Is this Joan Aiken’s self portrait?
The cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the Witch of Clatteringshaws (who is also the incumbent district visitor, rail inspector and general dogsbody caring for her thankless small Scottish community) brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen. The artist, Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice double metaphor, because, just as there is a good deal of the young Joan Aiken in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, whose energy and curiosity had driven so many of the earlier Wolves Chronicles stories, so there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older, writer self in Malise, the title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws.
Malise is unwittingly responsible for an unfinished story; she is in fact being punished for failing to bring it to a conclusion – just like Joan Aiken as the author of the Chronicles, she has set a mystery in motion but is still far from finding the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her special task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…she was supposed to record and pass on his prophecy for the future good of the the Kingdom, and now it is in trouble. Joan Aiken, like Malise and her cousin, Father Sam in his Grotto, was also living alone and wrestling with her own penance in her house aptly named The Hermitage.
Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind; knowing that she didn’t have the strength 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, the previous and penultimate story in the series, had been written at a time of personal darkness, the ailing elderly King was deeply informed by her own dying husband and his haunting ghostly dreams; care for him took much of her time, but her dark mood had its effect on the book, and by ending it so tragically she had broken many of her own rules for her fellow children’s writers:
The heartbreak of Dido could not be left as the end of the series into which she had poured so much of her own heart over the last fifty years, nor could she abandon her own world, leaving it in a state of division and disharmony, when she alone was responsible for the characters she had created, and the restoration of justice for the people in her world.
Joan Aiken spoke often about being haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, and therefore able pursue his friendship with Dido, and run away with her 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…
Her solution was to turn The Witch of Clatteringshaws into a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, as in Shakespeare’s Royal plays, who gives forthright but veiled advice to his master the King, and a talking parrot whose riddles everyone ignores throughout at their cost. Her alternate historical Kingdom of England now seems to be travelling backwards in time – there are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, but also forwards, with the introduction of A Roads and public conveniences. As readers have remarked, the book is perhaps short on description, but never on invention, with new characters like the marvellous Finnish Princess Jocandra, an eight foot troll who luckily finds England too provincial with its lack of reindeer, and so spares Simon from a disastrous Royal marriage. The Wendish invading armies are more like immigrants who become the backbone of a now emerging nation, and although Simon does struggle to rise to his Henry V moment with a mock Agincourt speech to his humble troops, he finds he can win his battles with a hilarious game where no one need die. The long suffering Dido Twite, continues indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and even the elderly residents of a hellish care home, (another Aiken prophecy reflected in our desperate Covid ridden society?) and now in the person of Malise we meet another, painstaking, unassuming heroine who has the wit, but struggles, sympathetically, to find the words to save the world.
So by hook and by crook, everything is finally brought to its happy conclusion, found, if not entirely fleshed out, and made buoyant by its humour and courage; villains are despatched, unfortunate victims are saved, and even the magical prehistoric creatures are dealt with or found new homes. Old friends are visited, or old villains reprieved, and those who know the Wolves Chronicles will feel they have had one last journey to the world of Joan Aiken.
Her English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock due to illness and exhaustion, 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, a kind of Apologia 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.
Joan Aiken died in January 2004
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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…?
For fellow writers seeking Joan Aiken’s sympathetic and cheering advice there is the invaluable