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J.A.desk

Joan’s writing desk

Visit the Joan Aiken You Tube Page to see her at home using this typewriter

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Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s unexpected American roots

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England, in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex town of Rye.   Although her parents had divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which   must have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remuswith his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox – and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and his friend the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch – which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, and not as I later discovered, a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds… We did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod (shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye, known as Jeake’s House, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

Save

Joan Aiken’s stories for Dark Times

Downs JA

~ Joan Aiken painting of the Sussex Downs~

One of the darkest times in Joan Aiken’s own life, and that of her children, came in the 1950’s when she lost both her husband and the family home – a beautiful farmhouse in a Cornish valley – and her livelihood which had been taking in paying guests while she wrote stories and tried to sell them to magazines. This turned out to be the spur which turned her into a full time writer, and drew the remaining family into a shared bond which was to help them through times of difficulty.

Years later she described this time to a class of students, how her ability to write had developed from telling stories to her younger brother while keeping him happy on long walks on the Sussex Downs near their house, as in her painting above, using them to distract and cheer him when he was tired and thirsty.

As she told them:

  “Well, presently my younger brother grew older and stopped wanting stories, and I took a job, and then got married, and had two children of my own. By the time the children were reaching an age when they liked listening to stories, we were living in Cornwall, and I was running a guest-house. Of course I really wanted to be a writer – I’d had a book published, a collection of fairy stories, and written another book and a half.  I hadn’t made much money from writing and I didn’t have much time for it, between the guest-­house and my children. But I used to write stories  – rather short ones – between podding beans and washing tablecloths. I sold 2 or 3 of these stories to a magazine called Argosy – and that was tremendously exciting, because I got paid twenty-five pounds for each of them. Twenty-five pounds! That seemed to me about what two hundred pounds would today!

  Then a sad thing happened to us. My husband fell ill, and died, when my two children were aged three and five so I had to move back to London and get a job, and, because I couldn’t look after the children and go to an office, they had to go to a kind of boarding-school; we only saw each other at weekends. It was very miserable for them-losing their father and their beautiful home in Cornwall, and only being with me two days a week. And it was during that period, which lasted three years, that I learned the real power of stories. Because as soon as I went to fetch my children on Friday evening (their school was near Hampton Court) they would say “Tell a story, tell a story” and all the way in the train from Hampton Court to Wimbledon, where I had a flat, all the way in the bus from the station, and walking across Wimbledon Common, and all the rest of the weekend, I had to tell them stories, one after another, one after another, as fast as I could make them up. And on my holidays from the office, when we used to go and stay with friends on a farm, it was the same: every spare minute had to be filled with stories. The stories were like a kind of bandage for the children; as if their own life was so sad that they needed something to take their minds off it, to protect their pain from the cold air.”

Joan Aiken became especially well known for her children’s writing, The Wolves Chronicles series, and many collections of fantasy stories which were always among her favourite work, but there is one thing they all have in common. She didn’t believe in easy solutions, either in life or in stories, and felt that children were not easily fooled either and demanded better than a simple happy ending.

In a book of advice for would be writers she was very firm about the real value of stories. She wrote:

Life is a Riddle 1

How much more satisfactory it is for children, she concludes, how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties to be told this, than to be told the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place with everything mapped out…they need to get from the stories they read a real sense of their own inner existence, that matches their own inner vision, however dark it may sometimes seem.

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Joan’s thoughts on writing for children are published in this heartfelt guide

The Way to Write for Children

Although of course she said it wasn’t the only way!

 

 

Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration.

This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is just big enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up. Now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree, one of the Wolves Chronicles series in which heroine Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around her own village of Sutton, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house, previously a pub, where Joan Aiken lived years later in the nearby town of Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book came out in Japan, where it seems to have found particular favour, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers, for whom the tree was always a children’s landmark have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written a history about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree, and feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko &amp; Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

For Joan in her childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge in the story for a lost and motherless girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond; the tree shelters a lost cuckoo child.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be an old memory of her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’:

Cuckoo last Page1

The Cuckoo Tree was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are finally about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last decide to write the book that would bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

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cuckoo crop

Visit the Cuckoo Tree as Joan does in the picture at the top of the page,

and see her as she starts to write The Cuckoo Tree

The film made for Puffin Books is on the Joan Aiken You Tube page

Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books

in the Wolves Chronicles series

Continue reading

More Than You Bargained For? My favourite Joan Aiken story.

MTYBF cOVER

The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer day, this is one with magical images of escaping into a dream garden which perfectly suits the strange state of lockdown in which we have been living.

Joan Aiken said that ‘favourite stories are like places you can re-visit,’ going back to somewhere you have known since childhood. This one has a special charm for me, because it always magically returns to that same remembered place, carrying its heroine and us, out of our own constricting four walls and back to the most beautiful garden imaginable.

More Than you Bargained For was the title story of only the second book she published, a collection of stories written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. Replying to a letter from a reader, Joan Aiken mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:

MTYBF 1 WEEK

The story starts in a hot dusty city,  in the 1950’s London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square!) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified…) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor, but not unhappy with their lot.

Here is the first page of her original copy:

MTYBF page 1

This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.

Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:

MTYBF garden

Monet lilies

In a publisher’s brief for an introduction to this story collection, Joan wrote that she was trying to convey:

‘What happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner,

open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’

so that in her stories, these everyday events sometimes do turn out to be

More Than You Bargained For.

MTYBF JA BLURB

Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer, you will certainly recognise these moments as your own good fortune.

I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it carries you all away to a special magical place of your own.

A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:

MTYBF T.L.S 2 png

– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be.

Have a lovely cooling dream.

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The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics

along with many more favourite stories

also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long…

Gift Giving

Read more about it on the Joan Aiken website

Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator

Pat Marriott

Water-lilies from Monet’s Garden