In the early nineteen-fifties, before she published any of the novels that established her as one of the twentieth century’s great children’s-book writers, Joan Aiken lived on a bus. Aiken and her husband, the journalist Ronald Brown, had acquired a piece of land on which they meant to build a house. But building licenses in England could take years to be approved. To continue renting an apartment seemed wasteful, and since food was still being rationed—this was only a few years after the war—they wanted to start a garden right away. The obvious solution was some sort of temporary residence, a structure that could be brought onto their new plot and then dismantled or moved away once the house was done. But where could they find a home like that?
“We wanted something roomy enough to accommodate two adults, a typewriter, wireless, gramophone and records, sewing machine, a mass of books, a cat and an extremely lively eighteen-month-old baby,” Aiken wrote. “A bus seemed to answer those requirements. The one which we got was a lucky buy—a single-decker (some local authorities object to double-deckers), recently overhauled. We bought it for less than a hundred pounds, complete.”
They outfitted it with water and electricity. They put in a stove for heat. Brown, who worked at Reuters, commuted to London, by train. Aiken painted furniture, worked in the garden, and wrote stories and poems on the typewriter. Her first book, a collection of short fiction called “All You’ve Ever Wanted,” included material written during the bus phase; it was published in 1953.
Aiken wrote a brief essay, probably in 1952, about her unconventional living arrangements. She published it in Housewife magazine. The piece is called, with cheerful straightforwardness, “Our Home Is a One-Decker Bus.” What’s remarkable about it is how Aiken treats her (intimately personal, yet also odd and whimsical) material. That is, she doesn’t “treat” it at all—she reports, with brisk efficiency. Living on a bus comes across as a practical problem, to be managed without fuss. Here is where we built our airing cupboard, above the hot-water tank. Near the clothes horse we keep the baby’s folding bath.
As the article moves along, though, something strange starts to occur. Aiken’s unsentimental accounting begins to acquire a glow of magic. A slow accumulation of increasingly fanciful detail deposits us, almost without our noticing, on the threshold of a fairy tale:
Space is certainly confined. We have to be tidy, which comes hard, and
our visitors must sleep in a tin hut which also contains gardening
equipment and tea-chests full of papers. But the bus is our own. We
can hammer in nails or saw holes wherever we want to, paint the walls
red and green, and draw pictures on the doors. We have done all these
things, and we add some new embellishment every week.
Aiken wrote more than a hundred novels over the course of her long career, and many of them manage something like this transformation. An absurd premise (we live on a bus; the Glorious Revolution never happened; a queen claims that her lake has been stolen) is treated with deadpan seriousness, allowing its latent magical possibilities to emerge in an atmosphere that’s half ironic, half enchanted—or, rather, in an atmosphere that’s entirely ironic and entirely enchanted, at the same time.
Aiken’s favorite literary terrain was the blurred border where nineteenth-century realism begins to slip into folklore and fantasy. This is a realm of absurd stock characters and hoary narrative devices: cruel governesses, kindhearted orphans, counterfeit wills, hidden passageways, long-lost relations, doppelgängers, clues hidden in paintings, castaways, coincidences, sudden returns from the dead. But instead of abashedly sneaking in one or two of these elements, as another writer might do, Aiken piled them one atop the other, in the same teetering plots. One wrongly disinherited orphan might be irritating, but two wrongly disinherited orphans in the same novel is something else—and it’s in exploring that something else, its silliness and its surprising depth, that Aiken’s novels become so rich and so strangely moving.
Consider “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” Aiken’s best-known novel, which she published in 1962. The book, the first in her Wolves Chronicles series, take place in an alternate historical timeline in which James II was never deposed; in the eighteen-thirties of the books, James III is the King of England and the target of Hanoverian conspirators’ countless plots to overthrow him. A tunnel has been dug under the English Channel, between Dover and Calais, and as a result—and here is the magic sneaking in through the bizarre premise—England has been overrun by wolves, thousands of which have migrated through the tunnel after a string of brutal winters in Europe and Russia.
In the deep winter, the river in the woods surrounding Willoughby Chase, the enormous, rambling manor of Sir Willoughby Green, has frozen solid. Lady Green, Sir Willoughby’s wife, has mysteriously taken ill, so the couple have departed on a long ocean voyage that they hope will restore her to health. (That’s three literary clichés—a manor in the woods, a mysterious illness, a sailing voyage—before the novel has even really begun.) They have left their young daughter, Bonnie Green, in the care of a governess (four), Letitia Slighcarp, who also claims to be Sir Willoughby’s estranged fourth cousin (five). To keep Bonnie company, her cousin Sylvia, an orphan (six) being raised in London by their kindly but impoverished Aunt Jane (seven), has made the dangerous train journey north to Willoughby Chase. The little girls have never met before, and their temperaments are opposite—Bonnie is robust and headstrong; Sylvia is modest and delicate—but they immediately become fast friends (eight).
The scene I am thinking of is one in which the girls decide to go ice skating. The forest is full of wolves, but the wolves won’t venture onto the ice, Bonnie says, so as long as the girls stick to the river they will be safe. While they’re skating, they see Miss Slighcarp making her way through the woods. She is clearly up to no good (they can spy on her through a secret compartment in a wall—I’ll stop counting, but you get the idea), and they attempt to follow her, but in doing so they skate farther than they had intended. Now night is approaching, and they are a long way from the house. Bonnie isn’t tired, but Sylvia, who has never skated before, can’t go on any longer. As they try to decide what to do, they begin to hear, from somewhere in the distance, the baying of wolves.
In the book, this scene only takes a few pages, but it contains many of the hallmarks of Aiken’s writing. It’s funny (the absurdly over-layered plot, the notion that ice-skating in a forest full of wolves could be a perfectly logical course of behavior for two young children), but it’s also scary (the encroaching darkness, the distant howls). It’s made up almost entirely of clichés, but it’s also lyrically beautiful (the image of the two girls gliding down the river while the wolves awaken on the banks). These qualities should be contradictory, but instead they reinforce each other. The more we delight in the book’s silliness, the more seriously we find ourselves taking it. Many great novels recruit the reader into some version of this paradox, but few writers are as confidently transparent about it as Aiken:
“Now we must climb this little hill,” Bonnie said. “Here, I’ll take
your hand. Can you run? Famous! Sylvia, you are the bravest creature
in the world, and when we get home I shall give you my little ivory
workbox to show how sorry I am for having led you into such a scrape.”
Sylvia did her best to smile at her cousin, having no breath to
answer, and tried to stifle all doubts that they ever would get