Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise, until we hear the stories behind them…
“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in The Box of Delights, and it was a potent image from her childhood reading, mixed up with snow and all kinds of Christmas traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the wolves as she put it: ‘out of her subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.
The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father the poet Conrad Aiken, from the early 1900’s and the first Masefield novel she came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived. Joan was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning but Masefield’s own books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until years later.
So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books with their stories of desperate snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of these books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken’s writing. Rather than her ‘Wolves’ it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17 to tell to her small brother called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the books the two of them knew and loved, and Joan Aiken fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would be published.
But years later when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story her own. As she said: ‘all young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’
It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book, Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s so many years before.
Another review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall, describes the influence John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis. We can all share their enthusiasm for his skill in crafting an exciting fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….
The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here
and you can read more about it here
Joan Aiken originally wrote this article for
The Journal of the John Masefield Society
…for light in darkness, and inspiration in simple things
“We’re on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, picking up gold and silver” comes from an old children’s game – they run and help themselves to riches left lying unattended…
Joan’s poems can be found in a collection called The Skin Spinners
and see more pastel drawings here
Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?
Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her books came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who now like to post and share their thoughts on book sites like Goodreads, or leave reviews on Amazon, and the wild variety of tastes and opinions they seem to offer on their reading of the same novel!
It has to be said that Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various ghoulish or gruesome ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not her forte; she believed her writing for children should have a positive outcome, and have, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to young readers who had followed heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.
But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there wasn’t always a romantic outcome for these adult heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man, but they would have a lot of useful experience along the way…
Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels appeared in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – girls ran from castles in their nighties while brooding villains looked on, when the girl in the novel in question was in fact described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory!
But when novels are misrepresented in their presentation or description, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:
“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”
Quite so, very sad.
But another reader of the same story finds that:
“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”
Yet another finds:
“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”
or alternatively that the novel offers:
“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”
So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly off beat view of the world, the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres and wicked ear for dialogue, plus her generous dollops of years of interesting journeys and life experience, as opposed to a chocolate box full of make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her a go.
But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’ ‘with no shooting’ this one might turn out to be for you – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’
And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!
Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here
and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here
Lots more coming to EBooks soon
One of these people is Gladys, in Joan Aiken’s story about her strange ‘reappearance’, written, and equally mysteriously illustrated, when she was about seven years old.
Joan was taught at home by her mother, who gave her exercises in writing – in this case she had to create a whole story told only through conversation – which makes you wonder about the ones she overheard as a small girl, and what she made of them…?
This one is certainly mysterious.
Here is the whole story:
This is simply masterful and full of dramatic technique!
Joan as the narrator runs rings around poor Mrs L. who tries to be pleasant and chatty but gets the most gnomic responses in reply. Gladys and her cat have clearly had an unfortunate history, but it seems as though the cat has the upper hand…? Sadly Joan isn’t going to share that story.
Instead of entering into the comfortable and hopefully scandalous gossip Mrs L. is clearly angling for, Joan brutally changes the subject:
“Look at that holly.”
Did Gladys try to dispose of the cat in some way? Has the cat also reappeared? We are left to imagine all sorts of possible horrors…maybe even ghosts?
Luckily at this point David, a third character joins the conversation, (in fact he is Joan’s little brother!) Mrs L. tries to save face, and look as though she is completely in the picture (which for all we know she is?) and take a grown up stand in the dialogue, commenting on the trouble Gladys has caused her ‘poor mother’ while perhaps also delivering sly snub of her own to the cheeky storyteller.
Meanwhile Joan’s own mother, probably well aware of the social parody in her small daughter’s writing – and perhaps suspicious about the characterisation of Mrs L. – gets her own back by sharply underlining a spelling mistake; in fact there is another, but she seems to have missed that one!
Knowing both these two characters makes the whole exercise even more fascinating – Joan had a great respect for her mother, but always saw her with a very clear eye – in fact she reappears more than once as the model for a much loved, but fairly mysterious parent in many of Joan’s later novels…