The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)
Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.
As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.
For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.
So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.
Though told in the third person we see everything from the ghost’s viewpoint. She knows there has been an accident, and she knows she is one of four sisters, but which one is she — Charlotte, Selina, Imogen or Fenella? She thinks she is Selina or Sally, but is she really? As she assembles her memories she finds herself moving around in past events, in a situation that involves distant parents, a boys school, a shambling wolfhound and four sisters left to their own devices. And somehow connected with her sense of alarm is an evil entity called Monigan, conjured up by the sisters in thoughtless ritual play and embodied in a decaying mildewy rag doll.
The ghost tries to convey her fears during a séance with Scrabble tiles, and later through automatic writing:
I’M ONE MELFORD GIRL DON’T KNOW WHICH 7 YEARS OFF NEED HELP MONIGAN HELP
I found I remembered little from my first encounter with this novel several years ago except the author’s strong evocation of a basket of moods — anxiety, yes, but also mystery, humour and sisterhood. In her collection of writings Reflections she tells how she toned down her own childhood experiences and that of her sisters Isobel and Ursula to convey their own dysfunctional upbringing in the peculiar lives of the four Melford siblings, but it’s clear that the amelioration is half-hearted: Phyllis Melford sounds to have been just as ineffectual as Diana’s mother, while Himself (as the father is referred to) is every bit as irascible and tyrannical as Aneurin Jones had been, a father who would have given Lear with his three daughters a run for his money.
The imperative for resolving the ghost’s predicament comes with a sister in hospital seven years into the future, for at that moment Monigan is due to claim that sister’s life. Jones skilfully builds up the tension by constantly distracting with moments of humour and apparent exaggeration and leaving the solution to the ghost’s identity to the very last. There is a very small cast which includes a chain-smoking cook, a couple of friendly schoolboys and a thoroughly unlikeable older lad always referred to in full as Julian Addiman. I suspect this last was based on someone the author thoroughly despised, so viciously does she characterise him.
Who then was the sister who’d become a ghost? Was it the youngest, brave Fenella with the booming voice? Was it doleful Imogen who had ambitions of becoming a concert pianist? Perhaps it was Selena whose name, derived from Selene the Greek goddess of the moon, was the counterpart of Diana, the Roman moon goddess? Or maybe it was Charlotte, like the author herself the eldest of the sisters? There are dangers of course in fictionalising one’s own life but it does at least ground the novel in reality, preventing it becoming unlikely because simply too incredible. Even the story of a ghost is founded on the story of one seen by a cleaner in the establishment the author’s parents ran during and after the war in Thaxted, Essex.
And Monigan herself? She seems to be compounded of two mythical or legendary beings. The first is the Morrigan, the great Irish triple divinity of war and death, her name translatable as the Nightmare Queen and thus an apt figure for the sisters to invoke. The second is a phantom personage: that Celtic King Cunobelinus who later became Cymbeline also transformed into the Welsh Beli Mawr, or Beli “the Great”. And who was the father of Beli? A pseudohistorical figure called Manogan.
There proves to be just one person who truly has the power to give life in the realms of death, but to find out the answer to who that is, and how they accomplish it, one has to read this bewitching novel.
Read for March Magics, a celebration of the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, posted the day after the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death, 26th March 2011.