Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

Is this Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

The cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the Witch of Clatteringshaws (who is also the incumbent district visitor, rail inspector and general dogsbody caring for her thankless small Scottish community) brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen. The artist, Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice double metaphor, because, just as there is a good deal of the young Joan Aiken in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, whose energy and curiosity had driven so many of the earlier Wolves Chronicles stories, so there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older, writer self in Malise, the title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is unwittingly responsible for an unfinished story; she is in fact being punished for failing to bring it to a conclusion – just like Joan Aiken as the author of the Chronicles, she has set a mystery in motion but is still far from finding the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her special task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…she was supposed to record and pass on his prophecy for the future good of the the Kingdom, and now it is in trouble. Joan Aiken, like Malise and her cousin, Father Sam in his Grotto, was also living alone and wrestling with her own penance in her house aptly named The Hermitage.

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind; knowing that she didn’t have the strength to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon.

The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale, the previous and penultimate story in the series, had been written at a time of personal darkness, the ailing elderly King was deeply informed by her own dying husband and his haunting ghostly dreams; care for him took much of her time, but her dark mood had its effect on the book, and  by ending it so tragically she had broken many of her own rules for her fellow children’s writers:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

The heartbreak of Dido could not be left as the end of the series into which she had poured so much of her own heart over the last fifty years, nor could she abandon her own world, leaving it in a state of division and disharmony, when she alone was responsible for the characters she had created, and the restoration of justice for the people in her world.

Joan Aiken spoke often about being haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, and therefore able pursue his friendship with Dido, and run away with her to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

Her solution was to turn The Witch of Clatteringshaws into a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, as in Shakespeare’s Royal plays, who gives forthright but veiled advice to his master the King, and a talking parrot whose riddles everyone ignores throughout at their cost. Her alternate historical Kingdom of England now seems to be travelling backwards in time – there are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, but also forwards, with the introduction of A Roads and public conveniences. As readers have remarked, the book is perhaps short on description, but never on invention, with new characters like the marvellous Finnish Princess Jocandra, an eight foot troll who luckily finds England too provincial with its lack of reindeer, and so spares Simon from a disastrous Royal marriage. The Wendish invading armies are more like immigrants who become the backbone of a now emerging nation, and although Simon does struggle to rise to his Henry V moment with a mock Agincourt speech to his humble troops, he finds he can win his battles with a hilarious game where no one need die. The long suffering Dido Twite, continues indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and even the elderly residents of a hellish care home, (another Aiken prophecy reflected in our desperate Covid ridden society?) and now in the person of Malise we meet another, painstaking, unassuming heroine who has the wit, but struggles, sympathetically, to find the words to save the world.

 So by hook and by crook, everything is finally brought to its happy conclusion, found, if not entirely fleshed out, and made buoyant by its humour and courage; villains are despatched, unfortunate victims are saved, and even the magical prehistoric creatures are dealt with or found new homes. Old friends are visited, or old villains reprieved, and those who know the Wolves Chronicles will feel they have had one last journey to the world of Joan Aiken.

Her English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock due to illness and exhaustion, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, a kind of Apologia which sadly was not included in the American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.

Afterword1

Afterword2

Afterword3

Joan Aiken died in January 2004

> > > > >***< < < < <

With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website

P.S.

I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

For fellow writers seeking Joan Aiken’s sympathetic and cheering advice there is the invaluable

The Way to Write for Children

Save

Save

Croopus…It’s another Happy Dido Twite Day!

cuckoo Tree Dido Susan Obrant

Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion. The first of March is a special day for Aiken fans to celebrate. But lately she has been celebrating some more glory days while taking part in the online #WorldCupofChildrensBooks, and has become one of the few ‘unknowns’ to break through the old guard of early twentieth century staples into the finals.

Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who went on to take over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often wildly villainous family, the Twites.

Dido and the Twite family

But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that early book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.

But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:

Dido letters

Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series, was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the sailor costume that becomes her trade mark:

Dido Midshipman's Outfit

Dido &amp; Holystone on the Thrush

Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable. Here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:

Dido on the Whaler

But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – whether with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, or the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, sighing:

“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”

The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:

“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.”

And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:

Dido the key

And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to

read another piece of her history!

So when do we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:

‘When you talk to a native or a stranger,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself – your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food – tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit you can be friends.’

And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!

And find out about ALL the Wolves Chronicles here

Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)

Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s unexpected 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.

   *    *    *    *    *

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.

Mayflower

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.

 *   *   *   *   *

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!

   *   *   *   *   *

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.

  *   *   *   *   *

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

  *   *   *   *   *

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

 In this previous post

Save

Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration.

This little tree, known locally as the Cuckoo tree, is just big enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, gave a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up. Now thanks to the book she wrote about it, the tree has become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree, one of the Wolves Chronicles series in which heroine Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around her own village of Sutton, whose hills and woods she endlessly walked and mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.

Cuckoo Map endpaper

Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house, previously a pub, where Joan Aiken lived years later in the nearby town of Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book came out in Japan, where it seems to have found particular favour, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers, for whom the tree was always a children’s landmark have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written a history about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

A couple of years ago, I was also contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan who hoped to visit the tree, and feeling a need to go back there myself, especially at primrose and bluebell time, I agreed to meet her in Petworth, Joan’s home town, and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.

Kayoko &amp; Cuckoo Tree

For children, including myself,  there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.

For Joan in her childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge in the story for a lost and motherless girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond; the tree shelters a lost cuckoo child.

Dido CuckooTree

In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be an old memory of her long-lost twin.

At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’:

Cuckoo last Page1

The Cuckoo Tree was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are finally about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last decide to write the book that would bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

>>>>>*<<<<<

cuckoo crop

Visit the Cuckoo Tree as Joan does in the picture at the top of the page,

and see her as she starts to write The Cuckoo Tree

The film made for Puffin Books is on the Joan Aiken You Tube page

Read more here about The Cuckoo Tree and the other books

in the Wolves Chronicles series

Continue reading