Quick Quotes: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The only vessel in which the soul could be studied was the living human body, which made it as difficult as trying to study the soul of a Mexican jumping bean.

We could learn nothing about the soul from a corpse, I had decided, after several firsthand encounters with cadavers.

Flavia de Luce, in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
by Alan Bradley

Joan Aiken: Storytelling Magic

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf hunts and wine drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green.
Joan Aiken is a true storyteller–a spinner of tales that in another age would keep a crowd spellbound around a dying fire, or make restless children eager for bedtime.  Today, of course, she writes books: over a hundred of them to date.  Whether she is writing a nursery tale for the youngest listeners or a thriller for adults, her books are based on the good, old-fashioned principle of the primacy of plot–and are saved from being mere potboilers by her quirky imagination and sure command of language. Many of her novels are tongue-in-cheek homages to the nineteenth century, that great age of plot-driven narrative, of Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, and Nicholas NicklebyThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase (first published in 1962) plunders all of these and more in its chronicling of the adventures of Sylvia and Bonnie, two children left at the mercy of a wicked governess.

None of the classic ingredients are left out: the wicked governess and her unsavory accomplices, faithful old servants, a resourceful gooseherd, a vast mansion riddled with secret passages, shipwrecks and rescues, ravening wolves, penitential orphanages, near-fatal illnesses, a penniless maiden aunt and a bluff family lawyer.  From the ominous snowbound opening in which men huddle together “for fear of the wolves,” to the closing lines quoted above, there’s never a dull moment.

There’s not a scrap of subtlety, either, but it’s all great fun.  If you missed Aiken as a child yourself, find one to read aloud to, and stop each session on a cliffhanger.  There’s no other time in life when “What happens next?” is such a seriously important question.

This is the first of a long-running children’s series.  Later volumes abandon the adventurous but somewhat bland Sylvia and Bonnie to mainly follow the escapades of Dido Twite, a more idiosyncratic urchin introduced in the second book, Black Hearts in Battersea.  Subsequent volumes play with the idea that an alternate world exists in which Britain’s Hanoverian line of monarchs never came to the throne.  The current monarchy would thus be reduced to the status of Pretenders–how’s that for a fantasy?

Aiken’s works also include dozens of short stories, which have been collected into several volumes including A Necklace of Raindrops, originally published in 1968 and reissued n 2001 with fine new line drawings by Kevin Hawkes. An age range is not indicated, but I would say these eight tales would be most enjoyed by a younger audience.  Again, they beg to be read aloud; often cumulative and repetitive, they invite young listeners to anticipate the next episode.

Aiken obligingly includes refrains suitable for chanting along, such as this extremely silly one from “The Elves in the Shelves”: “Elves in the shelves, mermaids in the bathtub, penguins in the icebox, rabbits in the coal bin, peacocks on the table, and seals in the sink.”  There’s much delight in wordplay and humorous reversals, as in “The Pie in the Sky,” in which an old woman mistakenly rolls some sky into her piecrust and is carried away by the floating pastry.  Taking a ridiculous idea to its extreme sometimes raises unexpected questions, as with “The Three Travelers,” in which an abandoned rail station becomes the departure point for three unlikely adventurers.

Aiken can also write beautifully in a more poetic vein, as with the title story. When the North Wind becomes trapped in a tree, he rewards the man who rescues him with a wonderful necklace for his little daughter, which each year gives her a new magical power, but is coveted by a jealous schoolmate.  Aiken is a master of the modern fairy tale, writing with clear knowledge and command of traditional elements while incorporating a contemporary idiom.  Look for more of her story collections, such as Smoke from Cromwell’s Time or A Harp of Fishbones, to further experience the full range of her fertile imagination.  For anyone who feels the pull of the lure of Story, Joan Aiken has much to offer.


The Sally Lockhart Trilogy

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke (1986)

Philip Pullman, The Shadow in the North (1988)

Philip Pullman, The Tiger in the Well (1990)


Before there was Lyra Belacqua, there was Sally Lockhart. Prior to creating the unforgettable Lyra of The Golden Compass and its blockbuster sequels, Philip Pullman was perhaps best known for his trio of books featuring another kick-ass female: a pistol-packing, checkbook-balancing, mystery-solving Victorian orphan. I adored these books as a teenager (like Sally herself, I was sixteen when the first volume was published), but hadn’t read them in years when the chance came to review them. Would they still be as compelling as I remembered, half a lifetime later?

The Ruby in the Smoke certainly doesn’t waste any time in getting our attention. “On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver…Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” From this arresting opening, the story moves briskly along, following Sally as she tries to figure out what the deadly phrase “The Seven Blessings” means, the real circumstances of her father’s death, and why her own life appears to be in danger. Along the way she makes the fortuitous acquaintance of Frederick Lockhart, a young photographer, and his actress sister Rosa, who provide her with a job as a bookkeeper and a welcome alternative to living with her odious aunt.

This was Pullman’s second published children’s book, and like his first, Count Karlstein, was based on a play that he wrote for his middle-school students. One can easily imagine it on the stage, with its swift scene changes, colorful characters, and dramatic dialogue. It is strongly reminiscent of the more sensationalistic Sherlock Holmes stories (Pullman also wrote a play called “Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror”), with
its cursed jewel, opium dens, and vaguely ominous Chinese secret society. It’s a confection, an exuberant and unapologetic melodrama, one that is rescued from banality by Pullman’s skill in handling these time-worn elements and making them feel fresh and exciting again.

In The Shadow in the North, Sally has grown up. A strong, independent woman, she runs her own financial consulting business in the City of London. Fred wants to marry her, but she hesitates because she balks at the notion of all her property automatically becoming his, at least until the Married Woman’s Property Act is passed. In the meanwhile, another deadly plot surfaces to lead her into danger: who is behind the mysterious North Star company, and what exactly are they manufacturing? Fred is engaged in a seemingly unrelated investigation of a music-hall magician who can’t quite explain why he is the target of so many homicide attempts. As the two strands come together, Sally and Fred are drawn deeper into danger than ever, and closer to one another.

Even twistier and trickier than its predecessor, The Shadow in the North is equally entertaining. Pullman also continues to catalogue a wide array of Victoriana, from spiritualism to railroads to feminism early motion photography. It can hardly be considered a serious historical effort—and I have to question the plausibility of Sally’s career, inspiring though it may be. But it does give young readers a vivid and entree into the period, one that can be tempered by further reading later. For me, this was probably the first step on a path that led me to a college degree in English literature and a thesis on Charlotte Bronte. Fellow feisty orphan Jane Eyre is certainly one of Sally’s ancestresses.

The Tiger in the Well takes place a couple of years later, and Sally is now a mother. Her idyll of independence is shattered when she receives a summons that claims that her daughter belongs to a man she has never met, who now wants to dissolve their supposed marriage and claim his child. She embarks on a desperate quest to prove him wrong, in which she gains an unlikely supporter: a Jewish Socialist writer, who has charisma to burn. Can they defeat the evil from Sally’s past that has arisen to haunt her?

In this novel, Pullman aims to take a giant step into more serious, adult themes and situations. In doing so, he sometimes loses the verve that gave much of the charm first two books. When a social worker literally takes Sally on a tour of the dreadful living conditions in the East End, didacticism threatens to outweigh drama. (Of course, this may simply be an homage to Dickens, who did exactly the same thing.) The violence, both actual and threatened, is several degrees crueller and more painful to imagine. Sally’s anguish is excruciating, and the fate Pullman posits for Sally’s little daughter is horrible to contemplate. Perhaps that’s why this was always my least favorite of the three books.

Still, once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down, as are the first two. Pullman’s talent as a storyteller is evident from the beginning to the end. If you haven’t yet met Sally Lockhart, you have a treat in store. I’m glad I got to visit her again.

2006 Phoenix Award Honor (Shadow in the North)