Patterns and Portraits

Möbius strip
Möbius strip

Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret
Gollancz 1998 (1997)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. — Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. These include the sign for infinity, like a figure 8 laid on its side or a Möbius strip, which stands as a model of the Magid Universe that Jones has conceived for this novel. The more on the Ayewards side worlds are found the more magic infuses them, the more Naywards they are (as Earth is) the less magic. Straddling the waist of the infinity sign is the Empire of Koryfos, which is where one of the many secrets in this complex novel rests.

key pattern Hephaestus
Greek Key pattern on a relief (source: Wikimedia)

Another key pattern in Deep Secret is just that, a key. Specifically, a Greek key. This is essentially a line which spirals in on itself by turning a series of right angles one way, and then at or near the centre reverses direction, spiralling out by another series of right angles. In its simplest form this is called a meander pattern, its more complex variations developing into one-way mazes or even multicursal labyrinths. The Greek key manifests itself in a hotel in which a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention is being held, but there is a sense that the whole plotline is also in the form of a Greek key.

I said that Diana wrote herself and her life into her books. In Deep Secret three Earth-born brothers — Will, Simon and Rupert Venables — belong to the so-called Company of Magids, a group that oversees the functioning of all the worlds Ayewards and Naywards. It can’t be coincidence that Diana herself had three sons — Richard, Michael and Colin — who took a keen interest in her fiction; indeed, Colin’s radio talk after his mother’s death particularly mentions the “fusion of the completely ordinary and the completely magical” as typical of her way of writing, so it is hard not to imagine her including her own offspring in the novel. Colin had already appeared as a “chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian who likes The Doors and photography” in Fire and Hemlock so it’s not unlikely that Rupert Venables, a games designer who lives in Weaver’s End near Cambridge, is partly modelled on this same Colin Burrow, former Senior Lecturer at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Diana Wynne Jones home
The Polygon, Clifton, Bristol (source: Geograph) A few of the houses which make up this late Georgian quadrant, built in 1826-29 probably to the designs of Richard Jones. Grade II listed. © Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Both patterns and personal details come together in the chapters describing a meandering car chase through Bristol, with Rupert attempting to follow possible apprentice Magid Maree and her cousin Nick. This starts off at a “tall, smartly painted Regency house” (which is a close description of Diana’s former Bristol home in The Polygon, Clifton) and then proceeds past the Zoo and some “green parkland” (part of a large public open space called The Downs), the suburbs of Westbury-on-Trym and Redland, more Regency terraces (Clifton again), “pink Gothic towers” (either Clifton College or the University Tower), “modern office blocks” (the City Centre) and “cobbled alleys” (the area around Queen Square. So far this has been described as “every part north of the harbour,” but then we come to “Brunel’s iron ship” (the Great Western) and a bit of the suburb of Bedminster (what Maree’s cousin Nick nicknames Biflumenia, because of the “two rivers” of the Avon and a bypass canal called the New Cut). There is a brief appearance of a motorway spur, out of sequence here I believe, before we find ourselves back the other side of Bedminster going up Rownham Hill, crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge and returning virtually to where we started.

With a road map of Bristol it’s possible to trace out the route taken with reasonable accuracy, and this turns out to be . . . the rough shape of an infinity symbol. More numinous is the fictional Midlands town of Wantchester, where the SF convention takes place and where a particularly strong node exists for magic to enter and exit through. There is no such place as Wantchester, but there is the similarly named town of Winchester in southern England. The first element of Winchester is the Latin venta, meaning something like “market town,” and it’s clear that Diana is thinking of Wantchester as such a town with ancient roots, Roman or earlier; in fact the hotel is situated at one end of Market Square. My guess is that Wantchester is a fusion of all the English market towns hosting SFF conventions that Diana went to, with their generic labyrinth of streets, one-way systems, Cathedral, shopping precinct, Town Hall, river and bus station; there’s something in Diana’s descriptions that suggests that geeky unorthodox SFF conventions were a bit like a benign alien invasion in sleepy staid Middle England, and that Wantchester’s Hotel Babylon, with its confusing Greek key-like corridors, was a paradigm for all those soulless hotels that host such conventions, sumps for the human soul.

Greek centaur fresco
Chiron instructing Achilles (Wikipedia)

The joke is that it’s possible to hide your secret in the open — in nursery rhymes, for example — because there it will usually be disregarded as being mundane and ordinary. I can only scratch the surface of Deep Secret‘s own open secrets, but I hope to have revealed enough to encourage the reader to enjoy this inventive novel for its ideas as well as its narrative. There are so many themes and concepts fizzing and popping here, as references to Achilles’s teacher, Edith Nesbit’s husband, Oscar Wilde’s lover and the author of the Alice books all testify. The whole is a kind of labyrinth, where rounding a corner can reveal either illumination or shadow.

The last comment I want to make concerns the novel’s unwilling heroine, Maree. So many clues abound as to the significance of her role — Rupert’s hamlet named for a weaver, his own weaving of fatelines in a ceremony, Maree’s constant appearance leading the way — that it’s clear that she is a kind of Ariadne character (compare the character Ariadne in the film Inception) to accompany a Theseus — Rupert — in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, providing the clew of thread to lead him out of predicament.

And who is this character Maree based on? All the evidence points to . . . Diana herself. In the descriptions of Maree it is possible to discern a very faint, hazy self-portrait.

Originally published on November 4th as part of Lory’s Emerald City Book Review theme Witch Week. For the sake of modesty however I’ve omitted Lory’s very kind opening remarks, but her introduction to the book itself is spot on and well worth reading.

13 thoughts on “Patterns and Portraits

  1. Not being a careful reader at all, and having zero familiarity with the setting of her books, this post gave me a lot to think about. I’ll have this in mind when I reread Deep Secret! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    So glad I got to reread this with your points in mind. And I hope to do my own review when the new Tor edition comes out. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the cleverness of the infinity symbol! Not knowing Bristol that’s a connection which had escaped me. If I were Colin, I’m not sure I’d be too flattered to have been immortalised as Seb (Rupert is much pleasanter)! Apparently Nick is partly based on Neil Gaiman, too…


  4. Colin’s radio talk after Diana’s death (published in Reflections mentions the Sebastian pen portrait:
    “Diana … could also use fiction to take revenge on people she felt had injured or offended her. I liked my grandmother, and I got punished for this in several of my mother’s books … In Fire and Hemlock there is a chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian who … happens to be in league with the Queen of the Fairies… Well, thanks, Mum.”

    Then he makes a very generous comment. “But fiction is not meant to be fair. My mother needed to tap some of her darkest experiences in order to write…”

    I have a vague memory about the Nick/Neil connection, Ela, but it had slipped my mind and now you say it, well, it makes complete sense.


  5. Lovely as always. 🙂 It’s always so special, I think, not just to read of DWJ, and to read of her through the eyes of another fan, but to read of something caught in her work I never would have considered. I was taken up in studying the romantic element in DWJ’s work at the time that I never once thought of how these characters were inspired by her family. I’m no romantic by any means, but I loved how this arc had two characters coming together without undergoing any sort of Pygmalion transformation. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the link to your discussion of the romantic arc in this—so, so interesting and well analysed! That non-existent Pygmalion transformation is perfect, an acceptance of the other person exactly as they are, and thank heavens no “My God, but you’re beautiful” moment when Maree takes her glasses off… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YES EXACTLY! When she comes back from Babylon in her original garb, and he just sees her for her, and loves her…that’s pretty f***ing awesome. If we gotta do romance, doing it like this would be awesome.
        Which, I admit, I wouldn’t mind doing for another WIP I’m working on… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.