Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.
Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken has always seemed quintessentially English. In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship, The Mayflower, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.
Back in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England, in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924. They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex town of Rye. Although her parents had 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, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which must have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.
Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus – with his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox – and Tom Sawyer 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 later 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 his friend 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 extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch – which 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, and not as I later discovered, a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy, or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.
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But the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds… We did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.
The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote 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 Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.
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On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling 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 this mysterious American shore 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 story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!
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And so the multicultural 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, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.
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In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod (shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.
Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.
Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye, known as Jeake’s House, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.
It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s third wife Mary.
See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town
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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry
Lovely post! I’m recommending Nightbirds in Nantucket for my upcoming Reading New England challenge. It’s good to know about the background behind the story.
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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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Thanks for reposting this, a fine reminder of transatlantic links, especially by sea, and that trade of a literary kind is an important source of cultural cross-fertilisation.
Incidentally, Archy and Mehitabel: am I too imaginative in seeing a pre-echo of Arabel and Mortimer? A raven is more endearing than a cockroach, in my view…
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