This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 95th Birthday; how could she have known that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history.
Fifteen years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books as a new generation of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work.
One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell. Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”
Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles, the series which she had produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s, a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom? The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, are moved to do so much more explicitly.
Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’
Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm. But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions now with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit? Invading tribes are more like waves of immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, decide, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, that this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of our Island’s history.
The solutions to dangerous situations in all the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS. In an earlier book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. In the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – their homelessness and gambling addiction are two of today’s everyday stories of childhood – but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to combine their thoughts together they are able to create an astonishing force and find their freedom…
This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, communicated only through the airwaves. At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:
Towards the conclusion of the series, her dangerous and fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before. Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends on her own note of joyful forgiveness for her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.
Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it illustrates the pattern of history, in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.
As she said:
“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “
People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself, stories don’t have a tell by date…
Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series
Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!
(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2019 – where next?)
Illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving
a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago
Looking back at the creation of her popular children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken said her intention in writing it had been to share all the happy times she had spent as a child within the pages of her favourite books.
With her acute memory, and what some have called ‘her magpie mind’ she deliberately included all sorts of references to delicious, poignant, terrifying and otherwise hugely satisfying moments from the classics she had herself enjoyed, and to which she returned again and again. Where would you find the most delicious picnic, the most alarming train journey, the most heart stopping family reunion, the most vivid dream come true?
“I loved Dickens and the Brontes, so my book would be set in their grim nineteenth-century England – but it would be even grimmer. There would be a sinister school, where the pupils suffered atrocious tyrannies – worse than Lowood, worse than Dotheboys Hall. The key to the whole book, I realised, would be exaggeration – everything larger than life-size – and it would be funny.
Bonnie, my heroine, would be quite impossibly brave, truthful, and high-spirited, while her cousin Sylvia would be equally frail, delicate, and timid. Their nursery would be a hundred feet long. They would not have just one lace trimmed silk petticoat, but twenty. The cushions of the window seats would be so well-sprung that when Bonnie bounced on them she would almost hit the ceiling. My Duke wouldn’t just have a coach and six; he would have the first train of the nineteenth century run straight to the door of his castle.
Ideas for the book bubbled up inside me. There would be all kinds of hair-raising adventures – wolves, shipwrecks, murders; the villains would be ferociously villainous, the good people positive angels. In fact I thought of so many things to put in the story that several of them had to be left out and used in later sequels.”
So here’s a Quick Quiz for the followers of this Summer’s online #WilloughbyReads and anyone who recognises moments like these from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase!
* Who was preyed upon in a train carriage by mysterious men, and warned about wolves?
*Who studied a cookbook and tried desperately to make beef broth, and was later rewarded with one of the most idyllic and heavenly rural walking holidays?
*Who had many more than a dozen silk petticoats, had to deal with a hideous instructress at a ‘Select Seminary’ and dreamed that she was no longer freezing but sleeping under a warm feather quilt and woke to find her dream had come true?
*Where would you find two schools where the pupils’ hardships were even more terrible than those of Bonnie and Sylvia – and where the author’s sisters even died at a similar establishment…
*Where can you find (actually in two of her books!) the most heart-stopping and unexpected reunion with a long lost relative?
*Who after a heartbreaking parting from a dying Mama, is left in the care of an Aunt more terrifying than Miss Slighcarp, cries more than Sylvia, is teased and tortured by a companion more beastly than Diana Brisket, but at least enjoys an even better breakfast than the one cooked by Mr Wilderness?
*And who survives all manner of slights and privations, keeps her spirits up until the end, astonishingly wins the love of, and forgives the unkindest character in the whole book, and finally finds a true friend who loves the natural world as much as she does…
Answers in the Illustration above!
P.S. for ‘alternative’ history buffs, Joan Aiken added a note about her own ‘chosen’ period:
“Best of all, it occurred to me that the story should be laid, not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but under a different line of kings – supposing Bonnie Prince Charlie had become King of England and his descendants had kept the throne, then all the Georges, who should have come next would be lurking over in Hanover, plotting to dislodge them. This would leave me free to invent whatever I liked in my own bit of history.”
This of course led her to invent some lovely song parodies – here’s part of a children’s game:
‘Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water
He don’t rule over this land though he oughter
Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over in Hanover
Oh, why won’t some well wisher bring that young man over?’
Finally: Huge thanks to Ben Harris who instigated it and wrote all the quizzical questions
Louise Birchall who drew the delightful Willoughby
and all who have contributed to this splendid Summer Readalong!
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At the heart of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, just when we need it most after all the hair-raising dangers and disasters that have befallen our long suffering heroes, comes a golden idyll celebrating all the delights of childhood. Now we are given happiness and holidays, friends, freedom and lovely food, cooking and reading, painting and swimming, sleeping under the stars and travelling with animal friends along a country road towards a hopeful solution to all the earlier troubles.
The golden description begins with warmth, simple comfort, and peace:
“When Bonnie woke she lay wondering for a moment where she was. There was no clanging bell, no complaining voices, and instead of shivering under her one thin blanket she was deliciously comfortable and warm.
A cool breeze blew over her face, the cart jolted, and then she remembered what had been happening and said softly, ‘Simon?’
His voice came from somewhere in front.
‘Stop the cart a moment, I want to get out.’
‘Not worth it,’ he said. ‘We’re nearly there.’
Bonnie wriggled to a sitting position and looked about her. The sky was still mostly dark, but daylight was slowly growing in the east. Thin fronds of green and lemon-yellow were beginning to uncurl among masses of inky cloud. When Bonnie looked back she could see that they had come over a great ridge of hills, whose tops were still lost in the blackness of the sky to the north. Ahead of them was a little dale, and loops of the white road were visible leading down to it over rolling folds of moor. A tremendous hush lay over the whole countryside. Even the birds were not awake yet.
‘That’s where we’ll have our breakfast.’ Simon pointed ahead. ‘That’s Herondale. We’re way off the main road now. No one’s likely to come looking for us here.’
He began to whistle a soft tune as he walked, and Bonnie, curling up even more snugly, watched in great contentment as the lemon-yellow sky changed to orange and then to red, and presently the sun burst up in a blaze of gold.
‘What is it?’
‘There’s no snow here.’
‘Often it’s like that,’ he said nodding. ‘We’ve left snow t’other side of Whinside. Down in Herondale it’ll be warm.’
Presently they came to the last steep descent into the valley, and Simon then allowed Bonnie to get out of the cart while he adjusted the drag on the wheels to stop it running downhill too fast. All this time Sylvia slept. She stirred a little as they reached the foot of the hill and walked through a fringe of Rowan trees into a tiny village consisting of three or four cottages round a green, with a couple of outlying farms.”
Soon they reach safety and shelter with Mr Wilderness the old blacksmith in the village. Sylvia, her sore throat soothed with some cherry bark syrup is settled to sleep in the sun in a nest of hay, ‘amid the comfortable creaking of the geese and the baaing chorus of the sheep.’
Simon and Bonnie have one of the best breakfasts imaginable, beginning with bowls of porridge served with ‘brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream from Mr Wilderness’s two red cows who stand ‘sociably outside the kitchen door.’
As their healing journey continues at goose-pace, they show their strength and resilience and all that they have learned from their recent troubles:
“At night they usually camped near a farm, sleeping in or under the cart in their warm goosefeather quilts. If it rained, farmers offered them shelter in barn or haymow. Often a kindly farmer’s wife invited them in for a plate of stew and sped them on their way with a baking of pasties and apple dumplings. In return, Sylvia did exquisite darning, Bonnie helped with housework, and Simon, who could turn his hand to anything, ploughed, or milked, or sawed wood, or mended broken tools.
Pattern had smuggled one or two books and Bonnie’s paintbox from the attic out to the cart with the food and clothes, and these were a great resource on rainy evenings in the hay. They read aloud to each other, and Simon, who had never bothered about reading before, learned how, and even pronounced it quite a handy accomplishment. He also took a keen pleasure in making use of Bonnie’s box of colours, and sometimes could hardly be torn away from some view of a crag or waterfall that he was busy sketching. The girls would wander slowly on with Caroline, the cart, and the geese, until Simon, finished at last, caught them up at a run with the colour-box under his arm and the painting held out at arm’s length to dry”
Joan Aiken understands the need to balance danger and delight; after the increasingly desperate series of events we and our heroes have passed through and survived, we all need a holiday, and a chance to recover our spirits and learn what we are really made of, to remember the best things in life, and how we can create them for ourselves.
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Pat Marriott captures the peace and optimism of the idyllic journey in her drawing above, we just have to add in the glorious colours of Joan Aiken’s golden dawn
Read how this story mirrors the trials and disappointments
‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’ Joan Aiken wrote.
Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.
Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici – who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…
One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles, her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.
It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:
Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.
Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:
By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:
In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:
Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’
“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”
Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…
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Want to discover a few more?
and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here