Joan Aiken ~ Telling the Bees

      Simon, the quiet hero of The Wolves Chronicles, and long lost friend of Dido Twite turns out to have a secret skill which can save the Kingdom. Joan Aiken knew her folk mythology, and the power gained from working with Nature, and Simon her cave dwelling Goose boy hero finally comes into his own at the end of the last book in the series – the bees lead him to an important prophecy, and at the end of the story when he returns their help, the secret is revealed…

   “As they reached the far side of the bridge, a swarm of bees, disturbed or attracted by all the unusual human activity, came drifting, like a solid black-and-gold cloud over the heathery hillside. The soldiers yelled in alarm and flung themselves flat on the ground.

‘Holy mackerel!’ said Dido. ‘Bees! Where do they come from? What do they want?’

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay,’ suggested Wiggonholt.

‘They want a hive,’ said Simon. ‘Like the Wends. Somewhere  to spend the night.’

‘What can we do about that?’


‘Oh, that’s easy,’ said Simon. ‘I had lessons from a bee man at one time. You need kind hands.’

He walked towards the black booming cloud with his arms and hands held wide, fingers spread out.

‘Guess he knows what he’s about,’ muttered Dido. ‘I jist hope the bees get the message too.’

‘Bees! Kind hands!’ said Malise. ‘Now I remember – in the street in Clarion Wells – when I ran out –’

‘How do the bees know that Simon is their friend?’ said the Woodlouse anxiously.

‘They just know.’


It seemed that they did know. The black-and-gold cloud narrowed into a funnel shape and poured  itself  like molasses between Simon’s wrists, down his arms, and over his head and shoulders. Moving slowly and steadily he walked across the coach park, stepping over a number of prone troopers on his way, and approached the little stone building.

Proceeding with equal caution, Dido made her way there at the same time, arrived just before him, and opened the door.

The bees peeled themselves off Simon and poured into the hut, where they hung from the ceiling like a huge stalactite. Simon gently opened the window and closed the door.

‘Malise had better put up a sign bees in residence,’ he said.

‘Simon! Ain’t you stung at all?’

‘Not a sting!’ he said. ‘But I do feel rather sticky.’ His head and arms were glazed with a thin film of honey.

Simon!’ said Malise. ‘Did you once take a swarm of bees out of a house in Clarion Wells?’

‘Why yes,’ he said. ‘A long time ago. When I was quite small, travelling with a tinker, I was in that town. And a monk came up to me in the street and said I looked as if I had kind hands and could I help with a swarm which had entered the infirmary. It was a theological college. There was a dying man and they didn’t want him disturbed –’

‘And you took the bees away – ?’

‘I took the bees into the college garden where there was a hive waiting for them –’

‘But the dying man – did he say anything while you were in the room?’

‘Yes, he did! But I didn’t understand what he said. The bees were buzzing … and the man was singing – well, chanting – he had put words to a street ballad tune that a man was playing outside the window –’  “

And what was the prophecy?  You will have to read on to find out!


Joan’s respect for bees appears in several of her stories, find more in

The Gift Giving, illustrated by Peter Bailey

Find all of Joan Aiken’s stories at




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

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan 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, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back 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 town of Rye.   Although her parents had 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   must 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 Remuswith 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 his friend 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, and 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 the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There 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 did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden 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.


The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote 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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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, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can 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 in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing 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, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s 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


Joan Aiken Birthdays and Celebrations

2021-03-11 15.40.16

March the first was a double birthday celebration for Joan Aiken, it originally belonged to her mother Jessie, and was celebrated with posies of Sussex primroses, a family favourite.  But she also gave it to her almost family fictional heroine Dido Twite, who tells it to a London street urchin with some unexpected repercussions – it turns out there is a secret Birthday League of children, and sharing their birth dates is a badge of honour.

Dido's birthday copy

 Jessie died in the spring of 1971, in fact only a couple of days before her eightieth birthday, and the last time Joan saw her she had been reading to her from the opening chapters of the new Dido novel, The Cuckoo Tree, set in the Sussex countryside, where Joan had been brought up, even educated at home by Jessie, which brings Dido back home in search of friends and family after many adventures abroad. The tree itself was a local landmark, up on the Sussex Downs above the village where they lived, and they often went  there together, taking picnics, and books to read, as Joan describes in the little Puffin  Books film made about her just a couple of years before.


1969 film

In The Cuckoo Tree the tree itself is a meeting place for friends, visible and invisible, still together, or long lost but always remembered, and the Spring particularly brings back the smells and sounds, the flowers, and the Cuckoo of course, known for his famous song, but not always to be found in a nest!

Dido at Cuckoo Tree

cuckoo crop

And for Joan, and the family, even the fictional family in her stories this will always be a meeting place, and a place to remember and celebrate friends, as Joan does herself at the end of the film, as she climbs up and sits to start writing that very book.


writing cuckoo tree


So I can’t let March the first go by without thinking of primroses, Cuckoos, birthdays and secrets, long lost  family members and invisible friends, and special reunions in favourite places, even if I have to go there in my memories, or imagination, or between the pages of favourite books.

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Joan & Jessie

    Joan and Jessie

Dido Twite – the ever hopeful heroine


It is not surprising that Dido Twite is such an enduring heroine, her very survival was a piece of luck, or perhaps was ensured by her own strongest character trait – she never gave up hope.  Joan Aiken has admitted that she had imagined Dido drowning at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, giving her own life to save her friend Simon.  But then anguished letters from readers began to pour in, and also something in Dido’s own character changed Joan Aiken’s mind; it did not seem possible that Dido would have given up, and just drifted away.

Joan Aiken often quoted an idea from Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote:

“If a child is, for some reason, unable to imagine his future optimistically, arrest of development sets in.”  

She identified strongly with this, remembering her own childhood, and how she had been spurred on by many unfulfilled hopes – to bring her divorced parents back together; to get the chemicals for experiments she read about in her brother’s science books; to grow wings…and  these powerful imaginings eventually became translated into the need to write stories, and to create in fiction the outcomes that otherwise were unobtainable.  But she also became aware of the inadequacy of the ‘happy ever after’ ending of stories she read.  For her, the characters of the books that filled her life, lived on past the ending of the story; they continued to be her companions in ongoing adventures, they didn’t just disappear, disposed of by a tidy, happy ending.

Joan Aiken realised during her twenties, and after many very un-hopeful events in her own life that would have crushed a lesser spirit, that her need to write, and to re-imagine and infuse her own life with hope was in fact the real purpose of her writing. This was why a large percentage of her stories were about people travelling hopefully, despite enormous discouragement, rather than about people arriving at their destinations.  Many of her stories have open endings, suggestions of future possibility rather than pat conclusions.  Some seem to end very sadly indeed, after more than a few unfortunate events,  but with characters who have come through their alarming and salutary experiences now able to come together or salvage pieces of their previous lives and continue; there may always be change, but there is also hope.

And the embodiment of this spirit is her heroine Dido Twite.

Joan Aiken wrote:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

An avid Dido enthusiast will guess that these words might have been written between the adventures of The Cuckoo Treeif anywhere, a suitable resting place for Joan Aiken’s fledgling heroine? – and the devastation to be wrought in Dido & Pa where Simon does briefly catch up with her, but sadly so does her fiendishly treacherous father, making more than one attempt to capitalise on his ‘Delicate Sprite’ – even at the expense of her life.  By the end of this story Dido is the ultimate orphan,  and knows that she will be travelling on.  There will no happy ever after for Dido, as Joan Aiken realised even at this early stage.

But this, she wrote,  is “the whole raison d’etre of Dido.  She can’t settle down; for if she had no more urgent problems to tackle then the future would be empty and featureless; there would, in fact, be nothing to hope for.”

Nevertheless there were a few more injustices to put right before Joan Aiken at least, could let Dido go.

It is absolutely in character, and vital for Joan Aiken writing her last adventure, that Dido’s closing words, in the author’s last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws, should be happy and hopeful, finally making sense of some of the most bitter episodes of her past.  She reconciles herself to the dark and unloving side of her old Pa, by celebrating what was miraculous about him, the spirit that lives on beyond the story – his music.   And at the same time Joan Aiken allows herself to re-write the original desperately sad ending of Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido was saved to find a future for herself after all, living to encourage us with her invincible courage, showing us that one day there will be a more hopeful moon shining down:

Pa's songs

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here

   Re-posted from a few years ago, now perhaps we need this more than ever.