Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)
I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.
“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.
— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’
Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.
At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.
I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.
The plots are propelled forward by inciting incidents which are summed up beautifully in the author’s punny collective title — which as usual has me wondering whether DWJ spins her stories from a common phrase (maybe as in Charmed Life) or whether the title suggests itself retrospectively.
- ‘Chair Person’ in this tale is not a gender neutral name for a person in charge of a meeting but a blundering armchair brought to life by a leaking secondhand conjuring set. (Think Professor Slughorn in the Harry Potter novel, who transforms from comfy chair to human, combined with the chemistry set that features in Jones’ novel The Ogre Downstairs.)
- ‘The Four Grannies’ refer to the quirky, querulous individuals who come to babysit Erg* and Emily when the children’s parents are on a mini-break in Scotland; Erg’s ‘invention’ made from household odds and ends appears to be responsible for the magic that brings objects to life and turns Emily into a Teddy bear. How can matters be resolved before the parents return?
- ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ is the question that a bunch of siblings ask themselves when a truly objectionable friend of their father’s descends to stay for an indeterminate (and interminable) spell. His abuse of all and sundry — including the house furnishings — results in normally inanimate objects animating to literally kick him out. Which sibling initiated that magic, though?
Many readers will simply enjoy the misunderstandings, frustrations and slapstick that arise in these novelettes, each of six or seven short chapters, and put the book aside with a smile at the end. As I say, these would provide good scripts for family movies in the Home Alone mould.
However, these being DWJ stories, there are I sense darker substrata beneath the surface, very likely inspired by her own unorthodox upbringing (as alluded to in Reflections). These are tied to the natural anxieties that children often feel when faced with what they see as the irrational whims of adults who have near absolute control over them.
Such anxiety is evident for Marcia and Simon in ‘Chair Person’: the title character has absorbed all the worldly clichés and conformist thinking that an existence in front of mindless television programmes has provided, allied with a lack of human empathy as modelled by the selfish Aunt Christa. The four grannies of the second tale — both parents having acquired extra mothers and step-mothers from past divorces — don’t consider their charges’ wants or wishes but think they have to provide what’s ‘good’ for Erg and Emily.
Angus Flint is the worst of the lot. Not only does he refuse point blank to leave or observe everyday niceties (he gives The Stare when objections are raised) but he is physically abusive in the casual way that is even more shocking to us now but which more than four decades ago was reluctantly accepted as an everyday evil. Flint-hearted, almost bovine Angus also makes full use of a distraction technique, namely standing on his head as if doing a yoga pose, making it impossible to address issues.
These common threads — principally adults careless of young people’s requirements — may well have roots in the actions of the author’s selfish-minded parents when she was growing up; but she is mindful of youngsters’ need to feel empowered in some fashion, and the common feeling that perhaps, just maybe, such power can somehow manifest itself in magic — if not in reality then at least in the imagination.
* ‘Erg’ is typical of DWJ’s puns, in this case a triple pun: first, an erg is a unit of energy, apt for a wouldbe inventor; it’s also short for his first name, Erchenwald (after Saint Erchenwald, an early Bishop of London); and ERG represents his initials, Erchenwald Randolph Gervase. Profound, eh?
If only I was participating in Readers Imbibing Peril XIV I could include this in the Magic category…