This morning brought news of the death of Diana Wynne Jones. Though she started publishing fantasy novels in the 1970s, they didn’t make a splash in the American market for years. I therefore didn’t read my first Jones novel until after college and a few years of work, when Harry Potter was making U.S. publishers once again see lucre in British children’s fantasy.
That first book was Charmed Life, the launch of Jones’s Chrestomanci stories. (Chronologically, it became the third—at least.) And I was delighted by the find. The storytelling seemed to effortlessly combine quaint, quotidian details with high magic and powerful personalities. Jones didn’t take a classical approach to plot, so her stories could make sudden turns—e.g., suddenly replacing one apparent protagonist for another—so as a reader you had to stay on your toes.
Jones’s storytelling grew out of an emotionally deprived childhood. Born in 1934, she grew up in the Depression, World War 2, and Britain’s postwar lean years, but suffered most from her parents’ child-rearing. This Guardian profile explains:
Utterly neglected by their parents, she and her sisters, Isobel and Ursula, lived in a shack apart from the main house. They ran wild, washed seldom and grew very close. Because of the damp, Diana contracted juvenile rheumatism, a trial to her mother who declared: “Sympathy damages me”. Her father, who according to Diana “could beat Scrooge in a meanness contest”, did not allow the girls many books. He kept an entire set of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books locked up, giving his daughters one to share each year. Desperate for books, Diana wrote two epic novels herself, aged 12.Troubled families and demanding institutions (her parents were busy managing a conference center) run through many of Jones’s stories. Her fictional families are messy and full of secrets, and inheritances—of traditions, property, powers—are a burden. After coming back from a Jones conference Penthe wrote of her stories:
Lots of the action is driven by children having to cope with the fairly unpleasant events set in train by their elders - parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The kids often end up taking the consequences and solving the problems because the adults are too self-absorbed, stubborn or lazy. Or just lack the imagination to understand what they are doing, which I think is the worst sin of all in the Jonesiverse.The “Jonesiverse” is actually made up of many dimensions. I’m most fond of the novels rooted in modern England, with balky television sets and council flats, like The Homeward Bounders, Eight Days of Luke, and especially Archer’s Goon. I haven’t dug fully into the high fantasy of, say, the Dalemark Quartet and Howl’s Castle series. But of course the power of Jones’s imagination lies in how those levels of reality are never far apart.