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 isour 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.
. . . .
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.