Saturday, July 18, 2009

Diana Wynne Jones, family and the past

Judith from Misrule has just returned from the Diana Wynne Jones conference in Britain.

The news is that Diana Wynne Jones has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. I feel awfully bereft at the news. I hate to think of the pain and ordinariness of the world acting upon her.

I've just been re-reading The Time of the Ghost, which is one of the bleakest portraits of a family in her work I think. Most of the other awful families have some kind of excuse - they have been magicked, or one awful family member has made things so awful for everyone else that they become awful too. But the Melford parents seem just naturally horrible to their children. The parents are neglectful, unkind, and selfish. Their imaginations are horribly limited, they don't even get much benefit out of their selfishness, just the mundane day-to-day running of a school boarding house. The worst thing, I suppose, is that when you read about Wynne Jones's own family, they don't sound much different. Not that you can ever experience someone else's past from their fiction, of course.

Some people do have a real gift for sharing the immediacy of their past experiences. I think it's a wonderful gift, but probably glad that it's a rare one. I adore my dearest friend's intimate and emotion-infused stories of her family and childhood but I'm not sure I could accept it from anyone I loved less.

There are plenty of other hideous families in Wynne Jones's books, though. Maybe the mother and uncle in Conrad's Fate are actually worse than the Melford's; the mother neglectful and the uncle malevolent. And the magical family in Archer's Goon amaze with their violence, selfishness and complete inability to listen to each other. On the other hand, while brothers and sisters bicker and fight a lot, they tend to be incredibly loyal to each other and to take immense risks for each other as well. Children have to rely on themselves and other children in her books. Even benign and kindly disposed adults are rarely much actual use. To themselves or anybody else, really.

Wynne Jones isn't ever guilty of that lazy dead-mother-method of getting rid of parents so that the action can go ahead for the children, although she certainly plays with it in her funnier books like Howl's Moving Castle. Lots of the action is driven by children having to cope with the fairly unpleasant events set in train by their elders - parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The kids often end up taking the consequences and solving the problems because the adults are too self-absorbed, stubborn or lazy. Or just lack the imagination to understand what they are doing, which I think is the worst sin of all in the Jonesiverse.

I hope her books help me keep my imagination intact as I keep on being a parent and an aunt and a family member of all kinds. I hope she keeps on reminding me that the past is a beautiful and exciting place, but mostly because it brings us to the present and the future.


Shayne Parkinson said...

That's sad news.

I was reading (online) an autobiographical essay last night, and she does say she put things from her own life into "The Time of the Ghost". One piece of comfort, though, is that she says that something she didn't manage to put into it is how very close she and her sisters were to each other. They were clearly very much each others' support, doing what they could to make up for a lack of parenting.

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