Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  Use of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a  prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘

‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, although it was presumably bewildering to the children of her own home village, still fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters”

The Sleep of Reason

     This haunting picture, and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter Goya, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert, moving between the news of the day, scientific discoveries that were changing the world, and the works of other artists and writers from the past and present, who influenced her own writing with their responses to the world in which they found themselves.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  nearly twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel the dereliction of human awareness that led to this threat to life on our planet, leads to an invasion of monsters – the cockatrices of her story – who are descending on earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing  need to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies carelessly or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a new current breed of  writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, can save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality as much as in the imagination, falling into Goya’s Sleep of Reason – could be equally harmful.

Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

*****

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Best Beloved Writers – thank you for all those books…!

 First & lastAlways a favourite of course, her first and her last.

  There have been a spate of ‘Top Ten’ children’s book lists lately, voted for by readers and critics, but all seem to go for the most well known, the ‘top’ titles by each author, whereas what I remember from my reading childhood are the writersI remember the absolute delight of discovering a voice that spoke to me, took me away to another world, and even more wonderful, the moment when I discovered these writers had written other books… so I could go back  to them again and again! Perhaps the earliest of these was Beatrix Potter – what a heavenly combination for me, a country child, of those familiar landscapes in her delicate but detailed illustrations, and endearing ( or sometimes scary!) characters in stories told with such humour and rhythm – ‘I go barefoot, barefoot, barefoot’ or ‘pit pat waddle pat, pit pat waddle pat…’ a gift for readers aloud!   An early hero was the bad cat Simpkin in The Tailor of Gloucester who got all my sympathy for being in the wrong but unable to explain himself. ‘Where is my TWIST…?’  ‘Where is my MOUSE!’

A brilliant short novel – it had everything!

My next addictions were the coloured fairy books – Andrew Lang’s collections of stories from around the world, not many fairies, but every kind of myth and legend, and an original example of the inclusion of ‘found texts’ or ‘mediaeval’  illustrations – scraps of old documents, lost tales, ‘found’ fairy spells that now fill current historical fantasies from Philip Pullman to Chris Riddell.  At the time I believed in them absolutely, maybe they were real?

Other fairies or at least the most wonderful fairy godmother was to be found in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblins, transcendentally beautiful in her tower, with her purifying bath of stars and her fire of roses.  All his books – The Golden Key, The Light Princess,  still have the power to move me to another plane, such uplifting writing.

I had a Canadian grandmother who was a postgraduate at Radcliffe, Boston USA, where she heard talks by Sylvia Pankhurst and  saw Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. She taught my mother Joan Aiken at home until the age of twelve, and I inherited all their books – not just What Katy Did, but the books Katy might have read – Elizabeth Wetherell’s The Wide Wide World, or Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.  Also I loved some of the Alcott heroines, like Rose from Eight Cousins, but I preferred the put-upon, struggling motherless girls, and the detail of their day to day American lives,  a more grown up version of the fairy tale heroines with their wicked stepmothers perhaps, but excellent material for me as a would be orphan – or rather daughter of a desperately hard working single mother! Those girls are probably still my friends and role models, and I’m delighted to see their popularity endure.

At the same time I was discovering the tongue in cheek parodies of E.Nesbit’s fairy tales – Nine Unlikely Tales or The Magic World with their string of unfortunate Royal families and unhappy christening parties, and her hilarious but gentle social criticism which delightfully included you, the reader, as a partisan, or being the ‘best beloved’ of the flamboyant storyteller in Kipling’s Just So Stories.  I first began to enjoy and appreciate style for its own sake. And I wondered about the mysterious double world of Nesbit’s  Harding’s Luck and The House of Arden which gave alternate views of the same story, and two possible outcomes…

More stories followed – the now less known Eleanor Farjeon wrote two collections of stories set in my own Sussex countryside – Elsie Piddock who skipped on top of Mount Caburn to stop developers building houses there was another heroine, singing ‘Andy Spandy sugardy candy french almond rock’ – and is skipping there still for all we know… and Martin Pippin, the hapless hero sent to find his baby or his wife in daisy field or apple orchard who told the old Sussex stories.  A direct descendant of E.Nesbit, she went on to write one of my possible Desert Island favourites – The Little Bookroom.

Delightful dry humour came from T.H.White’s Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood – I loved the witch wandering on the battlements looking up beauty remedies in a magazine called ‘Vague’ that she had obtained from the future, or the bunch of frightful boys – Agravaine, Gawaine, Gareth and Gaheris  obstructing King Pellinore, as he followed fewmets in his hunt for the questing beast.

I did finally (almost!) come into the present day with Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden – why is this not on any list? It has a marvellous evocation of the past, but also for me was the first glimpse into the heart of a boy.  Such a brilliant unfolding of the story, and what an ending when he meets his long lost love.  Unforgettable.  And at about the same time I discovered  William Mayne, a couple of his books  Underground Alley and A Parcel of Trees will continue to haunt me, with their mix of everyday life and elusive magic, as of course does his own unfortunate history and eventual disgrace.

Noel Streatfeild of course was a regular standby – being a post war baby I identified strongly with the children who had to earn their own livings, preferably on the stage, or at a pinch as a bluebell girl in a circus, or playing Mary in a film of The Secret Garden, and of course with my passion for orphans I identified completely with the real Mary Lennox, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Sarah Crewe, making her quite shocking sudden poverty and loneliness more bearable by imagining the worse fate of a prisoner in the Bastille.

The real joy of those books, was the suggestion that by using your imagination,  changing your outlook, you could change your life. So I would find it completely impossible to make a list of top ten books – what I was lucky enough to have was a magical library from the past, that grew and expanded as I grew up, and which was continually added to thanks to my mother’s  own writing career  and the work of her friends and contemporaries during another ‘golden age’ of children’s writing.

Although most of my favourites have come from quite a bit earlier, and I have to confess a weakness for the language and style of that earlier golden age,  I do of course have to include some Aikens in my selection – her own first stories of magic and mystery, the Armitage family stories and others, were the backbone of my early reading life,  and the glorious unfolding ‘Wolves’ saga with the adventures of Dido Twite and her sister Is, lasted until her death. It may be heresy, but my own favourite is that very last one, The Witch of Clatteringshaws – hardly known in comparison with ‘Wolves’ or ‘Black Hearts’ but is for me absolutely bursting with character, history humour and magic, as if she had to get in every last thing.  Simon recovers from being proposed to by ‘an eight foot troll’ – the visiting Finnish princess – and escapes to lead his armies into battle against the Wends, but being about as inexperienced as his army, gives them a less than encouraging version of the Agincourt speech to cheer them on. Luckily the Wendish leader is very eccentric, and not much battle ensues.  Meanwhile Dido is up in Scotland looking for a long lost heir, and meeting the Witch herself, let alone the peculiar inhabitants of Clatteringshaws, where the bairns throw their books into the loch on Saint Vinnipeg’s day and surprise a monster… and there’s so much more, so delightful…sorry I’m going to have to go and read it again!

~~~~~***~~~~~

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…?

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 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.

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 in every possible genre.

This time, making gleeful use of her experience from a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, Joan Aiken had come up with a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs H V Aver of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more!  ( Find it here )

  “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.”

 *******

No surprise then that the modern incarnation of that same publisher is now happy to bring these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s Murder Room imprint – where you can now find Joan Aiken’s first six Romantic Gothics

Read more about the background to them here