Joan Aiken Shares her Favourite Books

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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!


* 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!

 

 

 

 

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‘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

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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

Continue reading

The Watcher on the Shore

Sometimes anniversaries spark memories, sometimes they seem to open chasms back into the past; sometimes it is the birthdays that are celebrated, sometimes the deaths are remembered… This has been a week of discoveries, and strange coincidences, weaving family history into odd new patterns.

The first of March was the birthday of Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie, a day I like to celebrate every year, as she was much loved, and is fondly remembered. 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 her.

The 27th of February 1911 was the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron, the father of her children, but since he died young, and much longer ago, his death 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?

Then I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday, when she would have been eighty-one; that year she didn’t stay for the first of March, she had resigned herself to leaving, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, waiting only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again. Might that have been on the 27th? Would that have been an unfortunate coincidence? But looking through some books and papers to confirm these dates I came across another that I am sure I never knew until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February 1901 had been a day of memorable tragedy, but not for Joan, for Joan’s father, Jessie’s first husband the poet Conrad Aiken, as it was the day when his own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to the eleven year old boy to go and report this to the police.

Jessie had been divorced from this poet husband for over forty years; they first met as students at Harvard in the spring of 1911 (around the time of Ron’s birth). They had been married very young, and only for about fifteen turbulent years; they parted when Joan was only three, and never met or spoke again. Joan lived with her mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. But 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, and 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, both seriously unwell, and each when asked, sent a message of love to the other.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the day of her return to Jessie, Joan related a dream of her father’s where he was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them and force them on to a boat for safety. Far away on the shore he was aware of 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 to Jessie. Her father 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 late that night.

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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