A classic that's charmed readers for over 40 years
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, HarperCollins
"As a rule, gingerbread men were fun. They leapt up off the plate and ran when you tried to eat them, so that when you finally caught them you felt quite justified in eating them. It was a fair fight, and some got away. But Mrs Sharp’s gingerbread men never did that. They simply lay, feebly waving their arms, and Cat never had the heart to eat them."
There's only a handful of books I've read more than once as an adult. One of my favourite childhood books, Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, is one of them. Although I never owned my own copy when I was younger, this was the book I borrowed most often from my local library. Out of print for years, Charmed Life was re-released following the success of Harry Potter. In 2001, I was delighted to find it on a shelf in the children's department of the bookshop where I worked. Although nervous in case it wasn't as good as I remembered, I found it just as enjoyable as a grown-up. After including Charmed Life in a selection of books for World Book Day 2021, I decided to read it again for the first time in 20 years.
If you haven't heard of Diana Wynne Jones before, you might be familiar with her work without realising. Her 1986 children's book, Howl's Moving Castle, was adapted into an animated film by Studio Ghibli in 2004. I didn't read this until after the Ghibli version came out. It's wonderful too (as is the film which is quite faithful to the source material) and another one that I'd like to re-read.
More than 40 years after it was originally published in 1977, Charmed Life is as enchanting as ever. It's set in a world where magic is an ordinary part of life, although not everyone has powers. Charmed Life is about two orphaned children, Cat and Gwendolyn, who are summoned to live in a majestic and mysterious castle shortly after their parents are drowned. The only rule in Chrestomanci Castle is that children must not perform magic unsupervised. That doesn't stop Gwendolyn, who is a witch, from making mischief and causing problems for her brother Cat.
The characters are brilliantly brought to life, with wonderful quirks that add to the humorous and light-hearted tone of the book. They're just as flawed and full of contradictions as real people. There's a host of less than honest characters whose antics are hilarious. The situations in which Cat inadvertently finds himself are extremely funny too. There's just the right amount of danger to make this as thrilling as it is bewitching. Diana Wynne Jones writes beautifully and the world she evokes is intricate and incredibly appealing. I'd love to explore Chrestamonci Castle, its neighbouring village, and the town of Wolvercote, with its witch's parlours and shops selling exotic spell supplies.
Charmed Life stands up remarkably well for a work of its era - it could easily pass for a contemporary book. There were a number of fat-phobic comments which I would consider inappropriate now but didn't notice as a child. There was also a potentially racist phrase, when Mr Saunders asks Cat, "Why the Black Gentleman don't you write with your left hand?" I've done some research and this is apparently an old-fashioned way of referring to the devil - Jane Austen used the same expression. It did make me uncomfortable and might be offensive to Black readers, so I am flagging it here just in case.
There is nothing problematic concerning gender in Charmed Life, even though it was published in considerably more sexist times. The main protagonist, Cat, might be a boy, but there are plenty of strong female characters. The girls have as much agency as the boys and are in no way eclipsed by them - far from it. Male conversation is dominant during meals at the castle, but that wouldn't have been unusual for the world in which it was written. This is used as a comic device and a way of revealing more about the personalities of the characters, and highlights how dull and intimidating these occasions are for Cat.
When Cat admits he finds suppers at the castle strange, Millie (who lives there) responds with: “Isn’t it awful? Michael gets these enthusiasms, and then he can talk of nothing else. It should be wearing off in a day or so, though, and then we can have reasonable talk again and make a few jokes. I like to laugh at dinner, don’t you? I’m afraid nothing will stop poor Bernard talking about stocks and shares, but you mustn’t take any notice of that. Nobody listens to Bernard."
According to the Guardian, Diana Wynne Jones, "worked for long years in relative obscurity, in her case sustained as a children's fantasy author by a modestly sized but devoted young readership. That obscurity provided the freedom to develop her own voice without the distractions of having to build on perceived success. By the time real success found her, in Jones's case almost by chance, she was a mature writer with a solid and varied body of work that was ready to be appreciated by a much bigger new audience... The first of the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling appeared in 1997, and by the turn of the century had become a sensational success. Other publishers were looking around for books they could market to the same vast audience, and were quick to realise that Jones had been fruitfully engaged in fantasy for nearly 30 years."
Diana Wynne Jones seems to have been quite the character herself, with an interesting and unusual childhood. In her youth, she spent a lot of time making up stories to entertain herself and her siblings, as her father was too miserly to buy them more than one book a year. In any interviews I've found, she appears to be a warm and intriguing person with a strong sense of humour. I'd love to read a biography but have ordered the closest thing I coud find to a memoir, Reflections - On the Magic of Writing, which was published by Harpercollins in 2012.
Charmed Life is Book 1 in the Chrestomanci series, although I've only read this one, The Lives of Christopher Chant and The Pinhoe Egg. I loved these too - it's a number of years since I've read either but I hope to return to them soon. Here's a list of all the books in this collection, and the order in which they're published, as well as the reading order suggested by Diana Wynne Jones (which is different).
I'm jealous of anyone discovering Cat and the Chrestomanci collection for the first time, but it's brilliant that these adventures are so enjoyable even on repeat readings. This is a book that has charmed me for most of my life, which is incredible considering how much a person and their tastes, grow and change over time. I'm looking forward to getting hold of the books I'm missing and will share reviews of the rest of the series as I get through it.