(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)
But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11
Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.
And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.
This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.
The British title doesn’t refer to the police van (sometimes perjoratively called a paddy wagon) but, as the narrator informs us at the start, to a card game. To win each player has to avoid winning tricks with hearts in them (one point each heart), and especially the trick including the Queen of Spades (thirteen points). Mig and Chris’s aunt is clearly the dreaded court card in her coven of thirteen Mrs Urs; she’s also the queen bee of Cranbury-on-Sea (which I fancy is a nod to Clacton-on-Sea, still largely an Essex seaside town for retirees, accessible from Thaxted where she grew up) and somehow has the community in her thrall.
Try as they might Mig and her brother can’t seem to break the spell that Aunt Maria apparently has over everyone. Without giving away crucial spoilers we have a ghost who isn’t a ghost, involuntary lycanthropy and other forced shape-shifting, a sleeping ‘warrior’ in a burial mound, and a weirdly decorated box (I was reminded here of John Masefield’s Box of Delights) which Mig like a modern Pandora is tempted to open.
The author wrote this novel in the early 1980s and so I wonder if in 1983 she knew of reports of a number of wolves which had escaped from Cardigan Wildlife Park in Wales — only to be hunted down and shot — because the novel’s first big climax involves a wolf hunt. At this time too children’s fiction was starting to feature more young female protagonists despite the belief then current that boys wouldn’t read novels with a girl lead; Mig proves to be as proactive as her brother Chris (she knows happy endings don’t just happen) vindicating the author’s determination to have her narrate and take a strong role.
In fact the novel very much examines and questions gender roles then prevailing, where women’s work and position is in the home while men travel to work or are occupied outside. What happens when this sexist convention is overturned but the one perversely maintaining the unfair status quo refuses to admit any guilt or be contrite? As an emerging character declares when the guilty party is brought to book, and when the question of sentencing is broached,
[T]he 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.
One can only diminish the malignant hold they have on the community — perhaps more than just figuratively.
But the key note for me is the notion of coercion and how it is obtained. In Black Maria it is brought about seemingly by a very mundane magic: the inducement of boredom. Anybody who knows that social conventions require one to be polite in certain company, however tedious or unreasonable the conversation is, will know the guilt-tripping stasis that forces the rictus grin or the ritualised compliances.
Diana Wynne Jones, who knew a victim’s helplessness was due to malevolent magic of a sort, makes sure we recognise it for what it is by weaving a creative and fantastic tale out of it. Though this is not in any way a didactic novel these themes give Black Maria a strength and provide the motivation for positive action, as any good fairytale would and should.
A final post for RIPXV or Readers Imbibing Peril. Blogger author Jean Lee wrote an insightful introduction to this novel entitled “Sinister Relations” for last year’s Witch Week which you can read here.