The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(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.

12 thoughts on “The queen and her coven

  1. Somehow Diana Wynne Jones is an author I missed out on as both a child and teenager and as a school librarian. I enjoyed reading your comments, Chris. This story sounds tempting and the themes are interesting to me, so this may be my gateway into her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s as good a place as any, Anne, and I hope you do get round to it.

      If you can access a copy I’d also recommend the posthumous collection of her non-fiction pieces, Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, which is wonderful not only for commentary on her own writing but also for her thoughts on what children’s fiction should be about.

      Alternatively, you could browse my reviews via the tag diana-wynne-jones to see what else might take your fancy! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think once you’ve come across Aunt Maria you’ll never forget her! Yes, a brilliant writer, and one with her own distinctive voice and way of telling a story: I’ve read (and still got) most of her books, but there are still a few I’ve yet to review and this was one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One thing I discovered when I was working on my thesis on Jones was that despite the fairly late publication date this was an early novel, written well before many of her “great” books. I realized, too, that she explores things that she will later rework in more detail and depth in Fire and Hemlock. I disliked it for a long time, I think because it made me uncomfortable; the passive aggressive Aunt Maria, with her “oh, surely you’re not going to go out looking like _that__, dear” rang a bit too close to home!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think she makes the point about writing not always immediately preceding publication in Reflections, doesn’t she, and especially that this novel was written in the decade prior to its public appearance. I only mention the Cardigan wolf hunt because I remember, when we lived in North Pembrokeshire, being given a gleeful account by a former Parliamentary Tory candidate (and enthusiastic leftie baiter) of going off to the hunt, which would’ve been in 1983.

      But many of Diana’s usual themes are here, I agree; Katherine Langrish has just written a blog post about witches in novels which includes Charmed Life which is a fine coincidence.

      Yes, Aunt Maria’s passive-aggressive comments made me squirm too, reminding me of some women in my family (I had two sisters, a mother and, for a few years, a grandmother living at home and an aunt a couple of streets away who were all good at guilt-tripping me when I was growing up! I understand that theirs was a means of asserting power in a time when it was definitely a man’s world, but even so…

      Has your thesis appeared in any published form? I’d love to read that, along with other academic work which I letch after (Butler and Mendlesohn, for example).


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