Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

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.

Monigan, illustration by David Wyatt

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.

24 thoughts on “Life in the realms of death

    1. Essex creepy? I couldn’t possibly comment! But postwar Thaxted, and especially at the conference centre for young adults run by Diana’s parents, was decidedly creepy with its influx of the weird characters she describes in Reflections!

      As for keeping secrets, I do try to tease with my reviews, reserving spoilers for vintage classics and post-review discussions. Speaking of which, I’ve a few follow-up posts on Cold Shoulder Road in the queue, and then it’s on to the final chronicle … *sigh*

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    2. It’s one of her books that has the creepiest elements. But the most horrifying thing about it is the neglectfulness of the parents. Which, as Chris mentions, is founded in real life. Fantasy and reality are not so far apart, truly.

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  1. I’ve never read anything by Diana Wynn Jones but that’s not surprising because I don’t have much of an appetite for fantasy. This one sounds very dark – is that her normal style?

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    1. I’ve talked at length about fiction, and even some nonfiction, being fantasy (as for example here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-phantasy) but I suppose it all depends on where the line is drawn on what one can accept as magic.

      I see magic as on a continuum that goes from coincidences, fairytale plotlines and magic realism all to way to Tolkienesque magic with spells and any subverting of the laws of physics (though speculation on dark matter and so on already questions these).

      I cordially dislike fantasy fiction which has either (a) no logic to it, or (b) no human interest in it, or (c) both (a) and (b). But in Diana Wynne Jones fantasies she takes aspects of her own experiences — childhood (as here), weird personal synchronicities (as she details in her talks and essays), and her own family and career (frequently) to paint bravura landscapes and portraits in words.

      As for this being very dark, I think it reflects her abnormal upbringing, in which she and her sisters accepted their lives as ‘normal’ — because this is what kids do, until they learn better. One can see much of what she writes as dark — controlling adults loom large — but in a way that’s often the focus of fiction, and especially for children: one has only to think of Victorian children’s classics to see that they’re all about overcoming fears and real dangers before a resolution.

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      1. Based on your description here and also in your review about her use of personal experience and references does make her work sound more interesting than a lot of fantasy I’ve come across but have failed to finish….

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        1. I would think you would find this interesting despite it being fantasy! Worth a try anyway to see if it confirms your antipathy or encourages you to see the genre anew. 😊

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  2. This is one of her most haunting books, I think, and not just because it has a ghost in it. Last time I read it I found it rather a warm-up for Fire and Hemlock … the buried memories, the ritual sacrifice, the splintered family. It’s not unusual that writers I admire have several goes at a tale and improve on it as they go. I don’t mind, as long as they come up with something interesting.

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    1. I agree with all that you say, Lory, and its intensity is probably a reason I’ve left this till near the end to reread and review — I clearly felt I hadn’t got any handle on it worth speaking about.

      Now to tackle the last one of my rereads, Hexwood, which — with its Arthurian themes — you’d think would be one of the first for me to get my teeth stuck into.

      But no, I think the point of it eluded me way back when, and it’s only now that I’m starting to feel brave enough to delve back in. I can’t tell you how eye-opening Reflections has been for beginning to understand her approach.

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  3. The Time of the Ghost was always one of my favourite DWJs; it’s dark, yes, but, as you said, ultimately does celebrate sisterhood and also the power of creativity. She dedicates it to her sister Isabel, who is clearly Imogen. I didn’t know the Cymbelene connection or the name Manogan – that’s very interesting. I believe there’s an echo of Tolkien as well in that voice from the Barrow. Catherine Butler told me that she believed the Barrow can be identified as one in the S.W – I don’t remember which particular Long Barrow it was, though.

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    1. Last things first: since she was writing this after she moved to Bristol there are a couple of possibilities I can think of offhand. There’s Stoney Littleton near Bath, a Neolithic chambered tomb that’s very easy to visit; and there’s Hetty Pegler’s Tump, also quite accessible, north of Bristol near Uley in Gloucestershire. Catherine’s time at UWE in Bristol means she’ll know these quite well, I’m sure. The voice from the barrow is indeed like Tolkien’s Barrow-Wight, though I’m not sure I’d want to have a conversation with the latter!

      I saw the dedication to Isobel/Imogen, but would love to know who ‘Hat’ was — a Hattie or Harriet maybe? Also, as Diana’s son Colin complained, Diana was prone to feature her three sons in her novels, so I wonder if Ned Jenkins, Will Howard and the unpleasant Julian Addiman are aspects of these three? If so, poor boys!

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    1. I was the same when I returned to this, Karen: though I must’ve only read it a little after 2001 I had few bits of déjà-vu, mostly it all felt new to me.

      Sadly she rarely got her due, especially after all-conquering Pottermania swept the fantasy strand clear of her ilk for so long. Luckily Studio Ghibli’s animation of Howl’s Moving Castle helped restore some of her status as a doyenne of children’s fantasy.

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  4. I am very fond of this novel, and your review really does it justice. I remember reading it for the first time and worrying about which sister was going to die, and of course you find yourself hoping that it won’t be this one or that one which is all a bit morally icky (her point, I’m guessing, I don’t think DWJ was ever morally icky).

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    1. Yes, it’s really very clever plotting, reminding me of a murder mystery in which the reader is misdirected but where the clues are hidden in plain sight! Also, emotionally it’s clever: the sisters are seen as constantly bickering and showing their less attractive sides but, in the end, you do see that they care deeply for each other as well as banding together (as most sisters do) in the face of adversity. I’m more than fond of this novel, I think it’s one of her best and most satisfying. Glad you approve the review, Helen! 🙂

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  5. I’ve been saving reading this post until I could give it my proper attention. And now I’m beguiled and intrigued! I definitely need to read this, it sounds absolutely fascinating!

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  6. Excellent review and post! I really enjoyed seeing this so soon after having read the book for the first time while it’s still fresh in my mind. Great thoughts and connections! I was definitely wondering about the barrow bit so that’s particularly helpful! The connections to Reflections is definitely interesting and somewhat disturbing. XD Others have remarked on the Fire and Hemlock esque connections too. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It’s not always important or helpful to know the possible literary and historical references an author throws into the mix (as with Cymbeline’s barrow) but I find it fascinating. (And now I start to wonder about others, having recently reread the episode with the Barrow Wight when Frodo and his companions leave Tom Bombadil’s and Goldberry’s house; I ought to reread DWJ’s essay on LOTR in Reflections I suppose.)

      In fact, Reflections opened my eyes to how much autobiographical material went into her fiction, so much so that it would be too easy to get trapped into seeing personal details behind every incident, character and motif in the novels. But then, that kind of investment in works of fiction is often what gives them a greater sense of credence and truth.

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