Joan Aiken Shares her Favourite Books

Old favourites.png

Looking back at the creation of her popular children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken said her intention in writing it had been to share all the happy times she had spent as a child within the pages of her favourite books.

With her acute memory, and what some have called ‘her magpie mind’ she deliberately included all sorts of references to delicious, poignant, terrifying and otherwise hugely satisfying moments from the classics she had herself enjoyed, and to which she returned again and again. Where would you find the most delicious picnic, the most alarming train journey, the most heart stopping family reunion, the most vivid dream come true?

She wrote:

“I loved Dickens and the Brontes, so my book would be set in their grim nineteenth-century England – but it would be even grimmer. There would be a sinister school, where the pupils suffered atrocious tyrannies – worse than Lowood, worse than Dotheboys Hall. The key to the whole book, I realised, would be exaggeration – everything larger than life-size – and it would be funny.

     Bonnie, my heroine, would be quite impossibly brave, truthful, and high-spirited, while her cousin Sylvia would be equally frail, delicate, and timid. Their nursery would be a hundred feet long. They would not have just one lace trimmed silk petticoat, but twenty. The cushions of the window seats would be so well-sprung that when Bonnie bounced on them she would almost hit the ceiling. My Duke wouldn’t just have a coach and six; he would have the first train of the nineteenth century run straight to the door of his castle.

     Ideas for the book bubbled up inside me. There would be all kinds of hair-raising adventures – wolves, shipwrecks, murders; the villains would be ferociously villainous, the good people positive angels. In fact I thought of so many things to put in the story that several of them had to be left out and used in later sequels.”

So here’s a Quick Quiz for the followers of this Summer’s online #WilloughbyReads and anyone who recognises moments like these from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase!


* Who was preyed upon in a train carriage by mysterious men, and warned about wolves?

*Who studied a cookbook and tried desperately to make beef broth, and was later rewarded with one of the most idyllic and heavenly rural walking holidays?

*Who had many more than a dozen silk petticoats, had to deal with a hideous instructress at a ‘Select Seminary’ and dreamed that she was no longer freezing but sleeping under a warm feather quilt and woke to find her dream had come true?

*Where would you find two schools where the pupils’ hardships were even more terrible than those of Bonnie and Sylvia – and where the author’s sisters even died at a similar establishment…

*Where can you find (actually in two of her books!) the most heart-stopping and unexpected reunion with a long lost relative?

*Who after a heartbreaking parting from a dying Mama, is left in the care of an Aunt more terrifying than Miss Slighcarp, cries more than Sylvia, is teased and tortured by a companion more beastly than Diana Brisket, but at least enjoys an even better breakfast than the one cooked by Mr Wilderness?

*And who survives all manner of slights and privations, keeps her spirits up until the end, astonishingly wins the love of, and forgives the unkindest character in the whole book, and finally finds a true friend who loves the natural world as much as she does…

Answers in the Illustration above!

Willoughby Reads @Louise Birchall1

P.S. for ‘alternative’ history buffs, Joan Aiken added a note about her own ‘chosen’ period:

  “Best of all, it occurred to me that the story should be laid, not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but under a different line of kings – supposing Bonnie Prince Charlie had become King of England and his descendants had kept the throne, then all the Georges, who should have come next would be lurking over in Hanover, plotting to dislodge them. This would leave me free to invent whatever I liked in my own bit of history.”

This of course led her to invent some lovely song parodies – here’s part of a children’s game:

‘Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water

 He don’t rule over this land though he oughter

 Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over in Hanover

Oh, why won’t some well wisher bring that young man over?’

 

Finally: Huge thanks to Ben Harris who instigated it and wrote all the quizzical questions

Louise Birchall who drew the delightful Willoughby

and all who have contributed to this splendid Summer Readalong!

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here, and much more about Joan Aiken!

 

 

 

 

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‘Wolves…’ Joan Aiken’s Real Life Inspiration

Torquemada

Torquemada – dedicatee of ‘Wolves’

In a previous post, Wolves…the beginning I described the nearly ten year gap between the happy day, on her birthday in 1953 when Joan Aiken started writing the book that was to become her best known work, and some say masterpiece, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and its final publication.

Birthday crop

Those ten years were a period of great sadness and change, but they ended, as in her book with a return home, and the restoration of a family;  the dedication the book bears – ‘To John, Elizabeth and Torquemada’ is a tribute to that family, and will always bring back memories for me, as the last person left in this story.

For the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book in America I wrote an introduction, telling some of the story as it had begun in 1953:

As my mother—recently established with a home, a husband, and two small children—was chopping wood for the fireplace and remembering all the pleasure she had gained from reading during her own childhood, she had a wonderful idea. Home-schooled until the age of twelve in the isolated village where she grew up, she had spent most of her days with friends drawn from the worlds of the great dramatic storytellers of the nineteenth century. Now, she decided, she could write a book herself, with the most delightful ingredients (and some of the scariest!) from all the classic stories of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, or from an even earlier age – Carlo Collodi’s original and terrifying Pinocchio which she read at the age of two, or Charles Reade’s lurid tale of The Cloister and The Hearth which her mother had read aloud to her, along with all the many others she had enjoyed by herself, and whose characters became her imaginary friends; she wrote so that she could share this tremendous pleasure with the next generation.

Cloister &amp; Pinocchio

But as so often happened in the stories my mother read, disaster struck—and the first few chapters of the book she had so eagerly started writing had to be put aside. My father fell ill and lost his job, and so my parents were obliged to sell our home. Less than two years later, my father died. This was not the moment to delve into a world of make-believe misfortunes—for now my mother had to surmount a series of very real obstacles and take care of herself and two young children until she could find a new home (and of course a cat, of whom more later!) Her troubles  and responsibilities during these years deepened her writing immeasurably, taking it beyond the mere tongue-in-cheek parody she had first imagined. She had certainly revelled in the melodramas she had read as a child, but now that she had experienced tragedy and poverty herself, she could write about them with real authority.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was the story my mother started and had to put aside when my brother and I—aged five and three, and still stricken by the death of our father—were sent away to school while she found work to support us – an episode echoed in the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, but not quite as desperate as theirs! Her book remained an inspiration in the back of her mind until nearly ten years after she had first written those opening chapters, after years of working on story magazines and scraping together a tiny deposit for a wreck of an old pub in Sussex called White Hart House, and where we were at last under our own roof once again. While my brother and I were happily running around banging nails into the walls so we could hang up our clothes, she was finally able to get out that old writing book. As if no time had passed, she sat down to finish her story. And as she entertained us with the adventures of Bonnie and Sylvia and Simon, she must have felt a good deal of relief knowing that she could also bring them through their troubles to a happy ending.

And do you remember about the cat? You may have seen that this book is dedicated to John and Elizabeth—my brother and me—and Torquemada. The last member of our company, Torquemada was a large, gentle black and white cat who lived on a friend’s houseboat, minding his own business and fishing for his dinner, until two ferocious Abyssinians moved into his territory and drove him into hiding. Terrified, hungry, and miserable, he crouched in a ship’s funnel until my mother offered to rescue him and brought him to live with us. She gave him his marvellous name to restore his courage, and he sat in the open window of the kitchen by her typewriter, guarding the house from strangers while she worked. She was a gifted artist, and left this lovely portrait of him too. As she read the three of us each newly typed chapter, and the story neared its end, I remember how I especially loved the orphans’ gentle healing journey through the green hills and valleys of England. We were like those orphans of the storm, and she had brought us safely home.

White Hart window

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Wolves’ was to be the first of twelve Wolves Chronicles set in Joan Aiken’s own invented world, where the good Stuart Kings still reigned, and where she could travel to her heart’s content in the company of the heroes and villains of all the books she had ever loved, imagined, and kept company with as a child.

Read about the whole Wolves Chronicles series here

  For a couple of weeks in August this year you can join in a readalong of ‘Wolves’ on Twitter at the hashtag #WilloughbyReads and add your own inspiration!

This picture of Joan Aiken at home comes from a film made about her and the writing of the first few of the ‘Wolves’ books which were published by Puffin Books.

Watch it on the Joan Aiken website

 

Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years, and a Happy Retirement!

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014  while still at the office!) was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years. He only recently decided to retire and give up his daily subway journey  to their offices in Times Square where he has seen the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father,  Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet,  had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which according to Nichols had already sold over 11,000 copies within a few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and has been one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever since, and has assisted with the publication of more than 100 further books since then – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin offs, plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would  shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”   It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married the American painter Julius Goldstein and began to spend half her year in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example of one novel he writes:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”  For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the movie of this name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s other meaning…

Sadly Joan was not there in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but as her daughter and literary ambassador I was in New York with Charles that autumn and with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore hosted an evening of celebration – rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before hurricane Sandy hit town!  So it was not until some time later , when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a triple celebration!

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You Charles

(and Brandt & Hochman!)

For fifty wonderful years, and wishing you many more Happy Birthdays! x

 

CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Celebrating his 80th Birthday at the office!

 Now sending love and All Best Wishes for his 85th

**********

Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)

Wolves…the beginning

Wolves original

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has become a classic which for more than fifty years has thrilled and delighted readers all over the world, but the book itself has a story almost as dramatic as the adventures of its two desperate orphan heroines – this was a book that nearly didn’t get written.

It all began one autumn day in 1953…when she gave herself a wonderful birthday present.

Having survived the dangers and difficulties of World War II, and after living for some time in an old Greenline bus,  Joan Aiken was finally secure in her own house in the Kent countryside with her husband and two small children.  One afternoon as she was out chopping wood for the fire, she thought:

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles  and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

She bought an old table, installed it in a corner of her bedroom, and on her twenty-ninth birthday – the date, Sept.4th, proudly inscribed at the top on the first page of an old exercise book – she began to write.

But just as in those stories she had relished as a child, disaster struck.  She lost her husband and her home, and for nearly ten years the story she had so eagerly started to write had to be put aside.  When she was finally able to take it out again, she said, reading that first page took her straight back into the world she had imagined years before, with its “winter dusk” where “snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”

Even after so long, the story poured out in an unstoppable flow: she stepped straight back into her own imagined historical age where train travellers carried muskets or fowling pieces to defend themselves from attacks by ravening wolves, where the rich dined on oyster patties in their furs and diamonds – but where a reversal of fortune could lead to ruin and starvation. Her  own years of struggle and responsibility had immeasurably  deepened her writing; no longer just a tongue in cheek parody of the melodramas she had once revelled in, the book now reflected her own experience of tragedy, poverty and grief. It was with mixed feelings of relief and hope that she was able to complete it and send it off.

But then she patiently waited a year before she dared enquire about its fate – only to discover that it had been lost, left on a windowsill and forgotten!  And the first publisher who did look at it thought it was much too scary: “Could she take out the wolves?”

Of course she said no…

The next publisher loved it, and recognised its parodic style, but also its very real dramatic impact – the only problem was the title, so Bonnie Green became The Orphans of Willoughby Chase, and then the more memorably alliterative The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The book was finally published, in England in 1962, illustrated by Pat Marriott, and then the following year in the USA where it appeared with its wonderful cover  by Edward Gorey, now itself a classic image, and was duly hailed by Time magazine as:

“One Genuine Small Masterpiece”

Gorey small

In the hope that this story with its longed for happy ending might inspire other

would-be writers, Joan Aiken’s daughter and her agents, A.M.Heath launched

the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize

Could you write  a Children’s Classic?

Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize 2019 – Entry details here

Read about “Wolves” and all the following books at the Joan Aiken website

Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?

*****

New editions of the book continue to appear –

Look out for a new Puffin Book, and a Christmas Folio edition.

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