Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles,  or visit her in her home?

Well you can!

This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.

You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.

And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!

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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE

 

 

 

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Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

…is she Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

This cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the witch brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen – artist Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice ‘double double’ …!  Just as there is a lot of the young Joan in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older self in Malise, title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is the unwilling author of an unfinished story; she has set a mystery in motion but is still seeking the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…

  What was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…?

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind, knowing that she didn’t have the energy 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,  penultimate story in the series, and written at a time of personal darkness, had broken many of her own rules. She was particularly haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, perhaps to run away with Dido 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…

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores at their cost. There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

 Joan Aiken’s English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock, 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, which sadly was not included in this 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

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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

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 society and shouldering enormous responsibility – like 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/

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

 Littlest House2

To celebrate Thanksgiving here’s a post about Joan Aiken’s American childhood.

Joan Aiken, best known for writing her classic almost Dickensian novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,  has always seemed absolutely English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose ancestors went back as far as the Mayflower.
The Aiken family, with her older brother and sister, who had been born in Boston Massachusetts, moved to England just before Joan was born in 1924, to 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, strange and mysterious though some of it might be to an English child.

Her mother supplied her with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit, 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 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 such extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch!  This 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. Or they pulled Taffy, chewed sassafras sticks, went coasting – sledging apparently – and slept in truckle beds. The confusions were endless, but only added to the magic.

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And it didn’t end there… the real thing was even more mysterious. I had a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer on Cape Cod in the 1960’s and encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps) let alone meeting long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there still expecting to find pumpkin pie and mockingbirds!
And the mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote quintessentially English 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’s own very English adventure – set as it was in an imaginary time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously 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, a Delano from one of the first voyages over from England, and later 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 a mysterious American island 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 book was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the 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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In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated, as on the cover above 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.

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

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The Witch of Clatteringshaws – Joan Aiken’s last words

Dido & Simon

Joan Aiken added an Afterword to her last book at the Publishers’ request, for although she was resolved to bring the Wolves Chronicles to an end, she was old and tired:

“I determined that I would get to the end…and see Simon safely off the English throne and Dido free to marry him if she chooses – even if that meant taking some wild leaps in the story and leaving some things unexplained….  The end came too quickly…and I apologise. But a speedy end is better than a half finished story.”

And what a wonderful story it is … here’s a taste of what Joan Aiken does manage to pack in to The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the last of the Wolves Chronicles.

The story opens with Dido and her friend Simon, kicking their heels at the Palace:

“It’s no good. I really can’t stand it here,” Dido said later, in the library, to Father Sam. She looked sadly out of the window and across Saint James’s Park, where Simon was reviewing the Household Artillery.

Father Sam sighed. He too was homesick for his quiet little grotto in the Wetlands. But as he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he had been obliged to give up his career as a hermit, remove himself to London, and take up residence in the Archbishop’s palace at Lambeth.

“It may be better after the coronation,” he suggested. “When we have all settled down.”

Dido was startled.

“The coronation? But Simon’s been coronated! Hasn’t he? When poor old King Dick took and died, and you put that copper hoop-la on Simon’s head?”

“That was only an off-the-cuff occasion, child. It was not clinching. It was not binding. Now there must be a proper formal ceremony in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Don’t you remember when King Richard was crowned? Were you not one of the train-bearers?”

“Holy spikes! Yes, I was. D’you mean to say poor Simon’s got to go through all that palaver?”

Father Sam sighed again. “It will take months to organize. I daresay it cannot possibly take place until July or August. There will be all the arrangements to make–invitations to send to foreign kings and queens.” He paused, then said, “Some kings–William the Ninth was one, John the Second was another–have waited to be crowned until they had married a queen who could be crowned at the same time.”

“Well, Simon did ask me if I’d give it a go,” said Dido. “But I said no. I couldn’t ever be queen. Couldn’t stand the weight of that thing on my head.”

Father Sam shook his head, agreeing. “Who’s to blame ye? I understand the King and Queen of Finland and their daughter Princess Jocandra are coming to visit next week. Perhaps . . .”

Dido gave him a very sharp look.

“You think Simon ud ask this Princess Jokey just so as to marry her and get the coronating business over and done with? Well, I don’t! Maybe he won’t ever marry. He’s not one to rush at things all in a hugger-mugger.”

“No – there I agree with you. I believe that Simon will make a very hardworking and conscientious monarch – but I’m afraid his heart is not in the business. If he had any chance at all to decline the honour–and the responsibility–I think he would seize it.”

“That he would,” agreed Dido. “You’d not see his heels for dust – he’d be back at his painting. But what chance does he have? Seems there’s nobody else a-hanging around waiting to take on the job.”

“There is just one other possibility–”

“There is?” Now Dido’s look was even keener. “Who’s that, then?”

“A Saxon descendant of King Aelfred the Great and King Malcolm of Caledonia. I believe his name is Aelfric–or Aelfred–”

“Where does he live, this cove? In Saxony?”

“Nobody seems clear. That is the problem. The Lady Titania–King Richard’s great-aunt, who looked after him in his last illness–was in communication with Aelfric–or so Simon believed. Letters came for her occasionally by pigeon mail from the north of England.”

Dido nodded.

“Ay, I mind Simon saying summat about her. She was a fly old gel, by all accounts. Played both ends against the middle. But she’s dead, ain’t she?”

“Alas, yes. Came to an untimely end.”

“Knocked off by the werewolf joker. But didn’t she leave no address where this Saxon feller hangs up his hat–no message, no letter, nothing?”

“Nothing that could be found. You may recall that Darkwater Manor, where His Majesty was residing during his last illness, was flooded up to the second story, and any papers and writing materials left there were drenched and completely rotted – eaten by fish – illegible…”

“You’d think,” said Dido, pondering, “that if this Alf cove has a claim, he’d ‘a heard of poor old King Dick’s death and would be here, a-banging on the door and making hisself known…?”

“Well,” said Father Sam, “I understood from Simon–who had it from Lady Titania–that Aelfred resided somewhere up in the North Country. As you know, communications between London and those regions are somewhat meagre – unreliable…”

“Maybe a messenger could be sent up to those parts?”

“The Scottish land is a very sizeable area.”

“Oh.”

“And the inhabitants are warlike and contentious. There are frequent battles between Picts and Scots, and the Wends invade from across the North Sea; also these factions sometimes combine to attack the southern regions.”

Father Sam sounded so dubious and dispirited that Dido became a trifle impatient.

“There must be somebody up around those north lands who’d know about a cove that maybe had a right to call hisself King of England?”

“Well,” said Father Sam doubtfully, “I do have a correspondent – a cousin, in actual fact – who may possibly have such knowledge-”

“Famous! What’s his moniker? Where does he live?”

“It is a woman. Her name is Malise. She lives by Loch Grieve. (The Caledonians call their lakes lochs.)”

“So–can’t you write a note to this Malise dame, ask if she might know where Alf the Saxon is putting up now?”

“Our communications are very infrequent – once every ten years or so…”
“Then don’t you reckon it’s time you sent her a billy-doo? What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a witch,” said Father Sam rather hesitantly. “In a town called Clatteringshaws.”

“Croopus! Ain’t that rum? How come you have a witch for your cousin?”

“We were at theological college together,” Father Sam explained.

“That seems rum too! Well, go on! How come you turned into a parson while she turned into a hellhag?”

Dido was so interested that Father Sam found himself telling her far more than he had ever revealed to any other person.

“We were great friends in our teens and did everything together–helped each other with our school assignments. Malise was a very promising student. At our academy, the Seminary of the Three Secrets, she won an award as Student of the Year.”

“Go on! What were the Three Secrets?”

“There were two, and one to come. The seminary had been founded in memory of three saints, or rather, two – Saint Ardust and Saint Arfish – and one candidate for sainthood – Saint Arling. The secrets were their dying words, words of great power and importance, not to be revealed – or not immediately . . .”

“Fancy!” Dido was impressed. “So what happened?”

Father Sam became distressed.

“Oh, we did a dreadful thing. Malise and I – we betrayed our trust -”

“You never!”

“The college was in the town of Clarion Wells, where our beloved Governor lay dying–had lain for weeks…”

“And?”

“We were left in a position of responsibility – and we grievously failed…”

He looked so upset that Dido felt she had to leave the subject. She tried to comfort him.

“I daresay it wasn’t so bad as you reckoned – you were only young – anyone can see how sorry you are.”

“I went off to my hermitage to atone – Malise was sent back to the North Country where she came from -”

Just at that moment the library door opened and two people came in. Dido recognized the voices of Sir Angus McGrind and Sir Fosby Killick, two court characters whom she particularly disliked.

Dido and Father Sam were out of view in an alcove containing works on Church history, and the two newcomers did not realize that anybody else was in the library.

“…As for that young person who calls herself Dido Twite,” Sir Fosby was saying, “I regard her as a most undesirable influence on His Majesty. The sooner she can be evicted from the palace in some permanent way, the better it will be.”

“Comes from a family of pickpockets, I’ve no doubt,” agreed Sir Angus. “We can soon deal with her. Ah, here is last week’s Spectator, that is what I was looking for . . .”

Their steps receded, their voices faded.

Dido turned to Father Sam and found that he was wiping a tear from his eye.

“I bet you’d rather be back in your hermitage, too, wouldn’t you?” she said.   “Tell you what, Father Sam – I’m a-going to the North Country to hunt for this Aelfred fellow…”

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…And you haven’t even met Malise, the golf club riding Witch, ( Joan’s mouthpiece perhaps?) her friend the flying Tatzelwurm, court Jester Rodney Firebrace and his prophesying parrot Wiggonholt,  Albert the Bear, leader of the invading Wends, and many many more…

Joan Aiken’s farewell to Dido, her last book but by no means her least.

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UK and US covers

Clatteringshaws covers

More on the whole series on the Joan Aiken Website

Illustration by Pat Marriott – a rare moment of reunion for Dido and Simon