Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

In the year when Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 91st Birthday,  she would have been astonished to see the outpouring of love, gratitude and admiration honouring her, let alone the appearance of a ‘Wolves’ Google Doodle celebrating her birthday, and her writing.

Could she have known that years later 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 the series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of history.

More than ten years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books. A new generation of parents are passing on their own childhood favourites – and new generations of writers continue to acknowledge her ever fertile influence and memorable writing skills.

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 alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggests 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 which she 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 The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and at the last, do so much more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, even pre-historic 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 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, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose culture then becomes part of the Island’s history.

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories 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. Here they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – homelessness and gambling addiction far from fantasy are now two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to join their minds together they are able to 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 many years before, Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of 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:

“Hold in a chain around the earth/Life to death and death to birth.”

Towards the end of the series her imagined fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers saw Joan Aiken’s view becoming darker 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 this 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 father, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this world of her creation may have been, but no darker than the real England or Europe of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy – they were able to show through storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it becomes 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 2018 – where next?)

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Joan Aiken’s Happiest Birthdays… and a couple of alarming ones!

1st Birthday

Joan Aiken was born on September 4th 1924 in a haunted house named after a mysterious astrologer, Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex.

All these elements were to have a lasting place in her imagination, and that particular haunted house would appear in many of her favourite stories.

Wychwood

At the age of five Joan  moved to a small village and the house of a new step-father; it was a place she came to love, as she had a good deal of freedom and was taught at home by her mother, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing! Years later she wrote about the experience in a novel called The Shadow Guests, where a boy deals with the difficulty of school life by retreating into a  world of ghostly imaginary friends. Writing was clearly the answer, and her first term’s report said she showed promise… she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.

Just a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.

Another very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript:

Birthday crop

This was the beginning of  her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green, and now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chasewhich she began on September 4th 1953 in this old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

September 1976 was also a special birthday.  Two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein, they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.

J&J September

Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September Joan Aiken Day and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy US thanks to all the books

she left for us to enjoy!

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Here is the new edition of The Shadow Guests now out  from Puffin Books

with added material about Joan’s school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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Visit the website to see more of her life in the Joan Aiken Picture Timeline

Joan Aiken’s Imaginary Friends…The Shadow Guests

Herm

 Joan Aiken…making up friends?

When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an alarming and unfriendly place. A 1930’s progressive boarding school in Oxford, full of the chatter of school slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her double-graduate mother Jessie had also been her teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they all read, shared and inhabited.

Joan’s distressing introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her children’s novel The Shadow Guests.  Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…

Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons.  Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted  glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she  gives to her hero Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…

Another side to Joan Aiken’s inspiration for  The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough as a fantasy friend, but he himself is pursued by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.

So if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he finds he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience from reading, and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:

  He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up?  Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look-out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?

With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the sometimes scary walk to school, the taunting  or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.

This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them.  From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:

 ‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.

The prospect of school is even more unnerving:

‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’

Cousin Eunice considered this.

‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’

Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.

But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.

Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story,  although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.

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Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…

The new edition of The Shadow Guests  now out from Puffin Books

with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!

NewShadow Guests Puffin

 

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Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years, and a Happy Retirement!

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014  while still at the office!) was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years. He only recently decided to retire and give up his daily subway journey  to their offices in Times Square where he has seen the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father,  Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet,  had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which according to Nichols had already sold over 11,000 copies within a few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and has been one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever since, and has assisted with the publication of more than 100 further books since then – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin offs, plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would  shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”   It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married the American painter Julius Goldstein and began to spend half her year in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example of one novel he writes:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”  For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the movie of this name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s other meaning…

Sadly Joan was not there in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but as her daughter and literary ambassador I was in New York with Charles that autumn and with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore hosted an evening of celebration – rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before hurricane Sandy hit town!  So it was not until some time later , when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a triple celebration!

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You Charles

(and Brandt & Hochman!)

For fifty wonderful years, and wishing you many more Happy Birthdays! x

 

CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Celebrating his 80th Birthday at the office!

 Now sending love and All Best Wishes for his 85th

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Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)