Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles 

Could Joan Aiken have imagined that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may be turned upside down, but she was ahead of us; her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history, and this may be the ideal time to discover them.

Even after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of these wonderful books, as new generations of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work, and on our ability to face ever more extraordinary adventures of our own.

 Terry Pratchett was another writer for all generations, 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 his final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”  Were they leaving us a message?

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The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books,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

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, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost 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 an ideal 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. It turns out that we do better together…

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 the previous 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. Now in the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland –  since the book was written homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood –  but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts through the airwaves they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find 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, or as now by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the Ether.

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 the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her adventures, and even from 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; 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 can illustrate the patterns 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

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Illustration above by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

(Post originally published pre-Brexit  in 2015 – updated in 2020 – where next?)

Joan Aiken’s memories of Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, seen at the age of about one in this picture, was born in Montreal in 1889, to a couple whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; she had a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she spent the last half of her life in Sussex, England, where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become.  Many years later her younger sister Grace wrote:

‘Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she met a young man called Conrad Aiken and fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.’

In the 1920’s the Aikens moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, and Joan was born there, the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

Grace writes that not long afterwards:

‘Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.’

It was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie knew that the little village school would not provide much of an education. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ , a girl called Winnie, as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

I thought of this impersonal and unjudgemental comment recently, when, remembering Jessie’s birthday on March 1st, I went to look at the small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece,  and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box she had given me near the end of her life which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’, was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with so many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could be so easily restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity, in the line down from mother to daughter and grand daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken decided to have her favourite heroine share Jessie’s Birthday of March 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan Mark – Joan Aiken admirer pays tribute to a ‘solid gold original’.

Jan Mark tribute cover

Jan Mark, a fellow twentieth century children’s writer and keen reviewer of  contemporary children’s literature in the Times Educational Supplement, was also a staunch Joan Aiken fan.

On the cover of one of Jan Mark’s own books, about the joy of libraries, and their magical power to change the lives of otherwise isolated children, I spotted this magical tribute, for which I am sure she must have been responsible.

Do you recognise the book on the shelf in the library above? It’s a real book, by Joan Aiken, and also tells the story of a lonely child, who had one special book to keep him company on a dangerous adventure; I can’t believe it is there by chance.

Saddle the Sea HB

Jan Mark wrote about and for real children, and in her book reviews she took other authors severely to task for any slipshod practice, or any ‘writing down’ – she believed children deserved the best, and among these, Joan Aiken, she wrote, was

“a solid gold original to the very end.”

Jan Mark wrote about the last two Wolves Chronicles, the final Dido Twite adventures which were published after Joan Aiken’s death, saying that to keep faith with her readers Aiken was determined to bring the saga to a conclusion even ‘if it meant taking some wild leaps…and leaving some things unexplained.’

Writing about Aiken’s long writing history, and especially her lifetime’s collections of fantasy stories, where almost anything could happen, and often did, and the most terrifying wishes sometimes came true, Jan Mark concluded with a lovely tribute:

  “For half a century anyone who wanted a new Joan Aiken story had only to wish, and another one would be along shortly. I grew up with her books and watched successive generations adore them. Impossible to believe there will be no more.”

Jan Mark is herself much missed, but thanks to her many supporters is having a revival, and you can read about her life and prize winning books for children at https://janmark.net/

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More about Joan Aiken, The Wolves Chronicles and all her books as always at

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/books.html

 

Joan Aiken Shares her Favourite Books

Old favourites.png

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!