Friday, May 22, 2009

The Fantasy of Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is an author of mostly juvenile and young adult fiction. She has published over forty books, six collections of short stories, edited 3 anthologies, and written two non-fiction books: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and The Skiver's Guide. Her career has spanned nearly forty years, with her first book published in 1970, and her latest book to be published late this year or next year. She has been nominated for several awards, and in 1977 her book Charmed Life won the Guardian Award for Children's Books. In 1999 Dark Lord of Derkholm won the Mythopoeic Award in the USA, and she won the Karl Edward Wagner Award in the UK for her contribution to fantasy. Her book, Howl's Moving Castle, was turned into a major motion picture by the talented Hayao Miyazaki.

She writes fantasy, for the most part – but is not limited to any one sub-genre or specialty. Her stories ramble all over the spectrum, and often appear to start in one sub-genre but reveal themselves to be in another. She has written several series, but the bulk of her work has been standalone stories, each set in a new and different world. Even within a series she rarely continues the story of the characters in the previous book, but instead finds new characters to focus on. As a result, her books can be read in any order.

In writing, she does not adhere to conventions, but seems to go out of her way to turn conventions on their heads. Her storytelling is witty and ironic, full of humor, yet never failing to plumb the depths of human experience. Her plots are quite complicated, filled with unexpected twists and surprises – yet they unfold neatly, and their endings are completely logical – once she moves the reader around to her point of view.

One exception to the unfolding neatly rule is the book Hexwood, which plays with time and space. It's a confusing book, if you try to make sense of it. But if you just experience it, just keep going, you will find that it will all fall into place at the end. Rather neatly, too.

The first time I read one of her books, it is for the surprise. The second time I read a book, it is to catch the dramatic irony, and to see how she builds the plot toward the ending. The third time, it is catch what I missed earlier. And again for the fourth time.

Although her books are written for the juvenile market, they are for adults as well. She does not talk down to her readers, or preach at them, or make adults into the paragons of virtue that we know we are not. When asked what was the difference between juvenile and adult fantasy, she replied, “The difference is not great.” And, “When I write for adults I have to keep reminding them of the essential facts in the story. Young people read much more carefully, so it is only necessary to tell them something once. Perhaps the brief answer is that juvenile fiction can be shorter.”

Her stories are heavily influenced by her own rather interesting childhood. In her autobiographical sketch, she states, “I think I write the way I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old.”

Diana Wynne Jones was born in London in 1934. Before WWII her family lived in Hadley Wood, a nice suburb North of London. In August of 1939, however, WWII started for England. Diana and her three year old sister, Isobel, were packed into a borrowed automobile and taken to stay with her paternal grandfather in Wales. They stayed there for almost five months, while her mother delivered her third child, Ursula, back in London.

Wales was different from London. The landscape was different, the family was different, and the people spoke their own language when they talked among themselves. Diana and her sister were treated nicely, but as outsiders. Her grandfather, a preacher in a Welsh Non-conformist Chapel, was a stern man who ruled his household. He preached in Welsh, in a kind of blank verse called Hwyl.

Diana Wynne Jones says of this: “I still sometimes dream in Welsh, without understanding a word. And at the bottom of my mind there is always a flow of spoken language that is not English, rolling in majestic paragraphs and resounding with splendid polysyllables. I listen to it like music when I write.”

The experience is recounted closely in The Merlin Conspiracy, where Roddy and her friend Grundo are summoned to visit her Grandfather. He is also a stern preacher whose preaching is melodic. He is also, in the way of Diana Wynne Jones' fantasies, something much larger than life.

Later that year, Diana Wynne Jones' mother arrived with the baby. However, things with her husband's family were not to her liking, and after several rows, she took the family back to Hadley Wood by Christmas.

The threat of bombings and invasions grew, so in the summer of 1940 Diana's mother took her three daughters to Westmoreland. There they lived in a large country house called Lane Head, which was on Conistan Water, along with several other families of displaced mothers and children. It was a place of mountains, lake, and brooks running through greeness. Beatrix Potter lived nearby – she didn't much like children, it turned out. Especially children in her garden. This place, with all it's wilderness, also made a lasting impression on Diane Wynne Jones. Mountains and green forests are often the good magical places in her stories.

Along with her grandfather, Diana says that she often dreams of the Old Man of the Mountain.

On the other hand, this wonderful place was infused with the anxiety of war, which was escalating. There was also conflict within the home, as Diana's mother kept getting rows with the other mother, and Diana often found herself blamed for things that other children did.

In Septenber of 1941, her mother moved the family to York, where they stayed with Anglican nuns. There never seemed to be enough food, for the war was on and rationing was strict. These were hungry times. The family went with the nuns to worship at York Minster, the great Cathedral, but religion really didn't take. Diana considers herself an atheist, even though religious themes and mythologies move through her stories.

In 1942 the family returned to Hadley Woods, where the war was in full force. At night they listened to the sounds of sirens, bombing, and gunfire, and waited for a bomb to hit and blow up the house. During the day they dealt with rationing, blackouts, brown paper stuck to windows, and notices such as “Careless Talk Costs Lives.” The war pervaded everything.

In 1943 her parents found a Husband-and-Wife teaching position running Clarance House. This is a small conference center for young adults in Thaxted, a small rural town in Essex. They stayed there until her father died while Diana was in college. The town was filled with the interesting people that one tends to find in small towns.

At Thaxton, the parents devoted themselves to their teachings, and neglected their children. The girls lived in a small, damp cottage away from the main house, with only a paraffin lamp for heat. Their parents rigged up a bell that the girls could ring in case of emergency, but they never answered it. Often they came home from from school to find that no one had remembered to leave them anything to eat. Their mother only bought them half the things they needed for school, and tried to make the rest, but she wasn't a very good seamstress. She claimed that she did this because there weren't enough clothes rationing coupons – but always managed to get enough clothes for herself. In The Time of the Ghost, Diana Wynne Jones describes the situation in which they lived – but not the closeness of the three sisters as they relied upon themselves for the support they did not get from her adults. Children coming together for mutual support against an oppressive world is a theme found in nearly all of Diana Wynne Jone's books.

Her mother would tell people, in front of the girls, that Ursula was going to be an actress. Isobel was going to be a balleria, and Diana was ugly, semi-delinquent, but bright.

Her father refused to buy his children books to read. When they had read all the books available at the local library, Diana started writing stories for her sisters.

After being sent to a series of schools, both boarding and day schools, Diana Wynne Jones went to St. Anne's College at Oxford. She attended lectures by both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. But Oxford was scornful of fantasy, and about these two writers people would say, “But they're great scholars.”

In 1956, three days before Christmas, Diana married Jon Burrow, who she is still happily married to. They had three children, born in 1958, 1961, and 1963. When Diana began reading stories to her children, she discovered all the great children's stories she had missed as a child. Also, having a husband and a family of her own showed her what normal family life was, and she was able to start assimilating the experiences of her childhood.

She decided to write stories for children, though it took her ten years to learn how to write a marketable book. She said, “Somewhere here it dawned on me that I was going to write fantasy anyway, because I was not able to believe in most people's version of a normal life.

In 1970 she published her first book, Changeover. It's very rare – you can buy a copy, used, for $443. Her first marketable book, Wilkin's Tooth, was published in 1973. In 1976 her husband took a job teaching in Bristol, and that is where they still live.

It's easy to see that a childhood like that, filled with chaos and callous adults, would affect her writing, but instead of being dark and fatalistic, her work is filled with adventure and self-discovery. Her protagonists often are yanked into new worlds, without warning. They are faced with new customs and rules, and sometimes a different, bewildering language. Unfairness abounds, yet while her protagonists chafe at it , they aren't defeated. They head out and find a way to survive it, or escape.

And they do this with humor. She said in an interview for Mslexia, a magazine for female writers, “There are lots of situations that are much better to deal with in fantasy because you can stand back from it, make it fun, and learn from it.”

Another common theme in her stories is characters of different background being thrown together and having to face a severe external threat, such as a war. Her experiences at Lane Head, where a variety of families from different backgrounds came together to shelter against the war, seem to echo again and again. I think this was bolstered by the many places she lived and visited afterwards. In both her books and her autobiography, she shows herself to be a keen observer of others.

In her works, adults are usually neither paragons of virtue or absolute villains. She did have one absolutely perfect adult in The Homeward Bounders, a demon-hunter named Konistan who is the very embodiment of a hero – but she also makes fun of his absolute perfection even as she describes it. Most of her adults are fallible, erratic, and somewhat neglectful, yet they have good intentions. None, after all, are as horrific as her own parents. One person I know was offended that the parents in a Chrestomanci novel were as casual as they were, and not proper parents, and worried that this would bother the readers. My experience is that the young readers appreciate seeing that adults are portrayed in a way closer to their own experiences. After all, learning to deal with the faults of adults is a part of growing up, and growing up is an essential part of the plot resolution in Diana Wynne Jones' books.

That's one thing which makes it hard for her to have sequel after sequel with the same characters. Once they grow up, it's hard to go back – unless one forgets everything one has learned, like the children in the Nanny McPhee books.

This is not to say that there are not absolute villains in these books. Irredeemable evil does exist in Diana Wynne Jones' world. The characters must, after all, have something to fight against, something you cheer about when the villains meet their rather creative but final ends. Still, the feeling is that while the world has been saved and the universe is safe, the greatest victory is within, not without. In order to succeed, the protagonists often have to acknowledge what they have done wrong to get themselves into the situation where they found themselves, and take steps to correct it. For the foils of humanity affect the characters themselves. In The Merlin Conspiracy one of the protagonists, Nick, makes a casual remark to a strange woman – and in so doing sets into action a chain of events which end up throwing him into the action of the story at the beginning of the book, and threatening many worlds by the end of it.

Diana Wynne Jones prefers to write stories with happy, and preferably romantic, endings. And yet her characters get not what they think they want, but what they deserve. In Howl's Moving Castle, the vain Howl and the sharply critical Sophie end up together, happy and yet still themselves, still human, still with faults. They don't need to change to be perfect – they merely need to learn to live with each other.

I'll close with this quote: “Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn't have as a child myself.”

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