“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”
What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:
“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”
She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining ‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’
“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.
“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”
And of course some of those wishes will certainly come true!
To read more about the amazing adventures of the Armitage family – perfect Summer reading for all – try Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden
UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey
US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson
The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!
Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:
There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:
Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.
Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.
Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here
and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here
Look for a new edition of The Railway Children from Virago
with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above
…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!
Even better than reading – getting lost in your own book!
How to get there? Thoughts from a master escapist…
More thoughts on writing from Joan Aiken in
See also The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize
Now being offered for a new Children’s novel
Closing date July 31st 2017
Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.
Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!
And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”
Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself ‘The Book.’
In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly, she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death. Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider. Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:
This is clearly drawn from her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.
Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!
Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?
Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?
Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…