The other magical boarding school

Let’s talk about the other magical boarding school. Not Hogwarts. Not Greenlaw College. Not Wyvery College.

Chrestomanci Castle.

The world was first introduced to Chrestomanci Castle in 1977, when Charmed Life, Diana Wynne Jones’s first Chrestomanci book, was published. Cat (Eric) Chant and his sister, Gwendolen, are orphaned when an old paddle steamer sinks, and move in with their neighbour, Mrs. Sharp. Cat is rather cowed, and clings to Gwendolen. Gwendolen, on the other hand, is a remarkable witch with ambitions, which she begins to fulfil when she writes a heart-wringing letter to Chrestomanci and gets herself, and Cat, invited to live at Chrestomanci Castle.

Chrestomanci is the title of the nine-lifed enchanter who is employed by the government to make sure that witches, warlocks, and the like do not get out of hand:

“The job Chrestomanci has is to make sure the world isn’t entirely run by witches. Ordinary people have rights, too. And he has to make sure witches don’t get out into worlds where there isn’t so much magic and play havoc there. It’s a big job.” – Michael Saunders (Charmed Life p. 247)

Chrestomanci Castle is both Chrestomanci’s headquarters, filled with staff who help him do his job (generally witches, enchanters, and enchantresses), his family (wife Millie, who is quite the enchantress herself, and two plump children, Julia and Rodger, who most distinctly do not get on with Gwendolen), and young, powerful magic users – at the moment, only Julia, Rodger, and Gwendolen.

Cat can’t do magic.

Cat’s problems are rather bigger than his lack of magical talent, which doesn’t bother him, anyway. Gwendolen loses her temper with the intimidatingly vague Chrestomanci. Chrestomanci, draped in a series of brightly-coloured, elaborately-embroidered dressing gowns, doesn’t seem to notice, but Gwendolen means war.

“It’s a pity,” said Chrestomanci, “that you were taught by a hedge-wizard. You’ll have to unlearn such a lot. And it’s a pity too that I’ve no right to open your letters. I hope you don’t get many, or my conscience will give me no peace.”

“You intend to go on?” Gwendolen said. “Then watch out. I warn you!”

“That is very considerate of you,” said Chrestomanci. “I like to be warned.” (Charmed Life, p. 86)

Like all of Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, Charmed Life plays with genre and literary convention, and is chock-full of humour. Charmed Life is also the story which introduces (if I recall correctly) alternative history as the structural basis of a multiverse to children’s literature.

The Chrestomanci series was not written in chronological order, which goes:

  • The Lives of Christopher Chant
  • Conrad’s Fate
  • Charmed Life
  • The Magicians of Caprona
  • [several short stories]
  • The Pinhoe Egg

I’m not sure where Witch Week fits into the chronology. DWJ’s official site has some fan-written reviews. If you want a laugh, look up images of Charmed Life covers. The series has been published into many languages, and the covers vary widely. Some are, er, interesting.

Happy reading!

 Charmed Life - new

(This isn’t the cover I have, though, so if you look for the quotes in this book, they’ll be off a few pages.)

* Greenlaw College is from Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics; Wyverly College is from Garth Nix’s Sabriel.

5 responses to “The other magical boarding school

  1. You’ve inspired me to finally read some of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, starting with “Charmed Life”. A very good friend of mine has been a fan for years but I never knew where to start. Your review has been a big help!

    • Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite authors, and I’m glad you’re going to read her books. The great thing about beginning with Charmed Life is that even though it isn’t the first, chronologically, you get to meet Cat and see what life in Chrestomanci Castle is like (it gets even better in The Pinhoe Egg), and then go back and meet the current Chrestomanci before he grew up. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. I adore this series and will forever love the librarian who gave them to me. I was so disappointed when they changed the illustrations in my edition for the last book… Now they. Do. Not. Fit. Together. Why? Why do publishers do this?

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