Stopping for a Spell, Diana Wynne Jones

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Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.

Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.

 

Chair Person (originally published 1989)

* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.

* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)? :/ Whatever floats your boat.

Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.

Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!

* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.

* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.

* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’

And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.

This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.

* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.

* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.

 

The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)

*   This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).

* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?

* These children’s ages are super vague.

* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?

* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.

* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.

 

Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)

* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.

* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.

* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.

* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?

* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.

* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.

Papers in Search of Good Homes

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I have only made a conference paper into an article once, and am currently in the process of doing it a second time. I’ve realised I have.. several that needed to make this transition. Scrapping the ones I hate too much to do anything with, there are still quite a few that I think could go somewhere… but where? I’m keeping an eye out for calls, but please let me know if you’ve any thoughts!

* Enchanting the World

 Horace Walpole sought via literary and material projects to bring the fantastic into the mundane, and to dwell in that altered reality. The writer of The Castle of Otranto and the builder of Strawberry Hill, Walpole was an originating figure in both gothic revival architecture and gothic literature. But even as Walpole was collecting artifacts and building a utopic, ‘gloomth’y retreat from modernity and the city (and, as a queer man, crafting spaces for himself outside of heteronormative relations), he was the PM’s son, serving in Parliament, and, via his extensive correspondence, participating actively in Society. Networking is as much the source of Walpole’s legacy as any discrete accomplishment; it was the means by which he founded genres. I’d like to propose that Walpole’s activities are not strangely juxtaposed, but in fact fundamentally intertwined.

 Using his letters, fiction, and art criticism, as well as Brooks’ The Gothic Revival, Pearce’s On Collecting and Rose’s The Pleasure of Ruins (with a little Burke, Sontag and Benjamin), I’ll discuss the centrality of place and materiality to Walpole’s conception of the fantastic. Even as Walpole’s seemingly disparate projects are actually interdependent, his aesthetic of bright, cheerful, ‘gloomy-warmth’ and literary camp positions charm at the core of the gothic. We normally view the gothic sublime and charm as diametrically opposed (threatening wilderness vs cosy domestic space), and the real-world spaces these aesthetics relate to as similarly at odds. I aim to trouble that unstable binary and illuminate the connections between the canny and the uncanny, the foundational kinship between Walpole’s dream-worlds and his real one.

* Inhumanity and Enchantment in Fairy Tales

In “The Fairies in Tradition and Literature” (1967), folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs presents several cases of humans being pulled into fairy mounds, threatening or benign. Some appear as ghosts, having been killed by the experience or having died before coming to the mound as spirits. Others are alive, but now too altered to ever leave. Still others manage to return to the mundane world. Of those that escape, some can lead normal lives, and some have been too changed to survive. The last may experience depression and madness–hunger for the lost world, restless suffering under an incomplete and irreversible change. But what precisely have these people been altered or changed into? Generally, how human are people in the altered states ofenchantment?

Fairy tales are often the stories of liminal encounters, and the people in fairy tales are threatened with change, or promised eucatastrophic alteration. Out of my wider research on the many roles charm (broadly defined) plays in fairy tales and folklore, I’d like to distill a discussion of the transformations wrought by various forms ofenchantment. We’ll determine what underlying logics organize the relationship between enchantment and humanity in these stories, and what forms any ‘violation’ of one’s humanity may take. This discussion can help us access the ways Western fairy tales define the porous boundaries between humanity and the inhuman. We’ll close with a look at what more modern authors working with the literary legacy of the fairy tale have done with enchanted states, and ask whether their treatments perpetuate, build on or reject the fairy tales’ theories of the enchantment process.

* The Afterlives of Christopher Chant: Handing Down Formative Trauma in the Chrestomanci Series

Diana Wynne Jones claimed she was influenced by Jung, but her Chrestomanci series seems more in conversation with Freudian thought, specifically Laplanche’s seduction theory. This paper will use Laplanche’s framework to examine the series’ conception of child-rearing as cyclical transmissions of trauma from reluctant fathers to reluctant sons. The paternal relationships here aren’t along genetic lines, but along the lines of magic users. De Witt (and/or Uncle Ralph) is effectively Christopher’s father, Christopher Cat’s, and Cat ‘fathers’ Tonio. These men resent their ‘sons’ for shameful weaknesses they see in their own pasts: the traumas of their rearing. These traumas linger and play large roles in the formation of these men’s identities.

Farah Mendlesohn has helpfully noted how often children distrust adults in YA, but I believe this series enacts a more nuanced and interesting series of failures, and supports Laplanche’s contention that such transmissions of trauma are at the heart of child-rearing. Jones’ work is brave and somewhat rare in describing this aspect of relations between children and adults in texts intended for young readers. The series itself may also serve to enact this trauma-transmission dynamic. This inquiry opens up a consideration of magical training situations in terms of the grammar of the Freudian family romance, and may also enrich our broader considerations of the role of family in Jones’ work.

* Epithalamion: Dangerous Domesticity in the Wimsey Series 

Popular discussions of Golden Age detective fiction often make gestures to the disjunction between peaceful, pastoral settings and murderous subject matter. These juxtapositions implicitly postulate a stable, rural domesticity that functions as a painted backdrop. But home-making is always work–and preventing a home from denigrating and sliding into chaos requires constant vigilance. This paper investigates the complex, fraught ways Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey series does domesticity. Through examining the novels’ domestic spaces–Peter’s flat, Talboys, Shrewsbury, the scenes of crimes, country houses–we can explore what work these depictions accomplish beyond furnishing instrumental clues, as well as the constitutive role of commodity fetishism/collecting and the interplay of domesticity and class in these novels. 

How is Sayers’ domesticity an evolution of other eras’ and genres’ methods of thinking about and portraying the domestic? What separates it from the domesticity of, for example, a ‘tec story’ like Dickens’ Bleak House, or from the home-making of contemporaries such as Wodehouse or Tolkien? Rather than writing about a fuzzy, undefined present, Sayers insists on cataloging structures in flux via her use of detail and almost constructing a historical fiction of the present. What does this quite unusual use of hyper-local, domestic time accomplish? What can Sayers’ successful homes, as depicted in the early Wimsey books (Peter’s flat), Busman’s Holiday (wherein Harriet Vane says a world of interesting things about class, national identity, urban vs rural tensions and the domestic when she comments ‘I have married England’), Thrones, Dominations, and the WWII propaganda letters between members of the Wimsey family tell us about what is at stake in all this home-making? This examination of a particular series should open up a more general conversation about the temporal and physical spaces that, at least as much as the murders, define Golden Age production and continue to draw readers to it.

* From Christian Charisma to the Vampire: the Evolution of the Sorcerous Seducer from the Medieval to the Early Modern Era (thinking possibly about http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=f596bfc80ffd59af42abf622d&id=0e15467487, but vv unsure)

Charm is a concept that combines unearthly (sometimes magical) power derived from inhuman sources with a contrastingly earthy ability to viscerally attract others, sexually or simply by force of personality. Over the course of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, the figure of the Charming Man passed through the three key stages, which represent evolutions of the type. These are individuals imbued withChristian Charisma, Faustian sorcerer figures, and vampires (in their various incarnations).

While the stages I identify have been studied in their own right, their relationship to charm and that concept’s evolution has not been properly explicated. Thus the connections between these instances of a recurring trope have remained obscure. Most previous work on, for example, vampires, such as Nina Auerbach’s seminal Our Vampires, Ourselves, has nodded to folklore and proceeded to focus on texts from the 19th century onwards, without realizing that the persistent appeal of the vampire is not necessarily rooted in and bounded by vampirism itself. Rather, vampires represent an instantiation of a shifting-yet-persistent constellation of ideas about masculinity, supernatural and temporal power, sexuality, and mesmeric triumphs over reason and consent.

We can trace a firm, cohesive lineage from Charisma in the sense of a divinely-conferred “ability to penetrate the neighbour to the bottom of his heart and spirit… and the gift to help him to freedom” (Ernst Wilhelm Benz) to sorcerers such as Faustus and Prospero, and thence to the vampires of 18th century poetry (with a gesture towards the incipient Vampyre of Polidori). In asking what the shifts and continuities in this lineage mean, we allude to the larger question of our changing relationship to the concept of charm. The evolution of the Sorcerous Seducer is part of a larger, cyclical pattern of the sublimation of magical thinking and the persistent return of that which is repressed.

* The Fantastic Modernism of G.K. Chesterton (probably going to offer Fantastika, http://www.fantastikajournal.com/1st-special-edition-issue.html)

EXCERPT:

In March, I attended “The New Modernist Studies in America”, a postgraduate seminar at Queen Mary. In its own words, the seminar focused on “the ways in which the field of modernism has shifted and transformed in recent years, to some degree becoming co-opted by, and melding with, postcolonialism and what used to be called postmodernism” (though the content of the seminar left me with a different opinion as to who was swallowing who). As a non-specialist, my knowledge of these transformations lacks sophistication, but the totalizing Gesamtkunstwerk proposed by the seminar discomforted me, and indeed seemed in direct contradiction to modernism’s historical challenge to the totalizing grand narrative.

This vision of a modernism that stretches from the Edwardian era to the present seems, for all its discussion of multiple modernisms, to remove spaces for the consideration of ‘subaltern’ authors and to further enshrine the canon of European High Modernists in a broader context. It refuses an ending: modernism is not a historical moment that can be evaluated, but a never-ending disassociation. Twentieth century and current work can only be considered and valued insofar as it is in conversation with a modernism dominated by Joyce, Eliot and Woolf.

The non-modernist dimensions of works claimed for modernism are thus academically neglected. In this particular seminar, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has strongly-felt roots in the Victorian realist tradition and an obvious affiliation with speculative fiction, was unreservedly claimed for the modernist team. It would be wrong to say there’s nothing modernist about The Unconsoled, but I believe that Ishiguro’s work yields just as fruitfully to other forms of interpretation. Unfortunately, these avenues are foreclosed by a dogmatic view of the literary production of the twentieth century as the story of modernism (at least as far as concerns the literary production worth talking about).

Work that is not arguably modernist but that falls within the ‘golden period’ of modernism has no proper academic home. Where there are a thousand dedicated Joyceans, ‘golden age’ non-modernist work is studied erratically, if at all. An expansive modernism pushes the things it can’t absorb into the margins: things like fantasy and, relatedly, writers like G.K. Chesterton. I’d like to use his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to address this component of our prompt:

“Are certain ontologies, aesthetic strategies, approaches to character and subjectivity, ethical situations, or political concerns peculiar to modernism and fantasy?”

I would ask whether it is fair to claim that fantasy and modernism’s strategies and political/ethical concerns are de facto or even generally different. If a popular hierarchy of valuation holds that modernism is a superior mechanism for aesthetic experimentation and political/ethical essaying (which I believe it would be pointless to deny), are the foundations of this judgment legitimate?

* All Your Bastards Rising: Conditioning Illegitimacy in Transformative Fiction

MA Thesis (17k? Because I was younger when I wrote this, it’ll need cleaned up, and I could see it losing a few thousand words. But not the 9k necessary to make it hit the OTW cut-off.)

No formal abstract exists, so I suppose I’ll c/p a little bit:

Whether or not fanfiction’s detractors are conscious of it, their anxiety and the terms of its expression derive from a long intellectual tradition. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar speak of “an implicitly or explicitly patriarchal theory of literature” 7

which usefully illuminates the argument’s context. “In Patriarchal Western culture, therefore, the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power…”(Gilbert & Gubar, 6). The air of wounded horror or patronizing moralism that suffuses these public repudiations of ‘illegitimate’ creation thus becomes explicable. It’s not just the integrity of authors’ own creations at stake. If authorship is an activity rather than a select class, performable and, to a degree, masterable by anyone given practice and certain socioeconomic opportunities, then the Authority of Authorship and the patriarchal pride associated with creation are at risk.

What is it to, as Hobbs says, “pretend to be creating a story”? As I hope to demonstrate, fanfiction does all the work traditional literature does. It has, both as a process and as a product, all the claim traditional literature has on validity and artistic merit. Thus, though it must include related elements in order to make its points, the matter of this paper is not a vindication of the rights of fanfiction. This has been capably achieved by refutations of Hobb’s essay on fanfiction (and similar pieces) by people working within fandom, who argue that fanfiction “viewed critically, easily holds up to the original work and, in some cases, does it one better.”8 I am instead primarily interested in an investigation of the arguments marshalled against the validity of fanfiction, both as artistic work and as a means of interacting with media, and an attempt to determine the sources of such arguments’ motive forces.

Why isn’t fanfiction popularly or academically believed to be literature, and what specifically about it does not cohere with our criteria for such validation? Is fanfiction by its nature incapable of achieving equality with its parent-canon or with other original work? What does it mean to support this position or to find it problematic? What do such stances reveal about our conception of the literary and legitimacy?


*
“Do You Speak For This Planet?”: Doctor Who as a Dialogic National Epic (MA paper: again, would need to substantially bring up to date)

Excerpt:

As Doctor Who changes and evolves, it provides multiple (and sometimes conflicting) responses to issues, negotiating conflicting and changing ideas about English identity, English vs. Britishness, and related considerations, including inextricable, uniquely English or British performances of class, gender, race, and post-colonial and political positioning. The text has, at various times, positioned itself as a document of the mainstream/a shared site of cultural signification, and as marginal/in political or cultural opposition. If Doctor Who is not immediately recognisable as a national epic, that is only because we are not yet accustomed to the transformations of dialogic post-modernity on the seemingly static constructions of the ‘national’, the ‘epic’ and the ‘national epic.’

It would, however, be misleading to speak of Doctor Who as though it were a national epic from the moment it began. It took time for the programme to sketch out its mythology and parameters. Pinning down the moment it became a national epic is something of a Sorites paradox/parable of the heap, and not an ideal point of entry into how it functions as an epic. We can instead discuss Doctor Who as a dialogic national epic by tracking the Doctor’s development into an ever-evolving, quintessentially British hero.

* DIY-Culture as an Anti-Capitalist Endeavour? DIY Craft and its Juxtapositions with the Corporate (MA paper, same caveats)

Excerpt (forgive the clunky intro, it was what they wanted):

In order to examine DIY craft, particularly its sites and modes of interaction with the corporate, the first section of this paper will interrogate the definition of DIY culture formulated by Amy Spencer in DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. Spencer conceives DIY practices as “translations” of unifying anti-corporate ideals, and consequently valorises the DIY practitioner as an anti-establishment figure. This paradigm is based on a simplistic binary opposition between DIY and the corporate, which I will argue is inadequate to describing DIY practice.

In the second section, I will use the Cath Kidston brand’s reliance on ‘consumer-producers’ to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between DIY craft and corporate modes of production. This analysis of the Kidston brand will serve as a synecdoche. With it, we can allude to the myriad of reasons people engage in DIY practice, many of which are wholly unconnected with Spencer’s anti-capitalist ideology.

From this consideration of the interaction between DIY and the corporate, the paper’s third section will examine the DIY ethos of anti-capitalist purity as a construction of privilege, insufficiently considered, which causes real harm to female DIY craft practitioners via the Etsy Ghetto effect.

In the final section I will explore the relationship of DIY to the corporate in light of Autonomist Marxist thought and Olga Goriunova’s work on “open content”. This will contextualize and reframe ‘selling out’ and ‘appropriation’ struggles, clarifying the ways in which these struggles are endemic to late capitalism.

To conclude, given these questions and the comparative paucity of writing on DIY, I must return to the question’s components: ‘writing a history’, ‘key junctures’ and ‘meaning as culture,’ to address methodology. Do Spencer and others engaging in scene-documentation have any responsibility to the movements themselves, and the people working in them? We will glance at a parallel question in the history of exploration and archaeology.

* “That Graceful Charm Which Lingers in Every Little Tasteful Work of Woman’s Hands”: Consuming Femininity in Dickens (submitted somewhere, can’t say whether it’ll get in)

Charm, a slipperier and less obvious attribute than beauty, has long been a vital component of  literary descriptions of women. It has described and coded their embodied physicality, their gendered identity, and ultimately their sexual appeal. Lewis’ The Monk uses ‘charms’ as a  euphemism for female genitalia. Dickens calls charm the defining characteristic of “female society”, and curiously notes its absence “where the lady of the house [is] a mere animated  doll.” Yet there has been relatively little academic attention paid to the linkages between  charm and constructions of femininity, or indeed to charm as a broader concept. This article would interrogate charm as an aesthetic mode, which shifts and develops over time (from totems to twee), yet always remains tied up with the feminine.  It would examine connections between charm, models of femininity and the marriage market (perhaps the ultimate realisation of consumable gender) in 19th century novels, particularly those of Dickens. 

In so doing, I’d like to look at how these novels stage male consumption of femininity: not just of beauty, or straightforwardly of sexuality (or even exactly of the prospect thereof), but of women’s (constructed) gendered essence. Via these novels, 19th century and contemporary readers consumed and consume media constructions of femininity, the literary idea of women. What is it to watch men watch women, and how do these novels involve and implicate their readers? Consider also the title (from Nicholas Nickleby), ‘every little tasteful work of woman’s hands’, and the material cultures that construct gender in these novels. Femininity here arises from labor, the graceful execution of ‘tasteful work’. But what consumptions does this emotional and productive labor itself involve? What do Kate Nickleby, Fanny Squeers, Tilda Price or Madeline Bray need, materially, to perform femininity in this way, or what lacunae cause them to fail to? Who is consuming the tasteful work of woman’s hands, and how?

Using the work of Woolf, Freud and Rose Macaulay, I will interrogate what can be gleaned from Dickens’ definition of charm as a precipitate of women’s “native grace and true  gentility of manner” in light of Dickens’ contradictory associations of charm with  nostalgia/novelty, earnestness/falsity, domesticity/public display, and sexual availability/purity-childhood. Long before this Dickensian understanding of the term was  shaped, charm was a potent Middle English word with almost exclusively negative, magical meaning. I will argue that this heritage lingered (and to an extent, still abides) in the term, giving it its witchy or vampiric erotic charge. In the 19th century, this sublimated trace content enabled charm to function as a means of thinking itself-sublimated sexuality. This mechanism was accessible to those who could successfully sublimate the erotic and economic content of courtship or social intercourse. By  thinking about how Dickens curates the relationships between charm, femininity and sexuality, this article opens a necessary consideration of the neglected broader role of charm as a concept in our understanding of representations of women. 

Links, August 13

SFF

DIANA WYNNE JONES
Enchanting Places: Readers and Pilgrimage in the Novels of Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones, FARAH MENDLESOHN
international Diana Wynne Jones covers
Diana Wynne Jones bibliography
Review: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Islands of Chaldea

X-FILES
intermediate size
Return of the X-Files: the truth is … unclear: “So a new X-Files could perhaps happen. Perhaps the real question is: should it? What would it even be about? Since the show’s original 1990s run, reality has caught up with the paranoiac outlook of Mulder: we’re desensitised to amoral governments acting against the interests of their people, been exposed to unsettling conspiracies that go to the heart of the establishment, and have felt the effects of shadowy cabals of financiers and terrorists operating across international borders with impunity. We live in an X-Files world now, and it’s actually rather depressing. Discovering that aliens have been at least partly responsible for how we’ve messed up as a species might actually come as a relief.”

OVER THE GARDEN WALL

“I Make Ends Meet”: Myths and Meanings of “Over the Garden Wall,” Part Two
“Content to Be Slightly Forlorn”: Myths and Meanings of “Over the Garden Wall,” Part Three
“The Haunted Ruins of Night”: Myths and Meanings of “Over the Garden Wall,” Part Four
Why You Need To Watch “Over The Garden Wall”

WELCOME TO NIGHTVALE
The 42 Stages Of “Welcome To Night Vale” Addiction
the level of backlash WTNV and its writers have gotten for casting Will Wheaton, a straight actor, as Earl Harlan, a (most likely) bisexual character.

Puss in Boots, Diana Wynne Jones

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I like this innovative presentation of a short story. One pound for this nice little thing. It’s a good idea, I wonder if it paid? I don’t know the original story that well, so can’t comment on Jones’ adaptive choices. If DWJ is good at illustrating the whole of a personality, she’s also good at a different form of characterization that derives from reactions to situations and events. Macro vs micro? Pacy, round incident and dialogue–a great ‘fleshing out’, and very simple too.

I also like the way this retells a fairy tale without–an obnoxious, sophomoric, ungenerative 90s comics need to scream ‘fuck you dad!!’ and grimdark the thing? Sooo maaaany fairy tale retellings try and ‘punk’ the text without really *getting* the darkness already embedded in the text. Not that this “Puss in Boots” is particularly redolent of tension between the canny and the un–but Jones embodies the story in a way that’s fuller and more satisfying than it might have been if she’d chosen to buck the text without some real reason to do it, some objective such fighting works in the service of. Fighting for fighting’s sake isn’t terribly interesting or generative, and often seems to reify rather than destabilize structures. Like what Ethan Robinson says about the fail condition of subversion being reification.

The Fanghorn illustrations are fine, but don’t particularly do much for me. Weird because they seem very touted on the back cover and the title page, like that’s a thing I should have come for.

Wild Robert, Diana Wynne Jones

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Wild Robert is quick and sweet. DWJ draws characters so quickly and so well–I kind of hate her. She has this sense for mannerism and personal history and attitude that feels almost like what good fanfic writers can do, but without a source text, and even for secondary characters, and instantly. That’s sort of Dickensian as well.

As usual the ending is like, ‘what’. You read DWJ and come away angry. Where is the rest of this book. I mean I can GUESS what happens and maybe DWJ feels that’s as good as writing the ending. I was thinking today about how there’s something tragic about too neat and definitive an ending–the way it forecloses the possibility of story, the sort of tragic structure of ends, the way things must now go one way you can have no imaginative part in, that allows for no branchings-off. Gili Bar-Hillel* said something about the logic of DWJ’s endings at the Seven Stories conference, about their tactical refusal of neatness (I was EXHAUSTED so I don’t perfectly remember her argument), and now I sort of agree with her more than I did at the time, even while I still think–DWJ’s endings could be edited to something ‘satisfying’ and maybe should have been? They’re like little wounds at the ends of the texts. And sometimes DWJ tries TOO hard and ends up with this sort of over-determined, superfluous ending that somehow still has these problems–like a cliff hanging over the sea, where the base has been eaten out by waves.

There’s an interesting portion of Wild Robert where some rowdy teens are transmuted into pastoral nymphs and fauns and set to run riot in the woods. Both the heroine, Heather, and I were discomforted by this–I’m a bit worried about er, sexuality and consent, and I don’t think the book means to allay my fears there. It’s for younger readers, sure–but also I don’t think the book necessarily shies from the possibility that this will go badly, that these teens will do things in these forms that their waking selves will half-remember with fear or regret. Robert–might not understand the modern ethical reading of what he’s done. I guess what the book crystalizes there is the uneasy relationship that always exists between magic and consent.

I think the ending of the book sort of postulates a romantic future for Heather and Robert. Heather’s come to understand him and learned how to curb him. Robert’s immediately likable and charming. He needs her. He possibly likes her as herself–he certainly wants to trust and love someone. But I don’t necessarily know quite enough about Heather–I know her reactions to things, but not much about her in an overall sense. I don’t know what Robert has to offer her, and Jones conflates Heather’s maternal, older-sisterly care taking with romantic love, which seems a bit… fuckboi man child? Which Robert is, but he’s also lovely.

Anyway this was a good book and it took me an hourish and I will struggle to focus and NOT binge-read all the DWJ I haven’t had access to while I’m house sitting what is essentially the library of my dreams. …but not that hard.

* [The house I’m sitting at the moment has Hebrew versions of some DWJ books, shelved not together, but with the books I assume they’re translations of. I think Bar-Hillel must have given them to the owner, because I think she translated them and I know the two women know each other. There’s a small, strange pleasure in putting together how something could have happened, that maybe I’m especially live to right now because I’m in the middle of writing a mystery story. Actually, though, I hate clues and am a bad reader of mysteries. I only care who and why and never how. It’s often pretty obvious whodunit because–that’s the shape of the story/the dramatic necessity. Or: it’s not obvious and it’s boring, because there’s no feeling of necessity, and I’m just there for the characters, world, and detective gaze. This doesn’t mean I’m good at clues–the opposite. I find them difficult to focus on and follow. I don’t take much pleasure in ‘solving’ a mystery, and when I do it, I’ve solved the plot rather than followed the clues.]

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones

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Before I read The Islands of Chaldea, I read Aishwarya Subramanian’s review* of the novel, and I heard Ursula Jones, who completed the novel following the death of her sister Diana Wynne Jones, speak at a conference. Thus I knew going in both that this was not peak DWJ, and that I liked Ursula as a story-teller and really wanted her to pull it off.

The former was one of the reasons I wanted to cover Islands of Chaldea relatively early in my reading of the DWJ canon. Chaldea is reminiscent of a stripped-down Power of Three, with a big cast that’s not that thoroughly used. I‘d prefer for my final ‘first time reading this book’ DWJ experience to be a strong one–a good, typical example of the author’s work, rather than this—her final outing. If I were reading chronologically, my last DWJ would be a book that, while still good, cannot help but remind me of the author’s death. I can’t unknow that bibliographic fact. What’s perhaps worse is the way the weakness of the flesh perhaps forces an unwitting testament in the form of the weaknesses of the text. Just before Chaldea, I read DWJ’s immediately antecedent book, Enchanted Glass. It also showed some strain. More, I felt, than Chaldea did, actually.

A year or two ago, I watched a BBC documentary about continuations of Dickens’ unfinished novel, Edwin Drood. The documentary was tied in with the BBC’s continuation!miniseries, and short on discussions of the many, many, many previous attempts to complete the book (or the long, deep history of meta-musings on where Dickens might have been going with this). Instead, it largely consisted of people who’d never heard of fanfiction ‘have I the right?!!?’ing somewhere on a beach (they’d moved on to discussing Jane Austen’s unfinished beach-novel Sanditon) at the thought of touching the work of the artiste!!

People Who Don’t Get Fanfic’s opinions about completing, adapting and continuing literary works are largely useless. Either you understand (with or without a theoretical apparatus) that the author is dead and that the translator has a task, and that you can do:

  1. interesting (pleasurable and competent, or bold and exploratory), or
  2. stupid and exclusively commercial, or
  3. earnest and wrong-headed

things with a continuation/adaptation, and that Dickens was not an unfaltering genius bathed in gold dust who shat great ideas (well he did, but only like, 50% of the time, and the rest is The Chimes), or you don’t. And if you don’t, I have no time for your Mathew Arnold bullshit. It is boring to even make the case about why you are obviously wrong.

Long story short, I am down with continuations. I just wish publishers didn’t value the mystique of the author and the single vision of the text to the extent that they apparently believe the public can only be interested in traditional finished novels that present themselves like ‘just another DWJ book, but with an additional name on the cover for some reason.’

The worst-case adaptation scenario is probably that of the Sayers estate. Convinced no one would want to read the unaltered, half-finished final Wimsey book Thrones, Dominations, they had Jill Paton Walsh render up a substantially-edited (to its detriment) version of the first half of the novel (i.e. the half that Sayers had finished and abandoned), and wed it to a technically poor (and ideologically gross) continuation of her own. This really misreads the Sayers fanbase. I think they’d been quite happy (perhaps happier) just to have the notes and fragments of Sayers’ work, or to have the option of buying an affordable ‘scholars’ version’–or at least to get an appendix with that information in with the continuation as released.

Maybe an unfinished book would have put off general-interest mystery readers, but I’d argue that the estate has already been mismanaged to the extent that, while Sayers’ contemporary Agatha Christie is phenomenally popular, a good 90% of casual browsers don’t know what the fuck a Wimsey is. Jim from Milton Keynes probably isn’t going to buy Thrones, Dominations and be pissed it’s not a straight-up, ready-made mystery novel, because JimyJimJimJim probably isn’t going to ever pick it up. So stop pandering to him and ruining it for the rest of us.

The Chaldea case is nothing like that bad, but ffs, why do publishers think I’m some precious ten-year old who doesn’t know how book-sausage gets made? You don’t need to conceal what’s changed, where the new writer’s taken over. I’d appreciate the information. It would interest me. It wouldn’t put me off. And not just because I’m a scholar–though I’d argue the audience for Sayers, and to some extent DWJ, is already pretty heavily comprised of scholars and like-minded laypeople. It’s like the question of when and what to tell our partners about  our exes. We can debate how we want to convey this information, but I don’t think there’s much point in elaborately pretending you’ve never loved another, etc. What IS it with the ‘resurrection of the body’ preoccupation with the wholeness of the orphaned text?

So: I don’t have beef with continuations. I resent publishing companies’ twee insistence that I will want to read some Potemkin village mock-up of the ‘whole’ story, and can’t handle the orphaned Bakhtinian text.

I am interested in where the switch-over between authors happens (Ursula’s afterword and DWJ’s composition style indicate that it was a pretty clean switch, and that Ursula had neither an outline nor notes to guide her), but emphatically not in that ‘where were we abandoned by the hand of the perfect master and left with some impostor?!’ kind of way so characteristic of those bloody Edwin Drood documentary opiners and their ilk.

I have two options for where I think this clean break might have been:

  1. pg. 209ish, the hot air balloon lifting off, or
  2. circa pg. 230, with the heroes getting shoved into the captive prince’s rooms.

On page 230, we get this sentence:

“It must by then have been mid-morning and the sun blazed in through a dozen tall windows.”

That’s– the wrong rhythm? We at least need a comma after ‘morning’. The whole sentence feels not-quite-right. Up until that point I’d had a creeping sensation of ‘maybe the writer’s changed?’, but right there it crystallized into conviction.

It’s difficult judgment call, in that there isn’t a sharp quality drop. I just have a growing perception of untidiness. That’s either DWJ’s illness/the Enchanted Glass effect, or it shows a less trained (at least in this form) storyteller at work. Ursula’s not bad, in the portion I’m fairly sure is hers. She’s inventive. But she’s not honed. She reads more like a writer earlier in her career.

Conversely, even though I read Subramanian’s review beforehand, and thus anticipated the book’s final passage with the Lone Cat (which, as Subramanian points out, must be Ursula’s), I still found it unexpectedly moving. In a way, this ending is too ‘good’ for DWJ. Even if Ursula’s ending is more thinly written than the start of the book (not poor, but rough), it’s also too conventionally satisfying, in the way DWJ’s endings never are.  (Some people would say DWJ’s endings are post-modern difficult brilliance that refuses conclusion etc. etc.–I just think DWJ is great at almost everything and can’t write an ending to save her life.)

I feel the copy editing also could have used DWJ’s precision. There’s a ‘maybe’ early on, when someone means ‘may be’, for example. ‘That’s as maybe’. That feels like an editorial flub, and the sort of mistake that people familiar with this kind of writing don’t make so much? ‘I should write and tell them’, I thought. Then I thought about working in a modern publishing house (which I’ve done, for my sins), and I lol’d at the idea that anyone might care/be able or willing to fix that niggle.

Lately the Strange Horizons book club conversations (I’m thinking of Tigerman and Fire in the Unnamable Country, though to a small extent Ombria in Shadow also touched on this) have been circling the question of what it means to talk about the real world via semi-referential ‘representative’ countries. What are the ethics and effects of that decision? Those discussions made me wonder what Islands of Chaldea gains from thinly fictionalizing England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It could easily discuss these places, or timeless fantasy versions thereof, using their real names, but it chooses not to. Did DWJ simply want to dodge the research-burden associated with historical fiction? I don’t even know, really, that it would have been incumbent on her to do and convey a lot of research. People do vague ancient fantasy British Isles all the time (his name? MERLIN!!).

What’s the upshot of whatever Chaldea has to say about these places? Are they just a setting for these characters? The novel and its world-building are at their vaguest when they come to faux-England. Granted, that’s the only section Ursula almost must have written. But if Englishness is here de facto portrayed as an unmarked ‘normal’ state, that’s invoking a familiar and dangerous imperial logic. I just don’t know what the book wants to say about England/Englishness.

In this world, it feels like nothing outside these islands (and the lost Atlantis) exists. (Which could itself say dubious things about the insularity and all-Whiteness of British fantastic imagination.) Then the ending sort of back-justifies unification between England and Scotland, and maybe all four of these ‘islands’. Is this a depiction of the kingdoms as, ideally, separate but equal, and somehow unified, or a retroactive justification/alt origin story for a history of English invasions?

Subramanian wondered whether the Mediterranean element in faux-Wales complicated this schema, and whether it might allude to Roman Britain. That didn’t bother me, actually? I sort of thought that was a nod to French celts and Brittany, and/or the intermarriage that randomly happened with Italy and Wales, which my Welsh flatmate Robin and the works of RTD assure me is important. Yet I’m tempted to just say ‘it’s Brittany.’

The novel leaves me with a lot of questions. What’s with lost Atlantis—what is that there for? Why does our hero’s aunt and traveling companion, the Wise Woman Beck, hate faux!Ireland? Etc., etc. Like Enchanted Glass, Chaldea really isn’t a bad book, but it’s not quite on par with the bulk of the DWJ oeuvre, and there’s much about it that’s frustrating.

* If you need a plot outline of Chaldea, I suggest flicking over to this review and popping back. I mostly want to talk about the novel in terms of other things (how it was constructed and published, continuations of deceased authors’ work), to an audience that’s either read the novel in question or is interested in said other things rather than Islands of Chaldea per se.

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones

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Enchanted Glass isn’t a bad book. Were it not by Diana Wynne Jones (of whom I expect perfection, because she so regularly delivers it that not to do so would be to ignore all precedent), it’s even a book I’d be fairly excited about. The writing is competent, engrossing and pacey. The set up and the characters are well-drawn and interesting.

It’s simultaneously the most disappointing Diana Wynne Jones book I’ve read yet.

The book is really reminiscent of some of her other work. I don’t care much, but I suspect that must bug some people. The ‘distracted’ enchanter Andrew and his field of care and his ward/relation Aiden remind me a bit of Christopher and Cat Chant, down to the paired names. DWJ’s patented poor parent-child relationships come into play, as does the ‘made family’ solution she sometimes deploys (which I am never entirely convinced by, in her work), with its beneficent avuncular, grandparent or master and apprentice-ish relationships. The cast of assistants and villagers is a little Chrestomanci, but maybe primarily in that it seems very DWJ. She has a slightly Dickensian knack with personalities, creating something a little like the ‘cast of thousands’ she mocks in “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream”. The plot arc, with its resolution at the fete, feels somewhat familiar (as does the conceit of the mirror/window/glass)–I want to say Eight Days of Luke, but suspect that’s not quite it. It’s a shame that the things this reminds me of, I like better.

So, what’s not working?

The characters make stupid decisions to make the climax work (why the ever-loving fuck are they at this fete?), which is a common fantasy malady, but not one very typical of the writer. The magic system is naturalistic and under-worked, and while I like the refusal to exposit, it can also be a bit frustrating. I don’t know what magical actions mean in this world, what alternative plot options are possible, what’s behind Andrew’s childhood amnesia–is that just supposed to be Freudian childhood amnesia, writ large? Did I miss something?

Andrew’s grandfather, the previous magic-user in charge of doing murky, unclear things to attain a murky, unclear ‘safety’ for the area he lives in, is presented as a lovely parental figure for Andrew. Then we’re told that he called Andrew’s secretary-cum-fiancée Stashe her father’s “silly little bitch” (p. 274) when she was young. At the end of the book, we’re further told that he slept with a teenage distant relation/daughter of a close friend, sent to live with him briefly while going through a rough patch. The hell? Is the reason his daughter wasn’t close to him something really sinister along these lines? I really don’t think that’s the book’s implication, but it’s where my mind jumps, given this strangeness about him and young women. Was DWJ both ill and thus not at her best and, at this point, so famous no editor pointed out that this sounds a bit like incest/abuse? Because you can have examinations of how abusive fucks can also be decent people or decent parents in other respects, and that’s what makes it harder, that’s what people from outside these backgrounds don’t get–but I don’t feel that’s where we’re going, here.

The relationship between Andrew and Stashe is economically drawn, but doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. I like Stashe! But what’s up with the offhand mentions of Andrew’s former fiancée/grad student? Such relationships can develop and be handled in an above board manner, but in the context of Andrew’s later second engagement with an employee, as well as his grandfather’s inappropriate relationships with young women, it looks odd. Also I wonder what the hell will Stashe and Andrew do/talk about? Couples aren’t a collection of shared hobbies, but Stashe and Andrew seem more like pleasant co-workers who are a bit attracted to one another and should maybe go out for coffee than people who should be getting married right now. It’s a bit hard to be pleased about a relationship you’re not sure is a decent idea yet, which will have a major effect on the life of a child who’s already lost all his other relatives–and the book wants you to be pleased.

The book is tonally awkward. It can’t really decide what age range it’s pitching to. It seems lost in a quite ambiguous time period (I’m thinking about the treatment of technology), and it displays a ‘kids these days with their telly and their bling’ crotchetiness. The last two make DWJ feel tired and dated, a vibe I never get from her otherwise!

The dog-boy thing is last-minute and under-developed. I think I need to know a bit more about the doubles. Not enough happens with the glass, or the chapel. It’s not her richest use of folklore either. The hell is up with Andrew’s vague, revelatory book/view of history? Reminds me of the Machine that they can’t get patented in Little Dorrit.

In true DWJ fashion (but worse than usual), the ending is a lump of ‘…wait what? Is that… over now, or?’

Let me stress: this is a decent book I’d be happy to see coming across my reviewer’s desk (I wish I had a desk, tbh) right now. It’s so freaking readable. DWJ makes it look easy, makes you think this is the standard every book should be performing to. I like the POV-shifting, though I know that bothers some people. I like Stashe, really all the characters. Creepy, funny, good imagery, interesting concept, great small moments in character and setting (The foster family! That coffee! And there again the war between the domestic Stocks!) etc. It’s not the DWJ I’d recommend as conversion-literature, but it’s quite something if this book is your off-day.