#WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations

Jean Lee is a blogger, author and massive fan of Diana Wynne Jones.

Jean was an obvious choice, therefore, for inviting to participate in this event as one of DWJ’s books was the principal inspiration for it, and we’re very grateful she responded so enthusiastically!

She has chosen to focus on one of Jones’ most sinister figures, Aunt Maria from Black Maria (1991), published as Aunt Maria in North America.

Firstly, dear readers, I am honored to be here with you during this most magical Witch Week. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite writers for many reasons: her arduous childhood, her steel resolve, her motherly devotion, and her bottomless love for sharing the gift of storytelling with others. While others wrote what she called “Real Books,” books that described real-ish kids in real-ish situations going through all the real-ish problems that kids deal with in real life, Jones stood firm on the position that Real Problems can be solved with Unreal Books. The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a lovely example of a blended family coming together when a magical chemistry set forever alters the “chemistry” of their lives (ba dum CH!). Indeed, Jones has never been one to shy away from the tough conflicts that can arise inside the family unit. Heavens, in Charmed Life Gwendolyn doesn’t just kill her own parents but her kid brother Cat, multiple times. Divorce, too, impacts characters such as young Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and Mig in Black Maria. Polly and Mig both learn who truly cherishes family … and who doesn’t.

Which brings us to the sweet old lady that is Aunt Maria.

We have had Aunt Maria ever since Dad died. If that sounds as if we have the plague, that is what I mean. You have to call this plague Ma-rye-ah. Aunt Maria insists you say her name like that. Chris says it is more like that card game, where the one who wins the queen of spades loses the game. “Black Maria,” it is called. Maybe he is right. (1)

What an opener! Mig’s personality just oozes off the page here; I mean, it’s not every kid that relates an elderly relative to the plague. Now considering this is the first paragraph, we readers don’t yet know how this woman is like the plague. The fact she’s picky on her name … well, who likes their name getting mispronounced? (Pin this for later, please!)

This first paragraph also drops a pretty major bomb: Mig’s father is dead.

Considering my upbringing in a conservative household, where the elderly relatives are revered no matter what side of the family they’re on, I first reacted to this line with, How can this girl talk like that? The aunt’s family.

Because that’s the thing about family: the older a member is, the more we’re supposed to respect them no matter what. Mig tells us that no matter how poorly her parents got on, the whole family dutifully visited Aunt Maria for tea several times throughout the year. The day Mig’s father died he was on his way to see Aunt Maria. And because Mig’s mother feels so guilty about Aunt Maria losing a nephew, she accepts Aunt Maria’s invitation to bring Mig and her brother Chris to stay over the Easter holiday.

At this point, I’m still having some doubts about Mig. Oh, I sympathize with her plenty—I was often Dutiful Grandchild who spoke with my grandparents every week, answering the saaaaame questions about the saaaame people, often having to repeat myself because Grandpa was terribly deaf.

I never learn. I always hold the phone too near my ear. She knows London is a long way away from Cranbury, so she shouts. And you have to shout back or she yells that you are muttering. “This is Mig, Auntie,” I shout back. “I prefer to be called Mig.” I say that every time, but Aunt Maria never will call me anything but Naomi, because I was called Naomi Margaret after her daughter who died. (5)

Hmmm. For a woman who insists her name be pronounced a certain way, Aunt Maria doesn’t seem to care about how other people wish to identify themselves. Maria calls Chris anything but his proper name (Christian), while Mig is not just Naomi, but Aunt Maria’s “new little Naomi” (22).

Now I know what you’re thinking: calling people by the wrong name on purpose isn’t villainous. It’s rude, a bit petty, but not villainous.

But anyone who reads fantasy knows that names are powerful things. They tie us to a past, to a destiny, to a rite. Mig may not put much stock in the fact she was named after Aunt Maria’s “dead daughter,” but Aunt Maria certainly does.

Indeed, she puts a good deal of time and energy into keeping Mig’s family close at all times. Mig and her mother Betty have to help Aunt Maria get out of bed, get dressed, get downstairs for meals, get into the living room, get back upstairs, get ready for bed, get into bed… Aunt Maria insists on being looked after lest she fall, lest she lose something, lest she be lonely, lest her friends visit and require tea for of COURSE there must be tea and cake, and not a bought cake, a properly made cake, and so on and so on. Any sort of refusal leads Aunt Maria to go “all gentle and martyred,” and therein guilts Betty into doing everything. Mig finally gets her mom to open up about the guilt one night after Aunt Maria’s snores can be heard, the signal it’s finally safe to talk…

“Charitable, be damned!” said Mum. “I want to slay Auntie half the time… At first I was as muddled as you are, because Auntie is very old and she can be very sweet… People do have savage feelings, Mig.”

“But it’s not right to have savage feelings!” I gulped.

“No, but everyone does,” said Mum, lighting a second cigarette off the end of the first. “Auntie does. That’s what’s upsetting us all. She’s utterly selfish and a complete expert in making other people do what she wants. She uses people’s guilt about their savage feelings.” (39)

Herein lies the weakness of Mig’s mother, at least in this stage of the story: Betty does have these savage feelings, but unlike Aunt Maria, she doesn’t act on them: Aunt Maria relies “on Mum being too civilized to fight back” (81). Plus it’s awfully hard to hate a teddy bear.

Mum and I have put Aunt Maria to bed and she’s sitting up on her pillow, all clean and rosy in her lacy white nightgown, with her hair in frizzy pigtails, listening to A Book at Bedtime on Mum’s radio. She looks like a teddy bear. Quite loveable. (37)

For Mig, it’s not the chores that bother her so much as the talking. Aunt Maria insists that Mig sit with her in the living room nearly all day, every day. Does she get to talk? No. Mig just gets to listen.

She talks. It is all about her friends in Cranbury… On and on. You end up feeling you are in a sort of bubble filled with that getting-a-cold smell, and inside that bubble is Cranbury and Aunt Maria, and that is the entire world. It is hard to remember there is any land outside Cranbury. (20)

Ah, now we’re on to something here. This elderly, housebound woman has a whole team of women who come and visit her every day to sit and go on and on over tea and not-store-bought-cake. This woman never leaves Cranbury; the women of Cranbury come to her. Betty even says as much: “It amuses me the way they all run around her and make sure she’s happy, just as if they were workers and she were their queen” (89).

Aunt Maria is a unique concoction of details. She’s a teddy bear, she’s an insect — a queen bee. She’s only as tall as Mig, and yet “her character is enormous—right up to the ceiling” (19).

And this, I think, is a clever point as to why Aunt Maria’s such a remarkable villain in Jones’ canon. She meets all the typical criteria of a harmless lady, and yet she’s anything but typical. For a woman who insists she’s old and helpless, she holds the wills of Cranbury women in her teacup. She’s capable of erasing all that is beyond Cranbury’s borders. She is the ruler, complete with purple coat and dead fox for a stole.

And she’s not afraid to turn you into an animal for the men to hunt if you’re not careful.

*shudders* Jeez, gave myself the willies there.

Oh yes. This moment comes about halfway through the book, and I shan’t spoil the rest of it for you. I think we’ve seen enough here of Aunt Maria to know that villains can look as cuddly as a bear … and of course, we know what happens when we hug a bear.

Too often we as readers are prepared for villains to be acting and saying villainous things. We’re ready for those black/white moments, those blunt-reveal moments that tell readers this man/woman is a villain. Cue the lightning, thunder, and maniacal laughter!

Not all villains provide these cues. Oh no. Some have armed themselves with that most dangerous of mantras—“Kill them with kindness.” Just think on it: Aunt Maria constantly calls after Mig’s welfare. She wants to watch over them as they watch over her. She doesn’t deny them food or shelter. She wants only what’s best for them, and for Cranbury…

Hey, what is best for Cranbury? Who is Aunt Maria to decide what’s best for Cranbury, let alone Mig’s family?

And that, my friends, is why you must read this book. There is far more to Aunt Maria’s place in the town, far more to the roles of women and men in this town. Far more to the story of Mig’s father’s death, and far more to Aunt Maria’s role in his life … and death.

There are leaders, and then there are controllers. Aunt Maria is the worst kind: one who will guilt you into submission, who will twist your words until “you end up wondering what you were talking about” (95). She silences the world you know until all you know is her world. You are meant for her world. Your name comes from her world, don’t you see, Mig? You belong in her world with her.

I think it’s time to part, before the chilled winds turn green with forgotten magic, and the dreams of one trapped in roots come looking for a weary head to enter. Do drop a word or three down in the comments below, and perhaps, if our paths allow it, we’ll cross paths in another illustrious explore.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Jean Lee

Has this critique encouraged you to read Black Maria? I’m certainly up for a reread now! Next up is a discussion of a Diana Wynne Jones novel in a very different mode, Cart and Cwidder.

38 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations

  1. Pingback: Evil too close to home | Lizzie Ross

  2. Great review, Jean, with just enough hints about Aunt Maria’s behavior to entice a reader without spoiling the fun. That hunt! and the dream-haunting! DWJ’s novel is definitely a chilling object lesson about claustrophobic family life and matriarchy and “best intentions”. Not to mention just plain enjoyable.

    One of the moments that struck me was a brief discussion, when one character says, “the only point of punishment is to make someone see the error of their ways. If they don’t see it, then what you are doing to them is vengeance, not punishment.” That alone was enough to make me want to scream. These days, there are plenty of people I’d like to punish, but DWJ makes me realize how futile that would be — serving only to glorify them as martyrs rather than vilify them as criminals. Oh, it’s a truly messed up world we live in.

    BTW, I have the British edition, and those two sentences in the first paragraph that you mention, about how to pronounce Aunt Maria’s name, are not included — they must have been added to the American edition. Perhaps that’s a case of DWJ being particular about the pronunciation, rather than one of her characters.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. How fascinating, Lizzie! I really love those sentences because they just throw us into the backseat of a car with narrator Mig. Her voice is pitch perfect from start to finish.

      The bit about the punishment is spot on, too. I remember how Christopher wanted more–who could blame him, having been a wolf–and yet a woman that set in her ways isn’t going to change,

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The Ogre Downstairs was the first one I read. I remember bringing it home from the library and noticing at bedtime that my mother had usurped my copy. It was always fun when we found a new author and DWJ certainly stood the test of time: now it is my siblings’ children who are enjoying her.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. A familiar anecdote for many I’m sure, Constance!

      For me the best verdict on a children’s book is whether, as well as appealing to ‘kids of all ages’, it is something you find you enjoy for details that may have passed you by as a young reader.

      In other words, it proves to be a rich tapestry of a piece, the images maybe superficial but the weave is threaded with gold. That’s certainly the case with Black Maria!

      Here, by the way, is my take on The Ogre Downstairshttps://wp.me/s2oNj1-ogre — I now want to read it again!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Many of those early novels were barely disguised modern takes on fairy tales — Hansel and Gretel for Wilkin’s Tooth, Jack and the Beanstalk for The Ogre Downstairs, The Giant’s Daughter motif in The Power of Three for example — that I’m sure your kids would respond favourably to them, Jean!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: #WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

      1. It’s a lovely mini-lit festival. We should do more of these! (looks at calendar, sighs wistfully) It’s such fun. It’s like we’ve all met for dinner and slapped our books on the table at the same time and our plates go cold because we’re all so eager to talk together. Love itxxxxxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I second Chris’s thanks, Jean — and your choice of book was perfect. I hadn’t read it, but my neighbor, a long-time DWJ fan, lent me her copy. I loved how DWJ planted hints here and there of Aunt Maria’s true character. So insidious, so sly, so manipulative — so evil.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. yes Yes YES. She’s so like any dotty old relative at the outset, and yet there are those fine touches (like knowing the phone numbers of the kids’ friends) that would make any outsider go, “waaaaait a minute…” 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and thank you again for letting me be a part of this amazing week!

            Liked by 2 people

  5. Whoa. I have to admit this was never one of my favorites but you make me realize what a subtle commentary on the nature of evil it is. Makes me think I should read it again just to bone up on what we’re up against. As Lizzie says, it’s a messed up world — but at least we have DWJ to read in it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Alyson Woodhouse

    Would this potentially be a good place to start with DWJ? Somehow, her novels passed me bye completely as a child, but I think she is an author I would have enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everyone has their favourite(s), and hopefully will also comment here, but I can start off with a couple of suggestions. Charmed Life or Howl’s Moving Castle are among her best known and best loved, for good reason, and you wouldn’t go wrong with either. If you’d like something a bit more challenging (and some would say more problematical) can I point you to Fire and Hemlock? My 2012 review at https://wp.me/s2oNj1-hemlock may indicate some of its complexities. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Alyson — my first DWJ was Howl’s Moving Castle — so easy to get hooked on, and so unexpected in every aspect. I think that’s a big part of DWJ’s appeal, that she twists plots and characters and themes in delightful ways. And even at the end, when everyone gets what they deserve, “what they deserve” is never what I originally hoped for them, and yet I’m always satisfied.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Alyson Woodhouse

              Hi Lizzie, thanks for this suggestion. I’m looking forward to reading her, as I’m surprised I never came across her before.

              Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: #NaNoWriMo2019 #WritingLog: #WitchWeek & #writing a #firstchapter, part 3 | Jean Lee's World

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