Ghostly Gentlewomen – Joan Aiken

joan aikenJoan Aiken’s world is a wonderful and frightening place. It’s a world where good is very good – but bad is extremely bad indeed.  A black and white world where wickedness and horror are outrageously celebrated.

At the same time, there’s a dark morality to Joan Aiken’s stories that thrilled me as a child. If you were wicked in Joan Aiken’s world, you’d almost certainly meet a rather gruesome or satisfyingly awful end,  which gives you the reassurance that virtue will always triumph in the end.  Her characters live in mysterious, corridor-ridden Gothic houses, and invariably the children are far more sensible than the adults, lending a subversive wit to the action. There is a strong sense of right and wrong, the only predictability in her topsy-turvy alternative universe.

My mother bought me The Kingdom Under The Sea, Joan’s collection Eastern European folk tales, when I was very young – about six years old, I think. I was too young to understand all of the stories, but I’ve never forgotten the thrill of the cover and the illustrations. Jan Pienkowski’s art work is incredibly menacing – spindly handed witches, spiky trees and flowing strands of hair are all recurrent themes in the beautiful pictures. The story of Baba Yaga, the child-eating witch who lives in a house on a hill that stands on a huge chicken leg, surrounded by a fence made of bones, is utterly horrible.

joan aiken jan pienkowski

After the folk tales, my mother introduced me to Joan’s best known series, the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, the alternate history of an England where James III sits on the throne. Dido Twite has been a favourite character ever since – a kind of foul-mouthed, East End urchin counterpart to Cold Comfort Farm’s Flora Poste. Dido sees clearly where the adults around her do not – she’s burdened with a feckless, villanous Pa and is tossed from one perilous situation to another. The world that Joan sends Dido into is dark and dramatic, but she’s a steely-willed charmer who can get out of any tight squeeze.

In adult years, I’ve revisited Joan’s ghostly short stories for children and grown ups, and have spent a while tracking down collections of her tales. Her first story (she published ninety-two novels) ‘The Dreamers’ tells the story of a man who stews his wife in a pressure cooker – not the usual writings of an eighteen year old. A Joan Aiken story might start with a BBC man visiting a village in the country, as in The Rose of Puddle Fratrus, and end up with a mysterious recluse an intelligent computer or a cursed ballet.  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.

The more you read Joan Aiken, the more her influences and own pleasures are revealed – her tales are like a treasure hunt, rewarding you when you spot an allusion or reference to classic ghostly fiction. For example, the Arabella and Mortimer series feature a greedy raven called Mortimer who goes about cawing ‘Nevermore!’, and Nightbirds on Nantucket features a pastiche of Melville’s Moby Dick with Captain Jabez Casket’s obsessed pursuit of Rosie, the pink whale.

Joan Aiken is the writer I’d love to be, but her world is unique and complex, the vision of someone with a flamboyant imagination matched only by her talent. I can only read and be inspired by her distinctive voice.

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