I had an odd moment of déjà-vu when I began reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.Its narrative tone reminded me intensely of something else, and I eventually realised that it was Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time (1939). At first glance, it would be difficult to find two novels with less in common but I do think they have certain similarities, which raises some interesting questions about the way in which children’s (or teen or young adult) fiction has or hasn’t changed over the last seventy years. They also have one very obvious difference which will be addressed in due course.
Uttley’s novel is either a ghost story or time-travel, depending on how you choose to frame it; its main character, Penelope Taberner Cameron, is sent to recuperate with relations who live in the ancient Derbyshire farmhouse of Thackers (Dethick, in reality, and now owned by Simon Groom, one-time Blue Peter presenter). Uttley’s childhood memories and her great love of the history and country customs of her home county are very much to the fore in her evocation of life at Thackers, and her emphasis on the persistence of old practices, domestic and religious.
The house was once owned by the Babington family, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth became the focus of a plot, organised by Anthony Babington, to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from imprisonment at nearby Wingfield Manor. It is to this historical moment that Penelope finds herself travelling, a process managed simply by her walking into a room or turning a corner in the passage and finding she has gone back in time. Through her the reader learns the story of Anthony Babington though, perhaps wishing to spare her child readers some anguish, the story closes before Babington is imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed in a fashion so horrible Elizabeth ordered his co-conspirators to be hanged instead. Instead, we are left to breathe easy because snow has concealed the tunnel’s entrance, while Francis, Anthony’s younger brother, who has fallen in love with Penelope, as she has with him, is, we are told, making plans to go to Paris, as the young men of Catholic families so often did.
Seraphina, on the other hand, could be described as an out-and-out fantasy. It deals with the life of Seraphina Dombegh, the only child of a father who is both emotionally absent and over-protective, and a mother who died giving birth to Seraphina. Through her own determination, Seraphina has pursued an education – she is a talented musician – and has found herself a job as assistant to Viridius, the court composer. What drives the novel, however, is the need to discover the murderer of the Prince of Goredd, a mystery in which Seraphina, although by her own admission, a nobody at court, becomes involved. Goredd’s death threatens the peace that has been established between humans and dragons, some of whom live among the humans, taking on human form.
So, let us begin with the similarities between the novels. Both are told in the first person, though from what point in the narrators’ lives is hard to tell. The tone in each case is detached, cool, leaning towards the analytical, as though they are observing the experiences of their younger selves with a certain wry amusement at the follies of youth.
Both protagonists are solitary, bookish, imaginative, the difference being perhaps that for Penelope it is actively her choice and she doesn’t seem to mind either being alone or else being thought odd. Indeed she seems to be proud of her strangeness; in a family of three children, and the youngest to boot, it marks her out, makes her distinctive. Seraphina, on the other hand, is by her own admission incredibly lonely. Her solitary life has been forced on her by her father, for reasons which have only recently become clear to her. Throughout her life he has seemed to obstruct her every wish and she has, according to her own account, been forced to find ways round his prohibitions, often forcing him into acquiescence by directly challenging him.
In older children’s books, serious illness often prompts the transformation which places the child in a position to begin their adventures. In the case of A Traveller in Time, both of Penelope’s visits to Thackers are precipitated by illness, while for Seraphina, witnessing the Treaty procession in which the dragons shed their human form brings about the first of her mysterious visions, and causes a physical transformation, namely the appearance of scales, and hence the revelation that her mother was a dragon and she is thus part dragon. However, whereas for Penelope it is a time of excitement and discovery – her Aunt Tissie knows about the ghosts, is aware that Penelope can see the Babingtons and is thus a kind of guarantor for her safety in that other world – for Seraphina, the dangers only multiply as she must now conceal her scales as well as learn to cope with the side-effects of her visions, which are severe. Her guide in this new world in which she finds herself is her uncle, Orma, a dragon constantly under scrutiny for his undragonlike behaviour (of which more in due course) and thus less helpful as a guarantor of her safety, though he is not entirely without resources.
Another thing which marks both narratives is what one might call privileged access. In Penelope’s case, she has extraordinary contact with all levels of society at Thackers and though it is initially noted that she should not be in this place or that, it is remarkable how quickly everyone accepts her intermittent presence, even though her tie to the place is through Cicely Taberner, the housekeeper and a servant, albeit a very powerful one. One might argue that Penelope’s friendship with Francis Babington grants her a kind of social passepartout but even that friendship is effectively a narrative contingency. The narrative does to some extent acknowledge Penelope’s extraordinary privilege, and at least one character is deeply suspicious of it, although cast as the villain of the piece for making the point that this is all wrong, but Uttley mostly seems engaged in trying to elide or excuse the point.
Seraphina, on the other hand, although she might well have more right to claim some sort of privilege, given her father’s role, given her talent, given her job (and through that access of a sort to the members of the royal family) can’t stop pointing out that she is a nobody. Of course, she has been taught to be as self-effacing as possible as a survival mechanism, but there is something about this constant underlining of the fact that becomes wearing in the narrative. (We see a form of this privilege again in the way in which Seraphina’s dragon blood manifests itself, with her scales neatly, conveniently, appearing on those parts of her body that can be covered; no visible disfigurement will impair her ability to function.)
And the point is, in both narratives, that Penelope and Seraphina need this level of access in order to tell their stories. It’s a matter of narrative contingency but in the case of Penelope in particular we’re being asked to take a rather large step in terms of willing suspension of disbelief in accepting this situation, though it can in part be balanced by the belief that Penelope is dealing with ghosts or, just possibly, figments of her own imagination. For Seraphina, this is real, and indeed in deadly earnest, as her own safety may depend upon it.
And, finally, there is the upstairs-downstairs romance with, in Penelope’s case, the added difficulty of its also being across time and therefore doomed to failure. Which, of course, it should be, the implicit moral in A Traveller in Time being that one must know one’s place, in time and socially. There is no way that Francis and Penelope could ever have married, even had they been in the same time period. The message is clearly that one can dream but that is all one can or should do. Anything else would be inappropriate. For Seraphina, however, things are different: Lucian Kiggs, the bastard prince, can show an interest in her, an interest which she can in theory reciprocate, though of course her mixed parentage may well get in the way of this. On the other hand, Kiggs’s illegitimate status may offset that. Nobility of birth is in this instance trumped by outsider status.
So far, so good. This is a narrative pattern that has demonstrably persisted for more than seventy years, and probably longer than that. It’s a serviceable narrative template, conventional, familiar, if not that demanding and for Uttley’s novel, it provides the solid structure to support the all-important domestic and historical detail. But I find myself wondering why Hartman is still using it.
However, it is here that the stories do begin to diverge, on what might be called the political level. The Babington family and their loyal servants, including the Taberners, are already out of step with the times by keeping to the old Catholic ways, and an educated reader knows that the weight of history is already against them. The plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots will be discovered, the fate of Anthony Babington, and indeed of Mary herself, is already known. Without transforming A Traveller in Time into an alternative history, which is clearly not Uttley’s intention, there is no other way the story can be played out. Whatever Uttley’s political and religious views might be, I am sure her attachment to the story has more to do with its Derbyshire setting and childhood memory than with any need to make redress for the treatment of Catholics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Uttley knows how her story will play out and is content to interpolate it into the broader sweep of history, without questioning its presence.
In Seraphina, things are much more complex and troubling, politically and theologically but first it might be worth looking at the world in which Seraphina lives. The setting might be most aptly described as ‘cathedral city gothic’. At times it reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge’s Towers in the Mist and The Dean’s Watch, and on occasion Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, while at other times there is a quick dash of something steampunkish in the quigs’ love of mechanisms. On the whole, though, we’re dealing with something ‘medieval’ in the sense that it has all the visible trappings of medievalism: characters wear ‘houppelandes’, there are knights, albeit banished ones, and the presence of a Christian church much engaged with saints. Goredd (and note the Celtic inflection of that double d) seems to be a mature medieval world which has persisted for many centuries, although technology seems to have remained mostly in stasis among the humans, and yet, at the same time, there is something that smacks of children’s fairytales; take, for example, the almost ethereal loveliness of Princess Glisselda, whose name smacks of something from Disney. This society may be coherent within fictional terms, but I doubt it persists beyond the book.
And here indeed be dragons. Dragons that can transform themselves into human shape if need be. Dragons that have signed a peace treaty with the humans. Dragons who have sophisticated technologies. Dragons who live among humans, though rather as we might equip a cat with a bell to alert its potential prey, and a leper with a bell to warn people away, so dragons come equipped with bells to alert us to the fact that they are not what they seem when they are moving among humans (except, of course, for the few given permission to conceal their origins). I wonder how many people raised an eyebrow when they read ‘Orma didn’t need facial hair to pass (12)’ or at the point where Orma speculates as to whether the saints whose writings inveigh against human-dragon miscegenation (and this word is used specifically) ‘had experience with half-breeds (36)’. We are no longer in a world where a girl can dally artlessly with an historical character but in a world where something altogether darker is taking place.
But how are we supposed to read the dragons in this novel? Hartman’s choice of terms like passing prompts me to think first of the Jim Crow laws and light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Similarly, when I see ‘half-breed’ I immediately think of how this word is used with reference to Native Americans, and in particular how half-breeds have often been seen as outsiders in native and Anglo-European society. Should I read the quigs, the dragons who cannot transform, as representing for undocumented immigrants and border-crossers? For that matter, given that faint hint of Celticism in Goredd, do we read the dragons as Welsh, oppressed yet again by the English? And that’s before we get on to the form of Christianity practised in the novel, a mix of the Celtic and the Catholic, filled with many obscure saints, not a few of whom appear to be dragon-slayers, or useful when one needs to invoke religion in order to attack the Other. One might in passing think of the right wing’s appropriation of St George’s flag; one might think also of how a crudely God-fearing community turns against a belief.
Dragons are of course the traditional fairytale enemy of humanity. We have dragons who must be appeased with human sacrifice, and dragons who dispense wisdom, dragons who represent order, dragons who symbolise chaos. In Seraphina, we have two extremes. On the one hand, the quigs lurk on the edges of society, like beggars, barely able to communicate with anyone, shunned by pretty much everyone where possible. They are, if you like, the descendants of Tolkien’s Smaug – only the nature of the hoard has changed. On the other, the dragons are disguised as humans, but not so far as I can see, lower-class humans. They have a diplomatic or academic role, mediating between dragons and humans, studying humans. They are represented as unfailingly logical, baffled by the morass of human emotions. They appear to be thinking machines made of meat. They are essentially Other.
The reader’s contact with dragons is of course mediated through Seraphina, the half-breed, positioned as the bridge between the two groups, but it is a very particular view. For all that Seraphina protests that she is a court nobody, for all that we are told that Orma is not a conventional dragon, we are nonetheless dealing with people who possess privilege, who are variously protected, people who are atypical within their communities, and we are then expected to use this as the point from which to extrapolate ideas about all dragons. Even in fictional terms this is too easy, too reflexive.
One might argue that Hartman is making the point that this is what we already do, but that argument can be countered by saying yes, so why do it all over again? One cannot overlook the fact that this novel is told exclusively from a human point of view; even Seraphina is identified from the beginning as a human with dragon scales rather than as a dragon with human skin. We never see the dragons on their home ground. To parley with humans they must mimic humans. The frame of the argument is always human, never dragon. To sympathise with the dragons is not only to fraternise with the enemy but also, perhaps, to become like them. On top of that, the view we receive is broadly that of the governing classes, the insiders. The ‘lower orders’ are anxious about the presence of dragons, even though many of them are far too young to remember the war with the dragons, thus it is not clear what their anxiety arises from. The Sons of St Ogdo roam the streets, pretty much looking for dragons to beat up. One is, I think, invited to substitute other names in that sentence, and to an extent the analogy exists, but it is a crude, one size fits all, approach, and one could wish that Hartman had been bolder in dealing with this. Her intended audience would, I’m sure, be sufficiently sophisticated to handle it.
As if this external struggle weren’t enough, we must also deal with Seraphina’s struggle with the voices in her head. They are not, as we might suppose, hallucinations or visions but actual voices, the thoughts of other human-dragon … what do I call them? Mixed breeds, half breeds, hybrids? Shall I be coy and say ‘those with dragon blood in them’, as though they’ve had a transfusion? Is there even a word for them? Does there need to be? Except, of course, we must delineate the differences, with words, with labels. Hartman settles for ‘half dragon’, a term with pros and cons, depending on your viewpoint.
As it turns out, there’s a fairly large group of half dragons, passing for human, some even in the court itself, but also apparently representing human diversity in that they are male, female, not all from Goredd (at one point Seraphina notes how one of them, Lars, speaks Goreddi as though his mouth is full of pebbles; there is no sign of her attempting to speak Lars’s own language, which seems to be related to German, so we can throw another binary opposition on the rapidly increasing pile). As Seraphina’s hallucinations are transformed into people it is perhaps worth noting that some of them at least exercise autonomy so they aren’t precisely Seraphina’s ‘gang’ but the sense of her authority persists.
And on top of all that, there’s also a murder mystery to solve, almost the least interesting thing about the whole novel, although it is a competently executed mystery thriller. On the other hand, there is no denying that the novel’s ending is as convenient as that of A Traveller in Time. Seraphina and Kiggs may be in love with one another but he is also Princess Glisselda’s fiancé and she is now a terribly young ruler of Goredd and needing all the help she can get. For now, Kiggs and Seraphina must bide their time; this is another relationship which must remain invisible.
So, what to make of Seraphina, a finalist in the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for first novel? Entertaining? Yes, very. For all it seems to reach right back to Uttley’s novel, I like the narrative tone, and Seraphina is, in her way, a narrator appealing in her determination to succeed and in her honesty about her struggle. Intelligent? That’s more problematic in that Hartman is dealing with difficult issues, which I applaud, but in ways that frequently make me deeply uneasy. It’s a well-written novel, one overflowing with thoughts and ideas, but one which always pulls back just when things are getting satisfyingly complicated.
Which leads me finally to ‘progressive’. Is this novel actually progressive? Superficially, it might seem to be, given the issues it appears to be tackling, but as I hope I’ve shown, superficiality is very much the problem. We skate across the surface of the issues rather than going into them in too much detail, and we tackle them from a very particular point of view: bluntly, a white Euro-American point of view. The subaltern dragon is mediated through the mimic human. The assumption, no matter how little it is actually articulated, is that human form trumps dragon form. Dragons need to learn from humans, particularly about such complex things as emotions, but humans seem not to need to take anything from dragons. Even the dragons regard humans as superior.
And then there is the narrative structure: however embellished it might be we still have a narrative shaped by privilege, and a romance that can never come to fruition because of the relative imbalance between the statuses of the two participants.
In all, this is a novel that could have gone far but doesn’t go far enough.