A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

There are several possible reasons for this critical neglect. Perhaps Jones was seen as leaning too far towards science fiction (a genre against which some degree of prejudice still exists) to be quite critically respectable. Possibly her use of humour stopped her being taken seriously, or her very profligacy was held against her, although Jones’s books are anything but formulaic. Considering her in the company of writers such as Garner, Cooper and Lively, it is clear too that her work is in general less obviously orientated towards the contemplation of history, or of mythology as a means of access to the past; and this fact may have placed her beyond the scope of much of British children’s fantasy criticism, in which these have tended to be prominent concerns. In recent years Jones’s critical fortunes have risen sharply, in part because of her exploitation of such ‘post-modern’ devices as multiple or fragmented subjectivities, alternative realities, self-altering narratives, intertextuality, and generic hybridity have made her a more fashionable writer in the theory-conscious academy of the 1990s and beyond. The unprecedented success of the Harry Potter books from the late 1990s may also have provided a catalyst. As far as Jones was concerned, the Potter phenomenon had two consequences. On the one hand, a number of readers noted that J K Rowling’s premise of a school for magic had in many respects been anticipated by such Jones titles as Charmed Life (1977) and Witch Week (1982). This led to some speculation as to whether Rowling had been influenced by Jones (a suggestion Rowling denied) and comparisons of their relative merits as writers (comparisons that could hardly be to Rowling’s advantage). On the other hand, Rowling’s commercial success meant that publishers worldwide were eager to market books that might appeal to a similar audience. Stella Paskins, an editor at HarperCollins who had been an admirer of Jones since childhood, seized the opportunity to buy up the rights to almost the entire Jones oeuvre, and from 2000 many Jones titles that had been out of print or lying dormant in various publishers’ backlists have been reissued successfully in new HarperCollins editions.

With Jones’s books back in print and selling well, and children’s fantasy fiction enjoying a resurgence of critical interest, her work has now begun to be the subject of sustained critical attention. Her name appears with increasing frequency in the titles of conference papers and articles, and in 2002 a collection of essays devoted to her work was published, followed in 2005 by Farah Mendlesohn’s monograph Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. The British Fantasy Society recognized her significant impact on fantasy with its occasional Karl Edward Wagner Award in 1999. She received an honorary D.Litt from the University of Bristol in July 2006 and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2007. It is something of a shame, though, that such long overdue recognition only came towards the very end of Diana Wynne Jones’s life. Jones was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early summer of 2009. She underwent surgery in July and reported to friends that the procedure had been successful. However, in June 2010 she announced that she would be discontinuing chemotherapy because it only made her feel ill. In mid-2010 she was halfway through a new book with plans for another to follow. She died on 26 March 2011 from the disease, surrounded by her husband, three sons, and five grandchildren. Shortly after her death, it was reported that Earwig and the Witch and a collection of Jones’ articles would be published later – as they were in June 2011 and September 2012. The story in progress when she became too ill to write was completed by her sister Ursula Jones: The Islands of Chaldea (HarperCollins, 2014). Interviewed by The Guardian in June 2013, after she finished the Chaldea story, Ursula Jones gave an intriguing hint that there was more to come, saying other things were “coming to light … She left behind a mass of stuff.” The story of Diana Wynne Jones, it seems, is far from finished.

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