Spoilers? Not a problem with Joan Aiken…


Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, but it’s impossible to spoil the plot!  There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of the Paget Saga, set in Joan Aiken’s own home town – and house – but which also travels through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas back to the little town of Petworth, where she introduces us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and frequented by the Prince of Wales…that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.

“Mystery, murder, mayhem, menace…set in the English countryside…oh, except for the chapters that are set in India, Afghanistan, Persia and surrounding areas (yes, all in the same book…but it’s almost like two books in one, since the chapters alternate between two sets of characters…until they finally meet near the end). What more do you need? Plenty, if you’re Joan Aiken, who is never satisfied with the simple where the complicated will do just as well, or better.

Let’s start with young Fanny, aged sixteen, who’s just married a man three times her age. Which might not be so bad, if he hadn’t turned out to be a despicable brute (and that’s putting it mildly). Talk about a series of unfortunate events…Lemony Snicket had nothing on Joan Aiken. Fanny’s life with her horrible husband is getting worse by the minute…and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do. (Three surly stepdaughters, two of them slightly older than Fanny, aren’t helping matters any either.) Obviously, Fanny would benefit greatly from some cheerful company, which is on its way, in the form of…

Scylla and Cal, seventeen-year-old twins, children of a cousin of Fanny’s husband. They were living happily enough near the palace of a maharajah — Cal gambling with the maharajah’s eldest son, Scylla instructing two of the maharajah’s younger sons — until suddenly — the maharajah met with a fatal “accident” — most of his children were murdered — no one was safe — and Cal and Scylla were forced to flee for their lives (Cal, the poet, taking his precious manuscripts with him, of course). Where do they flee to? Logically enough, to their Cousin Juliana’s house in England — only now it’s being occupied by their middle-aged cousin Thomas Paget, his very young wife Fanny, and his three not-so-pleasant daughters. (Sound familiar?) What will happen when these two branches of the family collide? Wait and see!

If you know a little about Joan Aiken herself, not just her writing, bits of this book may start to seem slightly autobiographical…for instance, the bits about what it’s really like to be closely related to a poet (Joan knew this from experience…her father was one, and a good one…he was the poet Conrad Aiken…and he probably wasn’t always easy to live with!). And if she seems to know the house in the book quite well…there’s a reason for that…it’s her house. Yes, her actual house, or at least, inspired by it. The real house known as The Hermitage, Petworth (same as the one in the book) was where Joan Aiken lived in her later years. One hopes that her actual life there was far more peaceful than the lives of the people in this book. Perhaps that was exactly the trouble, though…it was TOO peaceful and she got a bit bored. And started concocting this tale of mystery, murder, mayhem…you know the rest. (Watch out if you are a writer and you go to live in a large old house in the English countryside…you never know what strange ideas the house might decide to put into your head. They’ve got minds of their own, these old houses…)

If you already know and love some of Joan Aiken’s works, this book will probably make more sense to you. (Then again…who said books had to make sense?) With or without prior knowledge of the author’s works, laughter and tears will accompany you through this wild romp (through various parts of the world) until the adventure comes to its own peculiar but oddly satisfying close at the house of…The Weeping Ash.”


 Joan’s own haunted house on the website

And in case we have missed anything here are a few final words from another reader:
“Joan Aiken used her own house in Sussex as the main setting for the book, historical melodrama,  set in the late 18th century, and the two contrasting stories are a rather grim and frightening reminder of how harsh conditions often were in those times- and how cheap life was. You only have to look at old gravestones to see how many children people had- and how many died young. She also paints a nasty picture of the press-gangs which were operating then. Novelists of the time tended to see less of the whole picture, but Aiken, through hindsight, is able to show how great the contrasts were between rich and poor, and the injustice of the social system.

That said, this is still cracking entertainment, with a vengeful ghost, a haunted tree and lots of romance and thrills…”


Thanks to Kit and Mrs H.Aver for these splendid reviews: read more here

More of Joan Aiken’s Romantic Sagas now coming from Sourcebooks



A fatal flaw makes a memorable heroine…


“Oh I am sorry…it is a dreadful fault I have…”

 Juliana Paget might be just another Regency Miss with romantic hopes of meeting the man of her dreams – and in this case he must of course resemble King Charles  the First, heroic subject of the Biography she has been assisting her father to write – but aside from this handicap,  romance for Juliana is hindered by another dreadful fault…

A perfect heroine, like a fairytale princess, is a copybook case, sure to meet her prince, let alone obviously recognise him at first sight. A Joan Aiken heroine is likely to have ideas of her own – or in this case ones she has gleaned from books, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – and which will lead her into all kinds of trouble.

What if she doesn’t know who’s friend or foe?

When our heroine, having rescued a stranger fleeing from French revolutionaries is then being rescued right back by him, and borne away to safety in a hot air balloon, he naturally enough tries to clasp her in his arms.

But while helpfully mending one of the tapestries he is carrying over the channel to the Prince Regent at Brighton – for naturally:

  “She carried a housewife full of needles and thread in her reticule and hated to be idle”

– she has inadvertently mislaid a spare needle…

” He let out a most appalling oath, fortunately in Dutch.”


And does she learn from her mistake?  Of course not. Joan Aiken is able to use this as a handy plot twist a couple more times, so that when the proposal scene finally arrives, does the hero go down on one knee? Absolutely not, as he understandably says:

” It’s odds but you’ve left a needle sticking somewhere in that grass!”

And is he the one who looks exactly like King Charles the First?

You’ll have to read it and find out…!


The Smile of the Stranger is the first of four Joan Aiken Romances

  being reprinted by Sourcebooks this year

Read more about Joan Aiken’s rip roaring period novels here

And an interview with Sourcebooks Editor and Aiken fan Deb Werksman

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken: 4 Sept. 1924

JA birth page

“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.”



gift giving

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!










Wolves…the beginning

Wolves original

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”

Gorey small


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 –

Look out for a new Puffin Book, and a Christmas Folio edition.