Tag Archives: penelope lively

Reading Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom

Published in Science Fiction Studies in 2002

Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom – ed. Teya Rosenberg, Martha P. Hixon, Sharon M. Scapple, & Donna R. White
(Peter Lang, 2002)

As a writer, Diana Wynne Jones has existed in a peculiar state for many years. Her work is adored by her admirers, adult and child alike, and she has many fans, all over the world. However, a more general public awareness of her work has been noticeably absent, for reasons that are not at all clear to me, except perhaps that her novels have had a somewhat chequered history in paperback publication. The Rowling-fuelled explosion of interest in children’s fiction has changed this situation, with many of her older titles at last back in print alongside more recent novels.

Similarly, although there have been many thoughtful reviews of her novels in various magazines, and a number of articles on her work, by Jones herself and by others, many of the latter now usefully available through two websites, The Official Diana Wynne Jones Website and Chrestomanci’s Castle, up until now there seems, somewhat surprisingly, to have been little in the way of published scholarly discussion of Jones’s work. What there is has been conveniently listed by the editors of Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom, the first volume in a new series from Peter Lang, Studies in Children’s Literature, a volume which goes some way towards redressing this scholarly imbalance.

However, in attempting to rectify this academic omission, it’s clear, immediately, that the editors had their work cut out, trying to steer a sensible course through the potential wealth of subjects generated by a body of work which extends to more than twenty novels, as well as several volumes of short stories, and a work of non-fiction. Inevitably, given the constraints of publication, they could do little more than scratch the surface of so broad an area of interest, in which case, at least one of their article choices puzzled me somewhat. At other times, I wished they had chosen fewer papers and covered topics in greater depth, although I could appreciate the need to give a reasonably broad view of Jones’s oeuvre.

Diana Wynne Jones belongs to that generation of British writers of children’s fiction, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively among them, for whom the Second World War was an experience in common, a catalyst for introducing elements of the fantastic into otherwise realist writing, the so-called Golden Age of children’s literature. No Golden Age is without its critics, and a number of ‘pop’ commentators too easily dismiss these writers and their contemporaries as dealing in misguided nostalgia, irrelevant to the modern world. However, Karen Sands-O’Connor’s perceptive analysis, ‘Nowhere To Go, No One To Be: Diana Wynne and the Concepts of Englishness and Self-Image’, places Jones’s work as marking a point where the nature of children’s fiction shifts from a wholehearted defence of traditional values (Sands-O’Connor here cites Lively and Philippa Pearce as defenders) and towards, in some cases at least, and Jones among them, a recognition that nostalgia can be a source of power, but not necessarily to the good.

Sands-O’Connor also opens up several other themes in Jones’s work, not least her deeply significant use of myth, and the way in which she moves from the use of the preservative, (nostalgic, even) patriarchal myth of rebirth and renewal towards a testing, or more often dissolving, of the boundaries of myth, much as Jones, an avowed hater of genre distinctions, effortlessly dissolves the so-called boundaries between science fiction and fantasy. Noting the way in which Jones shows that the past has an inability to inform the present, Sands-O’Connor further opens this out to examine the ways in which traditional myths often disenfranchise as much as they empower, marginalising women, the non-English, and also, one might argue, children and adolescents generally. Later essays in the book touch frequently on the awareness experienced by the children that their lives are controlled by unseen figures of authority, more-than-parental figures who dominate the children’s lives through their inexplicable, almost capricious actions

Which brings us to another of Jones’s great themes, that of the powerlessness or otherwise of overt parental figures. In ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Two Dogsbodies: A Jungian Reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Dogsbody’, Alice Mills notes the recurring figure of the malevolent older woman in Jones’s fiction and quotes my own interview with Jones, in which she acknowledges the figure as her mother. However, while Mills’s essay explores the malevolent mother figure in Dogsbody (1975), the essay also inadvertently points up a more serious omission in the collection, which is that there is no discussion of the family generally in Jones’s writing, despite it playing a large and significant role, not just in terms of the nuclear family but also blended families, and ‘families of choice’. Likewise, alongside the malevolent mother figure stands the, by turns, ineffectual or otherwise preoccupied father figure (Wilkins’ Tooth (1973), Archer’s Goon (1984)) and the fabulous, exotic, male figure who stands in loco parentis, Chrestomanci being one example, Howl another in a more wayward and unpredictable fashion. For that matter, a wider-ranging discussion of gender issues in Jones’s work (more ambivalent than they might at first appear to be) would also have been welcome. I hope other scholars will remedy this lack.

Perhaps the greatest theme of Jones’s work is the relationship between language and magic. Deborah Kaplan and Charles Butler both explore this issue. Kaplan, in ‘Diana Wynne Jones and the World-Shaping Power of Language’ notes that those who can write or tell stories have immense power in Jones’s work (Nan Pilgrim in Witch Week (1982) is her particular example) while Butler’s ‘Magic as Metaphor and as Reality’ notes how Jones acts on an observation of C.S Lewis’s: that fictional woods have the power to enchant real ones, using fiction as a way of bringing magic into reality. Butler explores the metaphoric and metonymic portrayals of magic in Jones’s work while Kaplan looks more closely at the way in which Jones portrays the magical properties of properly descriptive language.

In invoking the use of magic, we also inevitably invoke the now-ubiquitous spectre of Harry Potter. Commentators have speculated long on whether J.K. Rowling read Diana Wynne Jones, and Jones herself has said she feels sure that Rowling must have done. Jones’s admirers have been outraged on her behalf that Rowling has drawn more attention, although it could be argued that interest in Rowling has brought unjustly neglected titles into print again. Sarah Fiona Waters’ ‘Good and Evil in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones and J.K. Rowling’ offers a measured assessment of the two bodies of work, demonstrating that the two authors both draw on the traditional genres of children’s literature, while doing very different things with similar raw material and creating very different moral landscapes as a result. Harry’s moral education is, as Winters notes, driven by learning which rules to break, which not, the protagonists of the Chrestomanci series have a very different, more subtle, education, which teaches them to see beyond the surface of situations and interpret them accordingly, a distinction which ties in with an earlier observation by Sands-O’Connor, of Jones’s interest in the themes of adult fiction. The fluidity of language is also discussed by Maria Nikolajeva in ‘Heterotopia as a Reflection of Postmodern Consciousness in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones’.

Despite the wide range of thought-provoking essays in this collection, there are disappointments; Donna R. White’s ‘Living in Limbo: The Homeward Bounders as a Metaphor for Military Childhood’ seemed to me to be more about US military children than about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel, and I was at a loss to fully grasp the connections between the two. The argument that during World War II, most British children ‘were military brats’ does not, to my mind, ring true. The displacement experienced by British children was that of evacuation which was, for the most part, a removal from A to B, home and not-home, and then a return to the familiar, rather than constantly having to establish a new ‘home’. Most people who remember that time would, I submit, not see themselves as ‘military brats’ but as the civilians they remained throughout.

Akiko Yamazaki’s linking of Fire and Hemlock (1985) and Adele Geras’s Watching the Roses (1991), ‘Fire and Hemlock: A Text as a Spellcoat’ remained tenuous, and the analysis of Fire and Hemlock served only to reiterate comments made elsewhere. Karina Hill’s ‘Dragons and Quantum Foam: Mythic Archetypes and Modern Physics in Selected Works by Diana Wynne Jones’ was for me undermined by Jones’s own comment in the excellent interview conducted by Charles Butler, when she revealed that she had read about quantum mechanics after she had established her multiverses, although it is typical of Jones’s work that this should happen.

However, these are minor dissatisfactions with what is, in the main, a useful set of essays, to be welcomed as the starting point for a larger body of critical publications on the work of Diana Wynne Jones.

Reading The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories and Shadows in the Attic

An elderly review, from Vector sometime in 2001.

Peter Haining, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
Robinson, 2000

Neil Wilson – Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950
The British Library, 2000

Over the years, all manner of fictional places and objects, from canals to Buick cars, have been portrayed as haunted, and yet the most powerful, the most resonant image in supernatural writing is still that of the haunted house, As Peter Haining shows in this anthology (bafflingly hailed as ‘the first major anthology of the best tales about haunted houses,’ as though the world is flooded with minor ones) the haunted house comes in all shapes and sizes, from the classic ivy-clad country seat to dingy town apartments, from opulent stately homes to the meanest of tumble-down cottages, with perhaps a village pub or two thrown in for good measure.

And here I encounter a difficulty with this anthology. Some haunted house stories are more haunted than others, if you follow my meaning. Every ghost story has to be set somewhere, but the very fact of it being set in a house, as opposed to a railway carriage or on board shop, doesn’t necessarily make it a story about a haunted house. It is, I admit, a very fine distinction, but in a number of stories in this collection, the setting is almost incidental, and I would include here examples such as M. R. James’ much-anthologised ‘Lost Hearts’, a fine story but it could be set practically anywhere … the focus of the action is the ghosts, not their setting. Much the same might be said of Hugh Walpole’s otherwise delightful ‘A Little Ghost’ in its generic country house, or Penelope Lively’s ‘Uninvited Ghosts’ and several other stories in this anthology.

You’ll see what I mean if you contrast them with stories such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s magnificent ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’, Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’ or, to take a more recent example, Ramsey Campbell’s atmospheric ‘Napier Court’. In stories like these, the house is a character, is often the character, setting the tone and pace of the story. Even Bulwer-Lytton’s relentlessly turgid ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, when stripped of its overwhelming desire to examine the philosophical mechanics of a haunting, is dominated by the menace of the otherwise highly desirable residence at 50 Berkeley Square.

There is also a faint air of desperation about Haining’s categorisation of the stories in this book, neatly divided up as they are into unnecessary sections such as ‘Shadowy Corners: Accounts of Restless Spirits’ or ‘Psychic Phenomena: Signs from the Other Side’ (as though the earlier ghost stories weren’t?). Ignore this and concentrate on the stories themselves. Even constrained by a dubious theme, as he clearly was, and also missing out a number of perhaps more appropriate stories Haining has nevertheless assembled a collection which includes some of the finest writers the genre ever saw (L.P. Hartley, W.F. Harvey, Mary Eleanor Freeman) as well as some unusual modern examples from the likes of Ian Watson and William F. Nolan, and provides some genuinely thrilling and spooky moments.

The ghost story was a distinct genre phenomenon, probably reaching its peak during the early part of the twentieth century. Nowadays, we most often remember M.R. James’ stories but he was a prodigious talent among many gifted writers. Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic attempts to catalogue these authors and their output in what turns out to be a monumental (and extremely expensive) work but one that’s informative rather than useful. The bibliographical nature of this work means that while it is an excellent tool for establishing an author’s output, it’s much less helpful if you want to discover what may be currently available. Clues exist in the notes, pointing the reader towards the output of, in particular, the Ash-Tree Press, Sarob Press and Tartarus Press, all of which are republishing many hard-to-find volumes or else producing collected editions of popular authors, but these references are incidental and not always thorough. (This uncertainty extends to the addresses included in Sources Consulted, at least one of which is now defunct.) Having said that, for the devoted scholar of ghost stories, this is surely an essential volume. Each entry includes a brief biography and a listing of the first publication of all known stories by each author, with full bibliographical references and their British Library call number, and an indication of their contents. The bibliography also provides a useful introduction to the subject.

Christmas ghost stories …

The Guardian published a series of ghost stories over Christmas. Some were more successful than others.

Lionel Shriver – Repossession

Ned Beauman – Light and Space

Jeannette Winterson – Dark Christmas

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Ofodile

Penelope Lively – Stairs

Also, over at Spitalfields Life

Rosie Dastgir – The Hades Hotel

Kate Griffin – A Shaggy Dog Tale

Sarah Winman – Song of the Long Gone