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Thanksgiving, for Joan Aiken from her Pa

conrad-joan-jpg

Poet Conrad Aiken and his daughter Joan… “gifted and enchanting”!

 Joan Aiken’s Pulitzer prize winning father didn’t hand out compliments lightly, so it was wonderful to discover a letter that he wrote in which he sings her praises to the moon. Conrad writes to introduce his daughter to Charles Schlessiger, his own literary agent at Brandt & Hochman in New York, who not only took her on, but went on to become her life-long friend and supporter.

A genuine case for Thanksgiving, and the letter was also a celebration of Joan Aiken’s remarkable, funny, short stories, or as he calls them ‘fairy stories of the twentieth century’ – two lovely editions of which have been recently been re-published in both her home countries – England and America.

Here is his letter:

ca-letter-to-charles-re-ja*  *  *  *  *

Joan Aiken’s first published books were  collections of magical stories

which she continued to produce all her life.

Fantasy Stories

Find them all here on her website

 

Two new collections of these unforgettable stories are now out

from Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

The People in The Castle small png

Celebrated as a book of the year in The Washington Post

and from Virago Modern Classics

The Gift Giving – Favourite Stories 

Gift Giving

 

Written, as her proud Pa describes,

‘For the young of all ages’

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A Joan Aiken Heroine for Our Times

Ribs of Death &amp; Fortune Hunters

Feminists of the 1960’s were breaking the mould writing a new kind of fiction that appealed to a wide audience, and Joan Aiken’s early thrillers which have now been reissued as EBooks and paperbacks have lost none of their appeal since they were first written.

Fellow novelist Amanda Craig is a fan who has championed Joan Aiken not just for her award winning children’s books, but also for ‘the imaginative vitality that makes all her fiction so unmistakable, interesting and delightful.’

Writing a stirring foreword to these new editions from Orion’s Murder Room imprint, Amanda Craig describes what makes an Aiken heroine tick in these modern Gothics:

  “An Aiken heroine is observant, shrewd, often witty and always slightly out of place. Unlike the traditional Gothic heroine, she isn’t an innocent – though she is usually vulnerable. Often she is watching the behaviour and actions of people much richer, more flamboyant and more famous than herself, and drawing her own shrewd conclusions about them. She’s naive, but no fool, and when the climax comes, fights back with unexpected courage and determination. She won’t, in other words, be defined by love, but by her own choices and talents.”

She goes on to draw a parallel between Joan Aiken and her own heroines:

  “At the heart of Aiken’s stories there is often a question about creativity, expressed in poetry, music, painting or storytelling, and whether it makes someone more or less vulnerable in negotiating the world and its dangers.

It’s not much of a stretch to see this as coming from Aiken’s own experience of life. An astoundingly productive author who wrote over a hundred books in a wide variety of genres, she finished her first novel at sixteen and was published at seventeen, with a story about a man who cooks his wife’s head in a pressure cooker. She published her first collection of magical stories for children, All You’ve Ever Wanted, in 1953 but did not begin writing for a living until her husband died in 1955, leaving her with two young children. To make ends meet she joined the magazine Argosy, and then the advertising agency J. Walter Thomson, writing jingles for Dairylea cheese by day and stories by night.”

It was at Argosy magazine that Joan Aiken began to publish short stories to supplement her salary; she then went on to sell romantic fiction to Woman’s Journal, Vogue, Good Housekeeping and more, which were then developed into these first thrillers.

Amanda Craig continues:

“Yet as the daughter of the famous Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer Prize-winner and Poet Laureate of America, with an elder brother and sister who were both novelists, she knew more about the writer’s life than most. ‘I don’t aspire to be the second Shakespeare. I want to be the first Carreen Gilmartin,’ says the young playwright in The Silence of Herondale, and the bestselling Tuesday in The Ribs of Death is also not content to rest on mere precocity. Although Aiken published so much that she makes creative writing seem easy, Tuesday comes closest to what actual writing is like when she complains that ‘if you think it’s not hard work scraping out your thoughts from inside you and putting them on paper, that just shows how crass you are’.”

These heroines are very much women of their own time, struggling against the elements to stay afloat.

  “The landscape and weather through which Aiken’s heroines travel are always bound up with the plot. Fans of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase will recognise her fictional Yorkshire village of Herondale as the same remote place where Bonnie, Sylvia and Simon hole up after the cousins’ escape from the terrifying orphanage. More often, heroines go to Cornwall, where Aiken lived and often holidayed herself, and are exposed to its changeable weather and storm-lashed cliffs. The mood is always one of threat and gloom, even on the rare occasions when, as in the funniest of these novels, Trouble With Product X, the sun shines; ultimately, it’s the damp that does for everything, whether it’s a top-secret formula or a serial killer. This very British version of pathetic fallacy is one of the things that make Aiken such fun, as is the familiarity of the ordinary struggle to stay warm, dry and fed.”

Joan Aiken puts her adult heroines through the kinds of difficulties she had faced herself (but with the odd murderer or evil fanatic thrown in their way as well!) and so, as Amanda Craig concludes:

“The essential struggle of an Aiken heroine is always to hang onto her kindness and innate sense of who she really is. We follow her through thick and thin, because the author’s deceptively fluent, witty, atmospheric style tells us a good deal more about human nature than we expect, while never forgetting to give us a thoroughly entertaining story.”

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1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern Gothics on the JOAN AIKEN website

And find them all HERE at Hachette’s SFGateway

An Aiken Family Education

Joan-Lizza-Jessie-John1953-1

      You might imagine that Joan Aiken’s famous writer father, Conrad Aiken, would have been her most formative literary influence, or even her stepfather, British author Martin Armstrong. Hardly ever mentioned, but of huge importance in the development not only of Joan’s writing, but of her whole character and imagination, is her mother, Jessie – who never published a book.
     Jessie MacDonald graduated from McGill University in Quebec, where she grew up, and then as a post graduate, from Radcliffe, where she met Conrad, her first husband, in 1911.  Sadly for this highly educated woman, the life of a poet’s wife was not an easy one, and by 1929 she was divorced and living with her three children on the other side of the Atlantic in Rye, Sussex, where the family had moved just before Joan was born. The two older children were sent away to boarding school, and Jessie became Joan’s sole companion and educator for large stretches of her daughter’s early life, as they lived in a small country village with Jessie’s second husband, Martin Armstrong, until Joan, too, was sent away to school at the age of twelve.

     Luckily Jessie was a formidable instructress in every way. The many, many books she read aloud to Joan as a small child, the songs she sang, and her particular style of teaching and day-to-day upbringing had an enduring effect on her daughter. Joan’s earliest and indelible literary memories were of gripping and sinister scenes not only from traditional children’s fare such as Peter Rabbit but also from Collodi’s original tale of Pinocchio with its terrifying villains, or Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, which was set amid plague and persecution in fifteenth-century Holland. Before the age of five she knew by heart many of De la Mare’s haunting Peacock Pie poems with their stories of loss and mystery, ghostly visitors and vanished children, and the plaintive ballads of Jessie’s earlier Scottish ancestry in which old ladies are robbed by pedlars, damsels elope with gypsies, and lords are poisoned by their lovers. As a twentieth-century upbringing, this may sound extraordinary, but Joan took these subjects as a matter of course, and their stories and flamboyant styles of writing became the foundation of her literary imagination and formed the common vocabulary of her relationship with her mother, which was perhaps the greatest inspiration of her life.

 

5 - Pinocchio

Collodi’s Pinocchio

     Lessons were learned in the morning. Joan might be instructed by Jessie to re-write the Bible as Shakespeare, or produce a poem in the style of Wordsworth or Chaucer; to write a sonnet or a villanelle or take down dictation from The Oxford Book of English Verse. Learning poetry by heart helped keep her mind busy while Joan helped Jessie work about the house, which in the 1920s had no running water or electricity (water was pumped from a well, and oil lamps and fires had to be prepared daily). Jessie was an excellent cook, and all the family food was produced by her, including preserves made from their garden fruit and vegetables. There was only a small shop in the village, so most supplies were fetched from the nearest town once a week by a carter with a horse. During their work, or while going for walks in the afternoons, they would hold long conversations, and Jessie continued to read aloud from a wide range of literature: from the Brontës to the Bible, Dickens to Dumas, or even stories by the Comtesse de Segur in French. In the evenings Joan would do her own work; from the age of five, she kept a writer’s notebook.

Joan first writing book

     Jessie was strong minded and set high standards for herself and others in every area of life. Joan quoted her as saying, “Use your wits! Think about what you are doing. You must learn to use your mind all the time.” However, Jessie’s critical nature was leavened by her reckless energy and enormous charm and creativity, and she was the living embodiment of her principles. She produced exquisite embroidery, knitting, tatting, and handmade clothes. She sketched, played the piano and sang, gardened, chopped wood, bicycled around the countryside as a social worker assisting with evacuated children during the war, and lectured on modern drama to the local Women’s Institute. She continued to read widely and concern herself with current affairs. The only thing she didn’t do, having been the wife of two struggling poets, was try to publish her own books.

     The real difficulties in the lives of my grandmother and mother spurred them on, not just to find self-reliant role models in literature but to use the very medium of language and literature to assuage the difficulties and loneliness of their lives, and to pass on this ability to their children. One of our family phrases is “comfort reading”—meaning one’s personal store of fictional friends to whom one can always go for uplift or distraction, to escape from some unhappiness or find a way to deal with it. Joan Aiken took it a step further: being aware of the power of stories to heal or distract, to uplift and encourage, she used her gift to pass them on and eventually, to her own immense joy, to write them as a means of earning her own living and supporting her family.

My Wolves First Eds.

     Apart from my mother’s books, which for me are a treasury of family memories,  my lasting legacy from my mother, and from my grandmother, too, is the voice in my head saying, “Use your mind.” 

     By reading aloud to me as a child, they taught me that the greatest gift is our imagination, and our ability to remember, foresee, imitate – in short, to see how life works out in stories,  and try to re-use them – as a blueprint or model  – to create our own best outcome. In the tales of heroes and witches, or heroines and monsters, there are wonderful examples of triumph over adversity, whether in fact, or in the imagination. Care of others and kindness along the way is rewarded in your time of need, even if not in the way you expect.

     Some of these stories may be very scary indeed, but then so is real life, and if you have been able to imagine total loss, then you are able to face the fear and deal with it when it happens: a tough lesson, but one I haven’t forgotten.

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This comes from an article by Lizza Aiken first published in The HornBook in 2009. The photograph shows Joan with daughter Lizza, son John and her mother Jessie.

Re-posted & updated from 2014

 

Croopus…It’s another Happy Dido Twite Day!

cuckoo Tree Dido Susan Obrant

Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion. The first of March is a special day for Aiken fans to celebrate. But lately she has been celebrating some more glory days while taking part in the online #WorldCupofChildrensBooks, and has become one of the few ‘unknowns’ to break through the old guard of early twentieth century staples into the finals.

Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who went on to take over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often wildly villainous family, the Twites.

Dido and the Twite family

But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that early book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.

But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:

Dido letters

Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series, was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the sailor costume that becomes her trade mark:

Dido Midshipman's Outfit

Dido &amp; Holystone on the Thrush

Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable. Here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:

Dido on the Whaler

But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – whether with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, or the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, sighing:

“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”

The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:

Dido the key

And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to

read another piece of her history!

So when do we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:

‘When you talk to a native or a stranger,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself – your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food – tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit you can be friends.’

And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!

And find out about ALL the Wolves Chronicles here

Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)