If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:
Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed… I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself! But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’
I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …
It started with a comic. A whole bag of them, in fact. I was 8 or 9 years old and a friend passed on a heap of back numbers so that, instead reading one issue and having to wait a week for the next, I could feast. It was there I found The Wolves of Willoughby Chaseby the incomparable Joan Aiken…
I recently wrote about this book for The Guardian, and why it – and its utterly glorious sequels – really inspire my writing. You can read the whole piece here.
This is such a wonderful letter, so atmospheric and full of love for that kind fall-into-a-book reading that I remember from childhood and long school holidays (and days when I was lying ill in bed or on the settee, but not too ill to read). And it brought back memories of miniature moss gardens, too! And of drawing pictures to go with the pictures in my head that reading conjured up – or at least trying to draw something that could come close what I pictured. And cats keeping you company while you read! (How many ‘ands’ can I include here??)
I think Joan Aiken had a very sympathetic style in writing to fans and readers of her books, if I’m to judge from this letter. It’s warm and personal, a great piece of writing in itself, and doesn’t talk down to the reader.
As any regular readers know, I am a big fan of Joan Aiken’s children’s books so I am really happy that Midnight Is A Place is having a new edition and hope it will reach a whole new young audience. And for me, too, as I’m sure this is one title of hers I haven’t read!
One of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas is now being republished to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary. The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans, the doubly disinherited Lucas and Anna-Marie, was hailed variously as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour, and while “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,” and “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”
Should we go on? “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman “charred to a wisp” in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.”…
We have just been saying goodbye to an old family home, where my Grandparents used to live, and where my mother Joan Aiken spent most of her childhood before she went away to school at the age of twelve. During her lifetime she had the good fortune to be able to go back there whenever she was in the country. Now, thanks to her writing, as in this piece from 1980, I can go there whenever I choose.
“When I was a child, I was lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place in Sussex, England. Our cottage, which was quite small, perched on top of a steep bank behind a gnarled laurel tree, and a quince tree which was covered with pink blossom in spring and quinces in fall. Once a woman came to the front door and wanted to buy the quince tree. Imagine…
This was really last week’s news, but why not extend Children’s Book Week a little longer? Make every week a children’s book week?
Booktrust published its list of 100 Best Books for Children. The books had to be published in the last 100 years and the selection panel chose to concentrate on fiction. There are certainly many familiar books and many of my own family favourites here, particularly in the youngest section.
In the 0-5 age range, special mention to Each Peach Pear Plum, which I think I could still recite – at a pinch. We loved looking for the witty details in the pictures, and I really do admire the way all those fairytale characters managed to appear most naturally together. Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy has a similar zingy rhythm to it and an inventiveness that makes it such fun to read aloud. And then John Burningham’s Would You Rather? which mixes cringy, scary and funny and gives lots to talk about. There are just one or two in this section which are new to me. Only the other week – coincidentally just before this list came out – I came across I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for the first time and enjoyed its poignant deadpan humour.
Fewer real favourites in the 6-8 age group, though I loved being reminded of Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. Mister Magnolia and Winnie The Pooh are in there too, but I think my kids enjoyed these at a much younger age – probably because I enjoyed them so much. This section seems to show that around now individual reading tastes begin to develop and diverge.
But 9-11s has a really strong field and so many beloved books in it. I’m so pleased to see The Wolves of Willoughby Chase made it, alongside Skellig, Ballet Shoes and Journey to The River Sea.
Interesting that in the 12-14s there are several books I only read as an adult and bought as adult books: Watership Down, I Capture The Castle, The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-time. Some wonderful reads here, new and old. At this age I didn’t know where to look for interesting and challenging books and, outgrowing the children’s section of the local public library, I launched on a random assault of the adult shelves. (The word ‘adult’ as an adjective always sounds rather dodgy these days!) I waded through some very strange stuff before settling into science fiction and rather macho thrillers. I couldn’t seem to manage the classics then and nothing I read at school – except Lord of the Flies – engaged me at all. If only today’s range and quality of reading for teens had been available when I was that age.
I read this as a child. I read it to my kids. I read it again recently and the magic is still there.
It’s full of my favourite ingredients for a period adventure: a happy quota of orphans and absent parents, an evil governess, resourceful children and wily adults, and tons of snow. Joan Aiken’s 19th century parallel universe revels in Victorian invention – according to her the Channel Tunnel, far from a 1980s vanity project, was really built in the early 1800s. It’s through this tunnel that the hungry European wolves come tearing in search of food!
There are also wonderful contrasts: freezing cold and warmth, hunger and hearty food, terror and comfort. Sylvia lives in great poverty with her old aunt in a Park Lane attic, while in isolated Willoughby Chase her cousin Bonnie has everything a child could wish for, including her own toyroom with a dolls-house large enough to get inside and with real canaries nesting in the roof. But Bonnie is a good-hearted child, and anyway it’s not long before all this is snatched away from her, in a reversal of fortune and test of character that follows one of the best traditions of children’s literature.
My favourite character is Simon, who lives a gloriously self-sufficient life in the woods and raises geese. He walks his geese from Willoughby Wold to market in London, a journey that takes two months. They leave in the snow and arrive in the April sunshine. The trip is also a daring escape for Sylvia and Bonnie and they are helped on their way by Mr Wilderness, who provides a memorable meal of porridge, eaten with ‘brown sugar from a blue bag and dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two red cows, who stood sociably outside the kitchen door as breakfast went on’. As well as the thrills and spills, it’s this kind of fond detail that I love in Joan Aiken’s stories.
The only element missing is Dido Twite, Aiken’s brilliant sarky, snarky, sneaky anti-heroine, who does not make an appearance until the next book in the sequence, Black Hearts In Battersea. I can’t wait to meet her again.