Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s Overlooked Authors 2: Joan Aiken & Philippa Pearce

Daný van Dam submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorianism in July 2016, at Cardiff University. She is co-editor of a special issue of the online, peer-reviewed journal Assuming Gender on the topic of ‘Consuming Gender’, see here (if you’re interested: the proposal deadline is 16 October 2016). She’s also one of this year’s BAVS ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference organisers. Daný is currently setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. More information on her work can be found at her academia page.

In “Neo-Victorian Childhoods”, Marie-Luise Kohlke argues that “comparatively few neo-Victorian fictions […] genuinely explore childhood as a distinct psychological state or developmental stage in its own right. Even texts that aim in this direction, usually as part of a quasi-Bildungsroman […] tend to subordinate the representation of childhood to other thematic concerns”.[i] The examples Kohlke mentions are all relatively recent neo-Victorian novels, aimed at an adult reading public: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2001), Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2002) and Peter Behrens The Law of Dreams (2006). While the child in neo-Victorian novels is often more of a symbol than a full-fledged character – think of Sophie in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), for example – there are exceptions to this approach. In this week’s blog on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors, I turn to two writers that may be familiar to those who’ve grown up reading the classics of English-language children’s fiction: Joan Aiken (1924-2004) and Philippa Pearce (1920-2006).

While both authors are famous and prolific enough to merit separate entries, I’m here discussing them together because there are some similarities in their situations. Both authors lived around the same time (from the 1920s to the 2000s) and both have received various prizes and recognitions for their children’s books. At the same time, neither is mentioned very often in debates on the role of the child in neo-Victorian fiction. One reason for this is perhaps the relative lack of attention paid to neo-Victorian children’s fiction more generally, though young adult novels like Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart Quartet (1985; 1986; 1990; 1994) and, more recently, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (2015) may be bridging this gap.[ii]

Philippa Pearce

Philippa Pearce (photographer Helen Craig)

Philippa Pearce (photographer Helen Craig)

Pearce was raised in the village of Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire. As a child, Pearce suffered from nephritis, a kidney disease, so she only went to school at the relatively late age of eight. She went to a girls’ school in Cambridge and eventually won a scholarship to read English and history at Girton College, Cambridge. Pearce conceived the idea her first novel in 1951, when she was in the hospital recovering from another bout of nephritis. In 1958, Pearce’s second novel was published.[iii] It is this book, titled Tom’s Midnight Garden, that I’ll discuss here.

Tom's Midnight GardenTom’s Midnight Garden can be described as a ‘time-slip novel’. The eponymous protagonist Tom is sent away from his parental home just as the summer holiday starts, to avoid getting the measles like his brother Peter. Rather than go on wild adventures with his brother, Tom is made to stay with his aunt and uncle, having to remain indoors in their small flat in case he’s also contagious. Initially, Tom suffers from boredom but not long after he arrives, he hears the grandfather clock in the downstairs hallway strike thirteen at the hour past midnight. Slipping out of bed, Tom finds that when he opens the back door on the ground floor, he no longer sees the narrow paved space where the dustbins are kept. Instead, he finds himself in a luxurious garden. Going back night after night, each time as the clock strikes thirteen, Tom realises the garden is attached to the same house he’s staying in with his aunt and uncle, at this time not yet divided up into flats. While in the garden, Tom meets Hatty, a young orphan girl. It takes Tom some time to realise he is slipping back into time. Based on the answers he receives from Hatty and from Tom’s own experiences there, the parallel-world can be placed as the later Victorian era.

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the novel yet, but the book’s two stories come neatly together as the worlds match up once more. Tom’s Midnight Garden won the 1958 Carnegie Medal, a recognition for an outstanding new work for children or young adults. It was also listed second in the ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’ in 2007.

Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken in 1984

Joan Aiken in 1984

Unlike Pearce, Aiken started writing from an early age. Together with her older sister Jane (author Jane Aiken Hodge – their brother John also became a writer), she created fantasy worlds for their entertainment and that of their younger stepbrother David (it all sounds somewhat Brontë-esque – Brontëan? – to me…). Aiken’s first short story for adults, “The Dreamer”, was published when she was just eighteen. After some successful story-collections for children and a less-known novel, the first book of Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series was published in 1962.[iv]

The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseAs in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is a fantasy-element in Aiken’s series. The Wolves series is set in an alternate nineteenth-century England where James II was never deposed and was followed by James III. The book I want to highlight here, though set in the same universe, is mostly independent from the Wolves series. Whereas The Wolves of Willoughby Chase books call to mind a Georgian, early nineteenth-century England, Midnight is a Place (1974) instead clearly references the Victorian age. Lucas, the orphan-protagonist of the novel, is sent to stay with his child-hating uncle Sir Randolph Grimsby at Midnight Court, a manor house close to the industrial town of Blastburn. As the town name implies, the book is a kind of industrial novel for children, highlighting unfair working conditions and dangers in the factories of Victorian England’s industrial age. Aiken’s novel clearly evokes the voice of Charles Dickens in her choice of names and the descriptions of Midnight Mill, the source of Sir Randolph’s income. In this book, too, all’s well that ends well, as the two orphaned children find a better life without Sir Randolph.

Mightnight Place

Both books are still easy to find as they’ve been republished multiple times and have been adapted for stage and TV. They’re certainly worth reading for a bit of light-hearted neo-Victorian fun, or if you’re considering working on neo-Victorian’s children’s and young adult fiction. Look out for part three of this series on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors next week!

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 1: M.M. Kaye

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 2: Joan Aiken & Philippa Pearce


[i] Marie-Luise Kohlke, “Neo-Victorian Childhoods: Re-Imagining the Worst of Times”, in Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual and Cultural Politics, eds. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), pp. 119-147 (pp. 120-21).

[ii] The increasing popularity of young adult fantasy novels with a Victorian twist may also come to play a role, think for example of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices trilogy (2010; 2011; 2013) and Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ and ‘Custard Protocol’ series (on which I wrote a Victorianist blog in March 2015, see here).

[iii] For biographical information, see Nicholas Tucker’s page on Philippa Pearce on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[iv] For biographical information, see Julia Eccleshare’s page on Joan Aiken on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.



3 responses to “Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s Overlooked Authors 2: Joan Aiken & Philippa Pearce

  1. Pingback: Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s Overlooked Authors 3: Barbara Ewing | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

  2. Pingback: Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 4: Kunal Basu | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

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