Joan Aiken

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Joan Aiken
Aiken at The Hermitage, her home, in 1984
Born Joan Delano Aiken
(1924-09-04)4 September 1924
Rye, Sussex, England
Died 4 January 2004 (2004-01-05) (aged 79)
Petworth, Sussex
Occupation Writer
Nationality British
Period 1955–2004
Genre Alternative history, children's literature, supernatural fiction
Notable works The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Wolves Chronicles)
Notable awards Guardian Prize

Joan Delano Aiken (4 September 1924 – 4 January 2004) was an English writer specialising in supernatural fiction and children's alternative history novels. In 1999 she was awarded an MBE for her services to children's literature.[1] For The Whispering Mountain, published by Jonathan Cape in 1968, she won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children's writers,[2] and she was a commended runner-up for the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book by a British writer.[3][lower-alpha 1] She won an Edgar Allan Poe Award (1972) for Night Fall.


Aiken was born in Mermaid Street in Rye, Sussex, on 4 September 1924. Her father was the American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Conrad Aiken (1889–1973). Her older brother was the writer John Aiken (1913–1990), and her older sister was the writer Jane Aiken Hodge (1917–2009). Their mother, Canadian-born Jessie MacDonald (1889–1970), was a Master's graduate from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jessie and Conrad's marriage was dissolved in 1929, and Jessie married the English writer Martin Armstrong in 1930. Conrad Aiken went on to marry twice more. Together with her brother John and her sister Jane, Joan Aiken wrote Conrad Aiken Remembered (1989), a short appreciation of their father.

Aiken was taught at home by her mother until the age of twelve and from 1936 to 1940 at Wychwood School for girls in Oxford. She did not attend university. Writing stories from an early age, she finished her first full-length novel when she was sixteen and had her first short story for adults accepted for publication when she was seventeen.[citation needed] In 1941 her first children's story was broadcast on the BBC's Children's Hour.[4]

Aiken worked for the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in London between 1943 and 1949. In 1945 she married Ronald George Brown, a journalist who was also working at UNIC. They had two children before he died in 1955.

After her husband's death, Aiken joined the magazine Argosy, where she worked in various editorial capacities and, she later said, learned her trade as a writer. The magazine was one of many in which she published short stories between 1955 and 1960. During this time she also published her first two collections of children's stories and began work on a children's novel, initially titled Bonnie Green, which was later published in 1962 as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. By then she was able to write full-time from home, producing two or three books a year for the rest of her life, mainly children's books and thrillers, as well as many articles, introductions and talks on children's literature and on the work of Jane Austen.

Aiken married the New York landscape painter and teacher Julius Goldstein in 1976. They divided their time between her home, the Hermitage in Petworth, Sussex, and New York. He died in 2001.

Aiken died at home at the age of 79. She was survived by her two children.


Joan Aiken produced more than a hundred books, including more than a dozen collections of fantasy stories, plays and poems, and modern and historical novels for adults and children. She was a lifelong fan of ghost stories, particularly those of M. R. James, Fitz James O'Brien and Nugent Barker.

Some of her books focus on spine-chilling or supernatural events, including The Windscreen Weepers (stories, 1969), The Shadow Guests (novel, 1980), A Whisper in the Night (stories, 1982), and A Creepy Company (stories, 1993, with variant contents in its US and UK editions). She set her adult supernatural novel, The Haunting of Lamb House, at Lamb House in Rye (now a National Trust property). This ghost story recounts in fictional form an alleged haunting experienced by two former residents of the house, Henry James and E. F. Benson, both of whom also wrote ghost stories.

Many of Aiken's most popular books, including the Wolves Chronicles[5] (also known as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series or the James III series), are set in an elaborate alternative history of Britain in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy. These books also toy with the geography of London, adding a Canal District among other features. Wolves have invaded the country from Europe via the newly built Channel Tunnel. The novels share a varying cast and a variety of interlinked child protagonists – initially Bonnie Willoughby, but subsequently her itinerant friend Simon, Simon's intrepid Cockney friend Dido Twite (the heroine of most of the books), Dido's half-sister Is and Owen Hughes (son of Dido's Royal Navy ally Captain Hughes).

In a review of Midwinter Nightingale for the School Library Journal, Susan Patron praised the characterisations and the suspenseful plot and noted that "although the titles in the 'Wolves' series may be read independently", readers may want to read the earlier books first.[6]

Aiken's series of children's books about Arabel and Mortimer were illustrated by Quentin Blake. Others were illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski and Pat Marriott. Pieńkowski won the foremost British award for children's book illustration, the Greenaway Medal, for The Kingdom Under the Sea and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, 1971), a collection of "unique fairy tales from Eastern Europe and Russia" retold by Aiken.[7]

Aiken participated in the Puffin Book Club's annual Children's Literature Summer Camp, run by Colony Holidays, predecessor to ATE Superweeks, along with other popular children's authors such as Ian Serraillier and Clive King.[8]

Aiken's many novels for adults include several that continue or complement novels by Jane Austen. These include Mansfield Revisited and Jane Fairfax.

Selected works

Wolves Chronicles

The Wolves Chronicles vary in length from less than 150 pages to more than 250 pages.[5] Here the novels are listed in narrative order.

Main series

Subsidiary novels

Midnight Is a Place appears to take place in the same fictional universe as the Wolves Chronicles. The action takes place in the industrial town of Blastburn, which featured as the location of Mrs. Brisket's orphanage in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but does not otherwise share any of the characters or explicitly reference the alternative history of the other books. In addition, the setting and time period resemble and satirise the height of the Victorian manufacturing years, rather than the Georgian setting of the other books. "Joan Aiken follows all the conventions of Dickensian fiction with just a little extra to satisfy jaded contemporary tastes. The Grimsby mansion at Midnight Court houses not one, but two unjustly disinherited orphans ...".[10]

Arabel and Mortimer series

Paget family

Felix trilogy

"Jane Austen" novels

Other books


  1. Today there are usually eight books on the Carnegie Medal shortlist. According to CCSU, there were about 160 commendations of two kinds in 49 years from 1954 to 2002, including Aiken and two others for 1968.


  1. Tucker, Nicholas (10 January 2004). "Joan Aiken: Popular and Prolific Children's Writer". The Independent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Guardian children's fiction prize relaunched: Entry details and list of past winners". theguardian 12 March 2001. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  3. "Carnegie Medal Award". 2007(?). Curriculum Lab. Elihu Burritt Library. Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). Retrieved 2012-08-10.
  4. Eccleshare, Julia (2002). Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter, portraits of children's writers. National Portrait Gallery. ISBN 1-85514-342-9
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wolves Chronicles series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2012-08-01. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  6. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  7. (Greenaway Winner 1971). Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  8. Green, Christopher M. (January 2010). "How Summer Camps Could Change Britain". Page 8.
  9. The wolves of Willoughby Chase in libraries (WorldCat catalog) —immediately, first edition. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  10. "Review: Midnight is a Place". Kirkus Reviews reprinted at GoogleBooks. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  • Bleiler, Richard, ed. (2003). Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror. New York: Charles Scribners & Thomson/Gale. pp. 21–31 in Vol 1 of 2. ISBN 0-684-31252-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tymn, Marshall B.; Zahorski, Kenneth J.; Boyer, Robert H. (1979). Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide. New York: R.R. Bowker Co. p. 39. ISBN 0-8352-1431-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links