Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

Firstly (yes I have been avoiding book blogging despite living in a cosy half-snowed in cottage with nothing to do but read and play with my kitten and husband — I wanted to get more reading in and have even started a bit of writing again! A Victorian Woman in White and Jane Eyre inspired story…)

Ahem, secondly: (yes, I’ve now finished Jane Eyre from last year and ended up loving it again. Phew. For a while I wasn’t sure about Mr. Rochester there, but he and Jane did bring a tear to my eye in the end and Charlotte Bronte is allowed back on my list of favourite authors, in fact I’m becoming quite taken with her and managed to acquire, from a grocery store no less since there is no decent bookshop in the nearest town, A Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a historical novel about the Brontes! Move over, Jane Austen.)

So now it’s thirdly: just read Diana Wynne Jones already, you at the back who have not yet done so. I finally finally got around to Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday and hand on my heart, what a treat. I must of course thank Jenny enormously for the book recommendation, that got the book off the library shelf and into my hands a few weeks ago and yesterday into my brain, heart and many smiles too. It reminds me most of The Princess Bride (my favourite movie as a teenager), a funny fantasy with romance and wonderful adventures along the way. I loved the camaraderie of all the characters living in the castle together, Calcifer the talking fire demon, Michael the wizard’s apprentice, Howl the vain wizard himself (he’s in his bathroom several hours a day and always comes out smelling of flowers) and of course Sophie, who’s been bewitched to look like an old woman. I may have pulled a different Diana Wynne Jones book off the shelf at random last year and thought it a bit silly and odd too, but from the first sentence of this I was hooked:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

I’m also the oldest (of four luckily, one sister and then two brothers) and as a not-domineering oldest (honestly! My mother wouldn’t let me be!), I could so relate to Sophie and loved her journey of learning to have confidence in herself.

I’ve also reread Possession by A.S. Byatt, my first book of the year and finally got through all the pseudo-Victorian poetry that I only skimmed last time and while I enjoyed each part of the book, all the letters and biographies cramming lives of the mind from past and present together, I so wanted the present day story of the two scholars discovering a surprising literary secret about the poets they study to keep unfolding, that all the other stuff, the poems and so forth, were sometimes an unwelcome obstacle. The framing story of the scholars is written as a mystery and I love to fly through mysteries but then there was all this other stuff, invented primary sources about her two invented Victorian poets, that I had to stop for and wade and ponder through, before being able to get back to the flying Roland and Maud parts (I still like them better for reasons below, despite the more heightened romance of the older story). It was a bit annoying, even though I learned to appreciate the poems — really an amazing achievement of Byatt’s — this time around.

There’s so much to think about in Possession that I definitely took my time over it, as I say, the (err, sometimes long-winded?) primary sources out of the past, the diaries, letters and poems of her poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash and their friends and then all the fascinating secondary sources, bits of biographies and literary theories that now overlay them from the scholars’ perspective, seeing these Victorians through Freud, Lacan and lots of liberated sex.

Just in case, primary and secondary sources were terms used in my history classes to denote the material that’s actually from the past versus scholarly speculation about it since then, that builds up over time. You can see the difference between a novel of Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, actually written in the Victorian era versus a historical novel written about that time now, like Possession or The Crimson Petal and the White, which may be well researched but has a different feel, a more modern sensibility about the past. Then there’s also Charlotte Bronte’s poems and novels and letters versus Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, which was still written in the Victorian time period, but is also a secondary source, with the necessary speculation and reputation boosting, about Bronte. But perhaps a primary source about Gaskell, hmm… Perhaps this is just a nerdy side-progression here, but I love how Byatt has used both forms to tell her story, creating a distinct voice for her Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash through his letters and poems and also creating another voice for his obsessively lost in the details biographer, instead of just telling it all in streamlined single authoritative point of view as most historical fiction does. It really shows how academics have to work, picking between the original writing of the person they’re studying and everything that’s been written about them since, gradually covering them in a plaster mold that hardens over time into certain unquestioned stereotypes — Jane Austen the fussy old maid, the Brontes wildly bounding over the moors. Byatt shows her Victorian characters fresh and alive in the moment and also stiff and stuffed inside the cultural labels they are later given, their literary remains slowly dissected or decaying. She reminds us that all these acclaimed biographies and theories are still only just speculation next to the real life once breathed.

I also liked the section of Christabel’s feminist fairy tale poem about Melusine, a fairy fish or serpent thing somewhat like a mermaid and who actually exists in mythology and wanted to be able to read more of Ash’s epic poem Ragnarök (inspired by Norse mythology, as were Lewis and Tolkien) as well. Even though it doesn’t exist outside of the sections A.S. Byatt wrote for him.

And I loved the echoes of Victorian fairy tales that continue to bounce around in the scholars’ world and the quieter love that develops between the modern day couple, in contrast to the passion of the past. I could so relate to Roland and Maud feeling absolutely overwhelmed by all of the sex that surrounds every aspect of our culture, even literature, and wanting to find a simpler connection with someone, that is meaningful but also gives them privacy, respect and calm without it being drenched in the cultural layers of passionate demands and analysis. She implies that our being so aware of sex and everything it can mean, every moment, can stiffen and mold us into mere sexual stereotypes as we are still living, we can become lost in analysis of every sort instead of creating art, something new and original, out of the mess of the subconscious. Byatt wonderfully juxtaposes the imaginary poets wanting to break free of society’s restraints to find passion with the modern academics who want to break free of society’s sexual madness to find something more personal.

They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language… They were theoretically knowing…

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a bench, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Bliss. I don’t have a white bed, but I do have a white view as the snow continues to come down in thick flakes.

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18 thoughts on “Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I enjoyed reading your comments on your re-reading of Possession. I read it a few months ago, for the first time, and admit I too skimmed some of the poetry. At one point, in the midst of reading all the research and references for the poets I actually checked to make sure they weren’t real people. Byatt was certainly thorough!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, Elizabeth. The first time I read Possession I thought the poetry was merely a cheap knock-off of real poets from the period, like Robert Browning and Emily Dickinson, and that reading it would spoil my enjoyment of those poets. Now I see that Byatt has made the poetry her own because the poet characters are unique and distinct too, they aren’t mere copies of Browning or Dickinson with different names (like A Girl in a Blue Dress is about Charles Dickens’ marriage under a different name, say). And despite my grumbling about how the poetry sometimes breaks up the story, it also adds another layer of richness to the story if you take the time to consider it, especially how she wrote it to fit in with other Victorian poets and themes and how it echoes in other parts of the book.

  2. Aarti says:

    I love both these books so much! I completely agree with your comment about the camaraderie of the people living in Howl’s castle. It was so adorable. I just love Howl and Sophie together. I also really liked the movie version of the book!

    I was also a poem-skimmer on my first read of Possession, but I loved the book even without the poetry. I have a feeling even if I read the poetry, I wouldn’t make the effort to really THINK about it that much.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’ll have to reread Howl’s Moving Castle knowing more about all the characters and what they know from the beginning, to consider Howl especially more closely. He is a bit sneaky but Sophie is so endearing. I haven’t seen the movie yet but now it’s just a matter of time.

      The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller helped me to understand Possession more, probably the poetry too. I may post more about that, perhaps today. Once I understood more about what kind of book it was, the poetry made me sense too.

  3. Amateur Reader says:

    If you really want to read more of Ragnarok, then you are ready for William Morris’s The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1877) and his other enormous verse epics.

  4. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Alright, now I desperately want to reread Possession but I know my copy is in California. Drat! Though my toppling tower of library books probably thinks that’s a good thing (yes, I have endowed my library books with the ability to think on their own). I remember favouring the Christabel and Randolph bits over the modern academics when I first read the novel but it has been some time and I really do wonder which pairing I’d prefer now.

    I am sorry to hear that your opinion on Jane Eyre has reverted. This is clearly a lapse 😉 I tried rereading it this fall but nope, couldn’t do it. WHAT AM I MISSING? Everyone else seems to adore it but I think I’m just missing some vital component that allows one to appreciate gothic novels.

    Alright, Howl’s Moving Castle is going on the TBR list. I’ve never read any Diana Wynne Jones, had never really felt the need to, but now you’ve compared this book to the masterful The Princess Bride so I really have no choice. I’m sure I’m going to love it!

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m sure most people probably prefer Christabel & Randolph (I do like thinking of him as Jeremy Northam!), they are more romantic, but I happened to read Possession after being married and before that happened, my husband and I while still friends did sleep quite chastely together, so I think I likely have a soft spot for that sort of behaviour.

      Perhaps you’ve had no bad things happen to you? 😉 Charlotte Bronte is a little bleak and stern and I still haven’t worked myself up to read any Daphne du Maurier yet, despite the Jane Eyre sort of copying thing going on in Rebecca. (I’m really tired while writing this, sorry if it comes across as mere foolishness!)

      Hurrah, I really hope you like Howl’s Moving Castle and Diana Wynne Jones, I can tell she’s a new comfort author for me already.

  5. Annie says:

    You do know that there are two more Wynne Jones stories set in the same world as “Howl’s Moving Castle’, don’t you? ‘Castle in the Air’ and ‘House of Many Ways’. And if you haven’t read the Dalemark series (among her earlier works) then they are very interesting as well.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’ve now been trying to look back over Jenny’s Diana Wynne Jones week last August (which I foolishly ignored as being a little childish at the time!) to see what I should read next, so thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard of those titles now, it’s just a matter of starting somewhere and hopefully finding that same magic again.

  6. Iris says:

    You write? I did not know that. I always admire those who are able to write, I know I could not do it. My writing is very dry and scholarly when it comes down to it, I think.

    On Jane Eyre and the Taste of Sorrow: I am sure you are going to love The Taste of Sorrow. Or well.. I know I did, and Ana did. And who does not trust Ana when it comes to books? I am planning this to be a Brontë year, more than an Austen year (even if Austen is in the lead for now, 1-0).

    And Howl’s Moving Castle is lovely. I cannot thank Jenny enough for introducing me to it.

    I skipped your thoughts on Possession, I want to read my first Byatt without too many previous ideas in my head.

    • Carolyn says:

      As Jane Eyre says about her piano playing, I write a little and wish I did it much more often. I actually took playwrighting in university because I was more into theatre then and had a short play (a WWI time travel romance) performed by a student group. A few years ago I was hard at work on a novel but that’s been abandoned since and now I insecurely push around ideas for things and don’t get too far with them. I’d love to be more creative again.

      Feel free to skip stuff, I ended up writing all that on Possession rather unplanned and it morphed into an essay style thing, which does include minor spoilers. I really think you’ll like Possession when you try it though and I hope that’s soon!

  7. BuriedInPrint says:

    How funny that you’ve found a Jude Morgan novel in a grocery store: clearly I’m buying my groceries in all the wrong places!

    And I’d love to re-read Possession now: you’ve inspired me. I’ve also enjoyed her short stories and think I should probably give them another go as well.

  8. Jenny says:

    Jane Eyre always wows me more than I remember it doing when I reread it — I have to stop myself from turning right back to the beginning and starting all over again.

    Also, yay! Hooray! I love my life right now because I feel like I am suddenly the book blogosphere Diana Wynne Jones patron saint. :p Are you going to read more of her books? She has written dozens of marvelous things.

  9. litlove says:

    What a lovely review! I am a big fan of Howl’s Moving Castle, which I have on audio book from when my son was a little boy. As for Possession, I read it years ago, just after finishing my first degree. I remember being disappointed with it because of all those screeds of poetry! I should read it again one of these days. And Jane Eyre…. well! I have never read it – how about that? I’m sort of saving it up for a rainy day…

  10. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    About re reading…. Jane Eyre I loved the first time as a teenager, i re read it in my mid twenties and couldn’t ‘find’ what I loved before. Maybe now I’m in the next stage of life I might ‘find’ it again…
    Possession – I read whilst working in France and what a delight to discover that part of it was set right where I was working. I could so imagine everything, and managed to visit some of the places mentioned. Definately time for a re read.

  11. Melissa says:

    Yay for your writing, which sounds like an intriguing susbject. I haven’t read, but must, Howl’s. I loved The Princess Bride book when I was younger too, so it soudns promising. I agree that Possession gives you a lot to chew on.

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