Ever since the book A Discovery of Witches debuted in 2011, the All Souls franchise has taken on a life of its own with devoted fans all over the world. The TV show and annual All Souls Con—which the Science History Institute occasionally hosts—is based on the trilogy of books about witches, vampires, and demons by author Deborah Harkness.
Distillations sat down with Jen Daine and Cait Parnell, the hosts of the All Souls podcast, Chamomile and Clove; art historian Stephenie McGucken; and medievalist actor, journalist, and author Sarah Durn to talk about the series’ alchemical roots, the material culture in the TV show, and how the book’s found-family theme mirrors the fandom.
Alexis Pedrick: I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Barry Drago. And this is Distillations.
Alexis Pedrick: Today we’re gonna talk about The All Souls Trilogy. Which are a series of fantasy books by Deborah Harkness. A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and Book of Life have now been adapted into a TV series on Sundance channel. And a yearly conference that we occasionally host at the Science History Institute.
Lisa Berry Drago: Like all good fantasy stories, there’s witches, vampires and demons in the world of All Souls. They live among regular folks but they do so in secret. The creatures know about each other but the humans don’t know about them, and they wanna keep it that way. At what point, it’s established that the creatures might’ve made up to 50% of the population in the past, but they’ve been dying out. And no one is quite sure why.
Alexis Pedrick: The main character is Diana Bishop, who like Deborah Harkness is a historian of science, but also a witch. Her main love interest is a vampire, Matthew Clermont. The story starts in modern day Oxford England and quickly takes us all over the world, and all over time. Yes, time travel is involved.
Lisa Berry Drago: Just as a note, this podcast is definitely going to contain some spoilers. The conversation will mostly focus on books one and two, and season one and two of the show. So if you haven’t seen them, you’ve been warned.
Alexis Pedrick: I wanna quickly break down the plot of Discovery of Witches before we jump into other conversations. It’s a love story. Diana and Matthew fall for each other. But within that container is a whole lot of other stuff. After Diana calls up a mysterious book in the Oxford Library, she sends it back without truly understanding its magic. Now Matthew tells her the book is really important to the survival of the three species and the congregation wants it. So the two, along with a cast of side characters, spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to harness Diana’s magic and get it back.
Lisa Berry Drago: Matthew tries to protect Diana from the covenant. And without really telling her all that much about the covenant, he takes her to a castle in France to meet his mother Ysabeau. Ysabeau de Clermont is a French vampire who sired Matthew de Clermont. She had three sons with her former husband, Phillipe de Clermont. Diana gets kidnapped by another witch and questioned. And throughout the book, Diana begins to have magical experiences and begin to feel her power surging, but she doesn’t really have any control over it. Eventually Matthew and Diana returned to New York with Diana’s aunts, Em and Sarah, where they all come up with a plan. They’ll travel back in time to find a witch teacher for Diana and to find the Ashmole 782.
Alexis Pedrick: To help us break down this incredible sci fantasy series, we gathered four experts and enthusiasts. Jennifer Daine has a BFA in creative writing and is one half of the duo behind the All Souls podcast, Chamomile & Clove. This podcast has published more than a 100 episodes breaking down the books and TV shows, chapter by chapter and episode by episode. This podcast has also interviewed Deborah Harkness, the creators of the TV show and art historians. Hi Jen.
Jennifer Daine: Hi.
Lisa Berry Drago: Cait Parnell is a lawyer by day and podcaster by night. A master of plots. Cait is the other half of Chamomile & Clove. Hi, Cait.
Cait Parnell: Hello.
Alexis Pedrick: Dr. Stephenie McGucken has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis examined the representations of women in early medieval English manuscripts, considering where, how and why they were portrayed. As well as what the depictions reveal about the audiences who use the manuscripts. She also runs the website, theartofallsouls, which breaks down historical references in the books chapter by chapter. Hi Stephenie.
Stephenie McGucken: Hi.
Lisa Berry Drago: And Sarah Darren is a journalist, actor and author of A Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy. She’s a medievalist who’s written extensively about popular culture portrayals of alchemy, including of course, Discovery of Witches. Hi Sarah.
Sarah Darren: Hello.
Lisa Berry Drago: All right. So, we’ve heard about the books being described as Harry Potter for adults. How do we feel about this characterization?
Jennifer Daine: Yeah, you know, I, I was actually, I was giving a thumbs down, but no, I realized nobody can see it [laughs]. Um, you know, I think I see why people do those types of, you know, comparisons. Um, and we find that a lot in media, especially things that have been adapted to television, like publicists and things. We’ll try to find some kind of comparison to draw people in, but I really don’t feel, yes, there’s magic, but I feel beyond that there are few things that tie, tie those two things together. Except for perhaps the found family aspect. Um, I could see that connection, but otherwise, no [laughs].
Sarah Darren: Yeah. I think that there is a certain, there’s a certain tendency, I agree with Jen, to take something that people are already willing to consume and to try and draw parallels between that and another piece of literature or fiction or television. But I think that, you know, to the extent that they’re both stories that deal with magic, that deal with sort of a chosen one trope, and that occasionally tread into, if not a cosmic battle between good and evil, then, you know, sort of this, this lifelong struggle of what it means to live a good and just life in an unjust world. Or to deal with questions of life and death that are bigger than any of us. I think that those are the thematic parallels, but I think that there’s also a tendency to compare this series to Twilight for adults, just because it contains vampires.
And I don’t know that I think that that is apt either. As we sort of discussed before we began ruling, I think there are far more parallels and other kinds of sort of genre fantasy fiction for adults that frankly don’t get enough attention. I have an entire separate rant about sort of the coding of fantasy that is written by women, primarily as being sort of shoved in a corner with either young adults or by being likened to Harry Potter. And I think that’s just kind of a publishing and marketing problem. But generally speaking, I would say that while some of those comparisons are apt, others are not, and there’s a great deal more nuance to it.
Lisa Berry Drago: I feel like kind of difference in the, almost the mindset, the presentation of the books, that there’s a real sense of historical thinking in them that, that to me separates them from some of the other things in the fantasy genre. From Harry Potter, from Twilight. It’s really Diana’s characterization as a historian and her historical thinking that to me shapes some of the story. How do you feel about the difference that this is almost history fiction [laughs] that happens to have a vampire in it to some degree?
Cait Parnell: The article I wrote for Gizmodo, which was a few years ago, about Discovery of Witches and sort of the historical things that Deborah Harkness was working on in the books, I think is what makes it so exciting as somebody who’s like really a history nerd at heart. One of the most exciting things I discovered in that article is that the Ashmole manuscript that features so heavily in the story, in the book, in the TV show, um, is actually missing from the Bodleian Library. There is an actual 782, I think is the number, um, that actually went missing in the 1600s. So she’s like drawing on a real thing with that. Obviously it’s probably doesn’t contain witches and warlocks and whatnot, but like it was missing.
And there’s actually a really interesting description because it was cataloged in 1845 that says, I was actually just looking at it, it basically was, um, it describes it as missing, but it says that it was about, uh, sort of the history of man an, an alchemical version and like a literal version or something like that. Um, which I was sorta like, that’s sorta what the book is in this, in the Discovery of Witches series. And that was really fun. So I think she’s definitely playing with like historical fiction, but yeah, it does include just vampires and witches and demons.
Stephenie McGucken: Well, I was gonna say, um, I’ve always sort of pitched it as a, a historian getting to answer research questions that are impossible to answer. So it’s not just the manuscript, there’s a lot of little Easter eggs for history people and art history, obviously with me. And I think that sort of pitch goes a long way to getting at the historical aspects, the fantasy aspects. ‘Cause Deb herself has said, “Oh, what would vampires be like in real life?” And then sort of built from that. So I think all of that, there is a lot of parallels and a lot of different things, but we’re also dealing with an actual historian writing. Which means some of it’s going to be based in ways that other authors just aren’t going to do because that’s not how their mind works.
Alexis Pedrick: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. So let’s talk about our historian [laughs]. Let’s talk about Diana Bishop. Um, she’s the historian of science and she’s also a witch, but she shuns her magic at first because her parents were witches and they ended up dead. So instead she turns to alchemy to research, to history because it’s really got a way of exploring magic on her own terms. So let’s talk Diana, what’s all of your takes on Diana as a character?
Jennifer Daine: You know, I think Diana is a really interesting character in a lot of ways. Um, I think she has particularly in the three books, this incredible growth arc as a character that I find really fascinating. Um, and it really draws me to her. Well, I don’t identify with her. You know, she’s not my favorite character in the books. I think, um, she’s really interesting, particularly, as you mentioned, this idea that she doesn’t practice magic, but she studies alchemy. And kind of excuses it, you know, to herself as being like, I picked the thing furthest away from magic. And you’re reading the book and you’re like, well, did you though? Um [laughs], and, uh, you know, and this kind of journey that she has to go through and processing, you know, all of this trauma that’s happened to her and accepting her identity and coming out on the other side is just this kind of, you know, this boss, you know, the, the witchiest witch, as we like to say on the podcast [laughs].
Sarah Darren: So we talk all the time about women’s role in the history of science and how, you know, women have always been doing science, but we just, we haven’t talked about it. We don’t, we don’t give them credit, like right? We have all these, these stories we have about like what boxes women fit into. And the thing that I kind of love about Diana as a character is, she is a historian. She is a witch, she’s doing alchemy, but like the key to her magic is that it’s her desire made real.
And so it is her ability to articulate what she wants and what she needs, and for her to speak out. And I just, I love that, that like, of course the magic, like the magic of the witchiest witch as you would say, would be [laughs] to express what she wants and to have that make it real. Like that just, it’s my favorite thing about her as a character. Like, and I, I know that’s not like in her like personality or what have you, that’s like maybe like kind of like a plot device, maybe more so, but, um, yeah, that just, every time I read it, I just kinda squee [laughs].
Cait Parnell: Well, at the end of the day, I, I, I think that it’s fair to say that this is really a story about identity and belonging. And so not just the becoming of who Diana is by the end of book three, but to your point, the idea that, uh, when you’re able to express, articulate and therefore realize your desires, you come fully into your identity and yourself, and you find your people and you create the world that you want. Um, and you find the family that you want. Which is really sort of the, the end goal of this series. Um, is Diana becoming the best, fullest, most intentional version of herself. And finding people who see her for everything that she is, the light and the dark, um, the, the human and the witch, the, uh, incredible sort of leader and diplomat and problem solver, uh, that she is capable of being. And so I think that those are, those are very true themes that can be extrapolated, uh, from her character journey.
Alexis Pedrick: Absolutely. I don’t wanna like cut anybody off if you have some Diana thoughts, but also, you know, we should talk about Matthew too [laughs].
Sarah Darren: Well, Jen and I like to, like to joke that, uh, you know, we talk about Matthew a lot and not always in the best of terms. I mean, he’s basically the antagonist of book two, so, um [laughs], we’re not always thrilled with him.
Lisa Berry Drago: Oh, I liked that. I liked that. I guess what we should say for listeners, so Matthew Clermont is a 1,500 year old vampire. He’s a Catholic vampire, which I have to admit, I didn’t even know was possible. Uh, and he’s searching for the same book that Diana is looking for. And spoiler alert for some people, he suffers from a thing called blood rage, which means he loses control. And it leads him to have violent impulses, which he displays it, in lots of different times throughout the books. So how, some, some better, some worse [laughs]. So how do we feel about Matthew? I mean, he’s, he’s a complicated character. I, I think Diana is too. I think they all are, but, um, yeah, yeah, what, how do we feel about Matthew?
Stephenie McGucken: I think it’s interesting that Matthew, I mean, we were talking a little bit about Outlander before we started recording. And Jamie in that series is also, I mean, he’s not 1,500 years old, but he does, he’s from the past. And it’s almost interesting that we have to put the male, like he is some like older version of the patriarchy that then they’re like more contemporary woman has to like break down and educate. Which I think is just, I think that’s a trope that plays out a lot. It’s almost like, and it’s a lot of times by female authors, it’s like, hey, patriarchy, I’m a modern woman. We need to change this. Let’s do better [laughs].
Alexis Pedrick: Exactly. Patriarchy is like, well, I guess it’s been 1,500 years. Let’s see.
Sarah Darren: I mean, as Jen and I have discussed sort of extensively over the past couple of years. We think that Matthew is best when we are treating him as an ancient being in pain who is learning to live in the present again. You know, someone who has sort of stood outside of time because of trauma and loss and is coming back into himself. And so when we’re connecting with that aspect of Matthew, I think that we can do some really interesting things because Matthew has great qualities. He has intelligence, he has humor. He has wit, he has kindness. He has compassion. And then on the underside, you have some, some traits that we really don’t talk about, not just because of, um, sort of the sanest angle that, uh, the discussion of blood rage always raises. Um, but then also the, um, th- the fact that, you know, in 2021, we’re different conversations about what it means to have a relationship, even a fictional one with someone who displays some of these obsessive, possessive, overbearing, violent etcetera traits.
And like one of the reasons that Jen and I started talking about this series, is because we think it’s interesting to talk about these narratives and why they’re so infinitely, repeatable and consumable. But also what we take from them, what they tell us about ourselves and the, the relationships we actually want from real human beings. And the relationships or ideas that we want to explore in a safe, fictional space about what is, and isn’t okay with us. And so I think Matthew is a very interesting character. I have a great deal of love for him and interest in him. I do find it extremely frustrating when he doesn’t realize that he’s not the protagonist. And even more frustrating when Diana doesn’t realize that he is not the protagonist [laughs].
Jennifer Daine: Yeah. I, uh, I agree with you, um, Sarah, that, y- you know, like, oftentimes it’s true in these books. And I, I think that has a lot to do with the patriarchy itself, you know, in, in the real world. Which is that you kind of have like the older man who has quote, unquote more experienced with a world or is from a different era, uh, that’s, you know, older than the female character. And this kind of like fresh female character has to come in and sort of like shake the dust off. And then, that is what we see oftentimes with Matthew as he’s very crusty, he’s very old, um, particularly in book two, he can be very terrible.
Um [laughs], but, you know, his arc through the, through the books is really interesting as well. Interestingly, with the TV show, we have kind of, I hesitate to call them a softer Matthew in the TV show, but they’ve certainly kind of sanded off a lot of his edges to make him more palatable for the TV audience. Um [laughs], which I find to be very interesting. And I’m happy that they did that actually, because, um, for me, and I know for some readers, there are times when Matthew was quite unforgivable. And, you know, I find it really difficult to grapple with some of, um, some of his, uh, is, ish that he brings to the, the books. So [laughs], yes.
Lisa Berry Drago: I am, I’m struck by something you said, because it sort of feels like, Diane is a historian, right? And as a historian, what’s, what, like, what’s the ultimate fantasy? What if you could just know everything in history, how it happened, exactly who was involved, how it played out. What if you could get to the right answers, right? We talk about all this stuff in history about sort of like what’s true, quote unquote. And in these books, Diane is essentially living that fantasy through like her interactions with these vampires, through Matthew, right?
Like at any point in time, Matt can be like, “Oh yeah, you know, that’s true but, uh, so-and-so was not in the room. They were actually like in the backyard doing whatever.” Right [laughs]? And, and, and I feel like in some ways, as you’re like reading through these books and thinking through the plot and thinking through these characters, they’re also grappling with like, oh, what if you had that fantasy and it was true, and then it was not all it’s cracked up to be? Like, maybe we actually, maybe it’s good that we can’t get to like real truth. Like that we don’t know everything that happened ever to every person and who was involved. Um, because, you know, if you are Matthew and you’re holding all that information in your head, man, that can really mess you up and make for some complications.
Jennifer Daine: Well, that reminds me of like, I loved the scene in the season where Matthew sort of showing Diana tutor London. And she’s like, “Oh, it doesn’t smell. I’ve always told my students it smells.” And you see her like making notes to adjust her lectures once she’s back in the present. And that sort of like, what do you expect the past? And then, you know, it leaves the question open of like, once Diana has figured out her, um, time-traveling abilities, like how many times is she just gonna pick up and go do something? And then like the fact that she’s also-
Lisa Berry Drago: It’s like every footnote [laughs].
Jennifer Daine: … Yeah. Right? It’s like, um, I can’t explain why I know this, but just trust me. I was there. Well, by the end of Shadow of Night, she also like is changing history intentionally, like with the telescope, with all of the things that they’re locating in the present that poor Marcus, who is my favorite character, is having to kind of clean up ’cause Ysabeau told him to. And this sort of idea that like, of all people who should know not to be changing things, it’s the, it’s the person that’s doing it. And so like all of that. And then the fact that Matthew is quite indulgent with that as well, kind of like, oh, well, she’s a historian. She’s going to be annoying sometimes with these questions, but also like, it’s quite sweet that he plays into that. And it’s like, oh, I’m going to show you around. But also like, I feel like sometimes Matthew enjoys proving her wrong. Like the historian who thinks she knows this absolute truth that you were talking about, and then suddenly Matthew is like, “Well, actually… Like man speaking without the mansplaining.
Lisa Berry Drago: I would just love for another 15 year old, a 100 year old vampire to come in and just sort of be like, “Well, Matthew, actually, you were a little drunk, so you don’t remember. I wasn’t in the yard. I was in the room. I was just standing behind you and you didn’t see me.” [Laughs]. Like, like, I like all the perspectives that could, because it’s such a huge cast of characters, right? Like there’s an enormous, enormous, like sort of, you know, his entire vampire family quote, unquote, her entire witch family that grows and grows and grows. I think that, well that was one of the most fascinating things to me. Is that sort of extended universe of all the different people that you, that you meet, all the different perspectives. People who have been enemies and friends, and enemies and friends again [laughs], you know, over time. And the, the complexity, the intricacy, the interconnectedness of history, even one person’s history, I think is a really powerful theme.
Alexis Pedrick: You know, you bring up an interesting point, Lisa, which is, uh, you know, kind of in us talking about the ideal situation for a historian. Which is being able to go back or, you know, interview somebody from the past or go back to the past and experience history. But also the idea that, you know, what we’ve learned about history comes from the people that we learn it from, right? And the context that they come from and whatever prejudice they bring to it and whatever, you know, um, perspective that they bring to it. Which, you know, uh, uh, ultimately comes down to like, what is truth? You know, like what is true in, in history? And, um, you know, the things we learn about history are from the voices that were preserved the best or that we’ve been able to find. And, um, we had an interesting conversation with Stephenie actually, uh, recently on the podcast about so much history that we don’t know or haven’t found yet, that’s been told by other voices that just wasn’t as well preserved or, you know, has been hidden.
And we haven’t been able to find it and wheedle it out yet, but we’re trying [laughs]. Diana learning all these things about the past, she’s still learning them, you know, through Matthew’s gaze, which is really interesting. And, um, we kind of learned from ancillary characters, as you said, that the things that Matthew says may not necessarily be entirely accurate. Not that they’re not true to Matthew, but just that there are other perspectives that we get from other characters that kind of show us that Matthew himself is, you know, bias like everybody else’s [laughs], uh, in his version of history [laughs].
Lisa Berry Drago: Well, thinking a little bit about that, thinking about the, um, the arc of, of the story, the arc of the, the hiding, the seeking, the searching of the book, the covenant. And, and the covenant who wants to get ahold of the book and, and sort of, they resort to all kinds of tactics, kidnapping Diana [laughs], um, on and on and on. And their whole idea is that these, these multiple species, these witches vampires, humans, that there should be no mixing between them, that, that these, these lines should be separated. You know, it’s sort of the idea that they, they were mingled together in the past. They should never be mingled again. And trying, just really trying to prevent that. And that idea plays exactly into what you’re saying of that, that, you know, whose history, whose history is true, whose history is beneficial, who controls the history, who controls the, you know, because history, the, the control of history is all tied to have control of the future. Right? So how did you feel about that sort of, part of the story, thinking about that historical, that history thinking angle and. the story, thinking about that historical, that history thinking angle and then the idea of eliminating, [laughs] eliminating that history and eliminating the, therefore the future that would stem from that.
Stephenie McGucken: We’ve had a lot of conversations about sort of where the allegory of discrimination and separation sort of succeeds and fails over the course of the books. And, I think that, um, as, you know, people who are living in a modern world, I’m always skeptical of people who tell me that I should not or cannot read certain history or that I should not or could not learn things from people, particularly people who are different than me. So, I think that, you know, there’s a great deal of success in the allegory over the course of the books in talking about, uh, the idea that who tells your stories and how they’re told, uh, has a great impact on how you interact with the world and the extent to which you are in a position to improve both your worldview, and the people and things around you. Uh, and so I think that overall, the, uh, this, the book’s relationship to history and the conversation about whose history we tell and how we tell it, uh, is very powerful.
You know the, the story that we don’t quite have yet to reconcile, um, in these books, for example, is the story of Philippe, Matthew’s father, who has some extremely complicated history that he has told to other characters, uh, that we haven’t fully explored about whether it’s true and the extent to which he was involved in, uh, some of the things that made the present very difficult for Matthew, Diana, and their family.
Alexis Pedrick: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think what I find really interesting about this question is that, you know, we talk all the time about, uh, history is, is, part of history is perspective, right? You’re choosing which perspective to elevate, which perspective not to elevate. And, and it’s impossible to look at something. You know, we, we talk about an unbiased lens or sort of just it, you can’t really do that, right? It’s always coming from someone’s perspective. And I find it really interesting in the book that, um, Chris Roberts, the, uh, the character of color, when they explain the covenant to him, within five seconds he’s like, “Oh, okay. So, like, racism? Like, yeah, this is… I don’t… guys, this is not real. This is because [laughs] people don’t want other people mixing with other people. There’s no like magic. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Um, and he like very like just like succinctly like immediately just like, uh, dismantles this entire story Diana and Matthew had been telling each other. Even as they were feeling this was wrong, this whole time, they’re like, “Well, the covenant exists and we gotta pr-… because humans will find out and then bad things will happen.” And, I just… It, it is this moment for me that crystallizes this idea of like history and perspective, because from Diana and Matthew’s perspective it doesn’t occur to them that of course this thing is not real. Of course this thing is just about someone trying to like separate other people, right, based on how they look or based on their outside characteristics. It has nothing to do with like an actual danger, right?
And then you have this character of color who like deals with this in, in his real life and is like, “No, 100% that’s what the problem is. I don’t… How could you not have seen that?” Like, and I just, I see that happen again and again in this book, both with like patriarchy and then like with these other things we’re talking about, sort of like race and gender, and these other things come up, and I find that… I just find that so fascinating that that takes, that plays out in this book that way.
Stephenie McGucken: And I think that, in itself, is a theme within the books. And this idea of querying all of it and putting in these perspectives that are there and that speak to all of our backgrounds especially so that we pick up on these different cues in different ways. And I think, and I’m hoping we get some of that with Chris is season three ’cause I, it would be- especially since the show has already laid the groundwork for it, um, both with Hamish and Agatha, and the demons generally, I think, um, and this idea that Hamish constantly is calling Matthew on his stuff like, “Dude, like how many times do I have to tell you, you don’t care because I’m a demon.” And then Matthew’s like, “No, but I care because of you.” And so this idea that it’s that individual versus the universal as well, that Matthew doesn’t always see, and I think that’s why the covenant slips by him. I’m not excusing that. Um, but this idea that he’s, he’s not trained to see it in the same way-that Chris, and Hamish, and Agatha, and all of these other characters are, and that it really takes Diana sort of being like, “Dude, stop with your patriarchy bullshit,” um, to really even think that he’s seeing things wrong.
Lisa Berry Drago: One, it’s sort of like seeing the same information, or the same set of information, or the same object, or the same argument from entirely different vantage points, right? It’s, it’s that you are standing on a different hill looking into the same valley [laughs] and seeing a whole other, you know, who- whole other side of the village, so to speak. Um, but it makes me think again, it, it brings me back to the book that’s at, that’s at the center of this, this Ashmole 782, um, which is r-real but also not real. [laughs] Um, you know, that the, there, there’s a real life mystery around this book, but, um, but it does not, you know, the, the, the Book of Life, so to speak, does not exist in the form that it exists in this book.
But so many people want so many thing, different things out of this book. They want it for different reasons. Diana, of course, wants it for a reason that I think, you know, is very legible to us at the Science History Institute that’s like, “I’m going to study this book.” [laughs] I’m going to read this book. I’m going to publish on this book. [laughs] Um, but can we talk a little bit about the book? Um, you, you know, like sort of where, where does the book come from? In, in the real world, what is the role of the book in the story? And then, what, what are these sort of, you know, these, these uses and abuses [laughs] of the book that, that are sort of being proposed?
Stephenie McGucken: I have so many thoughts and feelings about the book.
Lisa Berry Drago: This is the, this is the venue for them. [laughs]
Jennifer Daine: No, Stephenie. You couldn’t possibly, our historian, have thoughts and feelings. [laughs]
Stephenie McGucken: And since I work on manuscripts like that’s literally, um, my passion. I just… I need to have to sit down and just write me a materiality of this book manuscript, um, because we know everything in it is made, is made from creatures. So the vellum is various skins, the binding fibers are hair. Um, we know that even something like the gold and silver can come from the blood because there’s that beautiful passage where, um, the tree of life springs from, uh, Matthew and Diana’s blood and the vial, and it has the little gold leaves.
So all of this and this idea that we’re getting this history of the manuscript and learning in almost the same time as the characters are learning about it, but yet no one knows for sure because obviously this manuscript is quite old. But yet we have Timothy in Book of Life who’s like, “Oh, yes, this is my grandfather.” So, someone’s constantly adding to this knowledge and I just, I need to speak to whoever did this manuscript first. I need, I need Deb to reveal that. I have more questions than answers right now, and I need the answers.
Stephenie McGucken: But, can I also just say like did she have to smack the manuscript in that first episode of the first season? Like I literally had colleagues that were like, “You love these books. What’s going on?” They’re like hitting manuscripts and they’re doing awful things to them. And I’m like, “No, no. Just, just get past that episode.” So like all of my materiality friends were like, “Steph, what are they doing?” And I’m like… Well, and then it was like the whole, and I’m sure we all saw it, the like, “Oh, but why isn’t she in white gloves?” I’m like, “Because you don’t wear white gloves.” But also she hit the manuscript. [laughs] What? Right? It’s like, everyone’s like, “Oh, this is a perfect opportunity for some public outreach on why we don’t wear white gloves.”
Lisa Berry Drago: Clean dry hands. Clean dry hands. [laughs]
Stephenie McGucken: Which I’ll give students like a 15th century folio that I have, and they’re like, “I can’t touch that.” And I’m like, “No, but you can.” Like, “Please. Pass it around.” Like this is, it’s a leaflet. It’s not important, um, in the grand scheme of things. And they’re just like, “What? No.” And I’m like, “Yes. It’s okay.” And so that sort of idea of all of us. And then I’m just going to be like… And then Phoebe comes in and flips out about the whole bind over the toilet, which as a [inaudible 00:31:47] historian I do, too.
Alexis Pedrick: No, I complete… Well, it begs this question, right? What do we assign reverence to, right? And I believe we’re all mortals. None of us are vampires or witches, but we, we don’t have to confess it here is so. [laughs] Yes. So we all with our short lifespans look at these books and we look at, um, you know, the painting over the, the, the very famous painting in the bathroom over the toilet and go, “Oh my gosh. How could you treat something like that?” Right? That’s what Phoebe’s doing.
And these vampire characters, these long-lived characters are like, “This is just stuff, uh, yeah it’s a book, like who cares? Yeah, I keep it in my bedroom, by my bedside table,” you know. There’s uh, uh, there’s a great line, I forget who says it, where they say something about how they don’t lock up books here. Uh [laughs] um, only food and ale. And it really just, it is, it’s this question about kind of perspective and about what do we, yeah, what do we assign reverence to. What do we assign as being very special. It must be treated with care.
As opposed to, you know, we have all these books in our collection that we’re clearly, they were sitting in people’s labs and they were spilling things on them and they were doodling in the corners [laughs] and they were, you know, they were not, it was not, they were not treating it with reverence, you know?
Stephenie McGucken: Well, the thing that I love about some of these objects that, um, I think Ysabeau especially has a sense of reverence for. It’s not the age, it’s the person that gave it. So, her vases that were, um, the, um, porcelain that, um, Corra breaks one of them. And then everyone’s like “oh, no.” It’s not because, like, that belongs in a museum, it’s because Philippe gave it to her. And those aren’t, right, they’re only a couple centuries old by comparison to, you know, the tapestries that Corra also destroys. But those are just tapestries, those are functional in a place like Sept-Tours, where as the vases have a different meaning.
Um, and then, the other one that always, um, jumps out at me, because they’re rare in terms of finds, are um, Matthew’s son’s little horse toy that Diana sort of stumbles upon. Like, we don’t have many of those little practical objects in terms of what survived because kids play with things and break them. Like that’s what they’re designed for. So this idea that Matthew has had this little toy for fifteen-hundred years. And there are those of us that are historians and art historians that are like “can we borrow that for five minutes? We just want to look at it.”
But like, and it’s that same sort of idea of like, I just want to know how the manuscript works, I want to know how this toy works. But, it’s the memory of the object, the person, and we see this today with manuscripts of, it’s not an important copy except for who owned it. And why then do we have to justify studying an unimportant something because someone owned it. Well, isn’t everything technically important because someone, it was someone’s personal something.
And it sort of plays with those ideas in a way that I think is so subtle. And again, going back to this idea that Deb’s talked about of using like, Queer Theory to under-pen some of this, and sort of ideas of, once you change your focus, once you make it a gift from Philippe to Ysabeau, it’s suddenly more important. You know, it, like, when Phoebe gets to, um, catalog it all, it’ll be the like, the special shelf of gifts from Philippe rather than just like, the practical stuff that Sept-Tours is just, you know, hanging on the bathroom.
So, like, I love that, but, like, that’s also paralleled it with the characters. Like we’ve talked about with Chris and the demons and this idea that, the importance is the connections not just because you say it’s important. And I just, I love the way that person or character sort of merge, um, with objects. And in Diana’s case, quite literally.
Lisa Berry Drago: And shifting focus, this is my attempt at a seg [laughs] to alchemy. I was thinking about the study of alchemy, the real-world, real-life, historical study of alchemy, um, has, has, undergone some of these same shifts in focus that, where once we focused on kind of the scholarly, theoretical, um, you know, really complicated manuscripts side of things, there’s been a shift to look at how people actually worked in laboratories. What, you know, what alchemical laborers were, what women were doing, what, you know, family members and servants were doing, how they’re all contributing, you know. And Deborah Harkness has been part of some of this work looking at the, you know, alchemical household. What is everybody contributing to the work that goes into this?
Um, you could put that to basically any historical field [laughs], you know. In art history, we’re looking at, you know, not just master painters, but, you know, what are their assistants doing, what are their- wh- how are copies getting made and, and how are things getting sold and things like that. So I think, looking at the role that any kind of making of a thing [laughs] plays in this, you know the contributions of every person who’s contributing to this story, who’s contributing to D-Diana’s awakening. She goes through, you know, she learns from many places, she listens to many voices as she goes on her journey towards articulating her desires. Alexis?
So I’m just thinking about segging us over to, to, what their work is in the story, what they each need to accomplish. Matthew the geneticist, Diana the historian [laughs], everybody who’s- the witches as kind of spiritual mentors in some ways and family mentors. What is this group of people all coming together to really kind of get done?
Alexis Pedrick: Oo, here’s what I will say that has always like, stuck with me about these books is this deep desire to understand themselves. Like, as creatures, where they come from, and how this all works. And I think that is a core, we all have that, it’s such a human desire, you know, to understand ourselves, to understand where we came from and how we work. Whether it’s Matthew trying to like, look at the DNA of the profile and figure out, okay, what, what makes up a vampire, is it- what’s the genetic code? What are the things that go into it?
Everyone is attempting to answer that question and it strikes me that, like, you know, a lot of what we talk about in, in alchemy is that kind of search for like, our, our origins. If we can understand all of that, if we can just figure out how it all works, then that’s what gives us the power to do anything. To heal anything. To solve any problem. And I just, I find it interesting that these creatures that have achieved some of the things that, you know [laughs], we’ve all want it, health and wealth and longevity. Right? They’re still searching for the same thing.
Cait Parnell: I think it boils down to something we were talking about a little bit earlier with respect to the, you know, as your resident plot nerd, I’m going to say it all boils down to the major narrative questions of this trilogy, right? Who is Matthew? Who is Diana? Who are they together and what are they capable of doing?
So for me, as again, resident plot nerd, when I look at what’s actually important and what is doing the narrative work in the series, what I see is asking these fundamental questions about identity, and how your identity and the sort of people that you care about fit into the world and the world that you want to create.
And so for me, interestingly, like the, the individual tasks of like, who they are and what they do and sort of their day jobs, um, are not actually what’s driving the story. What’s driving the story for me is the, is the internal and external conflict that is created by who they are as opposed to what they do.
Sarah Durn: I think it’s also interesting as you know, someone who’s written a lot about alchemy, when you think about, alchemy actually inspired kind of through young Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey. So kind of baked into the idea that this is like, follows a hero’s journey, like Diana is a hero who needs to find herself and like save creature kind and what not. Um, she’s following like, the seven steps of transformation that are embedded into alchemy.
Well in alchemy, there’s esoteric and exoteric alchemy. Esoteric alchemy is the inner alchemy of like, self-transformation. Then exoteric alchemy is all the experiments, all the like, doing. Um, and I feel like that is sort of a metaphor for the book in that all the characters, especially like, Matthew and Diana, you know, they exist in this world of scholarship. They exist in like this role of like, the doing, but it’s like kind of in the process of doing like this genetic research for Matthew and this scholarship for Diana that then they are doing the internal work kind of side by side with that and obviously that kind of like comes to the forefront I think like, through the books. And as the story progresses.
Yeah, I just think it’s interesting that it’s like, this parallel, like the hero’s journey is- comes from alchemy in many ways.
Alexis Pedrick: Let’s talk about that Diana as an alchemical process because I think, I think it’s fascinating that she, you know, she is a historian of alchemy and she has gone to that place to kind of explore magic on her own terms, but she actually becomes an alchemical process herself. Let’s talk about that.
Sarah Durn: One of the things I think is interesting that I think Deborah Harkness is definitely playing with is that there’s this idea of the alchemical Diana. The alchemists were super exoteric and like, like not just, exoteric alchemy but they were just like, they did weird things and they had weird names for stuff. Like the philosophical child and the philosopher’s stone, all these kind of like, code names. Which has a lot to do with the fact that they were practicing alchemy, in the middle ages at least, during a time when everyone was Christian. So they have like, these parallels to kind of hide what they were doing.
But, the alchemical Diana is considered sort of the mother of alchemy. Obviously it pulls from the idea that, you know, Diana and Apollo, the moon and the sun, these two parallel forces. Alchemy is all about like, kind of like, two opposites and, and Matthew and Diana are these two opposites. And like, we were talking earlier of like, should opposites intermingle or should they stay kind of ostracized from one another? And this idea of discrimination and that alchemy was all about bringing opposites together in order to create, like, a new form.
And obviously they have children which are kind of like the philosophical child. Which is alchemy is like, after this stage called conjunction, which is literally like, there’s depictions of it in alchemical manuscripts of like, a man and a woman having sex. They like, produce the child. So, yeah, basically baked into the whole story is this like, alchemical, like the stages and like, how Matthew and Diana are these two sides of a different coin that come together, produce children, and like, therefore can like, reach enlightenment.
Alexis Pedrick: There’s so many details in the series, that, that, I mean we talked about this in the very beginning that this is a series written by a historian [laughs]. And I think we’re reminded of that over and over and over and the sort of Easter eggs of like, a name, a, a, you know, a particular, a manuscript that is real manuscript and [laughs] not a real manuscript. And Deborah Harkness has talked about that, you know, she tries to be extremely specific and extremely, um, accurate when she talks about particular scientific objects or processes and things like that, that she’s not, those are the places where she’s not inventing. That’s she’s inventing, you know, all the other aspects of it.
And I’m- so I’m curious about how you feel. How does it hold up kind of as historical fiction and how does it compare, um, you know, and what, wh- what are the parts that are really interesting to, to all of you, I know that it’s, I feel like it’s a mix [laughs].
Stephenie: And so this idea that we see Meridianna in the TV show as probably something that’s a brain child of Deb and, sort of grows out of those ideas, that’s a very specific legend that’s coming from a later monk, English monk. And so, that level of historical accuracy in terms of both drawing on these little historical facts and Easter eggs. And I know, in the fandom, there are always like, people trying to uncover all the little historical Easter eggs and figure out who everyone was across time
And this idea that, especially in Shadow of Night, and then in the fourth book, Time’s Convert we’re seeing history unfold from the perspective of a character. I think it is one of these great series that upholds the history, does what it needs to with the fiction, but pushes our understanding and our ability to talk about both the actual history and the fictional history in a way that they work.
Very rarely, if ever, do we have this historical moment or fact-check in a way that’s like, “oh, that’s completely wrong, it doesn’t really do anything for the story.” When we have those little changes or when Deb’s like, “I know this wasn’t right, but go with me here,” it serves a purpose for the story and it never overwrites that history completely for me.
Sarah Durn: I think it’s really interesting how the book has become like a way of learning more about alchemy. Like it was sor- it was my introduction to alchemy. And then I like, nerded out and wrote a book about alchemy [laughs]. But I think alchemy in general, like, it’s been this very amorphous thing and has taken on many different forms and has, like, during the like spiritualist movement in the late 1800s, early 1900s, like people were really into alchemy. Young was really into alchemy. All these people, alchemy kind of is a way, like it’s constantly getting rediscovered. And the way it gets rediscovered is, it often will play into sort of like, fantasy books. Like even Tolkien was like, playing with alchemical ideas to some degree.
And even if you’re not fully conscious of it, like some authors…to some degree. And even if you’re not fully conscious of it, like some authors, maybe aren’t going out to like pull in alchemy ideas, because it’s so baked into like our history, it bubbles up in weird ways. I mean, in many ways it’s, like people, a lot of people don’t even know what alchemy is, they’re like like, want to gold question mark. But what we kind of forget is that it’s the bedrock for so much of our understanding of the world. And it just crazy to me like that we don’t know a lot about it often, like the average person, yeah.
And I guess I, I’m really interested in like how these books can serve as like an introduction into alchemy and then like how alchemical principles play out throughout the course of the books. And it’s sort of like so baked in that, even if like you’re not really interested in the alchemical stuff in the books, it’s still gonna be there, and you’re still gonna like, kind of through osmosis, just learn a lot, and kind of continue to consume alchemical principles. And then you’ll go out and write your next book. And like those alchemical principles will continue to like propagate, even though we aren’t conscious of it as a society almost.
Alexis Pedrick: Oh, I love that, so, so much. I mean, you’ve articulated part of what makes us nerd out a lot about this. Um, as, uh, [laughs] as people who love history and the history of science, um, I, I want to seize on something you said too about kind of this being your gateway and kind of inspiring you and like, this is how you became interested. And so I’m actually curious for, for all of you. I mean, Deb said, Shadow of Night, uh, which is the current season we’re in, um, is the thing she’s most proud of. And, uh, we guess that’s probably because that’s the time period she studies.
Um, and so in thinking about kind of this TV adaptation world, like, what are you, what were you expecting from adaptation? Like what did you want out of it? Like having fallen in love and like the books became a gateway into something like, have you found that same thing in the TV adaptation? Is it doing something different for you? Like what’s, what is it, [laughs] what did you want out of sort of seeing this live and in color on television?
Lisa Berry Drago: And what did you get? [laughs]
Stephenie: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That’s, that’s a more important question. [laughs] What did you get, did you get the thing you hoped for?
Jennifer Daine: So I think for me personally, you know, I expected that we would get a really beautiful production. I think you have to go really far in, in prestige TV these days to find a not really beautiful production. You know, I feel like, um, there are many TV shows that have come before this that have kind of set the standard for, um, these types of TV series in terms of production value. So I kind of expected that would get that.
What I really wanted to see, and what I value in, in an adaptation is, I would really like for the adaptation to be true to the characters and themes in the story. And I want the adaptation to not get distracted by things that may be very shiny, but are not necessarily the core, you know, themes and motifs and things like that in the story. I would say, um, that’s a really difficult thing to do in television, partly because of time constraints and because you have other perspectives coming in, right, who aren’t the original author. You have screenwriters coming in and, you know, a production team and everybody kind of adds, adds their own flavor in perspective to the adaptation.
I would say, of course, a discovery, which is the TV show is a beautiful TV show. The production is amazing. It’s beautiful, um, it’s so thoughtful. I, for the most part am satisfied, uh, particularly in season two, with what we see with Marcus and the conventional in the present day, you know, the discussions and that we’re having about found family about, um, discrimination about, um, you know, ways in which they can use their power and their privilege to change, to make change in their world, which I think is a really important conversation.
What I find is missing for the, from the TV show for me on the whole is that I feel that Diana’s arc is very, um, much flatter than it is in, in the books. Um, and so that’s hard, that’s disappointing for me, but again, you know, time constraints and things like that, and, you know, you want to show so much. And so it’s difficult to have, um, such a beautiful, uh, you know, kind of stunning character arc, um, particularly since in the TV show, we’re not just in Diana’s head right in the book series that we’re in, Diana’s head, um, you know, for almost the entire time.
So it’s much easier to get that arc out of her than it is on TV when you have so many other characters to deal with. So, um, that on the whole is my impression, my, my summary impression. [laughs]
Stephenie: And I think that as somebody who likes to study and talk about adaptation, the thing that I was most interested in was not only the expansion of the universe to include material that we don’t get in the books. So the decision to make, for example, the sort of, um, congregation external world conflict plot much tighter than it was in the book and to add additional scenes and, uh, sort of better antagonists to accomplish that.
Um, the addition of the material that we didn’t get in Shadow of Night, because we were riding around in Diana’s head. Um, and the sort of extrapolation from this very intimate and occasionally unreliable first person narrative, that is part of Diana’s journey. Uh, I agree with Jane, one of the things that’s sort of missing for me, uh, in the adaptation is that I frequently don’t recognize Diana. Uh, I don’t recognize Diana that I am used to returning to him that I, that I want, but that I think is a consequence of where we’ve decided to place the focus of the story.
I think that with a good adaptation, what you’re looking for is not a stroke by stroke recreation of the original source material. Um, you know, please CEG the like television or movie adaptation of midnight’s children, which tried to do that and fails horribly. But I think that the, um, by contrast, by the way, Forrest Gump is also an adaptation of midnight’s children and does a much better job of it.
Um, but that being said, I think that the conversation about what I’m looking for in the adaptation is mostly been satisfied. And I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing the perspective that this production team and this series of actors have brought to the scripts that they’ve been given, while I would certainly quibble with some of the ways that we have dealt with things that I think are already problematic, that we’ve decided to carry wholesale from the books into the adaptation, um, you know, overall I think that I, I would give it a very good grade.
Stephenie McGucken: And then I’m just gonna jump back on the visuals because that’s what I was most looking forward to with seeing some of the writing about the material culture and the art history, and the books come to life in a way that honored both the actual historical objects and Deb’s version of those objects. And I think on the whole, even though I will always be mad about the hillier thing in season two, um, that has very much come to light, and in a way that showcases it even more.
So this idea of the manuscript and the horror we’ve had at it being, um, damaged both in season two, and then as I’ve already mentioned, um, Diana hitting it in season one. And the, I w- again, one of those things I’m never gonna get over, even though I understand from a narrative, but also the changes that they’ve made to things visually, like showing Diana’s, um, hand with the writing from the manuscript to look forward to what you see in the later books, especially in Book of Life.
So this idea that they’re aware that that material culture, that visual, um, sort of reality of the All Souls Universe is a character in and of itself. And how they’ve maintained that, and expanded it with things like those beautiful pen shots of, um, tutor London, which obviously CGI, and seeing things like old St. Paul’s, um, and all of these ideas, and that they’re doing the research for them. You can clearly see what sources they’re looking at for things you know.
You can pick out the alchemical manuscripts that they used to base the imagery that we see, um, and that Debs created as well, to, um, the actual, you can map it really onto some of these actual manuscripts, especially those in the British library. Um, so that sort of level of detail and how it’s translated, um, as well as how characters have translated.
Lisa Berry Drago: Building off of what you’re saying about the, the, the richness of the material culture that they’ve built up. I’m interested in how you see the difference between, um, how any of you might see the difference between the adaptation and the books and sort of how your, because you have to do different work to convince the audience of things in different mediums, right? So how are you bringing the audience into the history in the show versus in the, in the narrative?
Stephenie: I think it’s easier in the show, to, uh, you know, as you say, convince the, the audience and sort of like draw them into this historical perspective, particularly in Shadow of Night. I think for me in the book of Shadow of Night, and I know many people enjoy this part, and for me, it’s not really, my favorite thing is we get a lot of historical tourism, um, and a lot of, sort of lengthy description of the setting in Shadow of Night. And that, you know, part of that comes from, Debs is a historian.
Like she wants to talk about history, she’s gonna do it, you know, and I know a lot of people appreciate that about the book. I find it to be a little bit distracting. And I think that the TV show is very successful because they have the benefit of being able to just put things on the screen without having to have characters talk about them, right?
So you can have this multilayered storytelling happening. You have the visual storytelling that’s happening, both in the background and in the foreground. And addition to that, you have the story that’s, you know, being told through dialogue, et cetera, through plot movement that’s happening. So I think it’s actually easier to convey all of those layers and a lot of ways in a TV show than it is in a book.
Cait Parnell: You also get to make so many interesting choices in adaptation and about, you know, when you’re reading a book and you’re immersed as a reader, the experience of translating literature in your head, you can kind of focus on the action in the scene, the dialogue, how people are feeling. But if you choose to produce an adaptation of a TV show, particularly one with a rich material culture, or one that is steeped in fantasy, like somebody has to sit there and go, what kind of wallpaper does Matthew de Clermont have?
Like they literally have to sit and create spaces. And so I think that one of the things that is most excellent about this TV presentation and the adaptation is their ability to create not just a 3D habitable world, but also a world that feels like because of its sense of space and its sense of perspective, you could actually move through, like when the congregation is on the Sola, Dayla Stella, like you really feel that could be in Venice.
And then if you walked out, there would be, you know, Dominica on Vapoletto and one of his fabulous turtlenecks, like ready to support me off to a vampire club, like here for it, by the way, the great untold love story is like, whatever we didn’t get between Juliet and Dominica, and I will die on that hill. And, but also, you know, when you’re at the Bishop house, right? You get the, you get the sense from the material presentation of that space, that this is a house that people have lived in for generation that has so many objects that you want to pick up and touch and interact with.
And so I think that one of the most successful things about this adaptation it’s ability to create something physical, habitable that feels true and authentic to me as a reader of the book, when I enter the space that it is created. Similar, I think just to bring our selves full circle and you can’t see the hand motion I’m making because you know, it’s audio. Um, but you know, it kind of brings us to the discussion of the adaptation of Harry Potter. Right?
One of the things I think is most successful about those adaptations is the consistency of the material and space presentation, and how it feels to actually like walk into Hogwarts for the first time. So I don’t know. I just think it’s one of the things I’ve really loved about experiencing these two seasons of television is the dedication to the level of detail, uh, that you have to have to create something that feels authentic, not just from a character perspective, but then from a historical perspective, and to some extent from a like history of science perspective.
Jennifer Daine: And just to tie us back into alchemy, I appreciate more so in season one, but they do carry it through into season two, is that the color palette of the show, and I know that, uh, Stephenie was near hyperventilating about this and excitement, uh, when season one came out, when we saw the first episode is that the color palette, you have this very manuscript esque, right? Inspired by manuscripts color palette that you have coming through all of these pigments that they’re using in the show, these blues and these kinds of like burnt oranges and Stephenie knows all of the color names. And I don’t remember them. [laughs] But that they’re using just to kind of add that extra layer for people who are paying attention.
Stephenie McGucken: And I mean, going from that, I think it’s something like, and this has been held up as like both the critique from some fans. And some fans are just like, oh, I didn’t think about it. The webs that we get in season one, and how people were expecting the ribbons that are mentioned in the book, which then become Diana’s we records. But this idea that we have colorless webs to sort of reference the fact that she doesn’t have her magic.
And then the color comes in once she starts getting her magic and she starts practicing those threads. And so we see the colored threads in season two. And while she’s working on it, then it bursts into the tree that has those beautiful flames and goals. Which again, that’s the alchemical process and how the stone changes color as it goes. And so that visual sort of storytelling referencing the history, the alchemy and character development all in one, that you tease it apart, and then you can see why, okay, season one, while the ribbons might’ve been a little hard on CGI so I can understand that, but the weaving and going to the spiders and the webs, I hate spiders.
So that freaked me out at first with the webs and then going, oh, it’s ’cause it’s colorless, it’s referencing this fact that she’s a weaver. And I think as much as I love that, I will say, I can see how someone who hasn’t read the books would be like, what’s going on until you have the word weaver. Um, but then again, you get statue as the audience member that hasn’t read the book, so doesn’t know what that word is. So you get that parallel of character and audience discovering at the same time. Um, so it’s all of these little layers. And I think part of this comes from Bad Wolf and their production quality.
If you look at their other TV shows and things that they’ve worked on. So that familiarity with building it. Some of it’s coming from being in Wales and being able to go, oh, let’s go pop, let’s go film at an actual castle. Cool, let’s pop over to Italy, let’s film there. Um, and getting those locations, I miss those days, um, just being like, I’m gonna go to France for the weekend it’s fine. Um, that sort of thing that you can do to create that, um, space to inhabit, being some of the actual things that inspired or are contemporary with the buildings and things that inspired Deb’s writing.
I think that’s part of it. I think part of it again, Bad Wolf, part of it is Deb being there and being involved. There are certainly other shows and movies where your author, your original author is involved, but I don’t think many of them have that same level of respect and appreciation that we’ve seen with Deb and the production team. And that extends into the fandom as well.
So that communication that’s clearly happening there, you know, without being like, oh, wow, I felt like I was walking back into London or stepping into the bodily and for season one, all of that’s a huge part of it. And the production team deserves the credit for that as well. Although they use colored pencils for Ashmole 782, I’m that person that noticed that. And I was like, okay, I’m gonna, I’m just, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna like hyper focus on it, even though I do think about it sometimes
Stephenie: Back off the Twitter, back off from the Twitter. It’s hard, it’s hard. It also smells, we actually, when they, uh, when we hosted the con, um, and they came in, they had the, uh, the book as a prop. So we got to have it out in the museum. They brought the props, which was awesome. And I have to tell people in real life, that book smells, oh my God, the book smells horrific like it holy good God. It was intense because of like, all this stuff they’re using to make it look kind of old and give it the color, it needs to look like. That the actual, like, I don’t know, frankly, they’re all fantastic actors. ‘Cause they all stood that close to it the whole time, and acted like it did not make them want to keel over from the scent. [laughs]we had a burner [crosstalk 01:03:54], we had a little plexiglass, yeah, we had a plexiglass burner over it. I was really interested to see how they were gonna create a palimpsest, like how you were going to evoke something that’s been worked and reworked and scraped and rewritten over time. I think they did, to, to me it colored pencils, not withstanding. I, I thought it was, I thought it was pretty cool. That kind of like translucencies and things that they brought out in the prop.
Stephenie: Well, so when, so they had it out at Cardiff, on a table and I kind of just was like the poor volunteers that were supervising this. I was like, can I touch it? And they’re like, what? Clearly, no one had thought anyone was gonna ask. And I was like, oh yeah, can I touch it? Like I work with 10th century manuscripts, like I just went full. Like, no, I know what I’m doing. Let me, let me touch it.
So I started touching it, and like flipping the page. And I’m like doing like, careful, like I’m going to touch the edges. And I’m like, oh, well it’s a prop, but I’m still gonna do it right. ‘Cause it, it, it has the feel of a manuscript and the smell thing cracks me up because the actual pigments smell like just in real life. One of the things that I did not remember, it was, I ran a medieval pigment garden and we did a lot of dying and working with, um, pigments.
Cait Parnell: She brought me bugs to smash a couple of years ago, it was fantastic.
Stephenie: It’s so much fun, isn’t it? Um, but it smells like a lot of, especially the yellows and the greens just smell like Wode. It smells like someone forgot to flush a toilet. Like, and like when you’re doing that with kids, they’re like, who peeing? And you’re like, oh, it’s just, it’s the smell, it’s fine. But also like, we know-
Cait Parnell: This, it’s the smell of venerated manuscripts be respectful.
Stephenie: Yeah. Right. And like, well, and we know that some of the pigments, like if you wanted a certain tone of your yellow, if you wanted it bright, it was believed that the best was a pee of a vaginal boy, which in monasteries, like there around. At one point, my, um, head of department was like, so are you gonna order some? And I’m like, what? And she’s like, you can get rat pee from the like store. And I’m like, no, we’re not getting it. We’re gonna use the new chemicals for the diet.
Lisa Berry Drago: We gonna use actual fixatives. But on the other hand, you know, you’re just, you don’t know whether the rats are version, so you can’t [laughs]-
Stephenie: But it was, it was one of those things that I think they do well. And that like the, the fact that the manuscript stinks, well, this is a manuscript of creatures, like quite literally of bodies, um, which is another fascinating material aspect, um, with manuscripts and this one and how that echoes. But like, it’s gonna smell. So I like that it smells like I might be the only one that’s like, yay, the manuscript smells. But like also like I’m the person that has to do allergy pills before I go into a reading room, because like, I love the old book smell, but it, it sets off allergies.
Cait Parnell: What Stephenie’s not saying here is that this was actually an elaborate ploy for me to make off with Matthew good’s riding boots.
Stephenie McGucken: Speaking of riding boots, I was gonna less we forget that curing leather also involves your in. And you know, at least in the TV show, we didn’t go like full into the pigment making process when we were in, uh, London, because we could have gone Outlander and had like a wool walking situation where you have like people paying in a bucket and then making, [laughs] making dyes. And I was like, thank you. Thank you. We didn’t do that. [laughs]
Stephenie: The historical waste to economy is actually really fascinating, because there are people who go, you know, that there are people whose job it is to go around and collect this for chemists essentially, [laughs] all kinds of things. Chemists and dye makers were not, uh, they were not producing it all themselves. Yeah. There’s a whole, there’s, uh, everything from rag picking to urine collection, there’s a, and the modern version is there’s an app for that. But like there was, there was a guy with a bucket on his back for that in the early modern world. There’s a bucket guy for that, there was a bucket guy for that, there’s a minion for that.
Stephenie: Even in studies now, this idea that archeologists are fascinated with poop because it tells you so much. And you look at the bones that are found in monasteries and how we know what the scriptorium is. And sometimes it’s quills and all of this, but sometimes it’s the nastier side of things. And like the number of conversations I’ve had with professors and colleagues about like where in monasteries, the toilets were positioned so that it would drop down into the river that ran by. So like that idea that it’s all an economy and that like, it’s important for like, we’re joking about it. ‘Cause obviously, but like the fact that like there’s so much you can learn from it still and I’ve become that person that talks about poop.
Alexis Pedrick: Yeah. [laughs] I mean, well, I think though, in, in one of the things I do love about the books and also about the adaptation that like, it, it is asking you to think about the past as a living breathing thing. A thing that was occupied by living, breathing, people who had different culture and different experiences than you, but who were like you. Right? They, and, and I think, you know, we talk about soft time, like history was, is, is done by people- You know we talk about this all the time like history was- is- is done by people right? Science is done by people um, and so we bring with it all of our sort of… all of our messiness, you know? The- the things about us that are great, and the things about us that are not so great. Um, and that permeates the way that things happen.
And I have loved… I loved in the books and I love in the show watching Diana sort of grapple with um, some experiences in history, especially in the second book, because so many of these are real, historical… are- are real figures from history that there is, that there is this sort of disappointment that sometimes things just happen because like, people are jerks. Sometimes things just happen because people are selfish or because like the economy was doing bad that one time, or because like the weather that came in three days earlier was like a little bit off. And you know it’s all of these sort of arbitrary things that we don’t think about that like makes stuff happen the way it does and it gets back to like I think- a thing we keep coming back to which is this idea of like, sort of, you know, truth and perspective and why things happen and how things happen and kind of who is- who are the protagonists, right?
Like, I love that idea of like Diana’s the protagonist, and a lot of other people think they’re the protagonist. Matthew. [Laughs]. They’re not, right? But like this- this idea of like truth and perspective and why things happen and be- even in a world of witches and vampires and demons, right? History doesn’t really happen because of magic, it happens because of all the same, human, messiness that like real history happens because of. And I- I just love that so, so much. It’s one of my favorite, it’s one of my favorite things that I think was true in the books, and I think they’ve maintained that in the TV adaptation.
Stephenie: One of the things that I think is… I love it and I have problems with it all in the same, but goes to that, that they are people, is that scene where Matthew is talking to Queen Elizabeth and he humanizes her in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen really, in Elizabeth in popular fiction. Like, and it’s just this idea that she’s worried and he’s like, well, don’t worry because like you’re gonna be known as the greatest, and other things.
And it’s so human. And the way that the music and the location all goes to that. Now whether it was a necessary scene is debatable. But this idea that it’s all about humanity and this idea that even a queen, as sort of legendary as Elizabeth I has those same concerns of does what I do matter? Have I done the right thing? These are basic things that we all grapple with on, you know, our different levels. And yeah, I just think the humanity of the entire universe is so beautiful. And I love it. I think that, Alexis, you’re spot on with why people fall in love with these books and the show is that- is everything you’ve just said.
Sarah Durn: Yeah, I think- thinking about adaption and thinking about what you guys just said, I think one of the things I love about the show also is kind of one of the drawbacks as well is because we aren’t just in Diana’s head, like, my favorite character almost on the show is Satu. Like, I love that she’s become bigger, and I love that she- we see her grapple. Because, in the show- in the book she’s just kind of this bad witch. [Laughs].
But in the TV show, you see her grappling with this idea of legacy. Which I think is… and like, Philippe de Clermont in both the TV show and the books is so… like, it’s so poignant to me when he realizes that he’s not gonna be around later on. It’s like so heartbreaking. Like that idea that like this is his last time to be with Matthew, and he gets to meet Diana and that he gets to see the shift in his son and that he won’t be around later to really, you know, to have that like, to meet them later on, or meet Diana later on. And like, even- and like her interactions with her dad, and like sharing the weaver thing, like that idea of like, the sort of interweaving of time and legacy.
And legacy’s so tied up with history it’s sort of like the more, I guess, personal side of history, of like the individual thinking about how they will be remembered. Um, that I think Deborah Harkness is playing a lot with, and leaves me with a lot of ideas of like how much of history can be controlled by the people in the present and how much of history is out of our control. How much of our legacy is out of our control. Um, because you also see Matthew grappling with it so much throughout the season, and kind of… especially in season two and in the second book where he’s confronting his… you know, his self when he was in that time period and he was like not as good a guy as he is now. I mean, he still has his issues certainly. But, um, that he was even, you know had these like, this sort of- the, like, contemporary dealing with the legacy of the former is really like, I don’t know, I think great for drama [laughs].
Lisa: It’s like if you had 1500 years of live journal entries to look back on instead of you know, just- just a few, you’d be like “Ah.”
Cait Parnell: To be perfectly honest, anecdotally, any number of live journal entries is too many live journal entries. When you go back and you look at them and you’re like, did I have those feelings? And did I feel entitled to put them in the world? I did!
Lisa Berry Drago: But like, honestly do you think this is why um, vampires don’t like social media. In that they know, like, they’ve read their diaries from 500 years ago and they know. So, did they see that writing on the wall, like…
Cait Parnell: The smart ones have burned those diaries [laughs].
Alexis: So Stephenie, you’ve previously talked about how one of the themes in the book is uh, about the hierarchy of knowledge. And so, a lot of the problems that Diana and Matthew like, run into have um, really have to do with access of knowledge, right? Diana’s in trouble from the congregation but she doesn’t know enough information about them to really [laughs] defend herself about it. You know there’s a lot of things, there’s a lot of issues that are really about not having enough knowledge. Um, and so, um, I’m just wondering, because it feels like this is also a problem in the academic world, and so I’m wondering if you can talk about that a little bit.
Stephenie: I think it’s a problem in the academic world and I think that seeps in more broadly as well into non- academic situations. Um, but, I think that with the books, and to some extent the show, like you say, a lot of Diana’s problems are because she doesn’t have the full story. She doesn’t have the full knowledge um, and in some cases it’s because she’s denied herself that opportunity in terms of her own magic. But also you’re look- if you compare it to say, witches versus vampires, the vampires are living history. We talk about Matthew being 1500. Um, we know that Gerbert has to be roughly the same age or um, possibly a little younger, depending. Um, Philippe being the human inspiration for Hercules, for Heracles? So, thousands of years old. And this idea that they hold the knowledge that their libraries hold all of this knowledge that maybe they forget sometimes too. Um, but the access to that is intentionally denied to the other creatures.
Um, and then sort of next in that hierarchy, you have the witches who have their sort of um, I think a good parallel here would be their oral traditions and their spell books and how that’s passed. And then you have the demons who are completely denied these two um, sets of information and in some sense the demons su- from what I get from Agatha especially. Their knowledge, yes, it’s passed down, but because demons are exceptions in any situation, they don’t even have that oral history or that family knowledge like the witches and the vampires. So they’re completely cut off. And then, you know, us poor humans, we don’t know anything. Um, we’re completely kept in the black.
So as an academic, it’s very fascinating to me to see those um, sort of structures replicated in terms of the adjunctification of higher education, who has access to college um, and why they have access. And those exceptions that- they come from an exceptional background, so we have to make sure that they’re fast- tracked. Or, they come from an underprivileged background, thus they are the exception to that background. Which is all very problematic. Um, hugely, and as someone who until literally like, Monday, I officially become a visiting professor, um, and has been an adjunct. This idea… I know right? Um, Jen and Kat have heard so much information about this. Um, that this idea that you’re not allowed, and I know, um, manuscript access is another good, I think, parallel here that, who gets to see those manuscripts?
I remember being told the second year of my PhD, that I would in no way be a- able to see this manuscript as long as I was a PhD student that I was working on. Um, and I was at a conference and my supervisor was standing there and we both went “Oh, okay, well that’s a little harsh but whatever.”
Um, and a couple years later I was at a different conference and someone who was also a PhD student um, needed to see the same manuscript and the same folios that I needed to see. And we had a conversation with my supervisor um, Heather Pulliam and then Catherine Karkov, um, both art historians. And they were like “Well, if the two of you ask to see it, and only these folios, maybe they’ll let you see it.” And in the end, we negotiated to see these two folios for 10 minutes each and we got about half an hour. Um, and it- it’s a well known… I don’t wanna like name and shame any libraries or um, specific manuscripts there, um, but in the end we saw it for half an hour and I remember it being escorted away in it’s little velvet lined box.
Um, it is a very important manuscript for what I study. But, there’s even more important manuscripts that, as soon as I had my PhD, I was like “Oh yes, Dr. McGucken, um…” And they’re like “Okay cool.” Like, you still need your letter of reference and access um, for, you know, when you’re dealing with something that’s 1000 years old. Fair enough. Um, but just being like “Oh yes, you have the PhD now, you’re suddenly able to handle things.” And some of the other manuscripts that I’ve seen are arguably more important, because there are more of them, which tells us something about their importance. Um, and then realizing that some of these, like, they have silver letters, but because no one’s had access to them, and because it doesn’t show up on the digitization, you don’t see it.
So this idea that you know, Hamish is allowed knowledge as a demon because he’s friends with Matthew. It’s a very academic “Oh you can get into this library or to this institution um, because you know someone.” Um, Agatha is in a place of privilege on the congregation, but as soon as she’s out of the congregation, it- she is a black woman, fending for herself um, without those support structures. And sometimes I just wanna be like “Agatha, do you ever just wanna yell at some random person that’s just been an ass to you? Like, do you know who I am?” And like the fact that she’s like pulling at Baldwin like “You owe me.” And like she’s calling him up on his stuff, which like- can we do that for Baldwin forever? Um, but that it’s Agatha, I think… So these- these hierarchies that are from academia are from society and then you have them replicated in the four creature types. And even this idea that Diana is- she’s getting tenure quite early in her career, which I’m always like, what?
Alexis Pedrick: I know, people are like what’s the most unrealistic part of the book? And I’m like “Well… feels like…”
Cait Parnell: She’s the youngest tenured professor at Oxford.
Lisa: Ever! Also the witchiest witch who ever witched. But the most doctory doctor who’s ever doctored also.
Alexis Pedrick: She’s the youngest tenured… yeah [laughs]. Yes!
Stephenie: The [inaudible 01:22:37] that she’s able to see these manuscripts because she is this person, and it’s like yes, this is true, but also why is this true? And I think it goes back to making us question that humanity and acknowledging that our differences are just as important as our similarities and that no difference should define someone to the point that they’re left out. And you see that in those moments. Uh, going back to uh, what you were saying about Chris in The Book of Life and how he recognizes that discrimination. I think whether it’s a personal discrimination, or a professional one, which we’ve all in different… varies, with our different amounts of privilege have experienced, that’s recognizable in Discovery of Witches. And I think it just, the more you break it down, the more it’s one of those beautiful things that it does give us these parallels to absolutely everything.
Lisa: I’m just gonna say, one of the biggest themes for the series is family. The family that you’re born with, the family that you create or choose. Um, at the beginning of the book, Diana’s constantly hounded by Sarah because she doesn’t use magic and like, that’s just something that’s core to their family. Um, so what are these books and I guess, now the TV show really teach us about that theme of family? Can we talk about that a little bit?
Alexis: You know I think um, this theme of found family really connects really nicely with this allegory that we have of you know, segregation and discrimination between the creatures. Because what we start with in- in the first book is Diana as an island, really isolated and without um, really strong connections, right? She has- technically she has family, but she’s not um, she’s not in a family group. Um, and that in the larger sense of the world is also echoed in the first book where we have you know, the vampires, the witches, and the demons, and the humans and everybody is separate from everybody else.
And when we get… by the third book, is Diana herself creating and choosing um, these members of her family who are from all four different creature groups, and she is no longer alone. She is no longer isolated as an island. She’s created this family for herself, and um, really in a lot of ways in- in finding the book has managed to integrate you know, everybody- everybody together. Um, and taken all of these people who would be isolated by themselves, but they’re no longer isolated. Because, they have found kind of a common purpose together which is to- to allow creatures to be together. To allow all of these different groups of people to be together without um, without discrimination.
Stephenie: I think that there’s also something to that about how Diana’s isolation… tying back into Stephenie’s conversation about knowledge is, her isolation is not just emotional. It’s also in terms of how she understands the world and the message of your found family, and being able to choose people- people from all walks of life who are very different from you. They also all have something to teach you to make you the best version of yourself and to make the world the best version of what it can possibly be. And that’s how you sort of work towards a future that is um, loving and inclusive and aimed towards um, justice, right? Because, you know, a thing we haven’t really talked about in this book is you know the ideas of sort of divinity and justice that are wrapped up in Diana’s arc.
And I think that you only get to that kind of justice by being open to what other people have to say about who they are, where they come from, and being willing to welcome them into your world and into your heart. And at the risk of being extremely sappy, I would just like to say that my found family uh, through this series also includes Jen and Stephenie and that uh, you know, I think I myself have learned to sort of expand and create a world for myself um, through these books that might not have been possible otherwise.
Stephenie: I was gonna say that. Um, but this idea- this idea that the found family in the books is something that is echoed by the found family in the fandom. And I think when we live up to the ideals of the book. When we stop and we think and we have those Hamish and Matthew, those Chris and Matthew, Chris and Diana conversations in real life, where we say “Hey did you realize that this is a thing?” Um, that we learn and that these characters, with all their flaws, um, can show us then something about ourselves. That leads to a sort of found family amongst book and show um, lovers. That we then have almost a set of tools to then go further. And to read more and to listen more in a way that just replicates all of that in a way that I think is quite unique. Um, and I’ve said it before but, the All Souls fandom is one of the nicer- nicest fandoms out there. And I think it’s because the book teaches us how to respect differences and how to understand that we need to learn from found family.
Alexis: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
Lisa: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast, it’s also a multi-media magazine.
Alexis: You can find our videos, stories and every single podcast episode at Distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
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Alexis: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Lisa: And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer.
Alexis: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/give now. For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: Thanks for Listening.