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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Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

Gollancz

A thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone a utopian publisher?  This charming letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather throughout her long writing life. (And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot house, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a writer ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand  Gollancz had written to her saying:

Gollancz 2

Of course she already had another one up her sleeve; in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for adults and children in every possible genre.

Her next highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair: Joan Aiken produced a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs Lamb of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more…

  “This thriller starts, as many Joan Aiken books do, with a heartbroken and misused young woman trying to move on with her life. This is Martha Gilroy, who works at a London advertising agency, writing snappy copy to sell soup and dishwashers.

When a new client brings them an evocative new perfume, she unwisely suggests as a shooting location a remote Cornish castle where she spent her honeymoon with her husband before he had a nervous breakdown and left her. When the crew go down there and start working on the campaign- using Cara, the beautiful young Italian wife of the client as a model- problems start. The client doesn’t seem to be able to get the formula of the perfume quite right, the monks who live nearby oppose the filming, tins of soup explode with deadly force, a poisonous spider is mailed as a mysterious gift, a wealthy Sheik keeps dragging people out to the disco in the evenings, a baby is kidnapped, Martha’s friend Tom seems altogether too interested in Cara, the weather is dodgy, and who is the mysterious cowled monk who looks so familiar to Martha?

Thrilling sequences include a creepy night-time chase around the perfume factory surrounded by the scent of violets, a gruelling escape to the monastery across the Cornish moors, and of course the patented Aiken Big Dramatic Finish where the heroine battles it out with the eeevil bad guy.

This is one of her best and most fun novels.”

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are just discovering these wonderfully exciting Gothics for grown ups – as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Product X cover

Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

and this fantastic cover

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of that first publisher has now brought these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s S.F.Gateway site – to read more about Joan Aiken’s  early thrillers

Read more about Joan Aiken’s sixties gothics here

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

Jan Mark – Joan Aiken admirer pays tribute to a ‘solid gold original’.

Jan Mark tribute cover

Jan Mark, a fellow twentieth century children’s writer and keen reviewer of  contemporary children’s literature in the Times Educational Supplement, was also a staunch Joan Aiken fan.

On the cover of one of Jan Mark’s own books, about the joy of libraries, and their magical power to change the lives of otherwise isolated children, I spotted this magical tribute, for which I am sure she must have been responsible.

Do you recognise the book on the shelf in the library above? It’s a real book, by Joan Aiken, and also tells the story of a lonely child, who had one special book to keep him company on a dangerous adventure; I can’t believe it is there by chance.

Saddle the Sea HB

Jan Mark wrote about and for real children, and in her book reviews she took other authors severely to task for any slipshod practice, or any ‘writing down’ – she believed children deserved the best, and among these, Joan Aiken, she wrote, was

“a solid gold original to the very end.”

Jan Mark wrote about the last two Wolves Chronicles, the final Dido Twite adventures which were published after Joan Aiken’s death, saying that to keep faith with her readers Aiken was determined to bring the saga to a conclusion even ‘if it meant taking some wild leaps…and leaving some things unexplained.’

Writing about Aiken’s long writing history, and especially her lifetime’s collections of fantasy stories, where almost anything could happen, and often did, and the most terrifying wishes sometimes came true, Jan Mark concluded with a lovely tribute:

  “For half a century anyone who wanted a new Joan Aiken story had only to wish, and another one would be along shortly. I grew up with her books and watched successive generations adore them. Impossible to believe there will be no more.”

Jan Mark is herself much missed, but thanks to her many supporters is having a revival, and you can read about her life and prize winning books for children at https://janmark.net/

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More about Joan Aiken, The Wolves Chronicles and all her books as always at

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/books.html