The mysterious Joan Aiken – where did she get her ideas?

Gladys Mystery Picture

One of these people is Gladys, in Joan Aiken’s story about her strange ‘reappearance’, written, and equally mysteriously illustrated, when she was about seven years old.

Joan was taught at home by her mother, who gave her exercises in writing – in this case she had to create a whole story told only through conversation – which makes you wonder about the ones she overheard as a small girl, and what she made of them…?

This one is certainly mysterious.

Here is the whole story:

Gladys Mystery story

This is simply masterful and full of dramatic technique!

Joan as the narrator runs rings around poor Mrs L. who tries to be pleasant and chatty but gets the most gnomic responses in reply. Gladys and her cat have clearly had an unfortunate history, but it seems as though the cat has the upper hand…? Sadly Joan isn’t going to share that story.

Instead of entering into the comfortable and hopefully scandalous gossip Mrs L. is clearly angling for, Joan brutally changes the subject:

“Look at that holly.”

Did Gladys try to dispose of the cat in some way? Has the cat also reappeared? We are left to imagine all sorts of possible horrors…maybe even ghosts?

Luckily at this point David, a third character joins the conversation, (in fact he is Joan’s little brother!) Mrs L. tries to save face, and look as though she is completely in the picture (which for all we know she is?) and take a grown up stand in the dialogue, commenting on the trouble Gladys has caused her ‘poor mother’ while perhaps also delivering  sly snub of her own to the cheeky storyteller.

Meanwhile Joan’s own mother, probably well aware of the social parody in her small daughter’s writing – and perhaps suspicious about the characterisation of Mrs L. – gets her own back by sharply underlining a spelling mistake; in fact there is another, but she seems to have missed that one!

Knowing both these two characters makes the whole exercise even more fascinating – Joan had a great respect for her mother, but always saw her with a very clear eye – in fact she reappears more than once as the model for a much loved, but fairly mysterious parent in many of Joan’s later novels…

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A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

jap-whaler

A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

jap

Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

yamamoto

Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

drunken-poets

Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

books-bird

Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

rye-ships

Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

japk

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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Joan Aiken’s Family Tree

writing cuckoo tree

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

This little tree, small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, still with a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up, has now thanks to the book she wrote about it become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, and whose hills and woods she had 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 where she lived years later in Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.

Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors  or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:

Cuckoo Page

Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan, and feeling a need to go back there, especially at primrose and bluebell time, and visit it myself, I agreed to meet her in Petworth 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.

In Joan’s 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 for a lost 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.

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 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 book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are 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 bring them together again…

Cuckoo last Page2

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To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page go to the Website and see her in the film.

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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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