The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones, or Why Are All These Grown Women Still Reading Children’s Books?

August 6, 2010

Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

37 Responses to “The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones, or Why Are All These Grown Women Still Reading Children’s Books?”

  1. Kristen M. said

    I would love to get a pair of silver handcuffs on Chrestomanci. 😉

    Love this post! I always find myself developing a crush on DWJ’s leading men. And strangely it’s because they are awkward and aloof. There’s no sparkle there, no overt sexiness. But they are smart and kind — even when they are pretending not to be.

  2. trapunto said

    Silver handcuffs. Heh.

    I noticed the universal smartness as I compiled my list. Intelligence does seem to be a feature of most of her characters, in various forms. Even a developmentally disabled one like Shaun in Enchanted Glass comes off as smart within his proper context.

  3. zibilee said

    I am not a bit Heathcliff fan either. The more I hear about Jones, the more I am angry at myself for staying away from her books for so long! I love this list and the reasons behind it, and think that this is a really excellent post! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  4. Nymeth said

    First of all, you didn’t alienate me! I had the exact same reaction to Heathcliff at about the same age.

    Secondly: “Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving. These are the ones Jones writes about.” So true, and such a huge part of why I love her books.

    And yes yes yes about her respecting her reader’s intelligence, no matter what age they are.

    I am a little bit in love with this post 😛

    And personally I’m a Howl, Tom Lyn and Sirius girl ❤

    • trapunto said

      I take it you got a bit more sympathy for him later?

      “Howl, Tom Lyn and Sirius girl.”–I knew you had excellent taste!

  5. daphne said

    This sentence cracked me up: A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

    Now, I’m more in Team Heathcliff, but mostly only because I love that Kate Bush song. I read the book and really really wanted to love it (but I love Jane Eyre as a book WAY more than Wuthering Heights).

    I am ashamed that I don’t know that I’ve read any Diana Wynne Jones. I must rectify this IMMEDIATELY.

    • trapunto said

      I hoped I’d hear from some Team Heathcliff people. It’s good for me.

      You can probably tell I have a thing about the polarizing affect of bread moisteners. Didn’t even get into the butter-on-sandwiches crowd!

      I hope you enjoy reading Diana Wynne Jones! Jenny’s posts and links make a great introduction to her, if you don’t want to jump in cold when you choose your first book.

  6. Simcha said

    Great post. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Jones’s books until I started rereading them lately and fell in love all over again. Unfortunetly I still haven’t read all of her books but my affections are divided between Howl and Chrestomanci though I’m sure I will develop many more crushes as I read more of her books.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, she is dreamy, whether you stretch the books out or gobble them up all at once! Howl and Chrestomanci are probably her most crushed-upon characters.

  7. orchidus said

    Beautifully written and well-thought essay. I agree with you on about every point you have made, in particular about Jones’ tendency of treating as smart readers.

    I have to say my favorite hero is tied between Chrestomanci and Howl. We’ll see who I become more fond of as I finish the Chrestomanci series this year.

    • trapunto said

      Really different characters, aren’t they? Although they are both have a front they put on over their real selves, which is ve-e-e-ery alluring in a magic-user.

      I like your thumbnail picture, by the way. First other anime fan I’ve seen doing the book blog thing, though I guess there are probably more flying under the radar, like I am.

      • orchidus said


        Yes, I’m an Anime fan, although I’m quite selective of the series I watch. What genre are you interested in? What series are you currently watching?

      • trapunto said

        Der Mann and I are also selective. Sadly, we are not in the middle of any series right now except Nana Uncut, which we are loving in a brings-back-excruciating-memories-of-our-own-youth way. And we just finished up Moribito, Ghost Hound, and Maria Watches Over Us.

        We didn’t discover anime until the end of our 20’s. Maybe that is why we never went for mainstream magical girl or mecha; you have to get on board younger for those.

        We are in an anime slump at the moment. We gobbled all the best stuff from the late 90’s and 2000’s in a couple of years, then watched the artier contemporary shows as they were released oh-so-slowly in the last several.

        Some we liked a lot: Twelve Kingdoms, Last Exile, King of Bandit Jing, Kino’s Journey, Mushi-Shi, Witch Hunter Robin, Haibane Renmei (actually anything by that team), Ruroni Kenshin, Emma, Noein, Fullmetal Alchemist Azumanga Daioh, Koi Kaze, Samurai Champloo, Gravitation, Mirage of Blaze, Fruits Basket, and Paradise Kiss. We were also strangely devoted to Inu Yasha and Revolutionary Girl Utena in all their interminability. But we watch oddities and comedy, too.

        • orchidus said

          Anime had never been popular overseas until Pokemon, Digimon, Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon hit the screens in the 90’s. I’ve been following a few series on-and-off lately. Some of the recent ones I’m watching are Occult Academy and Legend of Legendary Heroes just to see how they turn out.

          I see you have excellent taste. My favorites from your list: Twelve Kingdoms, Ruroni Kenshin, Witch Hunter Robin, Samurai Champloo, and Last Exile. These are truly works of art for their storytelling, characters, and art styles. I tend to be more of an action/adventure/fantasy type when it comes to Anime.

          Currently, there are no really outstanding series at the moment, except for the few I mentioned above. I still think the shows before 2005 are the best. What did you think of Moribito, Ghost Hound, and Maria Watches Over Us? Are they worth watching?

        • trapunto said

          I know what you mean about watching things to see how they turn out.

          We rent our anime, and they were definitely worth renting. Ghost Hound was flawed as a narrative (one of those quick-let’s-wrap-it endings), but had *really* strong scenarios and images and characters dramatic tension. So much so that I couldn’t get to sleep after watching it a couple of times. Morbito is quite good, but might be a bit of a let down if you just watched Twelve Kingdoms, as the setting is similar, and the animation quality goes down a bit toward the end.

          If you are interested in seeing the most excruciating sensitivities of Japanese culture magnified through a lens of private girl’s school girl-girl crushes, Maria Watch Over Us is addictive, if not precisely enjoyable. It’s not a cutesy/jokey show, but a serious melodrama. We kept laughing at ourselves for watching it, then going back for more.

  8. Jenny said

    Of course I would marry the man with the books, Tom Lynn. I’d marry Hathaway from Archer’s Goon if it weren’t for all the chickens, or intelligent, competent Joris from Homeward Bounders, and they’re not even main characters. But it’s like you say–she makes her characters sexy by making them interesting and complete and appealing.

    (I’d marry the girls too, they are just as lovely. Millie and Sophie and Claudia from Year of the Griffin.)

    • trapunto said

      A Diana Wynne Jones polygamist! Shocking!

      I can see the advantages of the man with the books.

      I’m glad no one said the Goon. It wouldn’t be nice to have to answer to “Mrs. Goon.”

      You know, I don’t remember Joris too well, aside from liking him, and liking his weapon.

  9. Oh, I could eat this post up! Love, love, love this!

  10. […] of Villa Negativa contemplates sexiness and mystique in Diana Wynne Jones’s books. Basically, who would you marry? […]

  11. Erin said

    I stalked you because of Jenny… boy am I glad. This post was fabulous, and I loved every word.

    The lovely thing about a Jones romance is how subtle it is. It’s quiet and unassuming and sneaks up on everyone (readers and characters alike) and yet feels so natural.

    I think I love Christopher Chant. Rupert Venables might be a close second, and Howl is third.

    • trapunto said

      I like it that you call him by his name and not his title. Christopher pre Chrestomanci has some particular charms.

      Diana Wynne Jones’ romance feels natural to me, too. My first words in private to my future husband, as we were staring at each other starry-eyed in a dorm room were, “I’m not interested in having a boyfriend.” I thought it was fair to tell him. And he wasn’t; he was my best friend for a number of years, and then we tied the knot. Maybe the atypical gradations between stages of relationships is a nerd thing.

      • Erin said

        I spent several months telling my boyfriend that I really “wasn’t interested, sorry…” before we started dating. I’m totally on the same page with that one.

        And it’s not so much Chrestomanci that I like, it’s Chris Chant, the dork who becomes Chrestomanci that I adore.

  12. Wow! I clicked over from the Jenny’s Books round-up thinking, “hmm, that sounds like fun”– I admit to having more-than-a-little crush on Chrestomanci myself (but your description forgets the deciding factor– it’s his razor-sharp sarcasm! ANYBODY can be super-competent and well-dressed, but mix in that biting-and-unexpected sense of humor, well, that’s what done it for me)… anyway, what was I saying? Oh, so, fun as the concept is, your post goes way beyond fun to HITTING IT ON THE NOSE.

    I particularly loved this part:
    Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents. Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving. These are the ones Jones writes about.

    YES! THIS IS AWESOME! This is probably one of the things I love about Jones so much, too. I love that her characters are so FULLY-FORMED, and all the relationships –romantic or not– are actual real RELATIONSHIPS where you can see them actually working, as opposed to roles just imposed on them (“love interest” or whatnot).

    Thanks for this great read!

    • trapunto said

      Re Chrestomanci. Exactly! He’s like Georgette Heyer’s regency heros but better, that way–not to mention being an enchanter while they are just rich noblemen. I’d take magic over a title any day. Although, I suppose Chrestomanci is kind of a noble title…

      I was looking for something I knew was on the official DWJ fan site, where she wrote about which age set of her readers tended to prefer Howl and which Chrestomanci, and I couldn’t find it. I like whichever one is in the book I happen to be reading!

      I know what you mean about those imposed relationships. Right now I am reading what would otherwise be an excellent book, if the relationships weren’t like that. A kind of short hand, playing on reader expectations and reader imagination. (Gateway by Sharon Shinn.) She has always bothered me that way a bit, so I gave up reading her. I thought her style would be better suited to YA novels than adult novels, so I promised myself I’d go back to her if she wrote for young adults . . . but now I am finding that I want real relationships just as much in a YA novel as adult ones.

      • It’s funny, just going by your descriptions above, your one of Howl really stood out for me and made me think “awwww…I so love him.” I DO love him so much… BUT I would never want to be married to him. I am just not as awesome as Sophie,* so I would be driven completely crazy. So I suspect the Howl vs. Chrestomanci age split has older readers favoring Chrestomanci because they’ve had more experience and understand what they’d have to put up with on a daily basis better. Chrestomanci can take care of himself.

        *(I have a theory that, deep down inside, everyone who claims to be in love with Howl REALLY just wishes they WERE Sophie. Because everyone wants to be as awesome as her, right? And be the one person in the multiverse who can keep him in line? That’s awesomeness).

        • trapunto said

          Sophie is awesome, but I wouldn’t want her job!

          You have jogged a memory–seems like it might have been that younger kids liked Chrestomanci, middle graders preferred Howl, and grown up ladies liked Chrestomanci. Can’t vouch for it, though!

  13. Jeanne said

    I adore Heathcliff, didn’t think much of it the time I had fresh mayonnaise in France, and would like to add Rupert V’s animal-loving brother as one attractive fictional guy.

  14. thewoodwif said

    No matter how many books I read, I think my literary crush list will probably always be about ninety percent Jones. Her characters draw me in like no one else can; they’re all so appealingly selfish and irritable and vain and sarcastic and brilliant and generally wonderful. My two cents: absolutely Rupert and Christopher and Howl (and Torquil too, who I knew I would end up adoring the moment he swept flamboyantly into the room) and also Romanov and possibly Flurry (If the Dogstar qualifies for the list, then I think quietly intelligent wizard griffins should as well). You can probably tell I agree about the sexiness of magic.
    Also, I would probably be remiss if I didn’t admit that there’s a big part of me that kind of wants to marry Sophie, and Claudia, and Flower-in-the-Night (probably not all at once, though).

  15. =Tamar said

    Derk. Because the babies could hatch! (But he’s happily married.)

  16. I vote Howl, but perhaps that’s because this was the first DWJ book I read… A fortnight ago. I have been wondering how I can have a crush on an annoying if handsome wizard in a book (at *my* age!) so I googled it and found your excellent article. Thank you, this explains everything.

    (Goes off to find the rest of the completely imaginary men listed.)

  17. Pip said

    Did I miss one, she says. MORDION woman, MORDION!! ^_^

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