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Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 27 March 2011

Farewell to Diana Wynne Jones

The death of Diana Wynne Jones was announced yesterday. Her fans can't have been entirely shocked, as she has been having treatment for cancer for two years, and in August she had decided to discontinue with her chemotherapy.

Diana Wynne Jones was born in 1934 in London. The family was evacuated to her father's family in Wales, then to the Lake District and to York, and after the war ended, the family moved to Essex. Her childhood was not a happy one; she describes her mother as unloving and her father as mean, but she was very close to her sisters, Professor Isobel Armstrong, and Ursula, an actress. Jones wrote over 50 books, and won the Guardian Children's Book Prize in 1977 for Charmed Life, amongst other awards.

I first read and loved Charmed Life in the late 70s, but my favourite of the novels is Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie Hatter lives in Market Chipping in the land of Ingary, where fairy tale conventions (such as witches, seven league boots and spells) are accepted in an otherwise ordinary market town.

Sophie is the eldest of three daughter of a prosperous milliner. Her mother died after giving birth to Lettie, the second daughter. Mr Hatter married one of his shop assistants and had another daughter, Martha. In fairy tale, this should make Sophie and Letty the Ugly Sisters, but in fact they are pretty and despite usual childhood squabbles the girls get on well together and with their step mother.

Unfortunately the expectation of Ingary is that, in line with fairy tale norms, Sophie and Lettie will fail with any endeavour they undertake, only for Martha to succeed. Lettie rails against this unfairness, but Sophie is the sensible older sister, well accustomed to looking after her sisters. Lettie is considered the beauty, Martha is considered intelligent, and Sophie is dutiful and good at sewing. When their father dies, leaving far less money than expected and the girls have to leave school, Lettie is placed in an apprenticeship with a Cesari's bakery, and Martha with Annabel Fairfax, the witch. Sophie feels this is only right; Lettie being the second sister and unlikely to make any success, she is better off being in a place where she can marry an apprentice and live happily ever after. Martha on the other hand can learn a useful trade and meet influential people who will help her seek her fortune. However the girls decide to switch places, a fact which becomes significant later in the book.

Sophie is to stay at the hat shop and eventually take over, and since she knows she will not have adventures, she settles down to learn the hat business, and since she is bored and lonely, she imagines little stories about the hats and tells them. However, she becomes discontented and loses her temper with a customer, who unfortunately is the Witch of the Waste. The Witch puts a spell on her, turning her into an old woman, and not wanting to alarm her family she runs away.

Sophie sees the Wizard Howl's castle moving towards her. Howl has a reputation of literally stealing girls' hearts- he is heartless. Sophie however feels that, as an old woman, she is not at risk of hurt from him and she goes to the castle as a caretaker. The castle is powered by a fire-demon, Calcifer, also under a spell, and the real work is done by Michael, the apprentice.

There are two repeating themes throughout the novel. One is that people are truly not what they seem; Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, Martha and Lettie are just some of the characters whose appearance or natures are changed by spells (there are others, but they are significant to the plot.) Both Sophie and Howl must learn each others' true natures in order to save each other. The second is common to many of Jones' novels: doors and openings to other lands. Howl's castle has four doors, opening to Kingsbury, the capital of Ingary, one to Porthaven, by the sea, one to Market Chipping, one to Wales (where Howl is Howel Jenkins) and one is the front door.

Sophie is a very loveable character. Initially diffident and lacking in self confidence, her transformation into an old woman shows that she is in fact tenacious, courageous and loving. This is in contrast to Howl, who cares little for convention and the opinions of others, but is finally willing to put himself in danger for the people he loves.

This is a funny, entertaining novel. It was adapted by Studio Ghibli into an anime film, which takes most of the central themes of the book but of course is not a totally faithful adaptation: some characters are conflated and some plot aspects are omitted. The novel for me is far more satisfying.

Diana Wynne Jones was a highly influential novelist. She was at Oxford at the same time as some other incredible children's fantasy writers: Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively, and was taught by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. However, she published her first novel 10 or more years after the rest of her generation, which may explain why, although she had a great deal of critical success, she was never as widely read as the others. After the publishing phenomenon of Harry Potter, Jones' books, many of which were out of print, were reissued. She was very gracious about the debt Rowling owed to her, but her lack of acknowledgement. Neil Gaiman wrote about his great friend, who he was very open about crediting, here.

I wrote about another of Jones' books, Witch Week, here.

Edit: The Guardian has now posted an obituary on its website.


  1. I've still not read any of Wynne Jones' books, though I enjoyed her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I'm intrigued by Howl's Moving Castle, as I know very little about anime and even less about the book - I didn't even realise she'd written it until recently!

  2. Juliette, you must read it! It's brilliant. I absolutely love the Chrestomanci books too. Fire and Hemlock is great, too- based on Tam Lin. Actually, I haven't read DWJ book I didn't like!

  3. I had no idea. Thanks to you post I now know. I have read a few of her books. When I was nine I read a book of hers that I adored, but it was a school book and I couldn't remember the name. All I could remember was that it involved witchcraft and a girl with a really weird name. Considering I was so young, I thought the main character was called Im-og-en (read that segmented where I've put the dashes- now that is a weird name, right?).

    I could never find the book. Then, finally, thanks to the birth of the internet I was able to do a search for the book and promptly order a copy and re-read it. It's called, "The Time of the Ghost" I'd I recommend it to everyone under the sun. It's one of the best children’s books out there.

  4. I haven't read The Time Of The Ghost, but I will look out for it. I think she is a fantastic writer, and it saddens me that she never got the recognition that she deserved until Pottermania. I also regret never telling Isobel Armstrong (quite a formidable woman, and a lecturer on my Victorian Studies MA) how much I admired her sister.