Times article on DWJ/Conrad's Fate

jack at greenmanreview.com jack at greenmanreview.com
Sun Mar 13 17:41:15 EST 2005

> By the sound of it, I think I prefer the one you found!
> Does it also refer to her as "Jones" (her surname) rather than "Wynne
> Jones" (middle name plus surname) throughout?   I want a copy, if so.
> Minnow

Minnow, here's the one up now at that url... I see the Severn estuary note now -- though the geography is
a bit fuzzy -- but where the back reference?

March 12, 2005

Mistress of the multiverse
by Amanda Craig
As a child, the author Diana Wynne Jones hated ‘Goddy books’; no wonder her fantastical tales have a dark side

It’s not often that you find yourself in a city that resembles the world of somebody’s imagination. But as my taxi got lost on the slopes of Clifton in Bristol, searching for Diana Wynne Jones’s home, it felt just like slipping into one of her crazy yet captivating fantasies. With the Severn estuary gliding dreamily on one side and a patchwork of delicate, brightly coloured Regency houses and eclectic gardens tumbling down the hill on the other, you could almost expect to see her god-like magician, Chrestomanci, striding along a narrow lane and disappearing into a parallel universe.

The world of one of our most original and fertile fantasists is about to become a lot more famous this year thanks to a film of her novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. The great anime director Hayao Miyazaki, whose Spirited Away became an international hit in 2003, has released the film in Japan, where it is breaking box-office records. Anyone familiar with the works of Wynne Jones can see that here is a marriage made in heaven, for her world and that of Spirited Away are uncannily close. The mysterious enchanter Howl not only has a castle that moves but also doors that open on to four different towns in the land of Ingary, a captive demon and a bewitched crone of a servant who is, in fact, a pretty young girl called Sophie Hatter. Miyazaki is a long-term fan of Wynne Jones’s work, and when he made a discreet visit to her house to discuss the film he discovered that she, too, loved his earlier fantasies, such as Castle in the Sky.

“I think he’s a genius,” Wynne Jones says. “He’s short, like many Japanese people, but he seems twice the size of anybody else in the room. We had the most marvellous conversation, while sitting round eating a huge cake which the poor interpreter never got a bite of. It’s rare to find someone who thinks like you do.”

The quality of Wynne Jones’s imagination is often compared to that of J. K. Rowling — to the detriment of the latter in the case of a notorious attack by A. S. Byatt when the fifth Harry Potter novel was published. Although both feature worlds in which the mundane mixes with the magical, they could not be more different. Where Rowling’s plots are highly controlled thrillers, Wynne Jones’s often come to her in a dream and retain the organic strangeness, comic unpredictability, dread and sense of wonder that a volcanic subconscious can throw up. (She also has the uncanny knack of predicting future events in her own life, including breaking her neck last year.) The first children’s author to explore the implications and ramifications of the multiverse theory (as Philip Pullman acknowledged in His Dark Materials), Wynne Jones has at least nine universes which are kept under control by a special order of enchanters called Chrestomanci. Her latest book, Conrad’s Fate, is about a young boy who, though good, clever and bold, suffers from appalling luck due to his bad karma. Sent to work as a servant in a magical fortress, he meets an elegant, mysterious friend called Christopher, and discovers that his own family are not all that he believed.

Wynne Jones, who wrote the satirical Tough Guide to Fantasy, is a mistress of manipulating the expectations of the genre, which in her hands becomes disturbingly dark before good triumphs. Children are put in mortal danger from family members; they are not only lost and starved, but in novels such as Hexwood they are tortured and killed. Writing such scenes almost “broke my brain”, but seeing life “from the ground up” gives her a strong sense of the cruelty and injustice of adults. The young Diana and her sisters hated what they called “Goddy books” such as What Katy Did, both for their tedious virtue and because their own childhood was startlingly unhappy.

“My books are about people learning to be themselves,” she says. “I don’t have any truck with the notion of growing up, so tiresome, there’s no profit in talking about what time and nature will do. But most people do start off with no self-image, and that makes a child terribly vulnerable. They don’t know themselves enough to say, ‘I’d never do that.’ Nobody knows how everyone else seems to be managing — of course, it ’s by imitation and invention.”

She grew up during the Second World War in Thaxted, Essex, “where every other person was mad, and there were more eccentrics per square yard than anywhere I’ve been”. The loony old wizards and witches who people her books are drawn from life, but Wynne Jones’s parents, both teachers, have seeded their presence in a darker form. Her father was remote, while her mother, an Oxford graduate, subjected her three daughters to years of verbal abuse and was relentlessly cruel.

“If we grew out of our shoes — really grew out, so that our heels were coming out of the back, she would blame us and make our lives hell. She kept all the clothing coupons for herself, and the only time we ever got new clothes was when our grandmother used her coupons to buy us some. I was incredibly busy trying to rescue my sisters, making them clothes, looking after them. If ever we were ill, we were told it was only psychological, so we knew that we had to tell them we were sick in front of other people. I think she was part of a very dreadful generation of women who struggled like mad for academic success, then found it didn’t lead anywhere. I’ve tried for years to understand why she behaved as she did, and, when she died last year, had some psychotherapy before deciding that some people are just made like that.”

The elegant, dandyish Christopher Chant was her ultimate risposte to this. But it is Wynne Jones’s dark side, as well as her playful intelligence, that gives her work a characteristic bite. Sometimes, as in novels such as Witch Week (in which everyone in a school turns out to have magical powers, for which they will be burnt at the stake), the fantasy comes close to nightmare; in others, such as The Magicians of Caprona and Power of Three, a spirit of ebullient comedy and kindliness keeps it at bay.

“Children think they are unique in their misfortunes, and I want to tell them they aren’t alone. I thought my childhood was normal, and was terribly angry and miserable when I discovered it wasn’t. It took me years to find my equilibrium, but I gradually worked it out — I suppose, writing books.”

The mother of three boys, she moved with her husband John from Oxford when he got a job as English professor at Bristol, and one of their sons is now a distinguished English academic, like Diana’s sister Isobel Armstrong. Her heroes are often boys simply because, she says, she knows how boys think; she started to write for children when her youngest went off to school and “couldn’t seem to stop”. With five Chrestomanci books and more than 20 others to her name, she has more than a million copies in print, but missed the fantasy boom of this decade. Yet as her editor, Stella Paskins, who rediscovered and reissued her books after having loved them as a child, remarked: “One of the things about fantasy is that it doesn’t date. Only reality gets old-fashioned.” 

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