Sarah Annes Brown is a Professor of English at Anglia Ruskin University. Her books include an account of the creative reception of Ovid's Metamorphoses and a study of sisters in 19-century literature, and she is currently researching the relationship between allusion and the uncanny in literature. She particularly enjoys reading obscure Victorian novels, science fiction, and anything by Georgette Heyer. Here Sarah writes about Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life.
Sarah Annes Brown on Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
I first encountered the children's novels of Diana Wynne Jones when The Ogre Downstairs was read on Jackanory back in (I would guess) 1975. This story begins when three children are given a chemistry set as a peace offering by their new stepfather, the 'ogre', and discover a surprise second layer of chemicals with magical properties. Soon they are going on secret flying expeditions, bringing their pencils and toffee bars to life, and even discovering that their stepfather has a human side after all. I moved on from Ogre to the slightly darker Eight Days of Luke which, like many of Wynne Jones's novels, combines characters from ancient mythology with an incongruously modern setting.
But perhaps her best novel - and certainly my own favourite - is Charmed Life (1977), first of the 'Chrestomanci' series. This is set on the 'nine worlds', an array of parallel earths of which our own is just one (and a pretty dull one at that). The story focuses on a brother and sister – dreamy, incompetent Cat and his bossy elder sister Gwendolen – and begins with the sad (but convenient) drowning of both their parents in a freak steamboat accident. Magic is commonplace on this world. Whereas Cat can never get his spells to work, Gwendolen shows great talent as a witch and is delighted when she and her brother are eventually taken into the care of a distant relative, the enchanter Chrestomanci.
Chrestomanci is a nine-lived enchanter; whereas most of us have avatars on all or most of the nine worlds, a very few individuals are completely unique. Instead of having counterparts in the various alternate earths such people experience all their nine lives on one world, allowing them to cheat death repeatedly. Chrestomanci appears to be a rather languid guardian, who likes to spend his time relaxing in one of his many splendid dressing gowns rather than entertaining his young charges. But he knows – and sees – more than he lets on and can be depended on to come to the rescue at a time of crisis.
Although Wynne Jones writes for children she has a nice line in edgily attractive and slightly high-maintenance heroes, including feckless but charming wizard Howl (Howl's Moving Castle) and the glamorous but profoundly irresponsible Luke. Chrestomanci himself seems to owe something to the suave and cynical heroes of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances – apart from the fact that he is safely married to the sensible Millie and has children of his own.
The quality in Charmed Life that appealed to me 30 years ago – and still appeals today – is the way it weaves magical and mysterious events into the texture of everyday life. The story has an exciting plot and a thoroughly satisfactory punch line (which you may have guessed already). But it's Wynne Jones's witty combination of wonder and bathos which makes Charmed Life a novel I return to. The writer she most resembles in this respect is perhaps Joan Aiken, whose short stories about Mark and Harriet Armitage have recently been republished. ('The Serial Garden' is especially memorable.)
I’ve never, as an academic, aimed to research or write professionally about my favourite writers for children. But I think my early preference for books which are magical, yet not completely fantastical, has helped shape some of my preferences within adult literature. At the moment I'm writing a book about the uncanny - a mode whose power depends upon maintaining a delicate equilibrium between the entirely normal and the (possibly) supernatural. And Ovid's Metamorphoses (which is probably the work I've written most about) also combines the witty, the wonderful and the humdrum. More obviously perhaps, my taste for fantasy grounded in reality led me on to science fiction, and many of my favourite sf novels deal, like Diana Wynne Jones's tales, with worlds which are subtly yet significantly unlike our own. (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Gregory Benford's Timescape are classic examples.)
I think this combination of sameness and difference, which I've always found intriguing, can be seen, not just in the plots of the alternative universe novels I enjoy, but also in the ways I like to look at texts, the patterns which catch my eye. Most of my research, in one way or another, has focused on allusion, on the way in which one text appears in another either as a blatant quotation or as an almost invisible fleeting presence. The pleasure of spotting a fugitive from an unexpected textual world – such as an incongruous near quotation from one of Ovid's sexier love poems in Milton's elegy to Bishop Lancelot Andrewes – is similar to the satisfaction I get in recognizing an altered component of our own reality in some alternate universe.
Thanks to the success of Harry Potter nearly all of Diana Wynne Jones's books are back in print. She is still producing novels regularly (some of them featuring Chrestomanci) and the first conference dedicated to her work will be held in Bristol this July.