Giving a voice to women – Joan Aiken’s folk tales for the next generation.

Furious Tree 2

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 pass on their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a now rather familiar sounding bully –  a golf playing millionaire property developer as the villain of one of her stories:

Sir Groby's Golf course

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 another story, Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his medieval island castle suddenly threatened by invaders:

The witch's magic

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 – even literally getting into hot water…

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 in order to stop it being cut down.

The voice of the tree

“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 speaking experience, of the older generations, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use that experience and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent out of the room, and so  missed his mother’s last words when she died, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak; at last he hears her voice. telling him what to do:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books, and things are always falling out of them…

In one poem she wrote:

‘Listen for my voice if for no other, when you are all alone.’

With all these voices to listen for, we are never alone.

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

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Take a Book Wherever you Go…

book sea

 Once upon a time, Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day. Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today:

If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose?  A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?

It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.

One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.

And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.

A book you love is like a friend. It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”

There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.

When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!

So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them.  Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…

It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.

If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  –  we’d have a lot less trouble. Just one book apiece. That shouldn’t be too hard to manage?

How shall we start?

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   Find a favourite book here – Joan Aiken wrote over one hundred!

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Croopus…It’s March the First – Happy Dido Twite Day!

cuckoo Tree Dido Susan Obrant

Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, who was her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion, so the first day of March is a very special day for Aiken fans to celebrate.

Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who has taken over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often villainous family, the Twites.

Dido and the Twite family

But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.

But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:

Dido letters

Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the costume that becomes her trade mark:

Dido Midshipman's Outfit

Dido &amp; Holystone on the Thrush

Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable, here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:

Dido on the Whaler

But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, with the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, crying:

“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”

The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:

Dido the key

And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to read another piece of her history!

So when did we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:

Dido's birthday

And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!

And find out about ALL the Wolves Chronicles here

Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)

Memories of Joan Aiken’s mother, Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

This little picture shows Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, at the age of about one.  She was born in Montreal in 1889, to parents whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; from them she inherited a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she eventually returned to live in England, spending the last half of her life in Sussex,  where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become, and what a devastating effect this would have on her future. 

Many years later her younger sister Grace in a family memoir wrote:

“Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she caught the eye of a young man called Conrad Aiken, and she fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.” (Near the family home.)

In the 1920’s the Aikens, Conrad attempting to support his family as a struggling poet, moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, hoping to further his career.  Joan was born there, in Rye, so she was the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

However times were hard, and when teaching work was offered back in Boston he returned to America. Sister Grace writes, curiously matter-of-factly, that not very long after Joan’s birth:

“Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her, as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (another writer and an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.”

It was the time of the great Depression, Jessie had three children to support, and ever practical, had turned to a friend. So it was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie decided that the little village school would not provide much of an education for her. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ – in this case a girl called Winnie – as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

This impersonal and unjudgemental attitude, described by Joan in her own memories of childhood, came back to me last year, when, remembering it was almost Jessie’s birthday, on the first of March, I went to look at this small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box, a curiously touching gift that she had given me near the end of her life – which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’ – was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the oil lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could so easily be restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity in the line down from mother to daughter and grand-daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me. It was my daughter who had given me the small oil lamp.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken gave her favourite heroine the same birth date as Jessie of March 1st. The two shared the same indomitable spirit, and sense of optimism that carried them through all kinds of troubles.