Joan Aiken died in 2004 at the age of 79, leaving behind her an abundance of stories, novels and plays which have given pleasure to generations of children – children who, if they chose, could later go on to enjoy her work for adults, which ranges from dark thrillers to elegant and witty pastiches of Jane Austen. For children her work is even more varied. Peter Hollindale assesses her richly imaginative and versatile career.
Joan Aiken is (that very rare thing) a fine exponent of the original fairy-tale or folk-tale which is also a true short story, and perhaps in the long run it will come to seem that her many books of short stories are her finest achievement. When it comes to longer stories, though, what a steady flow of riches is here, stretching across the age-range. For very young readers we might specially pick out the books about Arabel and her pet raven, Mortimer, with his single-word refrain, ‘Nevermore’. Beginning in 1972 with Arabel’s Raven , these books were illustrated by Quentin Blake. Blake, and another great illustrator, Pat Marriott (of whom more later) became virtually lifelong partners in Aiken’s stories and novels, and much of her work is inseparable from theirs. Blake was again her collaborator in one of the finest achievements of her later life, the collection of stories called The Winter Sleepwalker in 1994.
Marriott is an even more conspicuous presence. She illustrated Aiken’s ‘Spanish trilogy’ of picaresque historical novels for older readers, Go Saddle the Sea (1978), Bridle the Wind (1983), and The Teeth of the Gale (1988). Above all, she is the defining illustrator of Aiken’s major work, the long series of pseudo-historical fantasies set in an imaginary nineteenth-century world of Stuart kings and Hanoverian plotters that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962, and ended only posthumously with The Witch of Clatteringshaws in 2005.
An absence of honours?
Given this prolific output, popularity and abundant achievement, it seems strange that Aiken never gathered in the honours that were gained by lesser writers. She won the Guardian Award in 1969 for an offshoot of the ‘Willoughby Chase’ series, The Whispering Mountain , which was also commended for the Carnegie Medal in 1968. But that was it. Was this sheer perversity on the part of judges? Or is there perhaps some reason for it? Is it maybe fair to say that Aiken’s distinction is only really visible in the whole span of her work, rather than any single book? Did she never in the end write one individual masterpiece, except for a number of perfect short stories, which – however good – are not the stuff of prizewinning?
Aiken is like no one else. No other writer sets invention free with such exhilarating, irresponsible variety as she does. None of her contemporaries is such a seductive anarchist in the world of imaginative licence. Again and again, she takes her plots into wild regions of outrageous improbability. She creates her own mad realism, taking natural events, human ingenuity and coincidence beyond known limits. Irrepressible humour is her aid in winning the reader’s belief in her absurdities of plot and character. The action is non-stop. She runs the long distance race of a novel at the narrative pace of a sprinter.
Strengths and weaknesses
There are some costs incurred in all this festive storytelling riot. Characterisation is one casualty. Starting with her first appearance in Black Hearts in Battersea , the second book in the ‘Willoughby Chase’ series and a great advance on the first, the most memorable and engaging character in the whole sequence is Dido Twite, the neglected urchin daughter of a wildly delinquent family. Her life becomes bound up inseparably with that of Simon, the cave-dwelling goosekeeper boy from Wolves who is now in London, bent on being an art student. As Simon’s career pursues its astonishing trajectory from peasant to artist to duke to King, Dido is his loyal and resourceful partner, a plucky, cheeky, shrewd, outspoken, irrepressible girl of boundless cheerful resilience in the non-stop crisis of her hectic life. She is a wonderful character. Several stories are effectively Dido’s own, including both the less successful (Night Birds on Nantucket ) and the triumphant ( The Stolen Lake ). But there are no other Didos (except for one important clone, whom I will come to). Even Simon, admirable as he is, is just a regular guy. The books are mainly crewed by stock figures and two-dimensional caricatures, drawn with a few quick brush strokes and either good or bad. Subtlety is out.
This is a more obvious problem when Aiken attempts a ‘realistic’ novel. Midnight is a Place is set in the northern industrial town of Blastburn, a repeated location in the ‘Wolves’ sequence, but the thin, sharp characterisation and simplistic moral system of the ‘Wolves’ series, always a limitation, is a more serious drawback outside fantasy. Except in the most commonplace ways, there is in Aiken a curious lack of engagement with moral themes even where the plot seems to demand it. The situation, plots, the character types and styles of speech are often Dickensian, but without the moral indignation that in Dickens is never asleep.
These are my lasting impressions of Aiken’s strengths and weaknesses. She has not (oddly enough) attracted much critical discussion apart from reviews in her long writing life, but looking back I found an essay by David Rees, first published in 1988 (about half way through Aiken’s career as a children’s writer). His pleasures and complaints are just like mine. And then I looked again at John Rowe Townsend’s essay in A Sense of Story , published in 1971, quite early in her progress. He too has the same delight, the same reservations: ‘I can see no moral or psychological complexities in her books; nor do they try to convey any idea of life more subtle than that of the ordinary decent person.’ That holds true, I think, right to the end.
A push towards nightmare
The one exception, the book with the greatest claim to being an individual masterpiece, is the injudiciously titled Is . In the ‘Wolves’ sequence the plot of Is takes place concurrently with Midwinter Nightingale , at the end of which Simon becomes King. Is Twite is its eponymous heroine, younger sister of Dido, and almost indistinguishable from her. She is always known as Is, but to reduce confusion I shall use her full name, Isabett.
The Twite clan are omnipresent in Is . Isabett is seeking for her lost cousin Arun. Like Arun before her, Isabett boards a special train north from London, which regularly takes enticed and kidnapped children, promised a sort of holiday camp, to work as slaves in the foundries and undersea coal mines of Blastburn, now relocated by its tyrant owner to the subterranean city of Holdernesse. This all-powerful megalomaniac is known as ‘Gold Kingy’, and like Holdernesse itself has parodic echoes of Ian Fleming. He is none other than Isabett’s uncle, Roy (‘roi’) Twite, whose cruelty and evil are resisted as best they can by her great-aunt, Ishie Twite, and her great-grandfather. Family links and other diversions are not enough to keep Isabett, like Arun before her, from ending up in the foundry and eventually at the coal face.
Despite the usual brilliant narrative fireworks, this is essentially a dark novel, which merges the series-conventions of fantasy with a truthful representation of industrial child abuse as practised in nineteenth-century factories and mines. A famous engraving which shocked Victorian England (reproduced with documentation in E Royston Pike’s Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain ) shows a half-naked girl dragging coal-tubs by belt-and-chain underground. This becomes part of Aiken’s plot, and is directly echoed in one of Pat Marriott’s magnificent drawings.
And here there is a problem, pertinent to Aiken’s work. Pat Marriott’s dust jacket illustration for the original hardback of Is shows Gold Kingy’s foundry. This is truly a children’s Inferno. Semi-naked child slaves are labouring (and collapsing) among machinery and fire, watched by uniformed guards. It is a brilliant and horrific painting, carrying Aiken’s narrative logic into a powerful visual image. Marriott’s pictures give Aiken’s prose a push, which it needs, towards nightmare. She completes the story, which is all but a great one. Yet when the paperback appeared, the children on the cover were replaced by adult men (contradicting the story), slavery was reduced to work, and the whole image toned down. The change was deplorable, because Pat Marriott, the illustrator acting as an inspired reader, had gone on where Aiken’s prose had lost its nerve, and drawn back.
Evading cruel truths
And in the last resort, she often does draw back. Aiken’s handbook, The Way to Write for Children , is full of wise advice and professional acumen, but she does not always practise what she preaches. It is, she says:
‘… the writer’s duty to demonstrate to children that the world is not a simple place. Far from it. The world is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle. We too are a riddle. We don’t know where we come from or where we are going, we are surrounded by layers of meaning that we can only dimly apprehend… And how much more enjoyable it is for children… to be told this, than to be told that the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place.’
Admirably said. But Aiken not infrequently used her marvellous ingenuities of plot, her joyous language, and the ever-resilient Dido and Is, to evade the cruel truths that her stories revealed. In this, no doubt, she felt she was discharging another writerly duty to children. But perhaps she was also yielding to her own temptations. The posthumous short novel The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a mistake – not because it is short, but because Aiken at the end could not resist getting Simon off the hook of monarchy and thus making it possible for Dido, whose feeling for him has long been hinted but who could never be Queen, to marry him, urchin and artist together at last. But it doesn’t work. The right final ending is that in the excellent Midwinter Nightingale , with Simon crowned. He does not want to be King, but the logic of the series has impelled him to the role, for which he is well fitted. And as Aiken well knew, the world badly needs people fitted for power who do not want it. Aiken is a splendidly original writer, but a little short of ruthlessness, a bit too much of a narrative Houdini, for her own and her reader’s good. As Pat Marriott, an illustrator of genius, managed to show.
Peter Hollindale , formerly at the University of York, is now a freelance writer and teacher.
Books referred to
(Titles originally published by Jonathan Cape and now available in Red Fox paperback unless otherwise stated)
Titles from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), 0 09 945663 X, £4.99 pbk
Black Hearts in Battersea (1965), 0 09 945639 7, £4.99 pbk
Night Birds on Nantucket (1966), 0 09 945664 8, £4.99 pbk
The Stolen Lake (1986), 0 09 947739 4, £5.99 pbk
Is (1992), now published with Cold Shoulder Road (1995), 0 09 947738 6, £5.99 pbk
Midnight is a Place (1974), o/p
Midwinter Nightingale (2004), Cape, 0 224 06489 4, £10.99 hbk, 0 09 944772 X, £4.99 pbk
The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005), Cape, 0 224 07029 0, £10.99 hbk, 0 09 946406 3, £4.99 pbk
The Whispering Mountain (1968), o/s
The ‘Spanish trilogy’:
Go Saddle the Sea (1978), o/s
Bridle the Wind (1983), o/s
The Teeth of the Gale (1988), 0 09 953791 5, £4.99 pbk
The Winter Sleepwalker (1994), o/s
Arabel’s Raven , BBC Publications (1972), o/p
The Way to Write for Children , Elm Tree Books (1982), o/p
E ROYSTON PIKE:
Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain , George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1966.
‘The Virtues of Improbability’ in What Do Draculas Do? The Scarecrow Press, 1990. (First published in Children’s Literature in Education , 1988.)
JOHN ROWE TOWNSEND:
A Sense of Story , Longman Young Books, 1971.