August 24th 1953. I’ve just had my fifth birthday and the family are preparing to up sticks from Bristol in the West Country back to Hong Kong on the other side of the world; here I will spend the next five years, having already spent three years previously on Kowloon, that peninsula pointing like a finger to the island that was once a Crown Colony.
September 4th 1953. On her twenty-ninth birthday Joan Aiken installs an old table in a corner of her bedroom in Kent, and sits down to write the first chapter of her projected novel Bonnie Green in an old exercise book.
“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever! I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”
Little did she know it but her indefatigable orphans Bonnie and Sylvia would in time give way to a younger heroine also facing unbelievable odds, and that Bonnie Green would morph into The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first in a series of chronicles set in Joan’s alternative world. Some of these sequels would see cockney sparrow Dido Twite voyage from London to Cape Horn, past the Galapagos Islands and Alaska, back round the Horn to Nantucket; then down the west coast of South America, inland to the Andes, back around the Horn to the South China Seas before returning back to the south coast of Britain. That Britain would then also be different but yet strangely familiar, with Dido, her sister Is and her friends Simon and Owen travelling around the south coast, across to Wales, up to Yorkshire and into Scotland.
Joan’s daughter Lizza (who was two years old when Joan sat down to write Bonnie Green) recounts the background to the genesis of the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken blog. While Joan conceived the first in the series in southeast England, she went to extraordinary lengths to get the feel of places featured in the later novels. For example, when she went to visit her father Conrad Aiken on Cape Cod in 1963 (the year Wolves was first published in the US) and then in 1965 travelled to Nantucket Island, she was clearly absorbing atmosphere which was to appear in Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966).When she went to Australia and New Zealand in 1980 she took the opportunity to do research on South America for The Stolen Lake (1981); no doubt this visit also helped inform the background to Limbo Lodge (1999, Dangerous Games in the US) which was mostly set on one of the Maluku islands of Indonesia, thinly disguised.
When it came to Wolves ‘prequel’ The Whispering Mountain (1968) she spent time in Brecon Library making sure she got the finer points of Welsh culture and language correct. Her belief in attention to background detail similarly led her to research the Peninsular Wars with a trip to Spain when preparing what was to become the Felix Brooke trilogy, set in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.
For me personally it’s pleasing to think that when, 63 years ago, I was about to set off on my travels Joan was also to embark on a voyage of sorts with the Wolves Chronicles — and on her birthday, of all days! Today she would have been 92; needless to say, her death in 2004 was a great loss to her family and to her growing legion of fans. But in her writings, and especially in the wanderings of Dido, we are fortunate in being able to continue our travels in her company for a long time to come.
I’ve now reviewed and discussed the first two novels in the series in several posts; it’ll soon be time to discover what happened to Dido when I visit Nightbirds on Nantucket, for which this post has been a prelude of sorts.