only because so many readers seem to latch on to the very superficial similarities with the Harry Potter books. But Larwood House is the antithesis of Hogwarts (as well as significantly predating the appearance of Rowling’s books): magic is discouraged rather than encouraged. Interestingly, there is the similar-sounding and equally unpleasant Lowood House in Jane Eyre which many commentators point to as an influence, but I’ve also found out that there is a Larwood School, founded in 1971, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire (the county where Witch Week is set); however, this is a modern building, purpose-built for primary schoolchildren with special needs, and though witches could be said to have special needs in this Series 12 world I don’t think that was what Jones had in mind when this novel appeared in 1982.
I loved the final resolution, though I was still left with the logical confusion familiar from other DWJ books. If that world split off from our own world (12B is it?) in 1605 when Parliament was blown up, why was it necessary to merge the two worlds again when it wasn’t necessary to do the same with others in Series 12? But, since Chrestomanci is involved, there will be a rationale of sorts involved. One hopes.
Finally, I see that in North American books the pupils are in class 6B, which makes them sixth grade and therefore 11 years old, going on 12. In the UK the pupils are in 2Y which, in the old system before the National Curriculum was established in the late eighties, would have made them a year older, 12 going on 13. The UK version seems to me to render the children more believable — more mature, more bolshie, less awkward than if they had just moved from primary school.
Review first published March 2013