Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales, particularly in a late collection called Mooncake. Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society, but they call up the voices of the past in order to share their wisdom.
With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly and these days rather recognisable property developer as the villain of one of her stories:
But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.
However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.
In Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic powers to save his mediaeval island castle from invaders:
In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes. The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree and stop it being cut down.
“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it.” The tree tells him: ” Let the wind carry it away.” And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances – the equally speaking experience of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn and move on.
In one story that particularly touches me, a boy who was unable to hear his mother’s last words when she dies, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak, and at last he seems to hear a voice:
And in my case, lots of books…
Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson
Arabel enjoys reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, illustrated here by Quentin Blake. Mortimer is actually busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…
Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:
But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud for her mother, and wrote: “She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”
Sadly in those days all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising – but her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.
The illustrations were equally scary…
As she wrote, a particular highlight after this was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth; here you will notice that she is still barely four:
(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved it of course, but I can see my nerves were not quite as steely as hers:)
Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family. All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings. It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…
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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?
And today, March 1st is Jessie’s Birthday, and so a fitting day to celebrate her!
Joan Aiken’s History of the Kings of England was more than alternative, by the time she drew near the end of her ‘Wolves Chronicles’ it was running backwards. From the steam-punk century of Wolves and Black Hearts with its railways and hot air balloons, she had sent her last monarch back to the middle ages, to a retreat in the marshes like that of Alfred the Great, a mediaeval manor house surrounded by wetlands, and a mythical end serenaded by Nightingales.
In Midwinter Nightingale, the penultimate instalment of the saga, old King Dick is in hiding, as Burgundians from the continent, or even Bernicians from Northern Caledonia in the now divided Kingdom with its internal borders and rival factions are mustering their armies ready to put a new royal line in place. From the Tudor-Stuarts, we have gone back to the Plantaganets, and even to the West Saxons and Uther Pendragon.
But unless Simon – who first appeared as the goose boy from Willoughby Chase, and is now one of the few recognised Royal heirs as a cousin of the old King – can find the ancestral crown, no coronation can take place…
The King’s Great Aunt, the elderly Lady Titania Plantaganet explains:
‘There is an old copper coronet – legend has it that it once belonged to King Alfred, and it has come to be the regular practice that when the King of England is on his deathbed, he must pass the coronet – which Alfred is supposed to have worn round his helmet when he fought the battle of Wedmore – the dying King must hand the coronet over to the Archbishop, who then puts it on the head of the heir to the throne.’
‘Oh. But is the crown not here?’
‘Most unfortunately my nephew seems to have forgotten what he last did with it. It is like the Christmas tree decorations,’ the old lady went on impatiently. ‘Used only once a year – less frequently than that in this case – ’
‘Then,’ said Simon, ‘His Majesty keeps referring to nightingales. Is that—’ He hesitated, then went on firmly, ‘Is that because his mind is – is distracted by fever? Or are there, in fact, nightingales in the woods around Darkwater, even at this time of year?’
‘Have you not read your Chaucer?’ enquired Lady Titania rather severely.
‘I beg your pardon, ma’am?’
‘Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. His Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands?’
‘My lady, I’m afraid that my education was mostly lacking. A large part of my childhood was spent in a cave, you see, along with some geese.’
‘Was there no public library at hand?’ she demanded.
‘Oh! Well, this poet, Chaucer, wrote some lines about Darkwater in his forest poem:
“By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale”.
Darkwater has always been famous for its nightingales.’
‘I see. When was Chaucer?’
‘And the nightingales are still here?’
‘They do not, of course, perform their full repertoire in winter,’ acknowledged Lady Titania. ‘But even so, you may hear them sing from time to time. And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.’
A thoughtful silence fell between them. Then Simon said, ‘No wonder His Majesty is so concerned. Midwinter Nightingale. That would be on St Lucy’s Day?’
‘I wonder how the story started?’
‘Oh, I started it,’ said Lady Titania. ‘I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I can look at a hand, or a face, and tell what is going to happen to that person in the future. Not always – but sometimes. Would you like me to look at your hand?’
Like Lady Titania, Joan Aiken seems to be able to run her history both backwards and forwards, and celebrate her freedom to do so with any number of delightfully odd anachronisms; taking her cues from many favourite authors of her childhood reading from Dickens to Dumas, or in this case from Mallory or the Mabinoggion to the tongue-in-cheek Arthurian tales of T.H White, where his wicked Queen Morgause wanders into the future for a copy of Vague magazine…
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Some of Joan’s historical images (like this one!) were probably drawn from an early exploration of the Quennells’ History of Everyday Things in England: for instance she revels in a slightly altered description of a mediaeval manor house, re-modelled by a recent owner:
“The kitchen of Edge Place was a modern installation; that is to say, it had been improved by Sir Thomas’s wife, Theodora, after their marriage fifty years earlier. The lady came from the ancient Palaeologos family and could trace her forebears clean back to the tenth century, when they were highnesses of Byzantium. She wished her food to be properly cooked and demanded a high-class Roman cuisine requiring charcoal braziers instead of an open fire in the middle of the kitchen.”
The current owner, Sir Thomas, while enjoying these modern conveniences is also being plagued at breakfast by a series of chain letters from the Knights Templar of Palestina:
“Chain of heroic love and good luck around the globe. All sanctified by His Reverence the Ninth in Succession to the Throne of the World Soul given on the fourth day of revelation at the New Olympus…”
‘What the deuce is all this drivelling balderdash, may I ask?’ – Sir Thomas, dangerously purple, stared at it in furious perplexity.
Only Joan Aiken would know… as she runs rings around history…
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In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.
Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.
But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.
War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade. Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself, the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:
The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press.
From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction. She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.
Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.
Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,