Joan Aiken’s Wild Read for our Times – The Wolves Chronicles

  My Wolves First Eds.

“Weirder, scarier, darker, and funnier, than anything else that I had read. Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

One reader looks back, and tells us why Joan Aiken’s fantastic life’s work, her alternative History of England, is worth reading at any age.

“It’s hard to write a short review of Joan Aiken’s sprawling, anarchic children’s series The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, spanning twelve volumes, forty-three years of publishing history, and an internal chronology that will not bear close scrutiny (more on that later). They’re books in which the wildest ideas are chased down to their absurd conclusions: an abandoned infant is raised by otters, an entire lake is removed from its bed by freezing it into blocks of ice, and a pink whale dotes on the whaling captain who rescued it at birth. They are tremendously fun—and within the rollicking life filling these stories to bursting, we get a glimpse of the power of connection between ordinary people to stand up against villainy of all kinds.
With so many characters, and an organising principle that resembles free association more than anything else, the main element tying this series together is its alternate history setting. King James II was never deposed during the Glorious Revolution and now, in what seems to be the 1750s or 60s, a rather elderly James III sits on the throne.  This gives Aiken an opportunity to write a charming Scottish accent, but she also uses this historical difference not so much to delve into political and religious tensions in the eighteenth century as to signal that the world that we’re entering is topsy-turvy. The Jacobites, familiar conspirators from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, are aligned here with the established powers, and it’s the Hanoverians who skulk around, plotting to assassinate political figures and blow up public buildings.

Slighcarp

Aiken takes her time settling on a main character for the series. Book One, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), in which two brave young orphans face off against a villainous governess trying to steal their inheritance, seems to connect to the other books more thematically than otherwise. However, it does introduce Simon, a secondary character who lives in the forest herding geese and fending off vicious wolves with a bow and arrows.  Even for a writer like Aiken, whose well of ideas never seemed to run dry, he was too good a character to waste, so in the next book, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Simon leaves his geese to study painting in London.  Here he meets his landlords’ young daughter Dido Twite, whose age in this book is given as “about eight or nine.” Dido’s parents are not only neglectful (Simon spends a lot of the book trying to make sure that she’s clothed and fed), they’re also wicked Hanoverians, and it’s up to Simon and Dido to foil their plans.

Something that struck me on this read-through was a progression in the choice of protagonist. From the wild-spirited but definitely upper-class Bonnie Green in Wolves we move to the down-to-earth Simon in Black Hearts, and no sooner is Simon revealed to be the heir of a dukedom at the end of the book than Aiken casts him aside to fix upon Dido, a genuine guttersnipe who will be the heroine of nearly all the rest of the books. To me, it feels as if Aiken started out playing around in genres that conventionally required aristocratic characters, only to discover gradually that she was less interested in the wealthy and well-born than in charcoal-burners, lavender-sellers and other ordinary folk. When we first meet Dido there seems little to distinguish her from dozens of other scrappy child characters whom Aiken excels at creating, but subsequent events make it clear that she’s the heart of the series. Returning to Black Hearts as an adult, and having read the rest of the series, I felt a deep thrill at the moment when she first sticks her head out of the window and demands a ride on Simon’s donkey.

At the beginning of the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966), Dido, believed dead by her family and friends, has just woken from a ten-month coma aboard a whaling vessel off the coast of Alaska. This useful device, aided by some arithmetic that it’s better not to examine too closely, allows Aiken to “age up” her heroine to a more independent eleven years old. No longer is she the little girl who had to beg her parents’ permission to go to a fair: during the three books and several (elastically counted) years that it will take Dido to make her way back to England, stopping in many exotic locales along the route, she doesn’t hesitate to stand up to whaling captains, South American royalty, and a seemingly endless supply of scheming Hanoverians.
Jacques Dido
Dido may be a fantasy of autonomy for a young reader, but if the sheer guts and resourcefulness of Aiken’s child characters stretch credibility, I think that she also paradoxically captures essential aspects of childhood largely overlooked by other writers. First is the importance of play: with all her self-assurance, Dido isn’t too grown-up to enjoy a game of hopscotch, or jumping around the room from one piece of furniture to another, trying not to touch the floor. She’s still a child, and for me, at least, she remains one until we reach my favourite book in the series, Dido and Pa (1986). This isn’t the end point of the series (Aiken would write five more books before she died in 2004, including two about Dido’s younger sister Is), but it is the book in which Dido finally returns from her round-the-world voyage and faces her father again. Though her adventures have turned her into her own person, Dido has to work to reconcile memories of her abusive upbringing, the admiration that she feels for her father’s musical talent, and her realisation of the depths of his selfishness (at one point Pa lets his mistress burn to death without lifting a finger to help her). It’s the kind of complicated mix of grief, responsibility, affection and anger that has fuelled a thousand literary memoirs. Yet even in this rather grown-up book, Aiken gives a central place to the games and nursery-rhymes of the street children, which, an attentive reader will notice, provide sinister clues to the Hanoverians’ latest conspiracy.  Time and again, the books insist that children ought to be playing, no matter what heroics they are called upon to accomplish.

Secondly, while Aiken may write the most resourceful young characters in children’s literature, she never loses sight of the dependency inherent in childhood and the dangers that it poses. From the villainous governess in Wolves beating and starving her child slaves via Dido’s neglectful father to the distracted Captain Casket abandoning his daughter in Nightbirds, the legal authorities are constantly leaving children at the mercy of inadequate or evil care-takers. This shortfall is filled by faithful servants, unrelated adults, slightly older children like Simon (probably about thirteen years old in Black Hearts), and eventually Dido herself. All decent folk, Aiken suggests, will feel responsibility toward a child in need, and act.
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This kind of solidarity from the bottom up is woven through the series. I wrote in my opening sentence that these books are anarchic, and this is true in a nearly literal way: rarely do Aiken’s characters receive, or expect, any help from the institutional authorities. In this lawless, dangerous world where villains get away with murder, it hardly matters whether James III or Bonnie Prince Georgie sits on the throne. What does matter is that goose-herds, apple-sellers, and cart-wrights are all ready to lend a hand, whether with odd jobs, a decent meal, or foiling an evil plot and rescuing yet another bunch of orphans. Again, the best example comes from Dido and Pa, where Simon’s twin sister Sophie learns about the Birthday League from a young lavender seller.

“The Birthday League,” Sophie says. “What is that?”
“When’s your birthday, my lady?”
“The tenth of April.”
“Mine’s the fifth o’ Febr’ry.  Now you’re a member!”

The League, it emerges, is a loose association of homeless children who help each other to survive.  It is voluntary, inclusive, unorganised, with neither money nor power, and yet, by courage and quick thinking, it is able to rescue Dido and her friends. The moment when Dido’s father gets what he deserves at the hands of the League is an unsettling case of justice without the formality of the law, but it is typical of Aiken’s willingness to push the limits beyond what’s safe, and to allow her downtrodden characters real power, including all the consequences that go with it.

I said at the beginning that this would be a short review, so I haven’t touched on Aiken’s gorgeous, inventive language, her delightful pastiches of everything from gothic literature to Moby Dick, her critique of the Industrial Revolution, or her ruthless streak in despatching sympathetic and wicked characters alike to their grisly ends.  The critical review extract on the back of one book calls Aiken “unrestrained,” and when I look back to when I was buying these books with my first baby-sitting money, I think what engaged me was that they were always more than anything else that I had read: weirder, scarier, darker, funnier.  Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

First published in Albion Magazine © Mary Thaler 2018.

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Read more about the whole series on the Joan Aiken website

Illustrations by Pat Marriott and Robin Jacques

Covers from UK First editions 1962 – 2005

 

Joan Aiken’s Felix & Jane Austen’s Susan – Unlikely Travelling Companions?

felix-susan

Tales from different times… Joan Aiken’s hero Felix Brooke, and Jane Austen’s ‘Susan’ – or should that be Catherine Morland..?

Joan Aiken’s passion for history often led her to wonder what if things had turned out differently?  What if, for instance,  Jane Austen’s early novel, originally entitled ‘Susan’ when she sold it to a publisher in 1803, and which then languished unpublished until she furiously bought it back for £10 thirteen years later, had in fact come out, maybe without the knowledge of its author, and had been a treasured possession, carried in the pocket of a young English nobleman when he ran away to join the Peninsular wars in Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.

The young man falls in love, and marries an aristocratic Spanish girl who dies having his baby, and he watches over the boy, disguised as a groom until his own death. He leaves a letter, and his treasured book, to the boy, Felix Brooke,  with a message telling him to seek out his long lost family in the city of Bath in England, where the action of Austen’s novel had taken place.  For Joan Aiken imagined that the book was actually Jane Austen’s early novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’  written in the full enthusiasm and confidence of youth, and  a delightful parody of all the Gothic romances so popular at the time.

Austen’s novel is a description of an innocent abroad (although in her case it is a first visit to a big city) a heroine with a head full of fantasy from reading too many novels,  who finds herself alone in a dangerous society, struggling to make sense of the behaviour of unscrupulous villains – or apparently solicitous friends – with nothing but the world of fiction to guide her.  This is much the same situation in which Joan Aiken’s Spanish orphan, young Felix Brooke finds himself, but in a truly wild and Gothic landscape with terrifying brigands and murderers, mountain tribesmen looking for a human sacrifice, or even pirates who specialise in the kidnap of children…and he only has the assistance of Austen’s novel to sustain and comfort him.

In Joan Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea Felix tells us about it as he is recounting his story:

“The book, Susan, was an odd tale about a young lady and her quest for a husband; to tell truth, I wondered what my father had seen in it, that he had even carried it with him into battle; I found it rather dull, but since it had been my father’s I kept it carefully (his bloodstains were on the cover).”

Later in his adventures, having escaped various perils by the skin of his teeth and the use of his not inconsiderable wits, Felix has time to look into the book again, and reconsiders:

  “I had opened it at the place where Miss Susan, going to stay with her great friends in their abbey-residence, is terrified at night by a fearful storm and the discovery of a paper,hid in a closet in her bedroom, which she takes to be the confession of some wicked deed of blood – only to find, next day, that the mysterious paper is naught but a washing bill!  For the first time, this struck me as very comical; yet, reading it through again, I could see that the writer had represented the poor young lady’s terrors very skilfully; just such a nightmarish terror had I felt myself among those unchancy people in that heathen village – and yet for all I knew, my fears were equally foolish and unfounded!  I began to see that this was not such a simple tale as I had hitherto supposed, but must be attended to carefully; and I gave my father credit for better judgement than I had at first…wondering what kind of man my father had been..and hoping that some person in England would be able to tell me more about him.”

In an article for the Jane Austen Society, Joan Aiken describes with relish the content of  Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Austen had gleefully satirised:

“If we take a look at the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, we can easily see what tempted the youthful Jane Austen to poke fun at them…[they were] enormous historical canvases splashed over with forests and beetling fortresses and dark crags in the Appennines.  Mrs. Radcliffe went in for immense casts of characters on a positively Shakespearian scale (she was in fact much influenced by Shakespeare for whom she had great admiration); she had stabbings and shootings, suicides and assassinations, immensely complicated family relationships, long-lost relatives in every possible connection, suggestions of incest, mysterious resemblances, and, besides all this, a large number of startling, apparently supernatural occurrences..”

 

From this we can see that these earlier writers had an equally powerful influence on Joan Aiken’s own work, and by setting her novel,  Go Saddle the Sea in a rip roaring Gothic world of her own imagination in 19th century Spain, and with a nod to Austen’s own parody, she could have the best of all worlds!

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Go Saddle the Sea 1

Go Saddle the Sea is the first of the three ‘Felix’ Novels in EBook editions in the UK

For more details visit the Joan Aiken page at Random House

or visit the Felix pages at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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Bridle 2 -Pat Marriott

Joan Aiken’s Gothic imagination is wonderfully matched in this trilogy

by the illustrations of Pat Marriott

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Joan Aiken Shares her Favourite Books

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Some of Joan Aiken’s favourite books

Looking back at the creation of her popular children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken said her intention in writing it had been to share all the happy times she had spent as a child within the pages of her favourite books.

With her acute memory, and what some have called ‘her magpie mind’ she deliberately included all sorts of references to delicious, poignant, terrifying and otherwise hugely satisfying moments from the classics she had herself enjoyed, and to which she returned again and again. Where would you find the most delicious picnic, the most alarming train journey, the most heart stopping family reunion, the most vivid dream come true?

She wrote:

“I loved Dickens and the Brontes, so my book would be set in their grim nineteenth-century England – but it would be even grimmer. There would be a sinister school, where the pupils suffered atrocious tyrannies – worse than Lowood, worse than Dotheboys Hall. The key to the whole book, I realised, would be exaggeration – everything larger than life-size – and it would be funny.

     Bonnie, my heroine, would be quite impossibly brave, truthful, and high-spirited, while her cousin Sylvia would be equally frail, delicate, and timid. Their nursery would be a hundred feet long. They would not have just one lace trimmed silk petticoat, but twenty. The cushions of the window seats would be so well-sprung that when Bonnie bounced on them she would almost hit the ceiling. My Duke wouldn’t just have a coach and six; he would have the first train of the nineteenth century run straight to the door of his castle.

     Ideas for the book bubbled up inside me. There would be all kinds of hair-raising adventures – wolves, shipwrecks, murders; the villains would be ferociously villainous, the good people positive angels. In fact I thought of so many things to put in the story that several of them had to be left out and used in later sequels.”

So here’s a Quick Quiz for the followers of this Summer’s online #WilloughbyReads and anyone who recognises moments like these from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Answers are from the titles in the picture above!


* Who was preyed upon in a train carriage by mysterious men, and warned about wolves?

*Who studied a cookbook and tried desperately to make beef broth, and was later rewarded with one of the most idyllic and heavenly rural walking holidays?

*Who had many more than a dozen silk petticoats, had to deal with a hideous instructress at a ‘Select Seminary’ and dreamed that she was no longer freezing but sleeping under a warm feather quilt and woke to find her dream had come true?

*Where would you find two schools where the pupils’ hardships were even more terrible than those of Bonnie and Sylvia – and where the author’s sisters even died at a similar establishment…

*Where can you find (actually in two of her books!) the most heart-stopping and unexpected reunion with a long lost relative?

*Who after a heartbreaking parting from a dying Mama, is left in the care of an Aunt more terrifying than Miss Slighcarp, cries more than Sylvia, is teased and tortured by a companion more beastly than Diana Brisket, but at least enjoys an even better breakfast than the one cooked by Mr Wilderness?

*And who survives all manner of slights and privations, keeps her spirits up until the end, astonishingly wins the love of, and forgives the unkindest character in the whole book, and finally finds a true friend who loves the natural world as much as she does…

Answers in the Illustration above!

Willoughby Reads @Louise Birchall1

P.S. for ‘alternative’ history buffs, Joan Aiken added a note about her own ‘chosen’ period:

  “Best of all, it occurred to me that the story should be laid, not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but under a different line of kings – supposing Bonnie Prince Charlie had become King of England and his descendants had kept the throne, then all the Georges, who should have come next would be lurking over in Hanover, plotting to dislodge them. This would leave me free to invent whatever I liked in my own bit of history.”

This of course led her to invent some lovely song parodies – here’s part of a children’s game:

‘Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water

 He don’t rule over this land though he oughter

 Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over in Hanover

Oh, why won’t some well wisher bring that young man over?’

 

Finally: Huge thanks to Ben Harris who instigated it and wrote all the quizzical questions

Louise Birchall who drew the delightful Willoughby

and all who have contributed to this splendid Summer Readalong!

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here, and much more about Joan Aiken!

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken’s once and future Kings…

Mediaeval King

Joan Aiken’s History of the Kings of England was more than alternative; by the time she drew near the end of her ‘Wolves Chronicles’ it was running backwards. From the steam-punk century of Wolves and Black Hearts with its railways and hot air balloons, she had sent her last monarch back to the middle ages, to a secret retreat in the marshes like that of King Alfred the Great, a medieval manor house surrounded by wetlands, where he is at the mercy of old tales told of his impending mythical end, serenaded by Nightingales.

In Midwinter Nightingale, the penultimate instalment of the saga, this is how we find old King Dick; he is in hiding, as Burgundians from the continent, or even Bernicians from Northern Caledonia plan to invade the now divided Kingdom with its internal borders, and these rival factions are mustering their armies ready to put a new royal line in place. From the Tudor-Stuarts, we have gone back to the Plantaganets, and even to the West Saxons and Uther Pendragon.

But unless Simon – who first appeared as the goose boy from Willoughby Chase, and is now one of the few recognised Royal heirs as a cousin of the old King – can find the ancestral crown, no coronation can take place…

The King’s Great Aunt, the elderly Lady Titania Plantaganet explains:

‘There is an old copper coronet – legend has it that it once belonged to King Alfred, and it has come to be the regular practice that when the King of England is on his deathbed, he must pass the coronet – which Alfred is supposed to have worn round his helmet when he fought the battle of Wedmore – the dying King must hand the coronet over to the Archbishop, who then puts it on the head of the heir to the throne.’

‘Oh. But is the crown not here?’

‘Most unfortunately my nephew seems to have forgotten what he last did with it. It is like the Christmas tree decorations,’ the old lady went on impatiently. ‘Used only once a year – less frequently than that in this case – ’

‘Then,’ said Simon, ‘His Majesty keeps referring to nightingales. Is that—’ He hesitated, then went on firmly, ‘Is that because his mind is – is distracted by fever? Or are there, in fact, nightingales in the woods around Darkwater, even at this time of year?’

‘Have you not read your Chaucer?’ enquired Lady Titania rather severely.

‘I beg your pardon, ma’am?’

‘Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. His Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands?’

‘My lady, I’m afraid that my education was mostly lacking. A large part of my childhood was spent in a cave, you see, along with some geese.’

‘Was there no public library at hand?’ she demanded.

‘No.’

‘Oh! Well, this poet, Chaucer, wrote some lines about Darkwater in his forest poem:

“By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale”.

Darkwater has always been famous for its nightingales.’

‘I see. When was Chaucer?’

‘Fourteenth century.’

‘And the nightingales are still here?’

‘They do not, of course, perform their full repertoire in winter,’ acknowledged Lady Titania. ‘But even so, you may hear them sing from time to time. And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.’

A thoughtful silence fell between them. Then Simon said, ‘No wonder His Majesty is so concerned. Midwinter Nightingale. That would be on St Lucy’s Day?’

‘Yes.’

‘I wonder how the story started?’

‘Oh, I started it,’ said Lady Titania. ‘I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I can look at a hand, or a face, and tell what is going to happen to that person in the future. Not always – but sometimes. Would you like me to look at your hand?’

Simon declines firmly – just as well or we would find out too much of the story!

Like Lady Titania, Joan Aiken seems to be able to run her history both backwards and forwards, and celebrate her freedom to do so with any number of delightfully odd anachronisms; taking her cues from many favourite authors of her childhood reading from Dickens to Dumas, or in this case from Mallory or the Mabinoggion to the tongue-in-cheek Arthurian tales of T.H White, whose wicked Queen Morgause is able to wander into the future for a copy of Vague magazine…

Quenell History 1

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Some of Joan’s historical imaginings were probably drawn from an early exploration of the Quennells’ beautifully illustrated History of Everyday Things in England (sometimes also illustrated by their son Peter as here!) For instance she revels in a tongue-in-cheek ‘Ideal Home’ description of a mediaeval manor house, re-modelled by a recent owner:

“The kitchen of Edge Place was a modern installation; that is to say, it had been improved by Sir Thomas’s wife, Theodora, after their marriage fifty years earlier. The lady came from the ancient Palaeologos family and could trace her forebears clean back to the tenth century, when they were highnesses of Byzantium. She wished her food to be properly cooked and demanded a high-class Roman cuisine requiring charcoal braziers instead of an open fire in the middle of the kitchen.”

The current owner, Sir Thomas, while enjoying these modern conveniences is also being plagued at breakfast by a series of chain letters from the Knights Templar of Palestina:

“Chain of heroic love and good luck around the globe. All sanctified by His Reverence the Ninth in Succession to the Throne of the World Soul given on the fourth day of revelation at the New Olympus…”

‘What the deuce is all this drivelling balderdash, may I ask?’ –  Sir Thomas, dangerously purple, stared at it in furious perplexity.”

Only Joan Aiken would know… as she runs rings around history…

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A history of everyday things in England

Quennells

Find all the Wolves Chronicles here

Midwinter Nightingale