I was perhaps eight was when I first found a copy of Charmed Life in Birmingham Central Library. I can see it very clearly. It was the Puffin Paperback edition and it was sitting to the left on the middle shelf of five, in the last but one case on the far side of the library. Jones began with J, and I was browsing alphabetically. Between the Hs and the Js I was occupied for much of the year.
But at the time, Diana Wynne Jones wasn’t that easy to get hold of. Children’s authors came in and out of print and as Anne Cassidy observed recently, children are transient readers, and authors have to continually be remarketed as their original readers move on. Except that as the years went by, it started to become obvious that Diana’s readers weren’t moving on, rather they were accreting, forming a stealth fandom which could be felt (in those pre-Amazon days) in requests to send books to the U.S.
Yet through the 1980s and 1990s, Jones remained ever so slightly below the radar. Although Jones won the Guardian Award for Charmed Life in 1977, and was twice runner up for the Carnegie medal, her individual books missed out on awards. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, this is remarkable: by the 1990 Jones had already written the Chrestomanci books (perhaps her most popular), Fire and Hemlock (simultaneously her most philosophical and most complex) and Archer’s Goon (her most rambunctious) and in 1993, Hexwood.
Most people acknowledge that the change came with the success of JK Rowling: suddenly publishers and shops wanted children’s fantasy again, and here was a respected author with a backlist. But there is more to it than that. Rowling’s success made it possible to reprint Diana’s work, but the desire and interest was already there. Stella Paskins at HarperCollins leapt at the opportunity, and produced a series of paperbacks with beautiful new artwork which captured the surrealism of Diana’s work. Sharyn November, at the Firebird imprint, also seized the day. And meanwhile Diana’s readers, children in 1973 when Wilkins’ Tooth came out, were grown up. It would be conventional to say here, “and had children of their own” but while that’s true too, what is fascinatingly true, is that many of them had books of their own. Diana had not just grown fans, she had grown writers. Science fiction and fantasy authors, writers for both adults and children, began to cite her influence, writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Kate Elliott, Marie Brennan, Chaz Brenchley, John Scalzi, Shweta Narayan, Rhiannon Lassiter, Charlie Butler, Sarah Monette, Sharianne Lewitt, Caroline Stevermer, Sonya Taafe, Nisi Shawl, Gillian Polack and Greer Gilman. Some had read her as children, some met her work later in life.
By the late 1990s it was also clear that she was arousing academic interest. Brian Attebery writes about her work in Strategies of Fantasy; Suzanne Rahn wrote an excellent article for Garland in 1995. Then in 2002, Rosenberg, Hixon, Scapple and White produced the collection Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom, which laid down a series of approaches to Jones which could be argued and challenged. Charlie Butler’s Four British Fantasists and my own monograph followed shortly after. Most recently the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts published the results of the first conference on Diana’s work held in Bristol in 2009. Sadly, Diana was already too unwell to attend, but she sent a video message to a conference which attracted attendees from all over the world.
Diana, like any sensible fiction writer, regarded this rush of academic activity with a complex mixture of interest, embarrassment and perhaps a little ridicule. Actually, make that a lot of ridicule. Diana, as many of the memorials will tell you, was kind, warm, and generous—the web is now teeming with anecdotes from fans who met her at conventions in the 1980s before her travel jinx cut in*—but she was also very witty and sardonic and more than one of us flinched at her comments on our interest. To an extent the academic interest reflected the growing wealth of children’s literature criticism, and fantasy criticism, but again the age profile of the academics interested in her work was noticeable. These too were readers Diana Wynne Jones had grown.
*It seems very appropriate that I am writing this on a London train badly delayed by signal failures at Darlington.
Diana Wynne Jones wrote over forty novels. Each and every reader has their own favourite which they defend passionately. Many readers will tell you they have different favourites for different moods, or novels which were favourites at different stages of their lives. Many of these novels are intensely complex works which work with many different types of fantasy, urban, absurdist, fairy tale, often gleefully mixed in together so that, as in Hexwood, the reader has to continually adjust their expectations about what kind of book they are reading. Jones didn’t just “not talk down to children” in that old but valued cliché, she talked up to them, expecting that if they didn’t understand something they would go and find out, or if they didn’t understand it now, they would greet its source with the joy of recognition later. Her books are intensely layered with myth mixing with physics, musicology with metaphysics.
Diana’s books are empowering but not consolatory: in many, lonely, neglected children such as David, in Eight Days of Luke, Kathleen in Dogsbody, or the sisters in Time of the Ghost, learn to fight back against the adults who control their lives with careless cruelty, but too often learn that they can’t fight back without help, or must wait until they grow older and until then must simply survive. Sometimes, as in The Spellcoats, it is not clear that the children do survive.
Diana’s protagonists were real children: they were not always likeable (Charles in Witch Week bids fair to be a monster). They were sulky even when powerful, and they tripped over their own magic like most adolescents do over their feet. Too often, Diana’s characters did the right thing for the wrong reason, as when Moril brings down the mountains on an army for the sake of his horse Barangarolob. They are young people learning how to act ethically in an often unethical world, for Diana was a very ethical writer, one who asked, and forced us to ask the awkward questions of plot and character (such as why exactly is it ok for a wizard to persuade a child to fight the Dark Lord for him? See Hexwood) that make it hard to read other stories in the same way again, but also of the very tropes of fantasy—what would it really be like to be buried alive and then resurrected? How does our world look to a traveller from another? How do the inhabitants of the land feel after the quest has passed through? Who grows the grain for the beer in all those taverns? What’s it like being around someone protected by destiny the forces of fate or the rules of the game? And do we really have to play by someone else’s rules? Diana taught those of us who couldn’t climb ropes and weren’t Real Boys and Real Girls that talent was a complex thing and might not appear in quite the ways we assumed, or desired. She taught us what heroism was, and wasn’t, and that small acts of bravery—such as when Estelle covers up Nan’s broomstick ride in Witch Week—is every bit as important as charging a bully.
All of this sounds terribly serious, but Diana Wynne Jones wrote some of the wittiest books in the field. Her screwball fantasies unravelled with a delicious unpredictable inevitability, contradiction though that sounds. Diana used fantasy to show us the world in a different way. In Deep Secret Maree despairs at the prosaic nature of her foster father that he sees only the technical way in which heat damaged glass distorts and not the surreal world beyond to which it opens. Diana forced us to pay attention to language in Fire and Hemlock, The Magicians of Caprona, Cart and Cwidder, in Witch Week and Howl’s Moving Castle so that we too could wield the magic of the right words, in the right place, at the right time, to the right tune, talking life into the world around us. Diana had us looking around our conventions wondering which costumed fan-goer had slipped through from another world, and how many corners there were in the Radisson Euclidian at Heathrow.
It’s very hard to pick one book that stands above all the others. People have favourites—you can divide the fans roughly into Archer’s Goon and Fire and Hemlock people—but in terms of quality, the arguments go around and around. Diana maintained an astonishingly consistent high standard, recognised with a D.Litt from the University of Bristol in 2006 and the World Fantasy Award in 2007. Diana had amassed a body of work that spoke to its readers in ways that stayed with them for life, but which also spoke as a body of work to the genre in which she wrote. When she produced The Tough Guide to Fantasyland in 1996 it was as an insider in the genre, a fierce but loving critic, whose body of works were not only some of the best fiction in the field, but some of the very best contributions to criticism. They were critical fictions in all senses of the word.
A personal note of gratitude: my first Diana Wynne Jones was a borrowed library paperback. I spent my pocket money on second hand paperbacks and bought all the new reprints when they came out because my originals were crumbling. Then, when I was nearing the end of my monograph I calculated a) the cost of traveling from Reading to London every day for thirty days to consult the first editions in the British Library, versus b) the cost of buying all the first editions. Those first editions now sit on a separate shelf in our library. One day Diana sat over lunch and patiently signed every one. Even then, it was forty-five separate titles. Diana never did tell me directly if she liked my work, but she gave me a Calcifer hand puppet which sits in my office, charming my students as she charmed me. A charmed life indeed.
Farah Mendlesohn is a British writer, editor, and academic who has written and edited many books about modern fantasy and SF, including Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition (2005). Along with her co-editor Edward James, she won the Hugo Award in 2005 for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.