Getting into difficulties

Statue outside Old Library, Cardiff

Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.

Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.

So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.

At the start of the novel Jamie Hamilton stumbles across a group of cloaked figures involved in a game, one which he finds involves playing with human lives. In consequence of this discovery he is banished to the boundaries of worlds, exiled there forever unless he can work out a way Home — in other words, become homeward bound. Until then he is a discard, a Random Factor.

Or so he is told.

Now, in ‘Two Kinds of Writing’ Jones described an incident during a book signing when

a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn’t understand. “Oh, don’t listen to her,” he said. “I understood everything. It was just her that didn’t.”

Jones’ comment, which encapsulates what the subject of the piece was about, was that ‘his poor mother had given up using her brain when she read.’ Unlike children, who don’t need things easy in their fiction, adults need authors to write ‘as if the readers were simpleminded.’ Worse, some adults seem to think kids lit mustn’t be difficult …

So it’s clear that Jones was aware that there might be an imaginative divide between adults and children, in some cases a very wide and deep chasm.

Elsewhere, in a piece entitled ‘A Talk About Rules’ she railed against Rules and Genres, because some critics made the mistake that there are absolute rules about writing, and impenetrable boundaries between genres. ‘The whole thing is back to front,’ she asserted — this was clearly the tail wagging the dog — hence the curious common belief that children’s fiction must be confined within genre expectations and conform to limiting rules. However, even though ‘the story is the important thing […] what people have found in previous stories are being used to govern what should be in future ones. And this is ridiculous.’

And then she went on to quote what Prometheus said in The Homeward Bounders:

There are no rules. There are no rules, only principles and natural laws.

In this memoir we also find out from her grown-up son Colin Burrow (‘Two Family Views of Diana and Her Work’) where much of the darkness in novels like this is likely to come from. ‘Her books are profoundly serious despite the jokes,’ he wrote. ‘They are quite consistently driven by rage against unfairness. […] She hated exploiters, people who tried to suck the magic and vitality from others.’ He notes that such fiction about alternative worlds can be ‘partly about politics’, a politics however of the spirit rather than Mundane matters: her books rebelled against whoever or whatever made ‘people ordinary and grey when they could be imaginative and alive.’

As a result some of her protagonists have to ‘give up on the things they love in order to make the world better,’ and this certainly applies to Jamie in The Homeward Bounders, as Colin points out:

The price of his victory is that he has to wander through the world’s for eternity on his own. It’s from this position of profound loss that he relates his story. […]

Repeatedly in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones, a writer is a person who has to give up everything, and go through despair, in order to set other people free.

Another of Jones’ sons, Richard Burrow, at her funeral spoke of the yearning or elegiac quality of many of her best books, ‘a sign of the deep pain caused by her upbringing.’ He reiterates that ‘at the heart of her books is a sense of loss. From this point of view, The Homeward Bounders, the most tragic of her books, is also the most honest.’ He does acknowledge, however, that the book is atypical: earlier he confirms that her books are ‘sustained by an enormous love; a childlike yearning to create a world that fully satisfies the human soul.’

In ‘Some Hints on Writing’ Jones declared that ‘I think one of the things I wanted to tell people in my books was how to cope with the world when it goes crazy around you.’ And in a talk called ‘Some Truths About Writing’ she said

I have never really lost this sense that the world is basically thoroughly unstable. […] This sense that most people are crazy, if you look deep enough. Adults particularly, and children have to deal with them.

‘Difficult’ children’s fiction versus adult expectations — limiting rules — rage against unfairness — a sense of loss — an unstable crazy world ruled by adults. These are the strands which run through the author’s work and which she and her family particularly identified in The Homeward Bounders. By general agreement these threads are darker and more intense in the novel, which might confuse grown-up readers expecting a more upbeat conclusion. This will be my second read so I will have no illusions about the final outcome; this time, however, I would be focusing on the narrative details rather than puzzling where the plot will end up.

Finally, what inspired the novel’s concept of porous boundaries? In a conversation with academic Catherine Butler (writing as Charlie Butler) Jones described how the novel was ‘inspired by train journeys at night, coming home from dreadful school visits’ of the kind she describes in ‘A Day Visiting Schools’. Looking out of carriage panes she’d see ‘several layers of reflections from the various windows […] and you would think this could be a transparent box of worlds, and so in the book they turned out to be.’ Why she tended to write about multiple parallel worlds was, she said, because anything could happen and probably was happening somewhere or other.

Here was the context, environments which she could populate with crazy people and those who had to navigate through it all. I am curious now to see what I will draw from a revisit.

33 thoughts on “Getting into difficulties

  1. I’ve only read the time of the ghost by Diana Wynne-Jones but I can see that she didn’t stick to conventions regarding genre or what is deemed acceptable subject matter for kids books. I mean, in ttotg one of the characters had been thrown from a car by her boyfriend – no publisher would allow that in a middle grade book these days. But her imagination was amazing, I have to say. Be interesting to see what you think of this book on a second read, Chris

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    1. The Time of the Ghost was going to be my choice for March Magics, Lynn, or possibly Black Maria (neither of which I’ve reviewed) but this came up in a Twitter conversation so I opted for this instead — though I may still read one of the others as well! Yes, her imagination was, ahem, boundless — it’s such a shame that apart from a few really popular titles most of the rest of her work is only celebrated by diehard fans and academics.

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      1. In the Time of the Ghost, she captures the relationships between the sisters very well, though the neglect from the parents is appalling! Not sure you’d be able to sell the idea to a publisher these days – it’s that swing between the young girls and the older, abused ones. No one would know what age to pitch it at

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        1. The Time of the Ghost is based on her childhood (not the ghost bit, obviously!) when she and her sisters were indeed very neglected, though in Reflections she says she had to tone down that neglect substantially for fear that nobody would think it plausible!

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  2. Hm, I think this would be good for me to reread as well. The writer as someone whose lonely work sets others free – an amazing image.

    I love this characterization of DWJ’s books: “‘Difficult’ children’s fiction versus adult expectations — limiting rules — rage against unfairness — a sense of loss — an unstable crazy world ruled by adults.” We need people to guide us in how to live in this world, and keep us from going all “gray.” Looking forward to another celebration!

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    1. It is indeed an amazing image, Lory, powerful even, and a riposte against all those politicians and authorities who would punish innovative writing and impose draconian constraints on anyone straying outside what was deemed acceptable thinking. In a sense DWJ was another successor to Orwell and, I regret to observe, her warnings about societal and individual coercive control are as pertinent today as they were forty years ago.

      That list of characteristics which I largely drew from comments relating to The Homeward Bounders apply even to many seemingly more innocuous books of hers, I feel, but I won’t expand on that just now, maybe leave it for another post! But I too am looking forward to what else others are reading and will have to say for March Magics.

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  3. I have always sought to understand more about a writer. It’s adds immensely to my enjoyment of a novel to have some knowledge of the circumstances under which it was written. A fascinating piece as ever, Chris.

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    1. Like you, Sandra, I gain immeasurably from knowing where a writer is coming from to gain a better appreciation of a fiction piece — it’s not absolutely essential, as novels should really stand on their own feet, but it adds a rich mulch to the plot before we grow stuff in it, as it were.

      When I first read this particular novel — perhaps around fifteen or so years ago — I’d only just got into the author’s work so I wasn’t sure what to make of it; reading her non-fiction pieces in Reflections gave a lot more context than from whatever I’d gleaned before.

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  4. What a wonderful anecdote about the encounter between DWJ and her child reader. I think Phillip Pulman talked about how his Dark Materials provoked different reactions between adults and children. Lots of adults thought it was too difficult a concept for the children but in fact the children just accepted it and had far greater insight than their parents

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    1. That’s often the case with strong narratives incorporating complex ideas, readers of all ages take what concepts they can grasp and will maybe come back for a reread when they’re ready. I suspect many adults, in an understandable bid to protect their offsprings’ delicate sensibilities from anything intellectually demanding underestimate their capacity to cope. Funny, isn’t it, how many of us grown-ups are unable to remember what being a child was like…

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  5. I think I’m going to look into reading something by Diana Wynne Jones. Both her work and perspective sound really interesting. I hope you don’t mind if I ask, what would you recommend I start with?
    BTW, I was really captivated by the Prometheus line “There are no rules, only principles and natural laws.”

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    1. I don’t mind at all, Jo. Many people come at DWJ’s writing via her most famous book, Howl’s Moving Castle, which was adapted in a wonderful Studio Ghibli animation. https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/?s=Howl%27s+Moving+Castle+
      Another popular title is Charmed Life.

      But she’s written so much, very variable in approach, so it depends on what your preferences are: she did epic fantasy, comic fantasy, fantasy based on myth, folktales and fairytales, even some idiosyncratic speculative fiction as well as darker fantasy such the home I’ve highlighted here.

      You might try browsing through my discussions and reviews to see what takes your fancy: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/category/fantasy/diana-wynne-jones-fantasy/

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      1. I will look through your discussions! Thank you. I hadn’t realised that she wrote Howl’s Moving Castle. I enjoyed the Ghibli animation, it would be lovely to read the original.

        Thanks again, Jo

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        1. Hope you get to read it, Jo, the ending is slightly but not hugely different from the adaptation, while Miyazaki added some of his own obsessions regarding aeroplanes and the destructiveness and futility of war.

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          1. I just had a quick read of the first few pages on Amazon – it sounded excellent! So I bought the audio book!! I don’t mind if it’s a bit different. If I remember rightly, when Studio Ghibli did “Tales of Earthsea” under the direction of Miyazaki’s son, the story they had in the film didn’t match up to any of Ursula K Le Guin’s stories in the Earthsea Quintet.

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  6. Oh, I should keep an eye out for this one, I often love difficult children’s books. Of course children, just like adults, ought to have access to books that challenge them, inspires them and deals with important and sometimes hard topics. If those topics are hard on adults that’s our problem, as long as it works for the child.

    It is interesting though how differently the same book can be depending on who’s reading. Brothers Lioneheart, my favourite difficult children’s book, is definitely a darker story when read by an adult…

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    1. I do so agree, Johanna. So many authors, especially children’s authors, had access to a wide variety of publications when they were young, regardless of whether those books or periodicals were deemed suitable or not.

      I’m thinking, say, of the Brontë siblings (largely home-schooled but certainly self-educated); Edith Nesbit (peripatetic for most of her childhood in England, France and, briefly, Germany); and, more recently, Joan Aiken (home-schooled apart from three years at an boarding school). Of course, a huge imagination and boundless curiosity were also considerable assets in all the aforementioned cases.

      And when they write, even for children — for I see that Wuthering Heights for instance is available for younger readers in a Puffin edition — they often pepper a text sensitive to the child’s point of view with obscure, even ‘difficult’, details that only someone with a breadth of interests might appreciate.

      (And yes, The Brothers Lionheart is still on my wishlist!)

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      1. I also think that books can be a good place to encounter difficult topics. If something is hard to understand it is easy to go back and read it again, and if something is scary or sad they are still less scary than the real world, afterall a book character is only dead until the next reread…

        (No hurry, enjoy your time in Moomin valley first)

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  7. Christine

    A very sobering post on the more mature undertones of Jones’ fiction, that sense that the world is something one needs to cope with when one doesn’t always have the right tools at hand. Of course, there are lots of more uplifting aspects in her books as well! Thank you for writing about the complexity Jones lent her stories, and not just in the sense of complicated plots.

    If you brave the Homeward Bounders this March, I’ll read it too. It’s spoken of in hushed tones for its (reportedly sad) ending in certain online DWJ fan circles, and truth be told, I need to borrow someone else’s courage to pick the book up. Your blog is a lovely reading companion, like a comforting guide or benevolent librarian.

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    1. What lovely things to say, Christine! A benevolent librarian? I’ll accept that, thanks. 😊

      I’ve started The Homeward Bounders already, and may post a review in a week or so. I recognise the same qualities I noted from a first read a few years ago but am now playing a closer attention to the text. I really meant to join a Twitter readalong of Alan Garner’s Elidor but couldn’t locate my copy, so have gone for this instead. And all that say about it in your comment is very insightful — she doesn’t always offer easy solutions to life’s difficulties for her young readers.

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  8. You’re setting a fire under my seat to open up DWJ’s Magic of Writing again. One of my favs to reread, and I can picture where your quotes are from…oh, Diana had such a heart, and she did go through so much to achieve the loving family she came to raise. She will always be my inspiration to know that no darkness is insurmountable. xxxxxx

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    1. Those of us who are free thinkers and free spirits know exactly where she’s coming from and where she’s pointing to: while I tend to rationalise what I read in her stories, maybe even over-intellectualise, I have a gut reaction to the essence of she seems to be saying which no end of analysis can touch. Inspirational she is; and I love that her sons have all gone on to fill worthwhile niches in academia.

      I was also sad to read that her husband John Burrow died recently — he was clearly one of her greatest fans and I occasionally see his papers cited in publications though I’ve yet to read anything of his. He provided the Angel sonnet (or was it a villanelle) in The Magicians of Caprona, did he not?

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