Joan Aiken, Who Wrote Children's Adventures, Dies at 79
Published: January 9, 2004
New York Times
Joan Delano Aiken, a prodigious weaver of tales for adults and children, died on Sunday at her home in Petworth, in West Sussex, England. She was 79. Her death was announced by Brandt & Hochman, her literary agents, in New York.
Ms. Aiken's fiction could have a Dickensian
atmosphere, evoke a somewhat skewed history of Olde England or be
straightforward. Much of it was in her chosen genre: nonhistorical adventure,
tinged with suspense and horror, often featuring ghosts.
And, from Locus Online:
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, May 1998)
Joan Delano Aiken was born September 4, 1924,
daughter of the poet/writer Conrad Aiken. When she was five, her mother
remarried. Her new stepfather was another writer, Martin Armstrong. Aiken began
as a writer of short fiction, works gathered in collections All You've Ever
Wanted and Other Stories (1953) and More Than You Bargained For and Other
Stories (1955); many further collections would appear in later years. She has
received awards for children's fiction (the Guardian Award in 1969) and for
mystery fiction (the Mystery Writers of America Poe Award, 1972), and has also
written ''sequels'' to Jane Austen books, as well as other Regency historicals.
But to Locus readers she will be best known as the author of the alternate-world
YA series (sometimes called ''King James III'') featuring feisty heroine Dido
Twite. This series began with her second novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
(1962), and is still in progress, interspersed with stand-alone fantasies, dark
fantasies, mysteries, children's books, plays, poetry, etc.
Influenced as a child by John Masefield, Mervyn Peake and by the C S Lewis trilogy Out of the Silent Planet (she hated his Narnia series), Joan Aiken created Gothic fantasy "alternate" worlds as the backdrop for unsettling and often outrageous plots notable for their dramatic force, colour and strength of imagination.
In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, have their ancestral home stolen from them by their evil guardian, Miss Slighcarp. Set in the bleak north country in an "alternate", but still recognisable, Victorian England in the reign of the Stuart King James III, the book won the 1965 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and was made into a successful film in 1988.
The names of Joan Aiken's characters were indicative of her style. Some were perfectly normal, but others included Miss Hooting, a "retired enchantress"; Mrs Moleshin the cook; "assistant principal" Madame Legume; and ship's captain Jabez Casket with his first mate, Dutiful Penitence (actually his daughter, ed.). Her writing was deadpan and direct, her characters strongly defined, personified abstractions such as those in morality plays.
But it was not just names and odd details that gave Joan Aiken's stories their distinctive charm and humour, it was their unpredictability and strange dream-like juxtapositions. A Joan Aiken story might begin with a BBC man visiting a village in the country, as in The Rose of Puddle Fratrus, and end up with an intelligent computer, a cursed ballet and a mysterious recluse. In Midnight is a Place, machines crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs rampage in subterranean sewers and a wicked old gentleman is "charred to a wisp" in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house.
"Stories are like butterflies," she said, "which come fluttering out of nowhere, touch down for a brief instant, may be captured, may not, and then vanish into nowhere again."
Joan Aiken's prose style drew heavily on fairy tales and oral traditions in which plots are fast-moving and horror is matter-of-fact but never grotesque. Sometimes she included song lyrics and rhymes; sometimes characters speak in British dialects, or parodies thereof (as in, "Losh, to be sure, yon mountain's unco wampish.")
Notwithstanding the unpredictable quality of her plots, there were recurring elements. There are slightly scatty but independent-minded young women who end up marrying slightly scatty but charming young men. Mysterious, corridor-ridden Gothic houses figure prominently, along with a variety of curses and enchantments. And there is always a strong sense of right and wrong. When writing for children, Joan Aiken never pretended that life is easy, or that wickedness, horror and hardship do not exist; indeed, she believed it was vital for children to explore such things. At the same time, she believed that children needed the reassurance that virtue would always triumph in the end.
Joan Delano Aiken was born at Rye, Sussex, on September 4, 1924 into a literary family. Her father, the American poet and writer Conrad Aiken, would win the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems. Her Canadian mother, Jessie McDonald Aiken, was also an author. Her father left home when Joan was very young and, when she was five, her mother remarried. Her new stepfather was another writer, Martin Armstrong.
Joan Aiken and her elder sister were educated at home by their mother who, on top of the basic curriculum, taught them Latin, French, Spanish and German, and read them great works of literature from the family library. By the age of seven Joan was reading Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, and all the children's books from "Alcott to Wiggins".
Her literary upbringing would be evident in her later novels. Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966), for instance, incorporates a pastiche of Melville's Moby Dick with Captain Casket's obsessed pursuit of Rosie, the pink whale.
Alone much of the time, young Joan took solitary walks in the fields surrounding the family house, and to amuse herself she concocted stories which she began writing down from the age of five; when her younger brother grew old enough to tag along, she invented more stories to tell him when he grew tired. Both children created imaginary countries and often swapped details about their own fantasy lands. Joan incorporated some of the characters she had invented as a child in her later novels.
At the age of 12 she was sent to Wychwood, a boarding school in Oxford, where she found that, although she was far better educated than anyone else, she did not know how to socialise. Finding it difficult to make friends, she continued to write, completing her first full-length novel at the age of 16. At 18 she had her first short story accepted for publication: The Dreamers tells the story of a man who stews his wife in a pressure cooker.
War had broken out when Joan Aiken left school, and she found a job at the BBC filing Spanish and Portuguese letters and ruling lines on the back of index cards to save paper. In 1941 the BBC broadcast some of her short stories on their Children's Hour programme. In 1943 she moved to the reference department of the London office of the United Nations, where she collected information about resistance movements. She continued to work for the UN until 1949.
In 1945 she had married Ronald Brown, a news agency journalist with whom she had two children. Their marriage coincided with a rich story vein, and in 1953 a collection of short fiction called All You've Ever Wanted and Other Stories was published.
But while she was writing The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which she began in 1952, her husband became ill and she put the book aside. He died in 1955.
To make ends meet, she took a job as a copy editor for Argosy magazine, then moved to J Walter Thompson, writing advertising jingles for Dairylea cheese in the day, then knocking up a couple of short stories in the evening. The advertising world would form the backdrop for a number of stories, including Trouble with Product X (1966), about a young female advertising executive who gets caught up in a deadly twist while on a photo shoot for a new product. Eventually, in 1963, she returned to and finished The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The success of the book enabled her to give up her job in advertising and spurred her to write the second and third books in the Wolves Chronicles series: Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), in which Dido Twite makes her first appearance; and Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966). In 1969 her novel The Whispering Mountain (1968) won the Guardian Children's Book Award, and in 1972 Night Fall won America's Edgar Allan Poe Award for juvenile mystery.
Over the next 30 years Joan Aiken produced many novels, short story collections, poetry, plays and even a "how-to" book intended to guide authors for young adults, entitled The Way to Write for Children (1982).
Notable among her later books were the Arabel and Mortimer series, chronicling the adventures of Arabel and her pet raven Mortimer, who goes about saying "Nevermore!" and eating everything in sight, from pastries to clocks and staircases. The stories were adapted as a series for BBC children's television. She also wrote several "sequels", or pastiches, of Jane Austen's novels, including The Watsons, Mansfield Park and Emma.
A tiny figure with prodigious amounts of energy, Joan Aiken eschewed modern conveniences such as the computer, and always wrote her stories on an ancient typewriter. When she was not writing, she enjoyed painting and gardening at her home at Petworth, Sussex.
In 1976 she married the American painter Julius Goldstein, who predeceased her. She is survived by a son and a daughter of her first marriage.
It therefore seems fitting that her writing life should be framed by two stories for the young. Her first was written as a 16-year-old for the fledging BBC Children's Hour; her last, Midwinter Nightingale, the long-awaited addition to her prize-winning series, which began with The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, will be published in a couple of months' time.
Aiken was born in Rye, Sussex, and lived not far from there all her life. After Wychwood school, Oxford, she worked, initially, as a librarian for the UN Information Centre in London. She moved on to become features editor for Argosy magazine, before joining J Walter Thompson, briefly, as a copywriter.
But, as the daughter of a writer - her father was the American poet Conrad Aiken - and the stepdaughter of another, the English novelist Martin Armstrong, she had also always been a writer, and the decision to give up going out to an office, in favour of becoming a fulltime writer, was something both she and her sister Jane Aiken Hodge took for granted.
She had, after all, been brought up surrounded by conversations about the technique of crafting a short story, and what were the key ingredients of a good ghost story - both genres in which she came to excel. She was encouraged to write by both her father and her stepfather, but it was the latter who provided the particular starting point.
Martin Armstrong was an adult novelist, but he had made one foray into children's books, with a series for the rapidly expanding Children's Hour. Inspired by his success, his stepdaughter wrote her own story, which was immediately accepted by the BBC.
This was the first of a number of successes Aiken had with the corporation, which was quick to recognise that her ability to tell a quirky and witty short story made her the ideal author of any number of Jackanory slots. It was, for instance, in response to a request from Jackanory that Aiken wrote Arabel's Raven (1974), the first of what became her best-loved series about a young girl, Arabel, the good and sensible ego, and Mortimer, the large and overbearing raven, who is the wildly irresponsible id.
But Aiken's writing was not in any way confined to a television audience, or to younger readers. In fact, it was never confined by anything.
She had an unusual ability to write for all ages with such a fine sense of the differences between her audiences that she could match the content and the style exactly to the reader. Her stories for the very young are lucid, but with no apparent sacrifice of her hallmark use of language, or the apparently effortless invention which allowed her to heap one adventure on top of another without anything toppling over.
Aiken wrote in all genres - poetry and plays - as well as having a particular gift for stunning short stories. Here, she was just as much at home with fairy stories, as in A Necklace Of Raindrops (1968) and folktales collected in The Kingdom Under The Sea (1971), as she was with such horror stories as A Bundle Of Nerves (1976).
But it was in her novels that her most priceless invention lies. Aiken created a historical period that never existed - but might have done. It began with The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase (1962), a dramatic, gothic adventure, set in a landscape of thick woods inhabited by wolves. It is the 1830s, and King James III is on the throne: the Hanoverians have never arrived, and England is joined to France by a channel tunnel; America was once invaded by the Romans, and some of its inhabitants still speak Latin.
The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase received immediate acclaim both in Britain and the United States, where Aiken also has a devoted following. She continued the series with other titles, including Black Hearts In Battersea (1964), The Whispering Mountain (1968), for which she won the Guardian children's book prize, and Dido And Pa (1986).
Dickensian in flavour (a taste Aiken always said she acquired from her mother, who read Dickens aloud to her as a child), the books are rich in atmosphere and intrigue. They also include memorable characters, such as the resourceful Cockney heroine Dido Twite and the wicked governess Miss Slighcarp, who is every bit as dangerous as the ever-lurking wolves themselves.
There is pleasure to look forward to for all Aiken's readers. The forthcoming Midwinter Nightingales returns to a time near the beginning of the series. Dido is back in action as she helps both the new king, who is gravely ill, and her old friend, Simon, Duke of Battersea.
Aiken was the most modest of authors, though she certainly knew her worth. She was one of the many professionals of her time who never courted publicity, though never shunned it either. Her son and daughter survive her.
· Joan Delano Aiken, writer, born September 4 1924; died January 4 2004
Appreciation: Joan Aiken
On meeting her for the first time, there was so much that I could not have inferred from her orderly, Jane-Austen-like Englishness. The American poet who was her father, for instance; or that she spent her winters writing in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York; or Julius Goldstein, the distinguished New York Jewish painter and teacher, who was her husband. Or, indeed, the extraordinary range and diversity of the imagination displayed in her writing.
Joan Aiken embodied many of the best features of writing for young people in our time: the consistently high quality and craftsmanship of the writing itself; the ability to be simultaneously serious and humorous; the presentation of unconventional young heroines; the witty exploitation of a fantasy that is still aware of the realities of life - as in the parallel history of The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase and its related novels.
I was privileged to illustrate The Winter Sleepwalker, an extraordinary collection of modern folk tales; but our long collaboration began in the urgent frontline of television, when I first took on the task of producing illustrations for the stories about little Arabel and Mortimer, her pet raven, an anarchic creature capable of all kinds of interesting destruction.
"Yes," as Joan said to me (calmly, in Petworth
park), "he is the ego and she is the id."