Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

…is she Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

This cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the witch brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen – artist Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice ‘double double’ …!  Just as there is a lot of the young Joan in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older self in Malise, title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is the unwilling author of an unfinished story; she has set a mystery in motion but is still seeking the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…

  What she was supposed to record and pass on was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…and now the Kingdom is in trouble.

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind, knowing that she didn’t have the energy to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon.

The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale,  penultimate story in the series, which was written at a time of personal darkness, had broken many of her own rules. She was particularly haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, perhaps to run away with Dido to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores throughout at their cost. There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

 Joan Aiken’s English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, which sadly was not included in the American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.





With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website


I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here –



9 thoughts on “Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

  1. It is so cheering and touching to see how much Joan Aiken cared for her characters. Dido and Simon and Is and Penny, and Dido’s awful father with his music that made him almost redeemable. And all the rest. I have loved them for longer than I can remember.
    I met J A twice; I was lucky and I knew it. The last time was December 2002. I remember how much she looked like a character from one of her books, and how she was brimming with stories- that day about her brother and her trips to Downing Street during the second World War.
    Lizzie, forgive me if this is a cheek, but do you ever think of writing a biography?


  2. Aah, her lovely now 82 year old agent Charles Schlessiger used to nudge me gently in that direction every year or so…
    I guess this is as close as I have got so far – she’s a hard act to follow, and quite a private person, plus which I’m still hard at it keeping up with the reprints! But thank you.


  3. I remember the bittersweet feeling when I came to this last slim volume. But the usual trademark aspects were some consolation — the inventiveness, the anachronistic puns (coach park anyone?) and the humanity; and above all the fact that although the saga had come to an end Dido, and her creator, would continue to live on in our hearts and minds. And of course there are the re-reads to look forward to as well!


    • When I first read it in typescript staying overnight with her down at Petworth I found it terribly dark, and was rather taken aback, but I have come to know and love it in all its hilarious detail, and now find it strangely comforting. I agree,you do have to know her writing well to pick up on the puns and get the full pleasure of the experience!

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  4. Drat these incomplete American editions of JA’s books, but thank you, Lizza, for these updates and addenda. BTW, was JA left-handed? Because it seems that Malise is — or at least ambidextrous.


  5. Lizza, thank you for posting this! It says a lot about Joan Aiken’s writing that so many of us, including my 11-year-old daughter and me, have come to care so much about these characters, especially our heroes Dido and Simon. And even at the end of the series, here she is taking care to give us hope for their unwritten future. I love that she really had her readers in mind through all of these books, which after all is why Dido survived the end of Black Hearts in Battersea. Joan Aiken was so prolific and wrote so much, as we are discovering as our family is now reading through the Armitage Family and Arabel stories. Having just finished the Wolves Chronicles, though, I’m inclined to feel that this sequence of books was her “magnum opus,” but is there any evidence that Joan Aiken felt the same, that this world she was creating was perhaps larger than the sum of the stories that took place in it? I don’t imagine she had nearly the same obsessive compulsion to document and date every last detail of Dido’s world like Tolkien did for his Hobbits, but it would be so fun to learn more about how that world was shaped over the course of a half century!


  6. Pingback: Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date | Joan Aiken

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