Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles 

Could Joan Aiken have imagined that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may be turned upside down, but she was ahead of us; her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history, and this may be the ideal time to discover them.

Even after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of these wonderful books, as new generations of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work, and on our ability to face ever more extraordinary adventures of our own.

 Terry Pratchett was another writer for all generations, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of his final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”  Were they leaving us a message?

Can it be a coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles which she had been writing throughout her life, was also,  many years before Pratchett’s,  a down-to-earth social worker witch who visiting her flock on a flying golf club,  has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom… The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, with an urgent message, they are moved to do so much more explicitly.

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’ This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions now with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, decide, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops,  that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of our Island’s history. It turns out that we do better together…

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. Now in the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland –  since the book was written homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts through the airwaves they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom…

This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but  Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the Ether.

At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

jAikencircle poem2

    Towards the conclusion of the series, her dangerous and fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy, they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,  stories don’t have a tell by date…

 

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Illustration above by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

(Post originally published pre-Brexit  in 2015 – updated in 2020 – where next?)

Joan Aiken’s memories of Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, seen at the age of about one in this picture, was born in Montreal in 1889, to a couple whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; she had a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she spent the last half of her life in Sussex, England, where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become.  Many years later her younger sister Grace wrote:

‘Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she met a young man called Conrad Aiken and fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.’

In the 1920’s the Aikens moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, and Joan was born there, the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

Grace writes that not long afterwards:

‘Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.’

It was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie knew that the little village school would not provide much of an education. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ , a girl called Winnie, as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

I thought of this impersonal and unjudgemental comment recently, when, remembering Jessie’s birthday on March 1st, I went to look at the small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece,  and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box she had given me near the end of her life which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’, was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with so many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could be so easily restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity, in the line down from mother to daughter and grand daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken decided to have her favourite heroine share Jessie’s Birthday of March 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice for World Book Day? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, as illustrated here by Quentin Blake.  (Actually Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…!)

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her mother Jessie, and wrote:

“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days, after an infectious illness all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, ( and possibly being slightly delirious!) that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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The Watcher on the Shore – indelible patterns of family life

Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie

 

Family anniversaries spark memories, but they can also open chasms back into the past; although birthdays may be celebrated, they are also haunted by the deaths of those remembered…   While I was reading back about the life of my Granny Jessie, Joan Aiken’s beloved mother, whose birthday falls on the first of March,  I discovered a series of strange coincidences, which told stories of their own, weaving our family history into memorable new patterns.

The first of March is a day I like to celebrate every year.  It’s a day usually marked with daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit Jessie, although primroses and cowslips would have been her preference, and grew plentifully in her garden and wild on the Sussex Downs in the countryside where she and Joan lived and walked.

Primroses1174342118

 I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday in 1970, when she would have been eighty-one. That year she didn’t stay for the first of March; knowing how ill she was, she had resigned herself to going, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary in the early hours of the 27th of February, having waited only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again.

Joan had been in Savannah Georgia, visiting her father Conrad Aiken – painfully divorced by Jessie after the agonising discovery of his constant infidelity, more than forty years earlier, when Joan was just four. Always able to draw the attention of the family, Conrad was himself in hospital, and  Joan had to divide her attention between two dying parents one on either side of the Atlantic. Should she take a message? Yes, said Jessie, ‘Give him my love.’

Jessie met her American poet husband when they were students at Harvard in the spring of 1911.  They had been married very young, and the marriage lasted only for about fifteen turbulent years; when they parted they never met or spoke again. Joan grew up with her Canadian mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. Now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex; she was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, he knew she was ill, and was asking about her, and he also when asked, sent a message of love.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the night of her return, Joan related a dream of her father’s; he had extraordinary dreams and liked to share them. He was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them, and force them into a dory, and row them out to a larger ship anchored further out in the harbour. ‘What kind of birds?’ ‘Kearsages,’ he answered. Joan had never heard of such birds. And when he had with some difficulty carried the birds up the steep companion-way to the deck of the ship, he noticed far away on the shore that there was someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love, and the story of the dream to Jessie. Conrad lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died later that night.

Curiously the 27th of February was also the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron. The father of her children, he was quite a bit older; he had been born in 1911 at about the time and in the very year when her parents were falling in love in a Boston spring, but he had also died many years before, in 1955. For us children his death was more important, and has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?

But looking through some letters and papers to confirm the date I came across another piece of family history from that same date, that I am sure I was unaware of until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February, even longer ago in 1901 had been a day of memorable family tragedy; this was the day when Conrad’s own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to their eleven year old son to close the door into the nursery, leaving his brothers and sister in the care of their maid, and going by himself to report this unthinkable story to the police.

Conrad Aiken mourned the loss of his mother all his life. Finding his parents dead, he wrote, he ‘felt possessed of them forever.’ He also wondered throughout his adult life, if his constant infidelities, which led to two further marriages and the break up of his own children’s family, had really been a search for the long lost mother who he had idealised, resented, and then mourned for the rest of his life. His most potent early memory was of her reading to him, sitting on the nursery floor, which was to be overlaid by the second memory he could not erase. At the end of his life he returned to Savannah, and lived in the house next door to the scene of his childhood tragedy.

These are lines about that return, that come from his last poem:

Death is a toy upon the nursery floor
broken we know that it can hurt no more
and birth, much farther back, begins to seem
like that recurring and delicious dream

Dream, or a vision, we could not stay
and it is lost.
How can old age receive such Pentecost?

timeline 1

How strange that there should be a second death, another final loss, and on the very same date, of a wife, a long lost love, the mother of his children, also unattainable because of unstoppable human folly, and mourned for many years, and whose absence could only be bridged by the stories of their writer daughter.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.

She called it The Watcher on the Shore.

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snowdrop_clumpx500

 

Find the story of Joan Aiken in the picture Timeline at www.joanaiken.com