Joan Aiken

Popular and prolific children's writer
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The Independent Online

Joan Delano Aiken, writer: born Rye, Sussex 4 September 1924; MBE 1999; married 1945 Ronald Brown 1945 (died 1955; one son, one daughter), 1976 Julius Goldstein (died 2002); died Petworth, West Sussex 4 January 2004.

Diminutive in stature and reserved in company, Joan Aiken was also the possessor of an imagination whose extravagance knew no equals in 20th-century children's literature.

A prize-winning author of over 100 books, she was able to draw on a limitless flow of extraordinary ideas then made entirely credible in prose that always chose to be laconic rather than over-stated. Witty, intelligent and scholarly when the mood took her, she offered children rich entertainment, particularly in her series of historical adventure stories set in a time that never was: these have remained popular ever since they first appeared.

Born in Rye in what was said at the time to be the haunted Jeake's House in Mermaid Street, Joan was the daughter of the American writer and poet Conrad Aiken. He and his Canadian wife Jessie had moved to Britain for the sake of their children's schooling. But, after the marriage foundered, her formidably well- educated mother decided to teach her five-year-old daughter at home, now situated in the tiny village of Sutton, near Pulborough. Mornings were spent in lessons; afternoons could be passed wandering around the Sussex Downs or, more likely, reading, sometimes perched in the boughs of an accommodating cherry tree.

With few other children around, books became Joan's particular friends. Along with her stepfather Martin Armstrong, also a writer, she and the rest of the family would spend hours with their favourite authors, in Joan's case Kipling, Masefield, Scott and Dumas. She also benefited hugely from her mother's extended reading-aloud sessions, with Oliver Twist a particular favourite. Its influence was to show itself in some of her own finest stories.

It was only at the age of 12 that Joan went to school, and by then she found socialising with other children difficult. Like Eleanor Farjeon before her, another Sussex-based children's writer, she much preferred the fantasy games played at home where she and her younger half-brother inhabited an imaginary country together. These games eventually led to her first long story, bearing the typically Aikenesque title "Her Husband was a Demon". In 1941 the BBC accepted one of her short stories, "The Parrot Pirate Princess", for its famous Children's Hour. Her stepfather had already provided this programme with the successful series Said the Cat to the Dog, his only attempt at writing for children and still remembered with affection by older listeners today.

Joan Aiken's first collection of short stories, All You've Ever Wanted, appeared in 1953. By now she had married the journalist Ronald Brown, and there were two children before her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1955. Things were tough for a time, but Joan held down various jobs in journalism before being taken on as a copywriter by J. Walter Thompson, where she worked for five years, with Campbell's tinned-soup labels one of her special responsibilities. She was later to draw on this experience for the best of her many adult thrillers, Trouble with Product X (1966).

Now living in Petworth at White Hart House, a former Inn, she decided to become a full-time writer after the great success of her first and best adventure story for children, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962).

Never one for magic or the supernatural, Aiken was still naturally drawn to fantasy but needed to find the right fictional form within which her extraordinary imagination could flourish. This finally happened when she started playing with the course of history itself, imagining a 19th-century Britain occupied by wolves who had crept over through an already extant channel tunnel. This country was ruled by King James III, with the Hanoverians portrayed as a subversive overseas bunch of schemers perpetually plotting against the rightfully occupied Stuart throne.

The general sense of disinhibition that followed from this re-writing of history enabled Aiken's inventive streak to take flight. Plot developments in the future were to include a long-distance cannon that could fire across the Atlantic, a Roman America where the peasants still spoke Latin and a wicked plot to slide St Paul's Cathedral into the Thames on hidden giant rollers, all in the cause of disrupting the coronation of King Richard IV.

Intricately plotted, using charts and time schemes to make sure that everything happens when it is supposed to, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase also radiates the sense of fun experienced by the author once she had found the right type of literary playground for her best efforts. Dickensian names abound: Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess; Mrs Brisket, the mean headmistress, and, later on, Mrs Bloodvessel, a pitiless landlady with designs on defenceless children.

Readers will be unaware that this marvellous book was in fact begun in 1952 and then put aside for seven years while Aiken grappled with life as a single mother with two children. Like Treasure Island, another famously interrupted novel, it forges ahead with all the seeming inevitability of a tale well told, however long it actually took to write.

The next book in the series, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), includes Dido Twite, a resourceful cockney girl whose general toughness and sense of moral justice makes her a natural forerunner for the character of Lyra in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials. Further novels containing many of the same characters soon followed: Night Birds on Nantucket (1966), The Whispering Mountain (1968) and The Cuckoo Tree (1971). One of her finest novels, Midnight is a Place (1974), breaks new ground with its description of a dangerous carpet factory running on child labour, written up so vividly it is hard to realise it all came from her own imagination. At other times, she would pepper the dialogue in her novels with words and phrases taken from Mayhew or other reference books, with a dictionary of Sussex dialect one particular favourite literary quarry.

Aiken also wrote many short stories, this time dispensing with any forward planning in favour of seeing where the whim took her. Some of the best of these concern a raven called Mortimer and his young mistress Arabel, whose joint adventures were frequently broadcast on BBC Television's Jackanory programme. There were also plays, ghost stories, science fiction, tales for early readers, and some 20 adult thrillers, each one ingeniously plotted and deeply traditional, albeit with plenty of surprises on the way.

In later life, Aiken turned increasingly to Jane Austen spin-offs, most memorably in Mansfield Revisited (1985). For laugh-aloud humour, however, Lady Catherine's Necklace (1999), written when the author was 75, takes some beating. Its story of how Lady Catherine de Burgh ends up captured by pirates mixes accurate Austen pastiche with the type of literary revenge that loyal Elizabeth Bennet supporters have always longed for but could never have invented even in their wildest dreams. Continuing to write as she did at every spare moment, it was astonishing that Aiken could still find time for her favourite hobbies of painting and gardening.

In 1976 Joan Aiken married Julius Goldstein, an American painter, and henceforth lived both in New York and Petworth, now at The Hermitage, a much grander Victorian house with a large garden. Suspicious of novels for children written to a socially improving agenda, and out of sympathy with the new frankness about sex, she still kept her popularity with young readers both in Britain and America for whom a good, pacy story is all that matters.

An interesting critic of children's literature herself, she was the author of a forthright and individual study of the subject, The Way to Write for Children (1982). She insisted that she wrote primarily to give pleasure, in return for all the immense joy she had always received from literature herself. In 1999 she was invested as MBE, wearing trousers and no hat for her brief meeting with the Queen; an act she later described as the most outrageous thing she had ever done.

Her many fans of all ages will be relieved to hear that the Dido Twite sequence still has two more episodes to go: Midwinter Nightingale, coming out later this year, and The Witch of Clatteringshaws, still in manuscript form. This last story was written with a view to bringing the whole series to an end; it also contains a major revelation in its last chapter.

How typical of this wonderfully talented, hard-working and never predictable novelist to leave behind one last mini-bombshell as fitting company to all the other amiable shocks and surprises she conveyed to her fascinated readers over so many years.

Nicholas Tucker