#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

While I frantically prepare a presentation on Diana Wynne Jones for my university’s literary conference, please enjoy an essay on I wrote last year but never posted.

I distinctly remember the sensation of pins, countless pins, all over my body.

“Stand still, Jean.”

The pins held paper shapes to my clothes, and I’m sure my skin.

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

My grandmother and my mother titted and tatted over the pattern and its potential for Sunday best. I stared at the green shag carpet and thought of a great green plain that led to a waterfall there, where my grandparents’ blue comforter ruffled by the floor. To mountains, where the white metal closet door clanged shut as my grandfather got his hat and announced he was taking my kid brother for a drive to the park.

Sure. He gets to go to the park. I have to be a mannequin.

Grandmother lets out a loud arc of a laugh that verges on a bark, but there’s a music to it, too, like an old opera singer.

“Stand up straight, Jean” Mom says.

Grandmother laughs until my scowls subside. The scent of old cigarette smoke clings to her fingers as she removes some pins, HOORAY!…only to re-pin the back paper shape down a bit.


So I take off inside me across the green plains for the white mountains, and wait for life to be not-boring.



Isobel, Diana, and Ursula. Photo from Publisher’s Weekly.

Diana Wynne Jones took the initiative to make her life not-boring. As the eldest of three, she was required to look after her sisters, and occasionally other village children, while her parents ran a conference center where adults could spend a week or weekend to experience some culture. Nine years old, and in charge of cooking and cleaning for two kids younger than she. To entertain them she would write stories, endless stories, since their parents would not allow made-up stories in their meager library.

I, too, made up stories for myself. They rescued me from the boredom endured in fabric shops as my mother and grandmother pondered over fabric costs and pattern catalogues. I could see roads through the patterns, beasts in the shapes. There wasn’t a monster my trusty Pound Puppy Spike and I couldn’t handle.

Except for one.


Diana Wynne Jones’ mother often called her a “clever but ugly delinquent.” Jones and her sisters were never the priority when compared to work, which left the kids to fend for themselves. Often there was no food in the family residence, and if the kids went into the conference center, the cook shrieked at them to get out. The sisters’ garments were often cast-offs from the orphanage while the parents always had proper clothes. Diana’s sister Ursula even knotted her own hair to keep it out of her eyes. It took 6 months for their mother to notice. Sister Isobel was nearly strangled by the neck when they strung her up to fly about like a fairy. God forbid if they got sick; Diana went to school with chicken pox, German measles, scarlet fever and more because their mother insisted all their illnesses were “psychological.” No grown-up noticed them. Knew them. All they had was each other.

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.


time-of-the-ghost-1Published in 1981, The Time of the Ghost is Jones at her most autobiographical: neglected sisters whose lives mirror much of Jones’ childhood accidentally awaken an evil god. Time is not one of her most popular books—I’m not sure if it’s the time-jumping or human sacrifice that get people, but any time I hear of Jones, it’s never over this book. Maybe it’s because of her life story, and people take one look and think, “Yeah, right.” When I look at the nightmares of my own past, I know how friends and family would react to the revelation of the Monster who made them: “Yeah, right.”

It’s a harsh epiphany, realizing one’s “normal” childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of others. Memory darns the past to be presentable to the eye: there. Fit to be seen.

So long as no one looks underneath, and sees the desperate stitches and knots that hold the perception together.

Perhaps this is why I connected to Diana Wynne Jones as fiercely as I did: she pulled the old pain out of her closet, put it on, and stepped out into the world. Sure, it had the dark red glitter of a wicked fantastical god stitched on, but it was still her.

It only took her several decades to do it.

And if she could do it, then God-willing, so can I.



45 thoughts on “#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

  1. Yes you can! And you have, brave lady 🙂 You take your memories an these stories and everything and weave it all together in such a poignant way- many thanks for sharing, as always. (And, Uf, I wasn’t a mannequin often, but I remember the feel of those pins! Thank goodness we didn’t have any fabric stores nearby enough to visit often!)

    Liked by 1 person

      • I almost feel bad that I haven’t tried to sew clothes for my kiddos- they’re missing out on a big life experience here 😉 Though i DID make the big girl’s ninja mask for last Halloween…and remembered why I don’t sew 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have ONE needle, which shocked my mom- ‘only one?!’ It has a spot of honor for emergency mending…
        Um, you have a pink bunny outfit? Or is it Bo’s? And, will there be pictures forthcoming? Sounds like something that should be shared on the internet… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! It was actually a gift from the inlaws when Blondie wasn’t even 1 year old, and they bought it HUGE. It just got moved around in storage so much that we finally found it, realized “Oh crap, we’ve never put anyone in this,” shoved Bash in and it barely fit him, got a picture to prove the costume was used, and now we’ll be getting rid of it…after I fix that tail. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. 🙂 It’s strange–towards the end of her essay collection there are some words from her son, who has a very different recollection of his grandmother and got along very well with her, and for that, he thinks, DWJ “punished” him for using his likeness as a few different jerks in her stories. But that change is something I’ve known about, too: my father’s letters to his parents during his school days were often filled with pleading for just a couple dollars here and there, but they often put any money towards their own social life. When my dad and his brothers were grown with children of their own, however, my grandparents reversed that spending from themselves to their kin. Was there any animosity between my dad and his parents? Not that I caught on. But it was hard to connect the elderly people I knew with the stingy socialites of my dad’s childhood.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amazing how people change as they age. I think of both my grandmothers and how different they were. One inspired me to cook (long after she died), the other taught my sisters to cheat at cards. One grandfather died when I was young and the other was my favourite of the bunch.

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      • Indeed. Even my mom was commenting on some found photos of her own parents, and how carefree they looked before the “worries of the world” came with their firstborn, my mom’s elder sister. She said it herself: “I never saw them like that.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, the pieces fall into place. It’s good to have a mentor, whether a person, an immortal, or a book. Whichever, you are blessed because someone’s there to show you how. Congrats on a well-executed lesson.😘

    Liked by 1 person

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    • You are most welcome. I cannot recommend Diana Wynne Jones enough, especially considering her childhood. If you’ve never read her…hmmm…then I’d recommend Howl’s Moving Castle or Charmed Life for starters. 🙂


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