Famous for munching up flights of stairs, and even escalators (where do you think the word ‘ravenous’ comes from!?) Mortimer the raven is best known as the hilarious troublemaker who first appeared in Joan Aiken’s Arabel’s Raven stories on Jackanory – and of course in Quentin Blake’s wonderful pictures!
But his adventures with the Jones family and his beloved friend Arabel, have surprisingly also made him a HERO with teachers of reluctant readers. Here’s a letter from one of them – (thank you, Anne!)
“I had a class of 10 and 11 year olds, one of whom was having great difficulty in learning to read. Well, let’s be blunt about this, he couldn’t even read his name. He and I worked long and hard on this problem, mainly with the help of his brother’s motorbike manual, and eventually he began to make sense of the words on the page and I began to understand how to strip a bike engine. (All the best teaching goes two ways!) But, at last, the day I knew he’d really made it as an independent reader was all down to Joan Aiken.
Every afternoon in that class began with us all putting our feet up with a good book and reading silently for twenty minutes or so. (How else does a hard pressed teacher get time to read?) On this particular afternoon we were all well into our books when there comes a suppressed snigger from the general direction of this lad’s desk. I decide to ignore it. Then there is another, rather less well suppressed, and finally an outright chortle. He was almost unaware of what he was doing so engrossed was he in the book that he could now read well enough to really enjoy. And the book? Aiken’s ‘Arabel’s Raven’. I bless her regularly for turning him into a real reader.”
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The BBC TV series (as above) with puppets based on the wonderful illustrations by Quentin Blake is now available again to download
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Read more about the Arabel and Mortimer stories here
Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, heroic saviour (many times over!) of her King and country and a much loved inspiration of readers of The Wolves Chronicles, actually has her own background story. The character Dido Twite first appears in the second of these books – Black Hearts in Battersea, and from her humble beginnings, goes on to rule the series almost from the moment when she first accosts the newly arrived art student Simon and his donkey Caroline in Rose Alley:
“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
But readers may not know that there was a real life model for the character of Dido Twite, who thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way as she appears in the book…
In 1957, wanting to create a permanent home for herself after she was widowed with two small children, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the Sussex village where she had grown up. Joan Aiken had to sign an undertaking not to sell liquor as the town already had so many other pubs, so the pub sign came down.
On moving-in day, supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction and a good many orange crates, the family were met outside their new home by a nosey small girl who looked just like the one described above. Sitting on the steps up to their house, barefoot and enjoying a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she was totally intrepid and had the run of the town, and from then on would arrive at all hours, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on the town’s rooftops, sailing around the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry at Petworth House, most of which turned out to be true!
After the book that this small girl had inspired was written and published, Joan Aiken famously told of the many agonised letters she received from fans who having reached the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, were aghast to discover that their newly found heroine had disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, Joan Aiken decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket off the coast of New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so the young Dido was sent off on her extraordinary series of adventures.
But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought more questions and fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mysterious clue about Dido’s origins.
The meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners Joan Aiken couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, a character who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this other mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?
An illustration by ‘Phiz’ and perhaps an inspiration for the Twite Family?
Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until the end of Joan’s life.
Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death set off another quest – how to bring this almost impossible mystery to an end and send a message without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post some of the letters on the newly created Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…
One day, the American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch; she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years.
Also via the website, an old friend from those Sussex days, now living in Australia, was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who had also moved there, and nearly sixty years later she came from Australia to visit, and only then learned how she had inspired Joan Aiken’s fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures, and early inspiration with them for the first time.
More magical Aiken serendipity meant that this second visit happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:
Readers have also speculated that Dido Twite could be an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true; certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl – sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious Island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, such as Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams.
When Joan grew up to be a writer she was able to give Dido all the wonderful adventures she had imagined for herself, and encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.
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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures above are from American editions of Wolves Chronicles drawn by Robin Jacques
More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here
Scenes from Midnight is a Place one of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas apparently came to her in a dream about a terrifying carpet factory. The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans, the doubly disinherited Lucas Bell and Anna-Marie, was hailed in many lively reviews when it came out partly as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour. While on the one hand “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,” and “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”
(Beware spoilers…!!!) They continue: “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman ‘charred to a wisp’ in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.” “Despite delectable exaggerations and ironic twists on the conventions of 19th century fiction this is not a parody…the tears and laughter are meant to be enjoyed for their own sake…” and while “the melodrama manages to avoid even a hint of sentimentality, the story never flags, and finally reaches a happy ending.” (This is not a spoiler – by now you need hope!)
Meanwhile: “This author does not so much write for children as conscript them, and indeed all of us into her fantastic chiaroscuro. The writing is rich and utterly un-condescending, there is no mercy for stragglers…”
Or as one ‘Goodreads’ reviewer put it: ‘Read it. Love it.’
(With thanks to The New Statesman, the T.L.S., The Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, The HornBook and Kirkus reviews from 1974)
The story was dramatised by Southern Television with reference to the marvellous Pat Marriott illustrations, here showing the deadly carpet making machinery, and a haunting theme tune which set the central song to music originally composed by Joan Aiken’s son – prophetically named John Sebastian Brown – who provided songs for many Aiken plays and productions.
“Night’s winged horses
No one can outpace
But midnight is no moment
Midnight is a place.”
The series is being re-shown in the Autumn of 2020 on Talking Pictures TV in the UK on weekend mornings at 9.00am
You can hear that haunting theme song again here on You Tube
Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.
While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works, even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.
Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?
Here it is:
“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.
Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.
The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.
A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it.
The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”
As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…