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Joan’s Books

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A little while ago I was visiting a school. As a children’s author and poet this is one of the things I do regularly in order (a) to keep in touch with young people and (b) to pay the rent. In this instance I was at my partner’s alma mater, a small boarding school in Oxford called Wychwood.

While I was there I told all the teachers I met of the exciting fact I had recently discovered, which was that their school had been an early pre-war home to the then pupil, and future writer, Joan Aiken. Some teachers knew this, and some were surprised to learn it, but the reaction common to all was that Wychwood had always encouraged individuality and personality in the girls (my partner’s a stand-up comedian and podcaster, so it worked there). It certainly seems to have been the case for Aiken, that most various of authors.

Joan Aiken was the daughter of the American poet laureate Conrad Aiken and the Canadian writer Jessie MacDonald, and two of her siblings also wrote books, so writing clearly ran in the family. From her pen came a raft of books, including a handful of Jane Austen sequels, period romances, supernatural short stories and most things in between. What I want to write about here though is her sequence of eleven novels for children that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 – page-turning adventure stories, set in a mostly historical past, with a sprinkling of the paranormal and a bucketful of brilliant characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins, conventionally enough, in 1832, with a girl called Bonnie Green meeting her grotesque and bony new governess, Miss Slighcarp, who informs her that her parents have died in a shipwreck and that she is now an orphan. So far, so standard. However, the 1832 of the book is not the 1832 of our history. We are told, in a brief preface, that King James III has recently ascended the throne and a harsh winter on the Continent has driven wolves north, through the Channel T

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A little while ago I was visiting a school. As a children’s author and poet this is one of the things I do regularly in order (a) to keep in touch with young people and (b) to pay the rent. In this instance I was at my partner’s alma mater, a small boarding school in Oxford called Wychwood.

While I was there I told all the teachers I met of the exciting fact I had recently discovered, which was that their school had been an early pre-war home to the then pupil, and future writer, Joan Aiken. Some teachers knew this, and some were surprised to learn it, but the reaction common to all was that Wychwood had always encouraged individuality and personality in the girls (my partner’s a stand-up comedian and podcaster, so it worked there). It certainly seems to have been the case for Aiken, that most various of authors. Joan Aiken was the daughter of the American poet laureate Conrad Aiken and the Canadian writer Jessie MacDonald, and two of her siblings also wrote books, so writing clearly ran in the family. From her pen came a raft of books, including a handful of Jane Austen sequels, period romances, supernatural short stories and most things in between. What I want to write about here though is her sequence of eleven novels for children that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 – page-turning adventure stories, set in a mostly historical past, with a sprinkling of the paranormal and a bucketful of brilliant characters. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins, conventionally enough, in 1832, with a girl called Bonnie Green meeting her grotesque and bony new governess, Miss Slighcarp, who informs her that her parents have died in a shipwreck and that she is now an orphan. So far, so standard. However, the 1832 of the book is not the 1832 of our history. We are told, in a brief preface, that King James III has recently ascended the throne and a harsh winter on the Continent has driven wolves north, through the Channel Tunnel, into England. And so, in the second chapter we meet Sylvia, who is put on a train and sent off to visit her cousin Bonnie at Willoughby Chase. An uncomfortable scene unfolds as she is offered sweets and pastries by a fellow traveller, a man with endless boxes, it seems, of sweets and pastries. After a while the train slows and stops and a wolf crashes through their carriage window. The man smothers it with his coat and stabs it in the throat with a shard of broken glass.

‘Tush,’ said Sylvia’s companion, breathing heavily and passing his hand over his face. ‘Unexpected – most.’ He extracted the dead wolf from the folds of the cloak and tipped its body, with some exertion, out through the broken window. There was a chorus of snarling and yelping outside, and then the wolves seemed to take fright at the appearance of their dead comrade, for Sylvia saw them coursing away over the snow.

I must admit that the first time I read this I was shocked. I hadn’t been expecting such brutal slaughter in only the second chapter, and so casually described and dealt with. Clearly we were not in Kansas . . . The plot of the book is the usual ‘orphans betrayed by a wicked governess and sold to a workhouse’ sort of thing, and it all comes right by the end, mostly, but what makes it really special is what happens afterwards . . . in the next book. Black Hearts in Battersea (1965) sees the goose-boy, Simon, who helped Bonnie and Sylvia win the day in the first book, make his way to London, where he wants to study art at Furneaux’s Academy. He lodges with the Twite family who, it turns out, are Hanoverian plotters, intending to blow up the Jacobite king. The plot is foiled, but Battersea Castle is destroyed and the youngest Twite daughter, Dido (who is not as bad as her terrorist father), is lost at sea . . . only to be rescued by whalers and taken to Nantucket in Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966). This is where the series really gets into its stride because with Dido, Aiken had found the heroine she wanted. A precursor, perhaps, of Philip Pullman’s Lyra, Dido Twite is an irrepressible, curious trouble-finder (rather than troublemaker), funny, fearless and faithful. She’s the star of many of the following novels, and it’s clear that Aiken found her a wonderful foil, since twice in future years she went back and added Dido novels into the series – The Stolen Lake (1981) and Limbo Lodge (1999). Both books recount adventures that fit chronologically between Dido’s being washed up in Nantucket and making it back to England in The Cuckoo Tree (1971). I particularly loved The Stolen Lake with its supernatural elements, its terrifying child-snatching witches and the wonder of its South American Celtic colony, New Cumbria, founded in the fifth century AD by King Arthur. Throughout the series, and its alternative history, the adventures are strange and beautiful and moving – Aiken really feels for her heroes and heroines, children lost in a maze of unfairness, tragedy, comedy and politics, battling grown-ups and wolves (and werewolves and witches) as well as themselves. We re-encounter Dido’s father (in Dido and Pa, 1986), an itinerant hoboy, or oboe player, who, when reunited with his daughter, proves himself to be a complete dastard (though capable of making the most beautiful, soulful music).

And he never, never once played for me. And oh, his music was so sweet! There was a tune I called ‘Calico Alley’, acos of the words I put to it, ‘As I went dancing down Calico Alley’; and the one that went to ‘Three Herrings for a Ha’penny’; and the one I called ‘Black Cat Coming Down Stairs’, because it sounded so solemn; and the one I thought was about rain, quick and tinkly. But the best of ’em all was ‘Oh, how I’d like to be queen, Pa’.

We also meet Dido’s half-sister, Is, locked in the basement and brutalized, and we whimper with the shame of it, the smallness of her, so similar to the Dido we first met many books earlier, but oh how Dido has grown and come into her own . . . There is hope, even in the darkness. The Wolves books run like a golden thread through Aiken’s writing life, as she comes back to them again and again, even while she’s writing so many other books, in so many other registers and for so many other audiences, so much so that the final volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, was published posthumously as her last book in 2005. The Witch of Clatteringshaws reminds me, in a sideways way, of Iris Murdoch’s last book, Jackson’s Dilemma, in that both are shorter than their preceding books, and both are slightly mysterious (or, to be less generous, muddled – Murdoch’s being muddled by Alzheimer’s, of course, but still a book to reread). Heartbreakingly, Aiken includes an afterword in her last book, admitting as much: ‘I knew it was going to have to be a short book, as I am growing old and didn’t have the energy for a long one. But I knew it would be better to write a short book than get stuck in the middle of a long one and fail to finish it.’ (She had a go, she says, at finishing Austen’s unfinished The Watsons, but it’s just not the same . . .) ‘My loving publishers went along with this arrangement, but, just the same, they said, when the manuscript was delivered, they would like a few things explained.’ She explains a few things, and then: ‘The end came too quickly, said the editors. Yes, it did, and I apologize. But a speedy end is better than a half-finished story.’ She gets Dido and Simon, the two mainstays of the series, free, by the end of the novel, of the responsibilities they’d come into during the previous books, responsibilities that tied their hands, that constrained their freedom. Since the children had grown up across the books, and had been thrown together and pulled apart so often, Aiken got them to a position where ‘Dido [is] free to marry him if she chooses’, and it’s this freedom that I find so invigorating – not only is it Dido’s choice, not Simon’s (who asked her once before), but it’s also not Aiken’s choice . . . truly she sets her characters free at the end, beyond the back cover, off the stage, away in their own lives, lived beyond the reader’s gaze. If I were to write books with half the verve and heart that the Wolves sequence has, if I could create characters with half the energy and passion that Dido has, if I could think of a third ‘if I could’ to complete this trio of wishful comparisons, I’d be a happy children’s writer. Still, I try, and Dido and Joan are lighting the way ahead for me, and when I stumble, it’s not their fault, but when I get it right, I acknowledge the debt I owe to them. And now to finish with an admission. The Wolves books are all I have read of Aiken, but now I feel I am standing on the edge of a rabbit hole down which I’m about to fall . . . there are so many more books by her to explore, the world is so rich with undiscovered treasure, and, like Dido, I intend to discover it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © A. F. Harrold 2019


About the contributor

A. F. Harrold was born and grew up in Sussex, not a million miles from where Joan Aiken settled, but left there half a lifetime ago. He now lives in Reading where he makes books and poems for children.

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