…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 she was supposed to record and pass on was his prophecy about the future of the Kingdom…and now the Kingdom is in trouble.
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, which was 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 throughout 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, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise 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 the American edition.
So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.
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 societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?