Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

Although she was born in England, and was never registered as an American citizen,  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood.

Best known for her classic almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, four hundred years ago in September 1620.

But in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex coastal town of Rye.   Although her parents were divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which would have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, not as I later discovered a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But he real thing was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s, where I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds! We visited the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote their stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod ( shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood, illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet,  in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye,  known as Jeake’s House,  was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by his third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

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Joan Aiken’s Wild Read for our Times – The Wolves Chronicles

  My Wolves First Eds.

“Weirder, scarier, darker, and funnier, than anything else that I had read. Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

One reader looks back, and tells us why Joan Aiken’s fantastic life’s work, her alternative History of England, is worth reading at any age.

“It’s hard to write a short review of Joan Aiken’s sprawling, anarchic children’s series The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, spanning twelve volumes, forty-three years of publishing history, and an internal chronology that will not bear close scrutiny (more on that later). They’re books in which the wildest ideas are chased down to their absurd conclusions: an abandoned infant is raised by otters, an entire lake is removed from its bed by freezing it into blocks of ice, and a pink whale dotes on the whaling captain who rescued it at birth. They are tremendously fun—and within the rollicking life filling these stories to bursting, we get a glimpse of the power of connection between ordinary people to stand up against villainy of all kinds.
With so many characters, and an organising principle that resembles free association more than anything else, the main element tying this series together is its alternate history setting. King James II was never deposed during the Glorious Revolution and now, in what seems to be the 1750s or 60s, a rather elderly James III sits on the throne.  This gives Aiken an opportunity to write a charming Scottish accent, but she also uses this historical difference not so much to delve into political and religious tensions in the eighteenth century as to signal that the world that we’re entering is topsy-turvy. The Jacobites, familiar conspirators from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, are aligned here with the established powers, and it’s the Hanoverians who skulk around, plotting to assassinate political figures and blow up public buildings.

Slighcarp

Aiken takes her time settling on a main character for the series. Book One, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), in which two brave young orphans face off against a villainous governess trying to steal their inheritance, seems to connect to the other books more thematically than otherwise. However, it does introduce Simon, a secondary character who lives in the forest herding geese and fending off vicious wolves with a bow and arrows.  Even for a writer like Aiken, whose well of ideas never seemed to run dry, he was too good a character to waste, so in the next book, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Simon leaves his geese to study painting in London.  Here he meets his landlords’ young daughter Dido Twite, whose age in this book is given as “about eight or nine.” Dido’s parents are not only neglectful (Simon spends a lot of the book trying to make sure that she’s clothed and fed), they’re also wicked Hanoverians, and it’s up to Simon and Dido to foil their plans.

Something that struck me on this read-through was a progression in the choice of protagonist. From the wild-spirited but definitely upper-class Bonnie Green in Wolves we move to the down-to-earth Simon in Black Hearts, and no sooner is Simon revealed to be the heir of a dukedom at the end of the book than Aiken casts him aside to fix upon Dido, a genuine guttersnipe who will be the heroine of nearly all the rest of the books. To me, it feels as if Aiken started out playing around in genres that conventionally required aristocratic characters, only to discover gradually that she was less interested in the wealthy and well-born than in charcoal-burners, lavender-sellers and other ordinary folk. When we first meet Dido there seems little to distinguish her from dozens of other scrappy child characters whom Aiken excels at creating, but subsequent events make it clear that she’s the heart of the series. Returning to Black Hearts as an adult, and having read the rest of the series, I felt a deep thrill at the moment when she first sticks her head out of the window and demands a ride on Simon’s donkey.

At the beginning of the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966), Dido, believed dead by her family and friends, has just woken from a ten-month coma aboard a whaling vessel off the coast of Alaska. This useful device, aided by some arithmetic that it’s better not to examine too closely, allows Aiken to “age up” her heroine to a more independent eleven years old. No longer is she the little girl who had to beg her parents’ permission to go to a fair: during the three books and several (elastically counted) years that it will take Dido to make her way back to England, stopping in many exotic locales along the route, she doesn’t hesitate to stand up to whaling captains, South American royalty, and a seemingly endless supply of scheming Hanoverians.
Jacques Dido
Dido may be a fantasy of autonomy for a young reader, but if the sheer guts and resourcefulness of Aiken’s child characters stretch credibility, I think that she also paradoxically captures essential aspects of childhood largely overlooked by other writers. First is the importance of play: with all her self-assurance, Dido isn’t too grown-up to enjoy a game of hopscotch, or jumping around the room from one piece of furniture to another, trying not to touch the floor. She’s still a child, and for me, at least, she remains one until we reach my favourite book in the series, Dido and Pa (1986). This isn’t the end point of the series (Aiken would write five more books before she died in 2004, including two about Dido’s younger sister Is), but it is the book in which Dido finally returns from her round-the-world voyage and faces her father again. Though her adventures have turned her into her own person, Dido has to work to reconcile memories of her abusive upbringing, the admiration that she feels for her father’s musical talent, and her realisation of the depths of his selfishness (at one point Pa lets his mistress burn to death without lifting a finger to help her). It’s the kind of complicated mix of grief, responsibility, affection and anger that has fuelled a thousand literary memoirs. Yet even in this rather grown-up book, Aiken gives a central place to the games and nursery-rhymes of the street children, which, an attentive reader will notice, provide sinister clues to the Hanoverians’ latest conspiracy.  Time and again, the books insist that children ought to be playing, no matter what heroics they are called upon to accomplish.

Secondly, while Aiken may write the most resourceful young characters in children’s literature, she never loses sight of the dependency inherent in childhood and the dangers that it poses. From the villainous governess in Wolves beating and starving her child slaves via Dido’s neglectful father to the distracted Captain Casket abandoning his daughter in Nightbirds, the legal authorities are constantly leaving children at the mercy of inadequate or evil care-takers. This shortfall is filled by faithful servants, unrelated adults, slightly older children like Simon (probably about thirteen years old in Black Hearts), and eventually Dido herself. All decent folk, Aiken suggests, will feel responsibility toward a child in need, and act.
J
This kind of solidarity from the bottom up is woven through the series. I wrote in my opening sentence that these books are anarchic, and this is true in a nearly literal way: rarely do Aiken’s characters receive, or expect, any help from the institutional authorities. In this lawless, dangerous world where villains get away with murder, it hardly matters whether James III or Bonnie Prince Georgie sits on the throne. What does matter is that goose-herds, apple-sellers, and cart-wrights are all ready to lend a hand, whether with odd jobs, a decent meal, or foiling an evil plot and rescuing yet another bunch of orphans. Again, the best example comes from Dido and Pa, where Simon’s twin sister Sophie learns about the Birthday League from a young lavender seller.

“The Birthday League,” Sophie says. “What is that?”
“When’s your birthday, my lady?”
“The tenth of April.”
“Mine’s the fifth o’ Febr’ry.  Now you’re a member!”

The League, it emerges, is a loose association of homeless children who help each other to survive.  It is voluntary, inclusive, unorganised, with neither money nor power, and yet, by courage and quick thinking, it is able to rescue Dido and her friends. The moment when Dido’s father gets what he deserves at the hands of the League is an unsettling case of justice without the formality of the law, but it is typical of Aiken’s willingness to push the limits beyond what’s safe, and to allow her downtrodden characters real power, including all the consequences that go with it.

I said at the beginning that this would be a short review, so I haven’t touched on Aiken’s gorgeous, inventive language, her delightful pastiches of everything from gothic literature to Moby Dick, her critique of the Industrial Revolution, or her ruthless streak in despatching sympathetic and wicked characters alike to their grisly ends.  The critical review extract on the back of one book calls Aiken “unrestrained,” and when I look back to when I was buying these books with my first baby-sitting money, I think what engaged me was that they were always more than anything else that I had read: weirder, scarier, darker, funnier.  Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.”

First published in Albion Magazine © Mary Thaler 2018.

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Read more about the whole series on the Joan Aiken website

Illustrations by Pat Marriott and Robin Jacques

Covers from UK First editions 1962 – 2005

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘One may smile and smile and be a villain…’

Dido&Pa

‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’    Joan Aiken wrote. 

Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.

Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici –  who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…

One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles,  her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.

It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:

End ofPaEnd ofPa2

Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.

Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:

Kingy

By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:

DomdelaTwite

In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:

Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’ 

“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”

Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…

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Want to discover a few more?

See a complete list of  Joan Aiken’s  Wolves Chronicles here

 

and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here

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