Famous for munching up flights of stairs, and even escalators (where do you think the word ‘ravenous’ comes from!?) Mortimer the raven is best known as the hilarious troublemaker who first appeared in Joan Aiken’s Arabel’s Raven stories on Jackanory – and of course in Quentin Blake’s wonderful pictures!
But his adventures with the Jones family and his beloved friend Arabel, have surprisingly also made him a HERO with teachers of reluctant readers. Here’s a letter from one of them – (thank you, Anne!)
“I had a class of 10 and 11 year olds, one of whom was having great difficulty in learning to read. Well, let’s be blunt about this, he couldn’t even read his name. He and I worked long and hard on this problem, mainly with the help of his brother’s motorbike manual, and eventually he began to make sense of the words on the page and I began to understand how to strip a bike engine. (All the best teaching goes two ways!) But, at last, the day I knew he’d really made it as an independent reader was all down to Joan Aiken.
Every afternoon in that class began with us all putting our feet up with a good book and reading silently for twenty minutes or so. (How else does a hard pressed teacher get time to read?) On this particular afternoon we were all well into our books when there comes a suppressed snigger from the general direction of this lad’s desk. I decide to ignore it. Then there is another, rather less well suppressed, and finally an outright chortle. He was almost unaware of what he was doing so engrossed was he in the book that he could now read well enough to really enjoy. And the book? Aiken’s ‘Arabel’s Raven’. I bless her regularly for turning him into a real reader.”
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The BBC TV series (as above) with puppets based on the wonderful illustrations by Quentin Blake is now available again to download
Scenes from Midnight is a Place one of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas apparently came to her in a dream about a terrifying carpet factory. The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans, the doubly disinherited Lucas Bell and Anna-Marie, was hailed in many lively reviews when it came out partly as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour. While on the one hand “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,” and “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”
(Beware spoilers…!!!) They continue: “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman ‘charred to a wisp’ in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.” “Despite delectable exaggerations and ironic twists on the conventions of 19th century fiction this is not a parody…the tears and laughter are meant to be enjoyed for their own sake…” and while “the melodrama manages to avoid even a hint of sentimentality, the story never flags, and finally reaches a happy ending.” (This is not a spoiler – by now you need hope!)
Meanwhile: “This author does not so much write for children as conscript them, and indeed all of us into her fantastic chiaroscuro. The writing is rich and utterly un-condescending, there is no mercy for stragglers…”
Or as one ‘Goodreads’ reviewer put it: ‘Read it. Love it.’
(With thanks to The New Statesman, the T.L.S., The Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, The HornBook and Kirkus reviews from 1974)
The story was dramatised by Southern Television with reference to the marvellous Pat Marriott illustrations, here showing the deadly carpet making machinery, and a haunting theme tune which set the central song to music originally composed by Joan Aiken’s son – prophetically named John Sebastian Brown – who provided songs for many Aiken plays and productions.
“Night’s winged horses
No one can outpace
But midnight is no moment
Midnight is a place.”
The series is being re-shown in the Autumn of 2020 on Talking Pictures TV in the UK on weekend mornings at 9.00am
A sister played a more important role than a romantic hero in Jane Austen’s own life; Cassandra was her lifelong confidante, and literary consultant, and after Jane’s death took charge of her reputation and legacy even to the extent of burning many of her sister’s letters. Perhaps because of this special relationship, sisters are of supreme importance in the lives of Jane Austen’s fictional heroines.
All six of her completed novels deal with what Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park considered a young girl’s ‘most interesting time of life’ – the short period when she has the possibility, or in many cases the necessity, of finding a husband – interesting hopes and dreams which may or may not be shared with a bosom companion. When Cassandra’s intended husband died tragically, she gave up any further romantic expectation and turned to the younger Jane for this kind of enduring companionship.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the prolonged absence of their father Sir Thomas allows the Bertram sisters to fulfil all the fears he had entertained about their possible misconduct, as they fall into rivalry, flirtation and finally disgrace. In Joan Aiken’s sequel, it is the more loving Price sisters, Fanny and Susan, daughters of a less fortunate sister of Lady Bertram who are the heroines, and Susan, the younger, is left more or less in charge of matters at Mansfield Park when the older Fanny, now married to Edmund has gone abroad with him to look after the family’s affairs. Bereft, and left at the mercy of mean spirited Julia Bertram, here playing the role of her wicked ‘step-sister’, Susan is adopted as companion by the mysterious Mary Crawford, the dangerous heartbreaker of the original Austen novel, whose intervention and encouragement allow romance to blossom for Susan in this imagined sequel.
Joan Aiken’s passion for, and knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen was shared by her own sister, Jane Aiken Hodge, a historical novelist, who also wrote a biography of Jane Austen. The two Aiken sisters shared the early drafts of their novels with each other throughout their writing lives, and benefited from coming from a family of readers and writers who enjoyed communicating their literary passions, just as the Austen family had done.
Joan went on to write six novels in this series which she described as ‘Austen Entertainments’, and for those who know their Austen they are extremely entertaining – readers will enjoy not just the coming of age, and ‘interesting time of life’ and romances of the younger sisters first introduced in the original novels, but a wealth of tongue in cheek references to characters in those earlier works, and to incidents from Jane Austen’s own life which demonstrate Joan Aiken’s love for, and delight in the world and writing of her heroine Jane Austen.
Perhaps one of the most poignant references in Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited is the description of the “arrangement of three chairs” on which the returned, and now ailing Mary Crawford is found resting in her garden. In a letter, a niece of Jane Austen’s described how when Mrs Austen (a possible model for the constantly suffering Lady Bertram?) is in possession of the sofa, while the seriously unwell but self denying daughter Jane is “laid upon 3 chairs which she arranged for herself.” With this parallel in mind it is interesting to speculate about other similarities Joan Aiken draws between Jane Austen and her heroine Mary Crawford, perhaps using her as an imagined alter-ego who she endows with all sorts of cheerfully witty and ‘wicked’ qualities that she may have shared herself, but which after her death, Jane’s more concerned sister Cassandra sought to suppress and conceal, in order to give a more traditional portrait of her author sister.
Jane Austen may well have had adventures of her own, at her own ‘interesting time of life’, but deprived of many letters about her own life, the closest we can come to an understanding of how important these other, unfulfilled romantic relationships may have been to Jane, is through the intimate conversations of the sisters in her novels.
Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited, a sequel to Austen’s Mansfield Park was published in a delightful little hardback volume and as an EBook
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These Four Aiken Austen titles are now available on Kindle
Joan Aiken also completed Jane Austen’s The Watsons and a Mansfield Park sequel about another of the Bertram sisters – The Youngest Miss Ward
Joan Aiken’s modern fairy tale, All You’ve Ever Wanted is the title story of her first book published in 1953, and imagines an unfortunate orphan called Matilda, who is showered with magical wishes that will keep coming true. Think of the joys of spring – lovely at first when the garden is busting out all over, but what if it can’t be stopped…?
Every year Matilda receives a birthday greeting in a pink and silver envelope from an absent Aunt (unfortunately also a witch) invariably couched in the usual poetic and flowery terms:
‘Each morning make another friend,
Who’ll be with you till light doth end…’
Written in the 1950’s this seems like an alarming premonition of the then unheard of joys of social media where announcements of a possible 365 new friends’ birthdays could be signalled to your phone every morning… But it is the most flowery tribute of all that brings Matilda’s otherwise burgeoning career to an abrupt end. No stranger to London office life in wartime Joan Aiken conjures a wickedly vivid picture:
That is, until her next birthday arrives bringing her own post:
Forced to resign from her job, Matilda attempts to send a telegram to Aunt Gertrude, ‘causing a good deal of confusion by the number of forget-me-nots she left lying around in the Post Office’ and soon realises that even her journey home is going to be a nightmare:
Aunt Gertrude is finally run to ground, when she spots a ten month old advertisement in The International Sorcerer’s Bulletin and rushes back from abroad, to find her desperate niece forced to isolate in a summerhouse at the end of the garden, armed with an axe to keep the worst of the foliage at bay… But there is one more unstoppable wish still to come for the poor girl’s twenty-first birthday:
‘Matilda now you’re twenty-one
May you have every sort of fun;
May you have All you’ve Ever Wanted,
And every future wish be granted.’
Happily the by now all too experienced Matilda makes the most sensible wish of all: “I wish Aunt Gertie would lose her power of wishing”. But Aunt Gertie with her usual thoughtlessness has already granted her ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’ so she has ‘quite a lot of rather inconvenient things to dispose of, including a lion cub and a baby hippopotamus…’
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This and many other delights is now available in Virago’s latest collection of Joan Aiken’s favourite stories