Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

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:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

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.

Afterword1

Afterword2

Afterword3

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

P.S.

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 – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

For fellow writers seeking Joan Aiken’s sympathetic and cheering advice there is the invaluable

The Way to Write for Children

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Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Can you imagine that this might be a Willoughby family Christmas card showing a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green with their adopted niece Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Perhaps Bonnie is off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and maybe bag her mother another handsome wolf stole?) Or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising the Cook, Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with a sprinkling of diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences, when Aunt Hettie brings them down from London…

     Many readers always hoped to meet the two heroines of Willoughby Chase one more time, and have them meet the Duke and Duchess of Battersea – Simon’s new found family, and so here Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it turned out to be too tongue in cheek, even by her own pretty wild standards to ever see the light of day…

So I’ll take the liberty of sharing a taster or two of her imagined

Christmas at Willoughby Chase!

Season's Greetings

Halloween at Willoughby 1a      When Joan Aiken imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, she was planning to replicate the eye-watering dramatic reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as these were the kinds of wild adventure that she had most enjoyed, rather than some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children growing up in the 1920’s.

     But when she herself became a children’s writer, she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

      So did she believe there must always be happy endings? These are not necessarily a good idea, she realised, because if you have tidied everything up and polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

Season's Greetings

     And so in this madcap short festive tale that Joan has cooked up, everything goes wildly wrong, and there is certainly a spot of misfortune, if not total tragedy!  The puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali, who has lured Mrs Shubunkin away with a false message, and the festive diamonds meet an unfortunate fate when the Battersea coach is held up by  the impostor’s fiendish highwayman friends – these, luckily, are seen off in tremendous style by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with their crossbows on the battlements!

Halloween end 1       The ever resourceful Bonnie, determined that the Christmas preparations will not be spoiled, turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea (Simon’s Aunt Hettie) saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end final      Season's Greetings

      Even for Christmas Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a completely happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here!

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

 Littlest House2

  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 ChaseJoan 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 Remuswith 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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Cape Cod

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.

Mayflower

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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Nantucket

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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Brewster Ladies' Library

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.

Mary's Map tiff copy

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

 In this previous post

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A Thanksgiving Poem – Conrad Aiken & William Blackstone

In his poem The Kid  Joan Aiken’s American father Conrad Aiken celebrated the optimistic and peaceful spirit of the early Americans, some of whom were the family’s own Pilgrim Ancestors. In particular he admired an early solitary English scholar, William Blackstone, whose story Aiken imagined, and whose life of reading, philosophising and growing fruit trees he emulated in a Massachusetts farmhouse of his own some centuries later.

From The Kid:

 

Morning and evening, Lord, I beseech Thee,

suffer my cry from this woode to reach Thee,

these are Thy presents, Thy heart I find

in the dark forest in sleet and winde.

As on the sea Thou sailedst before,

a cloud, that our shippe might see this shore,

so now Thou walkest, these trees Thy feet,

and in this brooke Thy heart doth beat.

Lorde, I am fearless, Thy mercy shown,

for where Thou art there is nought unknowns

what are these seemings save Thine own?

Audubon free site small

 

He moved to the north: by the harbor found

a sweet spring bubbling in open ground:

on a clear hill, by an oystred river,

and here, he thought, I shall dwell forever.

A plat of roses, a plot of trees,

apples, pears, and a skep of bees,

friends in the village, true Indian friends,

here Lord in joye my journey ends.

What should I want but bookes on shelf—

these few I have—and that dark selfe

that poures within me, a chartless sea,

where every landfall is named for Thee?

What other voyage could solace me?

Thou being pilot, Lord, I find

untrodden kingdoms in the minde:

freedom is all my coin: and these

humilities and simplicities,

Thy humblest creatures, birds and flowers,

instruct and ornament my hours.

ground squirrel small

 

The full poem can be found in Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems

from Oxford University Press