A few days ago I mentioned the bizarre conference center run by Diana Wynne Jones’s parents that inspired the slovenly house-keeping, particularly the narly bathroom, in HMC. I can’t find, in my own collection, the DWJ interview in which she describes it. I’m thinking now that I must have run across it in a book I had ordered from the library. I ordered the book again, so we’ll see.
She does mention the conference center in “The Profession of Science Fiction,” linked at the right (with title corrected, aarrgh!), though not the bathroom:
The as-it-were conference centre my parents ran added to the general peculiarity [of the Essex village Jones grew up in], both by importing mad musicians and insane actors and causing myself and my sisters to have to live, as one of the guests described it, ‘in the margins of a dirty postcard,’and by employing a succession of local eccentrics. The gardener there had had a vision on the Sampford road in which an angel descended to him and told him always to go to Chapel and never to join a Trade Union.
It was only as a student that I realised that these things were not normal.
I think the sort of postcard Jones is talking about is the semi-pornographic Saucy Seaside Souvenir sort (my term for them; I have no idea what they’re called in Britain, I only know you can buy them at places like Brighton and Blackpool). If you have seen any, you know exactly the kind of garish cartoon-y squalor Jones is talking about. If you haven’t, well, *I’m* not going to show you.
Apparently her parents’ center was well-appointed but filthy. From what I recall of the other interview, Jones stated that nobody cleaned anything because nobody had figured out that things got manky with use and needed cleaning in the first place! This seems astonishing to me. You’d have to be clueless to the point of zombiefication to miss this little detail about your surroundings, but those were very different times and very stressful circumstances even, or maybe especially, for people as eccentric as Jones describes her parents to be.
Aside from the grotty bathroom as set-piece for the novel, what else does all this bring to understanding HMC? My answer would include Jones’s perennial themes of absentee or malicious parents, dysfunctional families, and chaotic childhoods, as well as the almost autistic preoccupation with anything but one’s surroundings that can befall artists and geniuses of all sorts. Oh, and the general habits of high school and college-age guys. (Many girls, too. There are neatniks, and there are slobs. Sometimes the two co-exist in the same individual. I can personally attest to this.)
I doubt if Sophie, before she left home, had spent much time around any of these types of people. Hers seems to have been an astoundingly stable, quiet, happy home-life for a DWJ character. Therefore, lacking other referents, she tends to explain the messy blobs and runnels she sees in terms of the only thing she knows about Wizard Howl: Bluebeard.
Knowing more than she does at this point, we know that there is a genius, an artist, a couple of bachelors, quite possibly an actor (who else would need so many delightfully ambiguous cosmetics/spells?) living in this castle. On a sadder note, there also is a least one person who has suffered a childhood tragedy, and another whose family, when we come to meet them, seem quite dysfunctional indeed.