26 March 2011

Remembering the Stories of Diana Wynne Jones

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.


dot said...

I didn't get around to reading the Dalemark Quartet until earlier this year (having exhausted most of the other easily accessible DWJ books.). Once I settled in for the ride and just trusted her, I found the whole series wonderfully dense and layered. They might not be as accessible as anything where Howl pops up, but they were really quite good. And oh, it is not the best of years for iconic British children's writers.

Richard said...

I was introduced to The Lives of Christopher Chant by a friend when it first came out -- a decade before Harry Potter came along. I was already well into my twenties by then. I'm glad to have encountered the Chrestomanci so late in my development; if I'd read those books earlier I'd have taken them for granted. I couldn't have appreciated just how good they were without some life experience under my belt. And for that matter, Jones had a lot to say about how one becomes an adult -- and especially how childhood pain shapes the kind of adult you turn out to be, but you get to decide which way it turns out -- that adults need to learn even more than younger readers do. I'm just glad those books were around when I needed them most, and that they'll stay around for a very long time to come.

For ages now I've kept my copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland close to hand next to my computer for literary inspiration and cheering up whenever I need it…and that's where it's staying.

And from what we know about the disability and illness Jones was living with in these last few years, at least we can be glad her body isn't hurting her any more.

Gail Gauthier said...

I was expecting this news because I had heard she wasn't well. I didn't become a fan until last year, but I definitely admire and appreciate her work.

Mordena said...

Am thinking of forcing Howl's Moving Castle on you -- except that it is currently lent out elsewhere. :)

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve got a copy of Howl near my desk. But I just finished Enchanted Glass, and have been partway through Dogsbody for years, so it’s in a queue.

Jackie Scheidlinger said...

I have read everything by DWJ that I can get hold of. Since some of her work is out of print already (cannot understand why) I've scoured used book stores and have done some shopping for used copies on the web.
I am a big fan of children's lit in general, with my favorites being L.Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, P.L. Travers, E. Nesbit (This is getting crazy...why does everyone have initials in their names?). I still have my childhood copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz with the John R. Neill illustrations and those gorgeous color plates. I particularly loved the one of Glinda. I thought she was so beautiful. But I digress.

For me, no one catch match Diana Wynne Jones for pure crazy originality, flawed but admirable protagonists, deep insight, and delightful British humor.
I urge you to read Howl's Castle if you haven't done so already, and follow that with Deep Secret and The Dark Lord of Derkholm. There is nobody else like her.

My blog is gently-read.blogspot.com/