thinking out loud

Ladies and Lasses of DWJ #1: Dulcinea “Nan” Pilgrim

This year’s DWJ March comes with a theme – “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ”. Without daily prompts I’m not sure I can think of something to post every day (or even remember to do so!) but every now and then I’ll be posting on my favourite DWJ female characters this month. And since I read Witch Week the week before last, today’s post will be on Nan Pilgrim.

witchweek

The main thing about Nan is that I think she’s very relatable, and she’s in a book full of unlikable (but still complex and very well-written) characters. I’m not even sure we’re supposed to like her, but I do. In a world where magic is a crime, she’s a descendant of and named after Dulcinea Pilgrim, a historical figure who was fighting for witches’ rights, and of course, burned for it. Nan isn’t as talented as Dulcinea in witchcraft, but her real magic is in words. She loves inventing and describing things, and one of my favourite scenes in Witch Week is when Nan is at the High Table and describes all the food they’re served, calling them “jointed worms” and “tinned peas soaked in sewage.” Of course this doesn’t endear her to her peers, but it shows just how imaginative she is.

It is her talent in description that helps Chrestomanci later in the book, and when her world melts into ours (12B), her magical powers continue to manifest in the form of words.

One of best moments in Witch Week is from Nan’s journal, where she perfectly describes the social hierarchy at school:

I do not know if 2Y is average or not, but this is how they are. They are divided into girls and boys with an invisible line down the middle of the room and people only cross that line when teachers make them. Girls are divided into real girls (Theresa Mullett) and imitations (Estelle Green). And me. Boys are divided into real boys (Simon Silverson), brutes (Daniel Smith) and unreal boys (Nirupam Singh). And Charles Morgan. And Brian Wentworth. What makes you a real girl or boy is that no one laughs at you. If you are imitation or unreal, the rules give you a right to exist provided you do what the real ones or brutes say. What makes you into me or Charles Morgan is that the rules allow all the girls to be better than me and all the boys better than Charles Morgan. They are allowed to cross the invisible line to prove this. Everyone is allowed to cross the invisible line to be nasty to Brian Wentworth.
– Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

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6 thoughts on “Ladies and Lasses of DWJ #1: Dulcinea “Nan” Pilgrim

  1. Nan is such a great and complex character. Usually when I read Witch Week, I dislike her for about two-thirds of the story and then inexplicably change my mind every time. I don’t know if it’s learning more about the way she was treated or if it’s simply disliking the other characters more (I have a feeling it’s this!), but it’s an interesting shift. DWJ is so good at writing loathsome characters but she rarely gets you to like them or care about them. Great post!

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    1. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t dislike her only because I disliked Charles and Brian more! But Nan is definitely an interesting character, especially in a middle grade fantasy.

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  2. I love Nan, maybe because I also had a horrible school experience (though not THAT horrible). The description that you quote is uncannily like my sixth grade class. The part where she describes the school food always makes me laugh out loud.

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    1. I wonder sometimes why I appreciate Witch Week now more than before; the description of school and the “real” boys/girls seemed like exactly the kind of thing I’d like back then! Perhaps it was too close to home, reading it as a kid.

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