Dedicated Joan Aiken fans among you will know I have been exploring her novel called Is (1992) over several posts now; less enamoured readers will naturally have passed over them, and I don’t blame them. For what can be more tedious than discussion of a book one has neither hear of, let alone read, nor has has any intention of reading?
However, I have tried hard to show what a rich little volume this is, both for its own sake and for the fact that it has overtones of so many other motifs. Among these have been the Arthurian legends and Brontë juvenilia, child labour and Dickensian names, social customs and industrial conditions, rhyming riddles and nursery rhymes, folklore and fairytales, natural disasters and classics of children’s literature, among much else.
In this post I want to expand on a few final thoughts. If final they turn out to be…
First of all, I want to talk about how the Wolves Chronicles — also known as the James III sequence or, as I think of them, the Dido Twite series — have developed and morphed up to now. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) was a classic Dickensian novel for children, with a wicked governess, missing parents and a Brontë-type girls school, albeit set in an alternative historic period. A pastiche, if you must, but definitely not a parody.
But, as the series wended its winding way, things started to become more and more outlandish. Not only extraordinary synchronicities but radical geomorphing of the continents and islands as we know them. Added into the mix were for example long-range projectiles, pink whales, shape-shifting witches, prehistoric creatures, a cathedral saved by an elephant, and fortuitous eruptions, tsunamis and, now, telepathy.
Of course many of these occurrences and coincidences are typical of the author’s fiction, part of the fun expected from the Wolves Chronicles; but increasingly the danger becomes darker, the deaths more final, the villainy boundless. Some titles seem unremitting in their misery quotient (Midnight is a Place a particular instance) but Joan Aiken generally lightens the mood with puns, caricatures and dramatic escapes.
In Is we have reminders that this is a fiction aimed at children, though maybe those ‘children’, like me, now hail from an earlier era. In having chapter headings quoting nursery rhyme phrases from Iona and Peter Opie’s classic Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1957) Aiken is referencing a cultural store that, even in the 1990s, was becoming less familiar, more alien. They are cryptic references to what will happen in pages that follow, it’s true, but for many 21st-century readers much of the significance contained in the rhymes may well float over their heads.
As with many of the Wolves Chronicles food plays a large part in this story, and food is what draws many of the children to take the train to Playland. Similar to the old ballad An Invitation to Lubberland, where the streets are supposed to be “pav’d with Pudden-pies, nay, Powder’d-Beef and Bacon” and the “hills are Sugar-Candy”, Playland promises to be idyllic, a paradise where no one has to climb chimneys, stitch garments or make candles. But, as in the Grimms fairytale of Hansel und Gretel, there will be a price to pay, the lure of food a perilous trap.
HUZZA, YOU ARE OFF TO PLAYLAND!
GOLD KINGY IS WAITING TO WELCOME YOU!
NOW YOU WILL HAVE ALL THE FUN IN THE WORLD!
The signs on the walls of the Playland Express London terminus at Euston may also be obscure to younger readers. Their avuncular tone may once have resonance for vintage BBC Children’s Hour listeners, when ‘Uncle Mac’ (Derek McCulloch) intoned “Goodnight children, everywhere” — or more likely the Orwellian slogans of 1984 will be recalled — but their purposes may still be appreciated by contemporary readers familiar with advertising pumped out from the media.
But it is all a lie. And one of the worst things you can do to children is to tell them lies.
Other traditional aspects of children’s culture include songs and riddles, both of course often associated with nursery rhymes. The young train passengers are encouraged to sing popular songs, many based on Is’s father’s compositions — some with new words, as with ‘Oh, How I’d Like to be Queen’. However, many of these ditties
reminded her of her miserable childhood, but that one did more than the all the rest. It recalled days of beatings, being locked in the damp cellar, being obliged to run errands through snow and rain in ragged thin clothes and wretched old broken shoes.
Joan Aiken is careful to balance the misery and heartache with levity and distractions, however. Some of this comes with Grandpa Twite’s propensity for rhyming riddles, some seemingly improvised in response to a given situation. A pair of slippers, a book, cat, candle, a wave at sea, clock, musket, coal, a bed, and Grandpa’s elixir — all these are hinted at in riddling rhymes and, bar one taunting Gold Kingy which I haven’t yet deciphered,* the answers are all as plain as the nose on your face.
Grandpa Twite has a printing press on which, as well as posters for Roy, he will produce pamphlets with riddles and stories composed by Is’s sister Penny, perhaps like the cheap chapbooks that were popular in the 18th- and early 19th-century. In this respect he reminds me of William Blake (1757-1827) who printed on his own press original work, including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which appeared together as a collection in 1794. (Peter Ackroyd suggests that Songs of Innocence took its place “in a long tradition of emblem books and chapbooks,” also exemplified in Blake’s engravings entitled For Children: the Gates of Paradise.)
Now, while I don’t suggest Joan Aiken was overtly comparing the Twite patriarch with Blake, the fact that the Songs were in a ballad-like rhyming verse, contrasting the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (as the title page has it), and that they featured children both suffering and merry, seems to me very suggestive of the situation we read about in Aiken’s novel. In Blake’s poem ‘London’ I can well picture Is making her way through the capital’s thoroughfares to Wapping and on to Euston, or sensing the Touch on her mind of the children slaving down Blastburn’s mines:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
“Mind-forg’d manacles” is, of course, a theme that permeates the Chronicles as a whole.
Is’s story continues in Cold Shoulder Road (1995) but I shall be moving on to Midwinter Nightingale (2003) first since that is contemporaneous with Is. The posthumous novel The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2004) will then be the final Chronicle for me to consider, the last appearance of many of the characters we will have known and loved.
Peter Ackroyd, Blake. Minerva, 1996: 141ff
Joan Aiken, Is. Red Fox, 1993.
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. 1794. Introduction by Felicity James. Arcturus Publishing, 2009.
* Here’s Grandpa Twite’s one riddle which I’ve yet to solve. All I can think of is the title of Dr but I’m not at all convinced. See what you think.
My first is in vessel, my second revered,
First’s round as a penny, second wears a beard,
And my first holds my whole, neither wine nor wealth,
Which keeps my second in good health.