A picture and poem from Joan Aiken’s midwinter garden, with wishes for us all.
May your coming year disclose…answers to mysteries, and more, who knows?
Thank you for visiting, your company is much appreciated, do come back next year!
The Hermitage, Petworth, Vernon Gibberd
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Joan Aiken’s haunted mill – setting for The Shadow Guests
Joan Aiken always carried a sketchbook, and made a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers. The Shadow Guests ends in a setting just like this, by moonlight of course, with a hair-raising fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course..!
But it begins with a different kind of horror – that of starting a new school, something that many readers’ children will be facing this autumn; but although this one may seem strangely old fashioned now, and fairly eccentric, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.
Although she makes use of her own unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.
And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…
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The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is out now –
Just in time for Hallowe’en…!
Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?
See more about Joan’s art and school days here:
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This is Joan’s idyllic picture of a swimming afternoon at the river with school friends; her (rather stylish!) signature is on the left.
In the 1930’s Joan went to a small girls’ school in Oxford which had many eccentricities. One was that their pioneering art teacher Marion Richardson preferred the girls to write with dip pens (and inkwells) and a special Dudley nib, to produce a beautiful patterned script. But she was clearly a gifted teacher and encouraged Joan and others to express themselves through painting; a lovely and mysterious picture of Joan’s appears in Richardson’s book Art and The Child. Richardson wrote:
“When a teacher frees the artist’s vision within a child he inspires him to find a completely truthful expression for it. The vision itself is so lovable that nothing short of sincerity will serve…satisfaction may be found in projecting the wish for something that real life has so far denied.”
An inspiration that transferred itself to Joan’s writing as well, perhaps.
A slightly mixed blessing was the school’s access to a rather muddy bathing place by the Rhea island on the River Cherwell near the school on the Banbury Road; those more experienced could use the deep end with diving boards, and also join the sculling club, or learn the more dangerous arts of punting and canoeing! Beginners – non swimmers – were dangled on the end of a pole as in this illustration from Jean Webster’s famous tale , and illustration, of an earlier college girl’s education:
On hot days it must have been a very welcome resource, muddy or not, and there was always the fun of frightening new girls with the fable of the dead donkey once seen in it’s depths…
On a hot day, an afternoon with friends at the Oxford riverside must have been wonderful, and Joan never lost her fondness for swimming in rivers, or for painting portraits and landscapes, or even for causing a sensation by telling scary stories..!
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See some more pictures and Joan’s school report here
See more of Joan’s art here
…for light in darkness, and inspiration in simple things
“We’re on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, picking up gold and silver” comes from an old children’s game – they run and help themselves to riches left lying unattended…
Joan’s poems can be found in a collection called The Skin Spinners
more about the book here
and see more pastel drawings here