Witch Week Day Five: Deep Secret (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
UK Hardcover, Gollancz

Throughout this week, we’ve been considering how the power of storytelling in all its forms — folklore, myths, ballads, fairy tales — underlies and informs the writing of Diana Wynne Jones. Today’s book, Deep Secret (1997), is centered around perhaps the most profound and fundamental form of word-magic there is: the nursery rhyme. 

In spite or perhaps because of this, it’s also one of DWJ’s ventures into more “adult” territory, with a hilarious and madcap (but ultimately serious) plot mostly set at a SFF convention, with all its attendant excesses. A bowdlerized version was published for the YA market, but be sure to get your hands on the original — it’s fortunately being brought back into print by Tor Books this December, and you can enter to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!

For our final guest post, I was pleased that a blogger with many fascinating insights into fantasy literature agreed to take on Deep Secret, with a particular eye for the secrets hidden in its geographical setting. Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.” Welcome, Chris!

 Patterns and Self-Portraits

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. –Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. These include the sign for infinity, like a figure 8 laid on its side or a Moebius strip, which stands as a model of the Magid Universe that Jones has conceived for this novel. The more on the Ayewards side worlds are found the more magic infuses them, the more Naywards they are (as Earth is) the less magic. Straddling the waist of the infinity sign is the Empire of Koryfos, which is where one of the many secrets in this complex novel rests.

key pattern Hephaestus
Greek Key pattern on a relief (source: Wikimedia)

Another key pattern in Deep Secret is just that, a key. Specifically, a Greek key. This is essentially a line which spirals in on itself by turning a series of right angles one way, and then at or near the centre reverses direction, spiralling out by another series of right angles. In its simplest form this is called a meander pattern, its more complex variations developing into one-way mazes or even multicursal labyrinths. The Greek key manifests itself in a hotel in which a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention is being held, but there is a sense that the whole plotline is also in the form of a Greek key.

I said that Diana wrote herself and her life into her books. In Deep Secret three Earth-born brothers — Will, Simon and Rupert Venables — belong to the so-called Company of Magids, a group that oversees the functioning of all the worlds Ayewards and Naywards. It can’t be coincidence that Diana herself had three sons — Richard, Michael and Colin — who took a keen interest in her fiction; indeed, Colin’s radio talk after his mother’s death particularly mentions the “fusion of the completely ordinary and the completely magical” as typical of her way of writing, so it is hard not to imagine her including her own offspring in the novel. Colin had already appeared as a “chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian who likes The Doors and photography” so it’s not unlikely that Rupert Venables, a games designer who lives in Weaver’s End near Cambridge, is partly modelled on this same Colin Burrow, former Senior Lecturer at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Diana Wynne Jones home
The Polygon (source: Geograph)

Both patterns and personal details come together in the chapters describing a meandering car chase through Bristol, with Rupert attempting to follow possible apprentice Magid Maree and her cousin Nick. This starts off at a “tall, smartly painted Regency house” (which is a close description of Diana’s former Bristol home in The Polygon, Clifton) and then proceeds past the Zoo and some “green parkland” (part of a large public open space called The Downs), the suburbs of Westbury-on-Trym and Redland, more Regency terraces (Clifton again), “pink Gothic towers” (either Clifton College or the University Tower), “modern office blocks” (the City Centre) and “cobbled alleys” (the area around Queen Square. So far this has been described as “every part north of the harbour,” but then we come to “Brunel’s iron ship” (the Great Western) and a bit of the suburb of Bedminster (what Maree’s cousin Nick nicknames Biflumenia, because of the “two rivers” of the Avon and a bypass canal called the New Cut). There is a brief appearance of a motorway spur, out of sequence here I believe, before we find ourselves back the other side of Bedminster going up Rownham Hill, crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge and returning virtually to where we started.

With a road map of Bristol it’s possible to trace out the route taken with reasonable accuracy, and this turns out to be . . . the rough shape of an infinity symbol. More numinous is the fictional Midlands town of Wantchester, where the SF convention takes place and where a particularly strong node exists for magic to enter and exit through. There is no such place as Wantchester, but there is the similarly named town of Winchester in southern England. The first element of Winchester is the Latin venta, meaning something like “market town,” and it’s clear that Diana is thinking of Wantchester as such a town with ancient roots, Roman or earlier; in fact the hotel is situated at one end of Market Square. My guess is that Wantchester is a fusion of all the English market towns hosting SFF conventions that Diana went to, with their generic labyrinth of streets, one-way systems, Cathedral, shopping precinct, Town Hall, river and bus station; there’s something in Diana’s descriptions that suggests that geeky unorthodox SFF conventions were a bit like a benign alien invasion in sleepy staid Middle England, and that Wantchester’s Hotel Babylon, with its confusing Greek key-like corridors, was a paradigm for all those soulless hotels that host such conventions, sumps for the human soul.

Greek centaur fresco
Chiron instructing Achilles (Wikipedia)

The joke is that it’s possible to hide your secret in the open — in nursery rhymes, for example — because there it will usually be disregarded as being mundane and ordinary. I can only scratch the surface of Deep Secret‘s own open secrets, but I hope to have revealed enough to encourage the reader to enjoy this inventive novel for its ideas as well as its narrative. There are so many themes and concepts fizzing and popping here, as references to Achilles’s teacher, Edith Nesbit’s husband, Oscar Wilde’s lover and the author of the Alice books all testify. The whole is a kind of labyrinth, where rounding a corner can reveal either illumination or shadow.

The last comment I want to make concerns the novel’s unwilling heroine, Maree. So many clues abound as to the significance of her role — Rupert’s hamlet named for a weaver, his own weaving of fatelines in a ceremony, Maree’s constant appearance leading the way — that it’s clear that she is a kind of Ariadne character (compare the character Ariadne in the film Inception) to accompany a Theseus — Rupert — in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, providing the clew of thread to lead him out of predicament.

And who is this character Maree based on? All the evidence points to . . . Diana herself. In the descriptions of Maree it is possible to discern a very faint, hazy self-portrait.

Chris, thank you for your inimitable way of pointing out the hidden secrets in our midst. Tomorrow, I hope all Witch Week readers will be back for a readalong of the book this event is named in honor of, Witch Week itself. Please join us!

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post 


10 thoughts on “Witch Week Day Five: Deep Secret (Guest Post)

  1. Thanks for including this rather rambling overview in the ECBR 2014 Witch Week, Lory — hope it helps point the way to the hidden depths of the novel. Just one thing: my poor proofreading let at least one slip pass through the net. The reference to Ariadne Inception should of course have been to Ariadne "in the film Inception". Perhaps that makes it clearer!


  2. I loved Deep Secret when I finally read it for the first time last year. I would love to delve deeper into it on my next read and Chris seems to have provided a great roadmap for doing so! Thank you!


    1. I think there is a certain point in adolescence at which one would love to inflict such an exquisite literary punishment on one's offspring…if it's true, I hope he forgave her when past that phase.


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