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Sorcerors and siblings: the books of Diana Wynne Jones

This week saw the sad news of the death of children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones. Known for her dark, funny, imaginative writing and with a passionate following of readers who could put any troupe of Fantasy fanatics to shame, her most famous books include The Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle – famously turned into a Studio Ghibli anime,  nominated for an Oscar in 2005.

As one of the chief themes of Diana Wynne Jones’ work is siblings – RosyB and her sister, children’s writer Emma Barnes, decided to pay their own tribute to one of their favourite children’s writers by chatting about the part her work played in their childhood and what it is about her portrayal of siblings that is so compelling for young readers.

Rosy: DWJ’s writing played a part in my childhood and an even greater part in yours, Emma (I should point out Emma was a voracious reader when we were children – whereas I was the one messing about outside, covered in mud or watching crap television).  However, The Ogre Downstairs was one of my very favourite books. In fact , it was you who introduced me to that and also, Charmed Life.

Step Siblings, Messy Bedrooms and Ogres Downstairs…

Emma:  Yes, I first came across her in primary 7, so I was around ten years old.  I actually bought Charmed Life from a Puffin Club Sale at school.  That was exciting in itself as I didn’t get to buy brand new books very often.  And I loved it.  I still have that copy, with Chrestomanci looking like an elegant, moustached conductor on the front.  Around the same time I read The Ogre Downstairs – it was a set “group reading book” at school.  Again, I really enjoyed  it, despite my prejudice against anything that we were actually “meant” to read.  I think that copy must have belonged to the school – so how we managed to end up keeping it, and you reading it too, I don’t know.  Maybe I loved it so much I sneakily failed to return it!  (Sorry, South Morningside Primary.)

Rosy: As a child, what I really related to – was her depiction of sibling relationships. Your sibling is such a huge part of your childhood. They are usually the main person you are squabbling with, jealous of, protective of, wanting to win the respect of, having fun with – the person you hate the most one minute, and are banding together (usually against the parents) with the next. And – of all the books I read as a child – I think The Ogre Downstairs captured this best for me.

In Ogre there are three real siblings – Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny – whose mother gets together with “The Ogre” and are forced to live with the Ogre’s sons, Douglas and Malcolm. The whole story is a wild and funny adventure involving a magic chemistry set, but the fundamental story is about how these siblings all get on together (or, should I say, don’t).

She cleverly shows the ways families have their own rules and ways of doing things and the ANGER that children feel to have their ways disrupted (I related A LOT to that as a child).

A good example might be the subtle class and background differences – put brilliantly through the child’s lense and the child’s lack of empathy. One lot are wilder, messy and informal,  go to their local state school and are rude and self-defining. The other two have been to private boarding school, are formal, polite and shut off . What is brilliant is the complete lack of empathy in Caspar and Johnny’s (two of the wilder ones) point of view  – and how realistic that is.  There is an incident  when Caspar and Malcolm (uptight younger brother of the Ogre’s sons) swap bodies and have to spend a day as each other. The bodyswap  makes Caspar (and us) realise what it is like being Malcolm. Not just that his experience is nothing as we thought – but also the lack of choice he has  about how he reacts. I vividly remember  the socially-easy Caspar trying to get Malcolm’s mouth to do a relaxed smile and finding Malcolm’s body simply won’t let him.

Malcolm immediately became one of my favourite characters in that book.

Hayao Miyazaki's anime of Howl's Moving Castle, Studio Ghibli

I’m a younger child and the Ogre really spoke to me. Did you love it as much as me? And did it speak to you as much as the older sib?

Emma: Yes, I did love it, and I still do – I probably read it at least once a year.  As a ten year old, it was not really the kind of book I would have picked up – a group of children, mainly boys, playing with a magical chemistry set.  But as you say the family dynamics make it very different from the rather straightforward adventure you might expect.  As the older sibling, I related most to Caspar (I do love Caspar!) who is forever being tormented by his younger siblings, whose various antics include almost falling off the roof and flooding the house.

Yet, however much they squabble amongst themselves, like most siblings, they are frequently united in common hostility towards the adults – notably their father/step-father, the Ogre.  He really is a magnificently horrible character, probably not that different from many fathers everywhere, but definitely different from the rather blander father characters who inhabit childrens’ books.  He is so unequivocally bad-tempered and tyrannical, and makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t like children (even his own).  Yet at the same time you can’t help warming to him. As, in fact, the children do – even as they are plotting to kill him off or frame him for murder (and that’s one of the things I really love about Diana Wynne Jones – she may write for children, but she doesn’t hold back).

Rosy:  Yes, a bit like Dahl, she taps into the dark side and seems to know how a child thinks – her descriptions of territorial disputes over messy bedrooms, the race to create disgusting stinks, the proliferation of half-eaten toffee-bars (everyone I’ve met who has read the book immediately goes “oh the toffee bars!”)

A story about a step family learning to live with each other  could be disgustingly preachy and parent-friendly. But there is no preaching and extremity and huge amounts of humour is embraced.

The Evil Sibling: Charmed Life

Now, talking of the dark side – Charmed Life. A very different and rather darker take on sibling relationships. Give us a run down.

Emma Yes, Charmed Life!  This was the very first DWJ I ever read and I absolutely loved it.  It is set in a Victorian-type world, where the central relationship is between the apparently talentless Cat and his older sister Gwendolen, who just happens to be a powerful witch.  When Gwendolen manages to get herself adopted by the mysterious Chrestomanci of Chrestomanci Castle, Cat gets taken along for the ride, so to speak.  Soon Gwendolen is at loggerheads with the inhabitants of the castle (most of them magicians in one guise or another) and involved in a nefarious plot involving illicit dragon’s blood.  I won’t reveal any more except to say that at this point, a very intelligent person who hasn’t read the book might work out the premise of the plot by looking at the title and Cat’s name and doing a bit of creative thinking.  (However I have to admit that never worked for me – I suddenly saw the significance of the title six months ago.)

So far as the sibling relationship goes, the main thing about Gwendolen is she is STUNNINGLY AWFUL.  She repays Cat’s loyalty and trust with the most appalling and evil treachery, and basically is about the nastiest big sister you could ever hope to meet.  Or not meet, rather.  (OK Rosy, I know I’m opening myself up to some Little Sister jibes here.  But at least I never tried to – no, I don’t think we should give away the full extent of Gwendolen’s hideous horribleness now.)  The point about Gwendolen is she has absolutely no redeeming features.  And that is such a wonderful contrast to all those children’s books which set out to convince the reader that actually, really they love their annoying brothers and sisters after all.  Gwendolen is not loveable.  But her awfulness makes for a real treat of a book.

Rosy: Yes, well, after your teenage jibes about how you were like Elizabeth and I the idiotic Lydia from Pride and Prejudice – it’s nice to get my own back by pointing at the appaling older sister who is Gwendolen! No over-protective over-responsible older child syndrome there!

Mind you, Gwendolen is a FANTASTIC character and very funny too.  In a reverse of “Ogre”, we start off liking her and  then…well…a different perspective is revealed, shall we say. As in Ogre, Diana Wynne Jones opens up different viewpoints on children’s characters – something that is unusual, I feel, in kid’s books.

Emma: From her own account, DWJ based a lot of her nasty characters on her own mother .  She sounds as if she had a strong relationship with her own sisters based on the fact they had to band together against her parents to get by (and you can see that coming through in a lot of her books).  I suppose having been brought up in a very extreme family environment, she doesn’t flinch from portraying characters who are downright nasty – even if they happen to be your Sister, Mother, Aunty whatever.  As with Gwendolen.   Or the Witch of the Waste.  Or some of the siblings in Archer’s Goon (now there’s a dysfunctional family!)

I think it’s her willingness to portray these kinds of unmitigated villains that children like.  There’s none of that “there’s good in everybody” which is a definite strand of a lot of children’s fiction.  Sometimes people just have to be shot off into Outer Space or abandoned in Another Dimension (and I won’t reveal which books those are).

Rosy: As a child you relate to that sort of extremity because kids feel BIG and instant emotions – without the understanding or power or follow through of adult emotions. One of my friends told me her child said once “I hate you and I want you to die!” she asked why and the kid said “because you won’t let me eat ice-cream from the fridge”. I think it is perfectly rational for a child to put together something so small with something so big. Death is a faraway concept and I’m sure we’ve all had nice idle dreams as kids about our families dying off and getting better ones – perhaps ones that gave us better presents or let us eat Smarties for breakfast –  with no real sense of how upset we would be in reality. Children can be imaginative in one way and unimaginative in another. It is the fact DWJ goes the whole hog that makes her – like Dahl – so good at writing from a child’s perspective (along with the fact she recognises disgusting things like making awful smells as being important in life).

But, we can’t write a piece on DWJ without talking about one of her most popular creations.

Cover of Studio Ghibli's book "The Art of Howl's Moving Castle"

Howl’s Moving Castle: Older Sisters can Have Fun Too

Now, I have to admit, Howl’s Moving Castle never did it for me. A bit twee for my taste. It is the only one we’ve discussed today that I came to as an adult though, so perhaps I was simply too past it for it to work its magic on me. But I know it’s one of your favourites…

Emma: Actually I read Howl as an adult too.  And this might be a good place to mention that although we’ve described DWJ as a children’s author, she is much loved by adult readers too.  So I don’t think that was the problem.  It is the case, though, that her books (and she has written loads) are very varied in style, so just because you loved The Ogre it is not that surprising you didn’t like Howl’s Moving Castle.  I don’t love all her books by any means.  But yes, I do love Howl’s Moving Castle.

It is less of a “sibling” book than some  – the protagonist, Sophie, has two sisters but they only make relatively small appearances.  But they are still very important in setting up the situation and Sophie’s character.  Sophie’s Big Problem is that she is the eldest of three, and everybody knows that the eldest of three (unlike the youngest of three) never has an exciting destiny ahead of them.  So her stepmother, acting on that principle, makes Sophie into an apprentice hatter, while the youngest sister is apprenticed to a Witch.  Only, as it happens, however dull and sensible everyone (including Sophie herself) thinks she is, actually she is full of Adventurous Heroine potential.  She just has to be magically transformed into an aged crone to discover it….

It’s a nice twist on traditional Fairytales, and also on the fact that siblings do tend to take on entrenched roles within families, which may not reflect their true characters: “the sensible one”, “the clever one,” “the pretty one”, “the flighty one” etc.  Diana Wynne Jones was the eldest of three sisters herself, so maybe there is a bit of a family joke going on there.  Maybe as a child she resented the fact that it was the youngest child in the story books who got to have the adventures.  Maybe she resented being type-cast as the responsible elder sister in a family where the parents sound plain neglectful.

For all that, it’s not really Sophie and her sisters that make the book: it’s Howl and Calcifer.  Howl is one of DWJ’s best creations: vain, cowardly, sulky, selfish…and entrancing.  If you fall for Howl (not to mention Calcifer the Fire Demon) you love the book, if not I suspect you don’t.


Rosy: Very different in style again and very much about sisters is the strange and chilling  The Time of the Ghost. More frightening than Charmed Life and for older readers –  this one explores identity, memory.

It opens with a sense of horror – there has been some awful accident – and the narrator is lost and distressed – a ghost without proper sense of identity and power who does not know who she is the ghost of.

The book explores the relationship between a set of four sisters who lead this bizarre but neglected existence and who run amok, unnoticed and unchecked by their parents. (Similar, it’s been pointed out, to how Diana Wynne Jones describes her own childhood).

This one, more than any other, is definitely about sisterhood and captures the tensions and hostilities – the emnity and contempt, the trying to hold your own, the fierceness about forging identities in relation to and at variance to each other…But also the extreme loyalty, the courage, sense of protection and willingness to fight and sacrifice that comes into play when any one of them is under threat. It’s quite a raw book, in a way. Quite savage and extreme. Not very romantic about sisters in one way – and yet very much so in another.

And again the switching of perspectives comes into play as we believe the ghost to be each sister in turn and our sympathies change with this belief…A more grown-up and far more scary version of Malcolm and Caspar’s body-swap.

I get the impression that DWJ’s relationship with her own sibs must have been crucial to her. Unlike most children’s books, sibs rather than friends seem to be the central complex relationships in her books and I think it is her honesty about those relationships, along with her playfulness, imagination and bit of a dark streak that makes her writing so appealing to kids.

Emma And adults too. She has had a big influence on fantasy writing generally – Neil Gaiman was a friend and a huge fan.  And of course there are parallels with Harry Potter.  DWJ wrote about a Wizard Boarding School (in Witch Week) long before the Potter books.  Her extremely clever plots are as convoluted and inventive as JKR’s.  But ultimately I think it’s the humour and the wonderful characters that make DWJ so special.  It is for that reason she was my favourite living children’s author, and however often I read The Ogre, Howl or Charmed Life, when I reach the last page I never want the book to end.

If only I had my own Fire Demon!  Or even a small orphaned dragon….


If you have managed to reach the end of this long (but obviously extremely fascinating) post in one piece, we’d love to hear about your favourite DWJ books or characters. Please pitch in, in the comments.

Perhaps Diana Wynne Jones influenced the Barnes’  Two even more than they realise – with Emma Barnes becoming an award-winning children’s writer and Vulpes regular RosyB writing comedy novels with a dark twist.

Other DWJ reviews on VL

Anne on Through a Glass Lightly
RosyB’s original review of The Ogre Downstairs as part of Children’s Book Week

Other articles

Guardian obituary
Telegraph obituary
Diana Wynne Jones fansite
New York Times piece
Huffington Post

12 comments on “Sorcerors and siblings: the books of Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Anica Lewis
    April 1, 2011

    Wonderful sentiment, and some great analyses of these fantastic books. Though Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite, and – as you say – is one in which siblings play the least role (though there’s also the interesting side bit about Howl’s sister and her family, and how they tie him to our world), I’ve always loved the sibling relationships in DWJ’s books.

    I agree about Charmed Life. What DWJ does with Gwendolen’s character is simply something no one. Ever. Does. Which makes it all the more amazing.

  2. Es
    April 1, 2011

    She was an amazing writer. She influenced my reading habits, by thinking, my worldview, in more ways than I can describe. Her incredibly drawn characters have been the kind of people I want to be – both as a child when I first encountered her (thanks to my older sister, whose bookshelves I raided) and as an adult. She wrote amazing, strong and capable girls and women, ‘kick-ass heroines’ in all sorts of ways, who informed my feminism before I knew there was such a word.

    Fire and Hemlock is one of my favourite books ever, Polly was a heroine, I have a giant fiction-crush on Tom (possibly equalled only by Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, on both counts). The Time of the Ghost terrified me aged 11 and still terrifies me aged 33. She never talked down to her readers – she made you come up to her level, and you were better for having done so. I took Ancient Greek at school and the first thing I did once I had gotten the hang of the alphabet was turn to Ogre and figure out what the Dens. Drac. soldiers were saying! I spent many hours following her references and recommendations (particularly the Golden Bough, and everything that went on from that) and learned so much by doing so.

    She wrote over 40 books – I have them all – and it’s not nearly enough of a legacy. She’s a tremendous loss.

  3. Chris
    April 1, 2011

    I hadn’t given much thought to the way DWJ portrays siblings, so this gave me plenty to ponder. Sadly, her books were not available during my childhood (which makes it sound as if I am ever so old). I only discovered them when I had children of my own, but I’ve still got the books I bought then, and I still read them – I especially love the Chrestomanci stories, the Dalemark series, and The Merlin Conspiracy.

    Her fantasy worlds and the characters who inhabit them are always utterly believable, with similarities to our own work that make them seem somehow recognisable and less remote.

    As the two of you say, she doesn’t shy from difficult issues and is not afraid to make characters unredeemingly bad, or show that some things can never put right – I still expect Gwendolen and Aunt Maria (in Black Maria) to see the error of their ways, repent and become good… but, of course it cannot happen.

    Thank you both for an enjoyable and thoughtful tribute a wonderful author, written from a very unusual viewpoint.

  4. EmmaB
    April 1, 2011

    I had forgotten about Howl’s sister! No charmer, was she? But in fact a very important part of what made Howl Howl…responsible for his shifty, evasive side. (Why is Howl so appealing?)

    Quite moving to read these comments on DWJ, and appreciate once more her powerful impact on readers.

  5. rosyb
    April 1, 2011

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone. Emma and I are touched that you all managed to make it to the bottom of this gargantuan piece. We knew it was a bit of a behemoth, but couldn’t quite bring ourselves to cut it as we wanted to discuss all the books.

    Anica – I know what you mean about Gwendolen. I wonder too how DWJ got away with such a character. Particularly then. So many kids books seemed to shy away from any kind of extremity and were just full to the brim of moral. Maybe it’s different now that Dystopian futures and worlds are so “in”.

    I haven’t actually read Fire and Hemlock, but you are making me want to now. Although I am also wary of coming to things as an adult as it didn’t work for me with Howl. Although Emma’s a different kettle of fish. I think – with myself – that what I’m drawn to most are the mix of fantastical and real down-to-earth observations. I like that in Ogre. Perhaps the more surreally fantastical ones are less to my individual taste. Mind you, I was gripped by The Time of the Ghost which is not half as funny and darker than some…but it had a very fully realised world full of real observational detail in terms of behaviour and the way people are and perhaps it is that that draws me.

    Es – I’m DYING to know what the Dens Drac mob are saying! I remember being quite frustrated by that at the time.

    Chris – exactly! So refreshing there is no repenting going on…

  6. Jackie
    April 1, 2011

    I’ve never heard of DWJ before, though I do recall liking the ads for “Howl’s Moving Castle” when it was made into a film a couple years ago. This piece was a good way of paying tribute, not only to the author, but to each other as siblings. Nicely done.

  7. Pingback: Sorcerors and siblings: the books of Diana Wynne Jones (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

  8. Es
    April 2, 2011

    The Dens.Drac. lot are talking English, transliterated into Greek. The very first bit, for instance, when the crash helmet has just come up out of the ground, is ‘itmeon the lideagain ansee wotyouget’!

    The Howl books are my least favourite series of hers. F&H is, for me, in its own league. It stands up to an adult reading with more grace than a lot of texts I studied at university.

  9. Nikki
    April 2, 2011

    Really LOVED this review, the banter was great! I think I read a DWJ back in my first year of secondary (I was inspired to check out the book after seeing a poster in my form room). I can’t for the life of me remember the title, but the cover was blue, there was witchcraft, a boarding school and someone burning his finger in a candle flame (to prove he was magic, I think). I meant to read more, then along came Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone… But now I think I should head into the children’s section of the library. I don’t read enough children’s books now that I’m not working in a school. I miss it!

  10. Ela
    April 4, 2011

    A lovely discussion (though I could wish you had considered more than just a few books!) – thank-you. It’s such a shame, really, that the tributes and reviews of Jones’ work have only come now after her death.

    The first book I ever read of hers was ‘Charmed Life’, which I loved, but I’ve enjoyed almost everything else of her books (possibly except ‘Black Maria’ which is very grim). What’s wonderful about her oeuvre is that everyone has their favourites – in fact, I think one’s favourite can vary depending on mood or state of mind. I really like the Dalemark books, which are surprisingly politically nuanced and tackle themes like terrorism and racism (as well as being fantastic adventures), and ‘Hexwood’, which cleverly plays with time and memory and Arthurian legend. She wrote great villains, and her child characters have to win through on their own with only a little outside help.

    Nikki – the book you remember is ‘Witch Week’ and Charles holds his finger in the candle flame to see what it would be like to be burned (the fate for witches in his world).

  11. EmmaB
    April 4, 2011

    Es – that’s amazing, somehow it never occurred to me that they were saying anything other than gobbledegook. I should have realised DWJ would have gone the extra mile.

    Ela – the post was already very long, so we thought we had better focus on our favourite books. She wrote over 40 altogether I think, so we could have gone on forever! After reading these posts, I am planning to reread Fire and Hemlock, which I don’t remember that well, and Hexwood – which I think I must have missed altogether.

  12. Caitlin
    June 19, 2011

    This was a marvellous article! I stumbled upon this blog while looking for discussions about ‘Lady Into Fox’ (by David Garnett), and I’m very glad I did! I was, however, deeply saddened to learn of Diana Wynne Jones’ death. I first read ‘Witch Week’ when I was about thirteen, and absolutely adored it. One of the things that I love most about Diana Wynne Jones’ books is that they evoke a very vivid atmosphere. Even now I can picture the empty pool and the ‘Nowhere’ vases of ‘Fire and Hemlock’, and the Downs and the Back of Beyond from ‘The Time of the Ghost’. The characters are wonderful, too, precisely because they are not perfect. The sisters in ‘Time of the Ghost’ can be absolute terrors, but you find yourself constantly sympathising with them. My favourite book is probably ‘Fire and Hemlock’, but I loved ‘Hexwood’ and ‘Time of the Ghost’, too. The more times that you read them, the more you appreciate their intricacy. Like Es, I also followed the many, many references in ‘Fire and Hemlock’. They introduced my to ‘The Golden Bough’, ‘The Three Musketeers’, and, best of all, perhaps, a whole world of Border Ballads that I still delight in today!

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