Joan Aiken’s Feeling for Snow…

Opening

‘It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels.’

The opening of Joan Aiken’s classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is famous for the snowy landscape it depicts, and soon the element of snow becomes as important in the story, and as threatening as the wolves in the title.

Orphaned Sylvia enduring a terrifying train journey through snow covered, wolf infested miles of empty English countryside, with only a strange man in her railway carriage for company, is haunted by a terrible nightmare:

‘She dreamed, without being really asleep, of arctic seas, of monstrous tunnels through hillsides fringed with icicles. Her travelling companion, who had grown a long tail and a pair of horns, offered her cakes the size of grand pianos and coloured scarlet, blue, and green; when she bit into them she found they were made of snow…’

But presently, within the safety of Sir Willoughby’s carriage, the falling snow adds to the cosy closeness of the two little girls,  riding home together:

‘There had been a new fall of snow and their progress was silent as they flew over the carpeted ground, save for the muffled hoof-beats and the cry of the wolves behind them.

There was something magical about this ride which Sylvia was to remember for the rest of her life – the dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’

snow

At first they are safe within Bonnie’s grand home, and happy to explore and play in the snow outside, even skating for miles down a frozen river, knowing they have a warm refuge to return to:

‘Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

But when the ‘wolves’ take over, invading inside their refuge, even the weather takes on a different aspect:

‘The next morning dawned grey and louring. Snow was falling fast out of the heavy sky, the flakes hurrying down like dirty feathers from a leaking mattress.’

Or like feathers from a wandering goose, seized unaware by a wolf?

Soon, on another carriage ride through the ever present snow, they are being carried away to another kind of home, as cold within as it is without, and away from every kind of shelter…

‘At last they drew near the great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare of Blastburn, where the huge slag-heaps stood outlined like black pyramids against the red sky.’

Blastburn

‘Young ladies!’ said Miss Slighcarp sharply. They caught sight of her face by the swaying carriage light; the look on it was so forbidding that it made them shiver. ‘One word from either of you, and you’ll have me to reckon with! Remember that you are now going to a place where Miss Green of Willoughby Chase is not of the slightest consequence. You can cry all day in a coal-cellar and no one will take notice of you, if I choose that it shall be so. Hold your tongues, therefore!

Long before the end of the trip they were almost dead of cold, and their feet were like lumps of ice, for Miss Slighcarp had all the fur carriage rugs wrapped round herself, and the children had to make do without. They were too cold for sleep, and could almost have wished for an attack by wolves, but, save for an occasional distant howl, their passage was undisturbed. It seemed that Miss Slighcarp was right when she said that the wolves feared to attack her.’

Wolves and snow are images that Joan Aiken drew from the European Fairy Stories and Folk Tales she read as a child, and uses to conjure images in her own books, which bring a sense of warmth and comfort from a place of safety, or can be employed to send a shiver down your spine when you imagine you are outside and far from home…..

Chase

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Illustrations by Bill Bragg from the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Read more about this edition and Joan Aiken’s fascination with wolves here 

 

 

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was Joan Aiken, and how far did she go in writing about her own life?

“This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story she submitted. Remembering this years later, she said:  “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage about dangerous disclosures from their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Deathanother quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly this can’t have been autobiographical, as when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

‘“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”

Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.’

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

‘Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.’

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken novel I turn to.

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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now published as an EBook, and also available as a paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

w2w web page

Can anyone write a book for children?

Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?

She wrote:Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look like a tempting prospect.

Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…

Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self –  the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3As she said:

‘Your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.’

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Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

here on the Joan Aiken Website

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine 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 have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s 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.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

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 – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

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 always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century 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.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with 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, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide 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 Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

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 nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she 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:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, 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, always 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 endless 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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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?