Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box & Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise, until we hear the stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in The Box of Delights, and it was a potent image from her childhood reading, mixed up with snow and all kinds of Christmas traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the wolves as she put it: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father the poet Conrad Aiken, from the early 1900’s and the first Masefield novel she came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived.  Joan was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning but Masefield’s own books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books with their stories of desperate snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of these books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken’s writing.  Rather than her ‘Wolves’ it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17 to tell to her small brother called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the books the two of them knew and loved, and Joan Aiken fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would be published.

But years later when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said: ‘all young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

Another review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall, describes the influence John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis. We can all share their enthusiasm for his skill in crafting an exciting fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

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The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

  Joan Aiken originally wrote this article for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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The Kingdom and The Cave – or Against All Odds?

    KingdomCollage

Joan Aiken’s very first novel came from a story she made up to entertain her small brother, when he was ten and she was just seventeen. It was faithfully recorded chapter by chapter, in an old school exercise book, which she kept for the rest of her life. Nearly twenty years later she got it out, typed it up and offered it to a publisher, but her dreams of becoming a professional novelist didn’t come true all at once.
Joan had always expected to be a writer having been ‘brought up in two households both of which were absolutely geared to book-writing’ – those of her father, the poet Conrad Aiken, and her stepfather Martin Armstrong – and so it seemed to her ‘the natural, indeed the only way to make a living’. She was also aware that it was a tough profession:
“I never, from the earliest days, had any illusions about earning great riches from a writer’s life, but I never had the least intention of doing anything else.”
Until she was twelve Joan was taught at home by her mother, a Canadian post graduate from Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, and an excellent instructress. Apart from formal lessons, much of their day was spent reading aloud to each other as they kept up with household tasks. Joan had been, as she said, ‘so stuffed with French, Latin and Literature that when I got to school I was so far ahead of my classmates I was considered a prig!’

But in the end her solitary upbringing and her extensive childhood reading paid off, and she soon realised she had a useful reputation for being wonderful at telling stories. World War II had begun during her last years at her small boarding school, and she was often called upon to cheer and distract her friends.

‘When there was an air raid we all had to bundle down to the basement in our night clothes, and someone would say “Come on Aiken, tell us a story!” ‘

The war changed all their lives – the purpose of The Kingdom and The Cave, as she first told it to her small brother in 1940, was also to cheer and distract. Its hero is the young Prince of a country which, like England, is about to face its darkest hour, and who with the help of his faithful cat discovers how to save his kingdom. Drawing on many of their favourite authors for inspiration, such as Rudyard Kipling, E.Nesbit, and John Masefield she spun him a gripping adventure tale about a boy rather like himself. When you realise that this fantastic story was in reality set against the background of the Blitz, Joan’s apparently matter-of-fact descriptions of giant flying ants arriving to destroy the country, or futuristic weapons capable of creating vast craters begin to have a deeper resonance.

Years later, after the end of the war, having had little time to develop her writing career as she might have hoped, she was involved in a struggle of a different kind, as she found herself having to support two small children and a sick husband. She had succeeded in publishing two collections of short stories, and had a couple broadcast on the BBC, and earned what she could from selling stories to magazines, but she had been firmly told by her agent ‘that she had no talent at all for the novel form’.
Nevertheless she fished out the old exercise book containing her first long story. By now she could see that it clearly owed a debt to some of her favourite childhood authors, but as she badly needed to make money for the family she put her concerns aside, and when a publisher offered to take it if she would undertake extensive revision she agreed. At his request she bravely chopped out an entire sub-plot, many wild magical episodes and quite a few characters, and reduced it by more than half. After all this work it was accepted and she received the princely sum of £75.00 advance.

First Kingdom cover

Joan Aiken was always ready to admit to the influence of her forbears, and indeed could see from her own reading how E.Nesbit, for instance, owed much to the works of Dickens; Masefield to Nesbit; C. S. Lewis and T. H. White to Masefield and so on. This process continues today – many contemporary authors are still happily re-writing and emulating their favourite childhood classics and these are openly acknowledged as with Kate Saunders respectful and heart-wrenching sequel to Nesbit’s Five Children and It.
Indeed Joan Aiken freely acknowledged that for a would-be writer, reading widely and studying one’s forbears was essential practice.  She wrote:

advice 1Reading is absolutely essential for writers, she goes on. Like all artists they have to absorb the contribution of their predecessors:

advice 2

In fact she was probably too hard on herself, and the original Reader’s Report on
The Kingdom and The Cave, (which she proudly kept!) was absolutely glowing:

“This is quite a find – a children’s book with excellent style and characterisation, warmth of feeling, delightful invention; it is rich, unusual, attractive and sustained. A remarkable feature is the balance of humour, common-sense, fantasy and adventure – in other words the quality of the author’s imagination.”
Despite this fairly bruising early experience – first being told that she couldn’t write novels at all, and then having to take on board such brutal editorial advice in order to achieve her first publication – Joan Aiken’s confidence was at last beginning to grow.
Heartened by her first success, she sat down with great enthusiasm to continue another book she had started many years earlier – a pastiche of 19th century children’s stories full of ‘wolves, and perils and tremendous exaggerations.’ When it was completed, the same publishers responded very dubiously saying it was rather too alarming and could she remove the terrifyingly Dickensian school where the poor orphans are sent, and definitely take out all those wolves…
But this time of course she said no!

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 The Kingdom and The Cave Joan Aiken’s first novel is being reprinted at last by Virago Modern Classics

KingdomCopy