Sunday 4 October 2009

Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones

Not one of Diana Wynne Jones’s major works, but interesting nevertheless, and I was thrilled to find it on the shelves of Birmingham Central Library while the children were rolling around on giant cushions.

Heather lives in a stately home which her parents manage for the National Trust. When she idly wishes for Wild Robert to wake up and deal with Mr McManus, the unpleasant gardener, and the tourists who bother her, he does. He plays magical tricks on everyone, but everything’s fine by the end of the day.

What’s interesting to me is that essentially this is a book about sex, about the way the introduction of sex – or at least boys – into a young girl’s life changes everything. I don’t mean to say it is a sordid book – nothing very saucy actually happens. Rather, it is all about the confusion and excitement of a girl’s first love.

Robert is the archetypal romantic idol, a typical first crush with his shoulder length hair and good looks. When his hand touches Heather “it somehow fizzed against Heather’s bare arm so that all the hairs stood up round the place he touched”. That his wildness is sexual is flagged by his very first bit of magic – turning a group of teenagers into nymphs and fauns and sending them to rut in the woods (they “will romp until sundown”).

Robert changes everything for Heather. From feeling like little more than an annoyance to everyone in her life, she becomes the most important person in the world to him. And, of course, from the moment he enters her life her main concern is to keep him away from her father. “She knew she had to make him believe when he did meet Robert, and there were a lot of things she wanted to think about first.”

I found the strawberry scene very interesting too. Until now Mr McManus has always stopped her from eating them, but Robert waves his hand around and McManus is frozen, leaving her free to eat her fill. Is McManus representative of adult, male, threatening sexuality, something to be afraid of, kept at a distance? Once he’s immobilised she is free – and barely hesitates – to eat as many strawberries as she would like. But maybe that’s pushing the analysis too far.

So although it’s a short book, taking little more than an hour to read, its themes make it an interesting complement to Fire and Hemlock, perhaps Diana Wynne Jones’s most powerful work, making it well worth reading for that reason alone.

Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones, Collins, hb, 96pp.

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