Diana Wynne Jones
Doctor of Letters
21 July 2006 - Orator: Professor Patricia Kuwabara
Diana Wynne Jones is an internationally acclaimed storyteller blessed with a powerful and vivid imagination. She weaves expertly crafted fantasies that are adored by children and their parents for their creativity, humour and charm.
Diana’s childhood experiences played a substantial part in shaping the direction of her future writing career. At the onset of World War II, Diana and her sisters Isobel and Ursula were evacuated to the Lake District as very young children. It was here that she had her first encounters with famous authors, notably Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter. However, she did not meet these authors at their best. In the case of Arthur Ransome, she describes how he was so outraged by the noise of children playing on the shore opposite his home that he rowed furiously across the lake to voice his indignation at their presence. Beatrix Potter actually smacked Diana’s younger sister and friend for swinging on her garden gate. These brushes with famous writers were to leave a lasting impression on Diana for they showed that writers are first and foremost ordinary humans with emotions and passions.
Despite these encounters, Diana at the age of eight already held the conviction that she herself would become a writer. Wouldn’t life be simpler if we could all make such momentous decisions at such a young age? One might therefore have expected that Diana was a voracious reader of books as a child, but this was not the case. Circumstances and wartime shortages meant that books were very difficult to obtain. In consequence, the literature-starved Diana compensated by writing her own narratives in old exercise books. She would read these stories aloud for the entertainment of her sisters in the evening hours.
Toward the close of the war, Diana and her family moved to the village of Thaxted in Essex, where her parents were involved in running a conference centre. Thaxted was then a curious place, which seemed to be a magnet for attracting eccentrics from many different walks of life, including artisans, entertainers, witches and those whose politics were far removed from the mainstream. From Diana’s perspective, the villagers of Thaxted and the many visitors that passed through the conference centre were to provide a rich source of inspiration for creating the characters that would later appear in her stories. However, Diana does not draw directly from life, and her stories are not usually autobiographical.
When Diana was older, she earned a place to continue her studies at the Quaker Friends’ School just outside Saffron Walden. Although she excelled at her studies, her school was not accustomed to preparing its students for university entrance. In consequence she was ill prepared for the dragon-like hauteur and interrogation by her university entrance interviewers. However, she persevered and was accepted to read English at Oxford in 1953.
While studying at Oxford, Diana found herself in the enviable position of attending lectures by CS Lewis and by JRR Tolkien. Lewis was a mesmerising lecturer, while Tolkien was not, but both were to impart many wise words about the craft of writing. Diana acknowledges that both authors had a significant influence on her writings.
In 1956, Diana married John Burrow, who as many of you know is Emeritus Winterstoke Professor of English at this University. However, before moving to Bristol, Diana and John had a long academic sojourn at Oxford, where they raised their three sons. Diana devoted this time to raising her children, allowing her writing aspirations to simmer. Although she was not writing full-time, her skills in this direction were being honed in other ways. Reading aloud to her children, Diana finally had the chance to read many of the children’s books that she herself was denied during her own childhood. Moreover, she had a captive audience, which allowed her to gauge their reactions and responses to a variety of tales. She came to realise that her children enjoyed stories containing a blend of fantasy and humour. During this time Diana also read The Lord of the Rings, which many consider to be responsible for establishing the genre of fantasy in the mainstream of modern English literature. After finishing The Lord of the Rings, the seed was planted in Diana’s mind that it was possible to write a full-length fiction novel based on fantasy. Diana’s first novel, Changeover, however, is not a story for children or a fantasy but an entertaining satire about the end of colonial rule in an African country. Changeover was written, in part, as a panacea during a difficult period in her life, which involved the illness of one of her sons. After her sons were grown and attending school, Diana began writing in earnest. The words came flying, and she wrote in rapid succession, Wilkins’ Tooth, Eight Days of Luke, The Ogre Downstairs, Dogsbody and Cart and Cwiddwer.
As a writer, Diana is recognised as one of the first authors to explore the concept of alternative or parallel universes in a children’s story. Although her stories are rooted in fantasy, and sometimes mythology, each parallel universe that she creates is bound by a set of rules, much as the laws of physics define and constrain our life on earth. These limitations are by no means restrictive, but their purpose is to provide a structure within which solutions to dilemmas, often mirroring real human problems, must be resolved – one cannot simply banish problems with the tap of a magic wand. As such, her stories become blueprints for helping children to cope with life.
Diana’s stories also explore everyday “mortal” values. For example, in the Magicians of Caprona, she illustrates the concept of thrift by describing how a family of spell-makers maintains a collection of cardboard horses and a cardboard liveryman, who are magically brought to life only when their services are required. Clearly this is an effective strategy for saving on the cost of room and board in a magical world. Her stories abound with “what if” situations. She believes that it is important for children to explore to their logical conclusion how actions have consequences.
In 1976, John Burrow accepted the Professorship in English at Bristol, so the family moved to Clifton. Diana loves the hills, the winding streets, the buildings and everything that makes up the character of this city. Her indirect observations of the University may also have contributed to one of her recent books, Year of the Griffin, which is set in a wizards’ university confronted with problems suspiciously similar to those that currently beset English universities. During her residence in Bristol, Diana has written over 20 books, and she continues to add to their number. Shortly after moving to Bristol, Diana was awarded the 1977 Guardian Award for Children’s Books. She has gained an international following and has been awarded many prizes for her fiction, too many to list here. In 2004, her novel Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted into a full-length film by the celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
When once asked if she had any advice for aspiring young writers, she responded by saying, “write about ideas that interest you – you can’t expect to maintain a reader’s interest if you yourself are not absolutely riveted and inspired by your own ideas.” Fortunately for her readers, Diana continues to produce inventive and entertaining stories, which are as riveting to us as they must have been to her.
Madame Chancellor, I present to you Diana Wynne Jones, an illustrious member of the great tradition of English fantasy writers, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.