“Some of you may know a town called Rye. In that town is a narrow cobbled street…Mermaid Street, and an old haunted house built by an astrologer.”
So begins Joan Aiken’s story A Jar of Cobblestones, soon to appear in a new Virago collection “The Gift Giving” which includes many that she set in her favourite places.
She wrote of these stories:
” I like to revisit them from time to time…like going back to stay in a house or piece of country that one has known since childhood…”
And one house in particular has appeared in many of her works – Jeake’s House, named after the Jeake family and the astrologer Samuel Jeake who invented a flying machine, and is said to have tried it out, off the high walls of the town of Rye.
“The machine crashed but he escaped. Whether there was a mermaid on board I can’t say, but he did live in the house halfway down Mermaid Street.
I know because I was born in it.”
Coming from Virago Modern Classics in November
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
…and if you ever visit Rye and would like to stay in Jeake’s House yourself you can, but don’t expect ghosts –
these days it is a very comfortable hotel!
Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has become a classic which for more than fifty years has thrilled and delighted readers all over the world, but the book itself has a story almost as dramatic as the adventures of its two desperate orphan heroines – this was a book that nearly didn’t get written.
It all began one autumn day in 1953…when she gave herself a wonderful birthday present.
Having survived the dangers and difficulties of World War II, and after living for some time in an old Greenline bus, Joan Aiken was finally secure in her own house in the Kent countryside with her husband and two small children. One afternoon as she was out chopping wood for the fire, she thought:
“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever! I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”
She bought an old table, installed it in a corner of her bedroom, and on her twenty-ninth birthday – the date, Sept.4th, proudly inscribed at the top on the first page of an old exercise book – she began to write.
But just as in those stories she had relished as a child, disaster struck. She lost her husband and her home, and for nearly ten years the story she had so eagerly started to write had to be put aside. When she was finally able to take it out again, she said, reading that first page took her straight back into the world she had imagined years before, with its “winter dusk” where “snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”
Even after so long, the story poured out in an unstoppable flow: she stepped straight back into her own imagined historical age where train travellers carried muskets or fowling pieces to defend themselves from attacks by ravening wolves, where the rich dined on oyster patties in their furs and diamonds – but where a reversal of fortune could lead to ruin and starvation. Her own years of struggle and responsibility had immeasurably deepened her writing; no longer just a tongue in cheek parody of the melodramas she had once revelled in, the book now reflected her own experience of tragedy, poverty and grief. It was with mixed feelings of relief and hope that she was able to complete it and send it off.
But then she patiently waited a year before she dared enquire about its fate – only to discover that it had been lost, left on a windowsill and forgotten! And the first publisher who did look at it thought it was much too scary: “Could she take out the wolves?”
Of course she said no…
The next publisher loved it, and recognised its parodic style, but also its very real dramatic impact – the only problem was the title, so Bonnie Green became The Orphans of Willoughby Chase, and then the more memorably alliterative The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
The book was finally published, in England in 1962, illustrated by Pat Marriott, and then the following year in the USA where it appeared with its wonderful cover by Edward Gorey, now itself a classic image, and was duly hailed by Time magazine as:
“One Genuine Small Masterpiece”
Read about “Wolves” and all the following books at the Joan Aiken website
Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?
New editions of the book continue to appear –
In 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold by this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….
The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.
Looks aren’t important.
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Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with subjects like history, mythology, the natural sciences and travel. These elements, combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with endless bizarre detail which in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content!
But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!
Her general ebullience and enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression. The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy but who speaks broad Scots; not forgetting a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant.
Grappling with all this is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader, he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them! Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood.
It goes by the marvellous title:
“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”
This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage, or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana”. This, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”… As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.
Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, his plant knowledge and his mathematical understanding, he saves them from a flood by building a rope swing to get them all across a gorge:
‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.” I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes; I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘
‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.
“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.
“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘
(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)
Joan was as likely to glean her information from antiquated instruction manuals as from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had introduced into the family. Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson ‘s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely boy. He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and escaped from his bullying father to study nature and Indian lore out in the wild. What Joan Aiken relished was the chance to share the same kind of pleasures that she had experienced as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, with these books as her guides and companions.
As an adult she had the opportunity to share through her own stories the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure. The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading taught her as a small child, was just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but still fired their imaginations and her own desire to tell wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them. She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would bring her fantasy worlds to life, and help to communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.
But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away – or possibly, as the Seljuk of Rum might say: ‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’
The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.
See all the books at Joan Aiken.com
Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page
To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.