A character I have loved unswervingly since I was seven years old...
Published on: 10 Hydref 2013 Author: Katherine Rundell
For Children's Book Week, author Katherine Rundell tells us about her favourite children's book character - Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci.
Choosing a single favourite children's character is, of course, as impossible as choosing a favourite sibling; but a character I have loved unswervingly since I was seven years old is Chrestomanci, the hero at the centre of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci series.
Chrestomanci (pronounced, the books tell us, as krest-o-mansee) is the most powerful enchanter in all the known worlds, employed to keep a check on the misuse of magic. I encountered him first in Charmed Life, and he has defined glamour for me ever since.
Chrestomanci is a wizard with impeccable good looks, in the style of a matinee idol, with 'dark eyes which seemed to spill brilliance over the rest of his face.' His eyebrows alone would launch ten thousand ships, minimum. His dress sense is superb; he appears most often clad in a glorious range of silk dressing gowns: 'sky blue with dazzling golden panels', a 'tightly belted black silk with a spray of scarlet chrysanthemums down the back.'
We meet him first as an adult in Charmed Life – a supercilious, austerely charismatic guardian to the protagonist Cat, working with his ward to banish of a pair of warlocks. A prequel followed eleven years later in 1988, in which Chrestomanci – real name Christopher Chant – appears as a boy, becoming accidentally involved in an inter-world smuggling ring. Christopher has in common with Just William the ability to get away, if not with murder, at least with being an accessory after the fact. I was a shy child and found Christopher gloriously unapologetic and pragmatic. Chrestomanci appears in five other books, resolving feuds, saving lives, and straightening his hair, 'as smooth and black and shiny as new tar.'
I did not, though, fall in love with Chrestomanci for his looks, but for his manners. He meets the vagaries and evil deeds of other humans with deft politeness, and with a better line in sardonic brevity than any other character I can think of. His style owes something to Cary Grant and Phileas Fogg, something also to Julius Caesar and the calmer of the Old Testament prophets, and quite a lot to the courtliness of Sir Gawain and King Arthur. (It is worth mentioning that Wynne Jones's husband was the great medieval scholar J.A Burrow.)
Chrestomanci has a kind of nonchalance that James Bond, rampant egoist that he is, aims for but never achieves – an ability to materialise at the right moment without fanfare, and without smirking. Chrestomanci is superior to Bond. He is infinitely more human, and the books in which he appears are witty and wise in a way we have not seen replicated since.
Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011. She left behind, in her work, longhand proof that books can be as near and true and generous as humans. And I have always, since that first book, longed for a silk dressing gown, 'wide and flowing, partly orange and partly bright pink, with a scarlet lining.'