I first read a book by Diana Wynne Jones in 1976. It was Cart and Cwidder and I was determined to find everything else she had written. But she was an English writer and she had only written four other books at that point, so her books were not easy to find. I waited, not patiently. Atheneum published Drowned Ammet and The Spellcoats. Reading them, I realized that this was a substantial writer. Ms. Wynne Jones had an astounding ability to weave a story. Her stories pull you in from the first paragraph.
Drowned Ammet: ”People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing. Mitt wondered himself by the end.”
The Homeward Bounders: ”Have you heard of the Flying Dutchman? No? Nor of the Wandering Jew? Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you about them in the right place; and about Helen and Joris, Adam and Konstam, and Vanessa, the sister Adam wanted to sell as a slave. They were all Homeward Bounders like me. And I’ll tell about Them too, who made us that way.”
Howl’s Moving Castle: ”In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
What’s more, the fantasy in her books is original. They were stories unlike others I’d run across. Even when
she was writing one of her loving send-ups of gamers or convention-goers, she found the trail of unexpected delight in each of her books. You may watch the movie Howl’s Moving Castle (Boston Globe Horn Book Honor), but it will not thrill you in the same way the book does. Ms. Wynne Jones’ sense of humor, her imagination, the way she finds the right word for the moment … these are not evident in the movie.
Different readers will name a different series of her books, or a single title, as their favorite. Whether it’s the Chrestomanci books (read Charmed Life first; it won the Guardian Medal) or the Dalemark Quartet (I enjoy Cart and Cwidder the most) or one of the Castle books (there are three) or the Derkholm books (Dark Lord of Derkholm is a fan favorite) or Hexwood or Enchanted Glass (most recently published and immensely enjoyable), you won’t find anything predictable in her storytelling.
Born in 1934, she was a child who experienced war in England. The oldest of three sisters, her parents were teachers. As Ms. Wynne Jones remembers her parents, they weren’t particularly loving, nor did they coddle their children. She felt that she and her sisters raised themselves to a great extent. Born in London, they moved to Wales, to avoid the war, then went to York, in the Lake District. The family lived in John Ruskin’s secretary’s house. The children of that house were models for the famous four in Swallows and Amazons—John, Susan, Tilly, and Roger—and Diana Wynne Jones was reminded of this connection periodically at home and at school.
She was a curious reader, trying everything she could, both fiction and nonfiction, classical and current. At
the age of eight, she knew quite clearly that she was going to be a writer. As she wrote, ”It was not a decision, or even a revelation. It was more as if my future self had leaned back from the years ahead and quietly informed me what she was. In calm certainty, I went and told my parents. ’You haven’t got it in you,’ my mother said. My father bellowed with laughter. He had a patriarch’s view of girls: they were not really meant to do anything.”
Eventually, in 1953, she attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford. There she had the good fortune to listen to lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Shortly after graduation, she met John Burrows. ”… instantly I knew I was going to marry this man. It was
the same calm and absolute certainty that I had had when I was eight. And it rather irked me, because I hadn’t even looked at him properly and I didn’t know whether I liked him, let alone loved him.” She did. They married in 1956, lived for a short time in several English cities, and traveled for a bit to America where Mr. Burrows taught at Yale. In 1976, the couple moved to Bristol, where they lived up until the time of her death. They had three sons, all of whom are grown.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, she continued to write, planning out her next books. She died on March 26, 2011.
Diana Wynne Jones’ body of work is stout and hale. We, her readers, are grateful.