Diana Wynne Jones Conference – Report by Amber Hancock

Diana Wynne Jones Conference

Conference Report by Amber Hancock 

Diana Wynne Jones Conference, Bristol, UK, 9-11 August

On a rain-soaked, sunny day in Bristol, a group of academics met at the Watershed to discuss the works of Diana Wynne Jones, who has inspired writers/academics for decades. Indeed, the variety of the panels and papers presented here hint at how wide-ranging and significant her work is both in terms of British literature and, particularly, Fantasy.

We settled into the convention on the first day with a craft workshop, welcome remarks, and a panel on teaching Jones’ work. After checking in, we went into the workshop where we made either origami, dressing gown bookmarks and/or paper-based representation of our favourite moments or characters from the books. Farah Mendlesohn (The Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, UK) gave the welcoming speech entitled “Everything I Learned about Running a Convention I Learned from Deep Secret.” In addition to some housekeeping and safety announcements, she shared a list of dos and don’ts of convention organisation based on the works of Jones. These included: “Nothing begins until the enchanter arrives (Diana, Diana, Diana)” (The Chronicles of Chrestomanci), and “Don’t tell the hotel about the chemistry experiments because we can’t afford the insurance” (The Ogre Downstairs). This fun and engaging list of references – reflective of Jones’ own intertextuality – set the tone for the rest of the convention.

Keynotes: The Framework of the Conference

The first ‘keynote’ was a panel entitled “The Pleasures and Challenges (Expected and Unexpected) of Teaching Diana Wynne Jones in the College Classroom” which focused on teaching experiences and the development of their approach to teaching Jones’ work. The three panelists – Donna White (Arkansas Tech University, USA), Martha Hixon (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), and Jackie Stallcup (California State University, Northridge, USA) – are experts of her work; two of which have co-edited Diana Wynne Jones: An Exacting and Exciting Wisdom (2002). As much of the advice was based on their personal experiences teaching Jones’ work, which most of their students had been unfamiliar with, this foundation formed the basis for their approach. Two of the basic questions that they sought to address were: why were the works of Jones not taught more in universities and what might be the best approaches to introducing them to students, particularly if they had little or no understanding of Fantasy tropes and/or her writing style? Overall, the consensus was reached that those aspects which make her writings unique and inspiring – the destabilisation of genre conventions, nonlinear narratives, and open-ended conclusions – are the opposite of works such as J. K. Rowling’s writings, which conform more to popular expectations of the genre, and can make it difficult to teach. These expectations arise from both the widespread cultural awareness of stories like the Harry Potter (1997-2007) series but also as a result, according to this panel, of a stigma associated against Fantasy within the religious American South. With this based so much on culture, works which actively undermine such expectations like Jones’ are going to be met with resistance and to successfully teach them requires addressing these elements directly. White, for instance, used Linda Hutcheon’s theory of the knowing/unknowing audience from her work Theory of Adaption (2012) to explain the circumstances of her classroom. This emphasised that encouraging understanding depends on providing context as the unknowing audience lacks the familiarity with the genre to identify the allusions, tropes, and intertextuality found with the text. Much of Jones’ humour and structural approaches are layered with references, and she can assume a level of expertise in her readership, especially in works like Fire and Hemlock (1985) and Hexwood (1993) (her acknowledged hardest works). From this panel’s perspective, one should not assume that students understand even supposed simple concepts such as Fairy Tale tropes, and without this understanding, these novels could be viewed as bland, possibly even confusing.

The other keynote speakers focused on illustrating the power of Jones’ imagination, the challenges of translating her novels, and her work as creative inspiration. The first keynote on Saturday was Isabel Armstrong (Birkbeck, University of London, UK), who also launched a collection of her sister’s poetry. Her speech entitled “My Sister’s Imagination” focused on sharing stories from their own life which reflected her sister’s approach to Fantasy and writing. One memorable example of this was when Jones’ had her sisters and herself ‘discover’ a door to another world. Their youngest sister Ursula chose a wardrobe, but Jones chose a patch of sunlight on the wall opposite the window. This story illustrated both her self-confidence and the fantastical orientation of the world around her; for her, Isabel said, “fantasy is the other side of reality – reality the other side of fantasy.” What would have been a binary opposition is blurred within her fiction. This was reaffirmed as Armstrong concluded her talk with some excerpts from her letters with her sister. One exemplary letter was to both Isobel and Tony Meyer and addressed their criticism of a draft of Everard’s Ride (1995). Within it, Jones makes a defining observation on an important element of Children’s Fiction. “Children’s books,” she wrote, “should both satisfy and stimulate [a feeling of somewhat yearning depravation]. It is the demonstration of the consequence of childhood fantasy life. I think it is appropriate here because it is also associated with the incomprehensible separateness of adult life.” For Jones, the separateness and difference that her characters feel within their situations gives voice to the otherness that readers may feel about themselves and might continue to feel as they become adults; her fiction is, therefore, a safe space for personal reflection.

The next keynote speaker was Gili Bar-Hillel (Independent Scholar, Israel), a Hebrew translator known for her work on both Jones’ work and the Harry Potter series, and she spoke at the conclusion of Saturday. Her speech, entitled “‘There’s Nothing Magic about Words’: Finding the Words to Translate Diana Wynne Jones,” explained some of the challenges that translating her work presents. For her, translating was not a one-to-one linguistic correlation; meaning of words and social context are different from nation to nation although not every word has a parallel. A prime example was the word ‘widdershins,’ an archaic word meaning counterclockwise, and was a significant plot point within Charmed Life (1997); the main characters did not know what it meant at first, and it was a funny moment within the narrative as they tried to figure it out. If it was translated one-to-one, this humour would be lost as there is a common Hebrew word for ‘counterclockwise.’ To correct this, she and her team had to invent a word in Arabic to maintain the spirit and linguistic meaning of the scenes.

Robin Stevens (Independent Scholar, UK), author of the Murder Most Unladylike (2014-current) series, concluded the conference by speaking on how she has been inspired as a writer by Jones’ work. Like Bar-Hillel, she began by sharing her background. Because she was an only child and lived at an Oxford campus, her best friends were characters from books; they were real to her, and it was this ‘realness’ that she tried to impart within her own writings though her novels are Detective Fiction rather than Fantasy. She stated that she shared some themes with her literary hero. One of the most evident is that danger and uncertainty within her works have weight. People within her novels want her characters dead, and not everything will always work out. It was these elements and others like them which help her recreate the ‘realness’ that meant so much to her as a child.

Summary of Panels: The Conference’s Heart

The traditional conference panels were diverse in both their subjects and their represented disciplines. The first panel I attended was “Nationality and Borders,” whose focus was on expounding upon the ways nations and space are presented and organised within Jones’ works. It was made up of three panelists: Leah Koch-Michael (University of Southern Denmark, Denmark), myself (Bangor University, UK), and Nat Case (Geography Scholar, USA). Koch-Michael set the tone for this panel by expanding upon the Northern European influences and historical references found within the world-building of the Dalemark Quartet (1975-1993). As mentioned before, Jones is known for her layered texts, and using her understanding of archeology, Koch-Michael expounds upon those layers within this paper, providing in-depth context of Baltic myths/cultures and how they relate to those in Dalemark. I spoke on the significance and emotional weight attached to the linguistic and national borders encountered by the characters within her work and that this is reflective of Jones’ own ‘otherness’ especially in relation to the nation of Wales. I argued that the theme of liminality within her work exemplifies the de-familiarisation of the familiar (for example, home), which is especially apparent in characters’ relationship to Wales and Welsh culture. Case concluded the panel through an examination of the maps, or the lack thereof, in the front of some editions of Jones’ novels. In Geography, maps provide a readable shorthand for relaying the spatial organisation of a place; their lack, for him, highlighted the meaning of ‘being lost’ within the landscape alongside the characters while questioning the significance of when a map is included in a book.

The next panel was entitled “A Good Hiding?” and focused on the concealed aspects or identities found within the works of Jones. Rebecca Vaccaro (USA) explored the use of hidden identities within Hexwood, one of Jones’ more complex novels, and postulated that the surprise reveal of the characters’ actual identities as mythical heroes forces the reader to reexamine the significance of their portrayal throughout the rest of the novel. The effect of this reveal is based on its timing, as it occurs at the novel’s end; thus the narrative and cultural baggage of its Arthurian heroes, instead of giving referential or introductory context to the reader,  destabilises the characters’ context that was built through the rest of the narrative, especially as they do not act in accordance to the expectations of their myths. Veronica Wagner (UK) centered her paper around understanding Jones’ magical systems within her works in relation to the spectrum, or in her words ‘wastebasket,’ of Western esoteric traditions. Referencing the works of Wouter Hanegraaff, she defined esotericism as anything not accepted within the category of rational knowledge (such as magic, mesmerism, Freemasonary, etcetera), and argued that magic within Jones’ work reflected the general esoteric concepts of concealment, revelation, and initiation. Avi Naftali (USA) expounded upon one of the most prolific motifs within all of Jones’ works: Arthur/Merlin’s burial and reemergence. Contending that this basic Arthurian story shape not only reoccurs but evolves throughout Jones’ canon, Naftali explores the various ‘twitches’ of this story by putting them into six categories: literal burial, burial of memory, burial through fragmentation, inanimate burial, displaced burial, and emblematic burial.

My final panel on the Saturday was “Wiles and Wisdom,” which only had two speakers: Caitlin Herrington (Federation University, Australia) and Caroline Webb (The University of Newcastle, Australia). Herrington, who joined the panel via Skype, explored the blurring of princess, priestess, and mother archetypes within the depictions of women in Jones’ fiction. Identifying the social pressures and prejudices which define traditional stereotypes of women in fiction, she claimed that Jones avoids using these not only by creating diverse female characters but by also ‘centering’ them in her narratives. Webb reflected on how circumstances both socially and internally motivates the character of Polly in Fire and Hemlock (1985) to respond in a guilty or ashamed manner and how this frames her actions throughout the novel. For Webb, ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ are different emotional reactions within the narrative, and these differences are reflected within their effects on Polly. While guilt (‘the recognition of having done wrong’) acts as a motivating force, shame (‘the feeling that one lacks value’) serves to halt their forward progress; this distinction is revealed through both the character’s actions and, more significantly, their reactions to the world around them.

Both of the panels on Sunday emphasised the implications – physically, socially, and even nationally – of Jones’ approaches to world-building. The first – “Built Environments” – addressed the concepts upon which Jones structured and organised her worlds. Kathleen Jennings (Independent Scholar, Australia) illustrated the importance of jurisprudence within Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) with a spotlight on its presentation of transactions and ‘contract law.’ Comparing the contracts within Howl to English Common-law practice, Jennings maintained that through this lens the novel becomes a narrative/world structured through transactions, including how they function, what their terms are, and how they are broken. Karina Coldrick (Independent Scholar, Ireland) explained the ways in which functions found within Physics act as foundational concepts for how the worlds operate within the novels, predominantly as they relate to parallel worlds. Highlighting the sometimes-conflicting theories such as the double slit experiment and ‘Many Interacting Worlds hypothesis,’ she reasoned that Jones’ consistent, simplified explanation behind her parallel worlds can serve as an introduction to the complex theories found within Physics. Catherine Olver (University of Cambridge, UK), through the lenses of geocriticism, explained that Jones’ descriptive use of the five senses in the Dalemark Quartet not only makes the writing more vivid but allows one to be orientated within the space geographically, temporally, and culturally. Drawing on such critics as Bertrand Westphal – who discusses the concepts of geocriticism, multifocalisation, and stratigraphic depth – she examined the ways in which sensory descriptions and information both facilitate one’s understanding of a given world and, more significantly, build them through one’s engagement with the space.

“Wizarding Worlds” was the final panel and the theme was the social and cultural implications found within the magical worlds of Jones’ novels. Aishwarya Subramanian (Newcastle University, UK) explored the implications of imperialist imagery found throughout the Chronicles of Chrestomanci (1977-2006) as exemplified by Chrestomanci Castle being a ‘stately’ or ‘country’ house. Referring to criticism by Mendlesohn, Subramanian claimed that the associations between primary and secondary worlds mimic imperialist relationships between colony and coloniser, and a close examination of the books of Chrestomanci reveals these relations of power. Erin Horáková (University of Glasgow, UK) illustrated the ways in which Jones’ novels present and conform to “constructions of Englishness,” such as boarding schools, tea and cakes, and even Doctor Who references, and what might be the broader repercussions of this. More specifically, she considered the importance of the reader’s personal experience as well as the layers of narrative development in creating a hyper-reality of Britain which can be viewed with both “cultural cringe and longing.” Gili Bar-Hillel (Independent Scholar, Israel) compared the ‘wizard’ representations within Jones’ works to FrogKisser by Garth Nix (2017) and Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman (2016) and presented the concept of ‘wizards’ as an inherited ‘job’ with stereotypical frameworks of identification. Bar-Hillel discussed these frameworks by first examining the differences between a role and an individual wizard, and second, the different situational positions wizards hold within Jones’ work (typified within Howl’s Moving Castle). She concluded that, within the fantastical framework of Jones’ canon, wizards are an integral part of the community.

This was only a small part of the papers presented at the conference, and it is an even smaller aspect of the weight and significance found within Jones’ works. This is not only due to her large body of writings, but also all those writers and academics who were inspired by them. For myself, I stumbled upon Witch Week (1982) in a Borders Books as a teenager and Jones has been my favorite author ever since. From her, my love of Fantasy developed as I read about multi-worlds, nine-lived enchanters, and griffins attending magical schools. Even my academic interests in liminality and British borderlands grew out my love of her work. Because of this, one thing that I took away from this conference was that obviously, due to the layers within her narratives, there is always something new to read.

All of the papers presented here (and more besides) are on sale as a digital ebook. All of the proceeds will be used towards future conferences.


Amber Hancock is originally from Chino, California, and received her BA and MA in English from California State University Fullerton in 2008 and 2014 respectively. She is currently working on her PhD at Bangor University in North Wales, and her focus is on exploring different kinds of border representation across prose genres within Late Modern/Contemporary Welsh and Scottish-based, English-language literature.

Twitter: Amber R@amadaun777

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