Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

…is she Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

This cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the witch brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen – artist Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice ‘double double’ …!  Just as there is a lot of the young Joan in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older self in Malise, title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is the unwilling author of an unfinished story; she has set a mystery in motion but is still seeking the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…

  What was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…?

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind, knowing that she didn’t have the energy 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,  penultimate story in the series, and written at a time of personal darkness, had broken many of her own rules. She was particularly haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, perhaps to run away with Dido 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…

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores at their cost. There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

 Joan Aiken’s English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock, 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, which sadly was not included in this 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

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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 society and shouldering enormous responsibility – like 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/

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Midnight is a Place New 40th Anniversary Edition

Midnight

One of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas is now being republished to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary.  The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans,  the doubly disinherited Lucas and Anna-Marie, was hailed variously as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour, and while “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,”   and  “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”

Should we go on?  “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman  “charred to a wisp” in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.”   “Despite delectable exaggerations and ironic twists on the conventions of 19th century fiction this is not a parody…the tears and laughter are meant to be enjoyed for their own sake…” and while “the melodrama manages to avoid even a hint of sentimentality, the story never flags, and finally reaches a happy ending.” (This is not a spoiler – you need hope!)

Meanwhile: “This author does not so much write for children as conscript them, and indeed all of us into her fantastic chiaroscuro.  The writing is rich and utterly un-condescending, there is no mercy for stragglers…”

Phew!

Or as one ‘Goodreads’ reviewer put it: ‘Read it. Love it.’

With thanks to The New Statesman, the T.L.S., The Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, The HornBook and Kirkus reviews from 1974

With the marvellous Pat Marriott illustrations

Factory

“Night’s winged horses
No one can outpace
But midnight is no moment
Midnight is a place.”

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

felix-susan

Aiken’s Felix Brooke and 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 appeared, even maybe without the knowledge of its author, and had been in the pocket of a young nobleman who 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, England where the action of Austen’s novel had taken place.  For Joan Aiken imagined that this 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.

The novel is also a description of an innocent abroad, a heroine with a head full of fantasy from reading too many novels,  who finds herself alone in a dangerous world 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 the 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,  with only 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 writers had an equally powerful influence on Joan Aiken’s own work, and by setting her novel,  Go Saddle the Sea in just such a rip roaring Gothic world of her own imagination in 19th century Spain, and with a nod at 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 new 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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