Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

To celebrate Thanksgiving here’s a post about Joan Aiken’s American childhood.

Joan Aiken, best known for writing her classic almost Dickensian novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,  has always seemed absolutely English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose ancestors went back as far as the Mayflower.
The Aiken family, with her older brother and sister, who had been born in Boston Massachusetts, moved to England just before Joan was born in 1924, to the little Sussex coastal town of Rye.   Although her parents were divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, strange and mysterious though some of it might be to an English child.

Her mother supplied her with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit, and Huckleberry Finn to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did such extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch!  This would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key. Or they pulled Taffy, chewed sassafras sticks, went coasting – sledging apparently – and slept in truckle beds. The confusions were endless, but only added to the magic.


And it didn’t end there… the real thing was even more mysterious. I had a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer on Cape Cod in the 1960’s and encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps) let alone meeting long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there still expecting to find pumpkin pie and mockingbirds!
And the mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote quintessentially English stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan’s own very English adventure – set as it was in an imaginary time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.


On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, a Delano from one of the first voyages over from England, and later sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on a mysterious American island where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this book was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!


And so the range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.


In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated, as on the cover above by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet,  in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

See Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town




2 thoughts on “Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

    • Thank you! There is an interesting crossover between the New England writers who went to live in Rye, like Henry James and Joan’s father Conrad Aiken, and even T.S.Eliot a fellow student of Conrad’s at Harvard, who went back looking for their roots – it was fun for us going on the opposite voyage – we even travelled on the Q.E II – in those days it was cheaper than flying!
      Here’s a bit more background –

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