Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 95th Birthday; how could she have known that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history.

Fifteen years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books as a new generation of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work.

One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, 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 The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of  Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles, the series which she had produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s,  a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who 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 The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, 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.’

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?  Invading tribes are more like waves of 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 a better 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.

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 an earlier 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. In the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – their homelessness and gambling addiction are two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to combine their thoughts together they are able to create an astonishing force and find their 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, communicated only through the airwaves.  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 on her own note of joyful forgiveness for 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, and 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 illustrates the pattern 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

(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2019 – where next?)

Illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

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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!

 

 

 

 

‘Wolves…’ Joan Aiken’s Real Life Inspiration

Torquemada

Torquemada – dedicatee of ‘Wolves’

In a previous post, Wolves…the beginning I described the nearly ten year gap between the happy day, on her birthday in 1953 when Joan Aiken started writing the book that was to become her best known work, and some say masterpiece, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and its final publication.

Birthday crop

Those ten years were a period of great sadness and change, but they ended, as in her book with a return home, and the restoration of a family;  the dedication the book bears – ‘To John, Elizabeth and Torquemada’ is a tribute to that family, and will always bring back memories for me, as the last person left in this story.

For the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book in America I wrote an introduction, telling some of the story as it had begun in 1953:

As my mother—recently established with a home, a husband, and two small children—was chopping wood for the fireplace and remembering all the pleasure she had gained from reading during her own childhood, she had a wonderful idea. Home-schooled until the age of twelve in the isolated village where she grew up, she had spent most of her days with friends drawn from the worlds of the great dramatic storytellers of the nineteenth century. Now, she decided, she could write a book herself, with the most delightful ingredients (and some of the scariest!) from all the classic stories of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, or from an even earlier age – Carlo Collodi’s original and terrifying Pinocchio which she read at the age of two, or Charles Reade’s lurid tale of The Cloister and The Hearth which her mother had read aloud to her, along with all the many others she had enjoyed by herself, and whose characters became her imaginary friends; she wrote so that she could share this tremendous pleasure with the next generation.

Cloister &amp; Pinocchio

But as so often happened in the stories my mother read, disaster struck—and the first few chapters of the book she had so eagerly started writing had to be put aside. My father fell ill and lost his job, and so my parents were obliged to sell our home. Less than two years later, my father died. This was not the moment to delve into a world of make-believe misfortunes—for now my mother had to surmount a series of very real obstacles and take care of herself and two young children until she could find a new home (and of course a cat, of whom more later!) Her troubles  and responsibilities during these years deepened her writing immeasurably, taking it beyond the mere tongue-in-cheek parody she had first imagined. She had certainly revelled in the melodramas she had read as a child, but now that she had experienced tragedy and poverty herself, she could write about them with real authority.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was the story my mother started and had to put aside when my brother and I—aged five and three, and still stricken by the death of our father—were sent away to school while she found work to support us – an episode echoed in the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, but not quite as desperate as theirs! Her book remained an inspiration in the back of her mind until nearly ten years after she had first written those opening chapters, after years of working on story magazines and scraping together a tiny deposit for a wreck of an old pub in Sussex called White Hart House, and where we were at last under our own roof once again. While my brother and I were happily running around banging nails into the walls so we could hang up our clothes, she was finally able to get out that old writing book. As if no time had passed, she sat down to finish her story. And as she entertained us with the adventures of Bonnie and Sylvia and Simon, she must have felt a good deal of relief knowing that she could also bring them through their troubles to a happy ending.

And do you remember about the cat? You may have seen that this book is dedicated to John and Elizabeth—my brother and me—and Torquemada. The last member of our company, Torquemada was a large, gentle black and white cat who lived on a friend’s houseboat, minding his own business and fishing for his dinner, until two ferocious Abyssinians moved into his territory and drove him into hiding. Terrified, hungry, and miserable, he crouched in a ship’s funnel until my mother offered to rescue him and brought him to live with us. She gave him his marvellous name to restore his courage, and he sat in the open window of the kitchen by her typewriter, guarding the house from strangers while she worked. She was a gifted artist, and left this lovely portrait of him too. As she read the three of us each newly typed chapter, and the story neared its end, I remember how I especially loved the orphans’ gentle healing journey through the green hills and valleys of England. We were like those orphans of the storm, and she had brought us safely home.

White Hart window

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Wolves’ was to be the first of twelve Wolves Chronicles set in Joan Aiken’s own invented world, where the good Stuart Kings still reigned, and where she could travel to her heart’s content in the company of the heroes and villains of all the books she had ever loved, imagined, and kept company with as a child.

Read about the whole Wolves Chronicles series here

  For a couple of weeks in August this year you can join in a readalong of ‘Wolves’ on Twitter at the hashtag #WilloughbyReads and add your own inspiration!

This picture of Joan Aiken at home comes from a film made about her and the writing of the first few of the ‘Wolves’ books which were published by Puffin Books.

Watch it on the Joan Aiken website

 

Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration

This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up; now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house, previously a pub, where she lived years later in the nearby town of Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree; feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko &amp; Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

In Joan’s childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge in the story for a lost and motherless girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond; the tree shelters the cuckoo child.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be the memory of her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’.

Cuckoo last Page1

The book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are finally about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last decide to write the book that would bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

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To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page

go to the Website and see her in the film made for Puffin Books

Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books

in the Wolves Chronicles series

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