Diana Wynne Jones: Doyenne of fantasy writers whose books for children paved the way for JK Rowling
Thursday 31 March 2011
Diana Wynne Jones was one of this country's most talented and inventive writers of speculative fiction. In a career spanning four decades she influenced generations of readers, including many who went on to become authors themselves, and displayed a range and originality in her approach to fantasy writing that made her unique among British novelists.
Jones was born in London in 1934, the daughter of Richard Aneurin Jones and Marjorie (neé Jackson). Her childhood was a disrupted and disturbed one. Soon after her fifth birthday "the world went mad" with the outbreak of war, and she spent the following years living variously in Wales, Coniston Water (where she had close encounters with both Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome) and York.
In 1943 her parents finally settled in the village of Thaxted in Essex, where they ran an educational conference centre. Here Jones and her younger sisters, Isobel and Ursula, led a life of neglect and emotional abuse, experiences that surface strongly in Jones's work, in which parental (and especially maternal) inadequacy or malignancy are recurring themes. Her father's policy of providing his daughters with only one new book per year between the three of them also spurred Jones to write her first stories, for the entertainment of her sisters.
Jones attended St Anne's College, Oxford, where she read English, counting JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis among her lecturers. On graduating in 1956 she married the mediaeval scholar John Burrow, by whom she had three sons, Richard, Michael and Colin. The first 20 years of their marriage were spent primarily in Oxford, but in 1976 they moved to Bristol, where Jones lived until her death.
Her first published book, Changeover (1970), was a political farce, but this proved something of a false start. Her move to children's fiction was spurred partly by her sons, who were bored by the literature then available, and particularly wanted more "funny books". Jones set about remedying that deficit with a string of fantasy novels including Wilkins' Tooth (1973), The Ogre Downstairs (1974), Eight Days of Luke (1975) and Power of Three (1976) – works distinguished by their intelligence and clear-eyed understanding of human nature as much as by their humour. Just as striking was her audacious versatility, which could bring the Norse pantheon into the lives of a dysfunctional West Midlands family (in Eight Days of Luke) or find the dog star Sirius trapped in the body of a family pet (in Dogsbody, 1975)).
Jones' first major success came with Charmed Life (1977), which won the 1978 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. This story of young Cat Chant, his charismatic but evil sister Gwendolen and their magical education in a faux-Edwardian version of England, also introduced Jones' most iconic character, the elegant, nine-lived enchanter Chrestomanci, whose dry wit and love of colourful dressing gowns would feature in numerous novels and short stories in the following decades.
Although several of Jones' books form groups, such as the Chrestomanci and Dalemark series, she madea point of avoiding repetition andwas never predictable. Unusually for such a prolific author, most of her books are stand-alone novels. Within acareer that maintained a remarkable consistency of quality, the mid-1980s stand out as a particularly rich period, seeing the publication in successive years of Archer's Goon (1984), Fireand Hemlock (1985) and Howl's Moving Castle (1986) – any one of whichmost writers would be proud to claim as their masterpiece.
Memorable characterisation, intricate plotting, unexpected resolutions and a fascination with the relationship between power and language are central to these as to much of her work, along with a concern to offer a counterweight to arbitrary authority – or, as she put it, to "provide a space where children can relax and walk round their problems and think, 'Mum's a silly fusspot and I don't need to be quite so enslaved by her notions.'"
The early 1990s were a fallow period for fantasy within children's publishing, and although Jones's novels were as "gritty" as any realist fiction in terms of subject matter, it was perhaps with this in mind that she broadened her output to include books for adults, most memorably with Deep Secret (1997), a novel that focuses the fight for an intergalactic empire on a British science fiction convention. This decade also saw her give joyous rein to her satiric talent in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), a scalpel-sharp dissection of fantasy clichés.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Harry Potter changed the landscape of children's publishing. It did not take long for people to notice that many aspects of JK Rowling's work, especially her use of a school for wizards, had been anticipated by Jones. Suddenly Jones's books became far more marketable, and almost all were republished in the following years, winning her a new generation of admirers. This renaissance was boosted by Hayao Miyazaki's 2004 animated movie of Howl's Moving Castle, and was matched by a new intensity of interest from critics.
That Jones never won either the Carnegie Medal or Whitbread/Costa Award is both a mystery and, in retrospect, a scandal. She was, however, honoured by the wider fantasy and science fiction communities with two Mythopoeic Awards and in 2007 a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, while in 2006 the University of Bristol conferred an honorary DLitt. By her death her status as the doyenne of fantasy writers was not in dispute.
In 2009 Jones was diagnosed with lung cancer, and although an operation was pronounced successful the illness returned. She will be remembered by those who knew her, in person and through her books, as a generous, funny, prodigiously-creative woman, sharp of wit and occasionally of tongue, who was constantly inspired by the absurdity and wonder of the world about her.
Diana Wynne Jones, writer: born London 16 August 1934; married 1956 John Burrow (three sons); died Bristol 26 March 2011.
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