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It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone can be a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in the papers during her writing career as her many adult novels came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who are now able to share their thoughts on sites like Goodreads, or to post their reviews on Amazon, and to see the wild variety of tastes and opinions that can be offered on individual readings of the same novel.

As a writer Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away – sometimes finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various unexpected or sometimes ghoulish ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not necessarily her forte….

She believed that her books for children should have a positive outcome, with, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to younger readers who had followed, heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there certainly wasn’t always a classically romantic outcome for her heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man; it was rather more likely that they would need to find a way to earn their own living, but by the end of an Aiken adventure they would have encountered a good deal of useful experience along their way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels used to appear in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – a terrified girl appeared to be running from a castle in a diaphanous nightdress while a brooding villain looked on – while the actual heroine of the novel in question might be described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory but they haven’t necessarily helped the books find readers who will really appreciate them.

Instead, when novels are misrepresented with over romantic cover art or enthusiastic but misleading publisher’s descriptions, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But then another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Whereas ‘Disappointed’ of Clacton finds:
“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or another reader finds that for them the same novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly offbeat view of the world, sharing the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres, her wicked ear for dialogue, especially in the voice of her much admir’d Jane Austen, plus lots of interesting journeys to foreign parts, a certain amount of suspense and sometimes heart-rending life experience, as opposed to sadly predictable romances full of flimsy make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her novels a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’ ‘with no shooting’ (although there may be other unexpected deaths…) you may just have the luck to discover what one reader called – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!

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New editions of Joan Aikens Austen sequels and Period Novels coming out now

Find Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon at Macmillan

A Joan Aiken ABC – An Aiken Book Bonanza for Completists!

 

All of Joan Aiken’s historical novels, whether Regency Romp, Gothic Melodrama or Austen Entertainments (or sometimes a mixture of all three!) are now being republished as EBooks and new paperbacks, so if your well thumbed copies are falling apart, or you want to re-find a long lost favourite or discover a whole new world of  ‘Joan Aiken for Grown-ups’ – now is the moment to stock up your collection!

The three novels above known as the Paget Family Trilogy are all partly set in Joan Aiken’s own home, the (unsurprisingly!) haunted Hermitage, in Petworth Sussex where she spent the last years of her life. But the Paget women are great travellers; the first novel is set at the time of the French revolution in the 1790’s, with a hazardous escape – by balloon! and the last is set partly in Brussels and the salons of Paris in about 1860. The second covers a fantastic journey from northern India all the way back to England; all make use of historical events and characters of the time – back in the small Sussex town we meet the 3rd Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth House, and of course the Prince Regent on a visit from his Pavilion in Brighton…

Between them, this loosely related series, and Joan Aiken’s other period novels, draw on the innovative literary and historical style of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when Mrs Radcliffe was inventing the Gothic Romance with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Jane Austen, who read her predecessor avidly, produced her own Gothic parody with Northanger Abbey, and proceeded to create a new style of ‘romantic’ novel that has been a model for female authors ever since. In her styles and settings, Joan Aiken goes on to encompass the rest of the nineteenth century –  an extremely fertile period for the development of the novel – that takes us through the Brontes and Dickens, from completely Gothic to more urban settings, and then on to the sensational novels like Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, right up to the ghostly tales and grand  international romances of Henry James.

It is hard to pin down Joan Aiken’s style, she revels in Gothic Romance, with romance in the sense of finding beauty and adventure even in the everyday, and Gothic in her use of mystery and suspense and fantastic settings, but also with a keen eye for period style and historical detail, and always with a strong and sometimes humorous or parodic critique of the role of the heroine, in the novel and in society. Add to that an understanding of literary tradition, and usually a well-read heroine, who is sometimes a writer herself, and some pacey dialogue, eccentric characters, and a thoroughly modern interpretation of relationships (and sometimes a touch of terror!) and you begin to get the picture…

Five Min Barebane Deception

‘Regency’ has also become a pretty wide ranging category, more or less invented by the prolific Georgette Heyer, who also took Jane Austen as an early model, but which has come to mean a comedy of manners in a period setting rather than a full on Romance. These next three novels go from the very Heyerish Five Minute Marriage  (with elements of Dickensian London) to full on Gothic Horror in the style of Mrs Radcliffe or Sir Walter Scott with her Castle Barebane, and finally Deception – dedicated to all female writers – is a moving family saga and high drama set in a remote Northumbrian mansion.

Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them take up the stories of some of Austen’s lesser characters or younger sisters –  one of the four Ward sisters from Mansfield Park for instance, The Youngest Miss Ward to give them their own stories – in this case a reversal of Austen’s plot – rich girl goes to live with poor relations! In another she completes The Watsons one of Austen’s own unfinished fragments with Emma Watson.

These two are now out as handsome new paperbacks.

Jane Austen was Aiken’s most admired literary predecessor, and though the adventures of the Aiken heroines may be a trifle wilder, as she allows them an independence that Austen could not, there is nothing in these imaginative sequels that a young Jane Austen – author of some fairly tongue-in-cheek parodies herself in her younger years – might not enjoy!

It is delightful to see all these novels becoming available again, a hugely important part of  Joan Aiken’s literary career, whether for old Aiken aficionados, or new readers moving on from the Willoughby Chase series or her other children’s works, who never dreamed that these gripping and eminently readable titles even existed. Find out much more about all of them on the Joan Aiken website – and welcome to the Aiken ABC!

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Find Period Novels here,  and Austen Entertainments here

And all of them on the Joan Aiken Amazon Page and the PanMacmillan website

New to Joan Aiken? Here’s an idea of what NOT to expect…!

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/its-a-joan-aiken-novel-what-did-you-expect/

‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Every year, the anniversary of the 4th of January takes me further from my mother’s death, but since I have been with her every day ‘looking after the books’, it is also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given, and for the wonderful task she left me…

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter, and curator of her estate, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books – sometimes fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the Joan Aiken website, and replying to some of the letters she had kept – shown on the webpage above.

On that page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “


One of these, is that the books themselves provide a lifelong companionship.

What I know readers feel, what I feel when I read my mother’s books, is that I am alone with her, while she is alone. Joan Aiken put so much of herself, her thoughtful personality into her books, that you will never be completely without her guiding vision again. In the same way, she filled her books with the memory of her own mother, here appearing as Masha, in Blackground and she describes the same powerful feeling:

That young correspondent, now a writer herself, did see her own letter on the website and so was able to get in touch, describing her devotion to the books, and the importance of her letters to Joan, and saying something I completely understood, and that I possibly could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness.”

When she came on a visit from America, having arranged to meet me, I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before.

Afterwards she wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on, amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, nearly twenty years later, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I still am…

And below in the comments are some more grateful messages about Joando add your own?

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there? http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life –

A Joan Aiken Gift for Christmas…and for Ever After

gift-wreath-2 Literary treasure for the young of all ages!

Sometimes Joan Aiken would write at the end of a story: “I know, because I was there.”

Now I feel the same way about these stories – because I was there when she first told them to me,  on walks, on train journeys or at bedtime, from my earliest years onwards,  I had no idea how these stories were going to shape my life, I know I shall never forget them, and now I’m delighted to pass on the gift of this collection of favourites to you, and give you a taste of some Aiken magic…

Author Katherine Rundell wrote:

“The voice that tells these stories is wiser and braver than us…someone who knows the ways of the world and loves it anyway.”

Joan Aiken knew hundreds of  stories, and could weave them together and make them her own – she filled them with all the elements that the young imagine and desire – whether it be friendship or delectable food, magic or hilarious mayhem, wild adventure and danger, or a warm and happy ending.

One of Joan Aiken’s literary heroines was E.Nesbit, who had an equally wicked way of making hay with traditional Fairy Tales; in their ‘modern’ versions of familiar tales you’ll find a brace of unfortunate Royal Christenings and some very feisty baby princesses.  For example when Grisel, one of Aiken’s ‘dreadful old fairy ladies’ pops out of a vase on the mantelpiece (without an invitation of course!) and hooks the baby out of its cot:

“…the baby hit her a fearful whack on the front teeth with its heavy silver rattle. There was a terrible scene. The King and Queen were far too well bred to laugh, but they looked as though they would have liked to…”

At another unfortunate christening two feuding Fairies saddle the baby princess with a list of dire prophecies that mean she spends most of her life as a pig (although an extremely elegantly brought up one!) and has to find a one legged husband who has spent all his life out of doors… Even the supposedly helpful Fairy Godmothers, or aunts in one case, turn out to be a terrible liability when their wishes won’t stop coming true. When poor Matilda is told that “all her way will be strewn with flowers” she clogs up an escalator in the tube station with ‘blooming lilies’ and has to spend a year in hiding in a greenhouse with an axe to keep the luxuriant foliage in check until the wish finally expires…

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Real family members can be just as formidable, or unforgettable. John Sculpin’s mother cannot get her hapless son to remember how to get rid of a witch (the countryside where they live is sadly infested with them) but when one of them, in disguise of course, sells him a poisoned toothbrush, and a fly drops dead after landing on it, his mother knows he can’t have brushed his teeth!  Joan Aiken creates the warmest and most loving mothers and grandmothers who show their care by giving up their greatest treasures, or passing on their wisdom in unexpected ways.

There are deaths too, and great sadness for those left behind, but hope and help are offered for ways to remember the love and wisdom of those we have lost. A Joan Aiken heroine may lie down and cry her heart out, but she’ll accept her loss, and make use of the gifts that came from that relationship – whether it is learning to speak to the bees and teaching songs to a bird, or helping to make a flute that brings back a forgotten melody and restores a family tradition.

Music is often the key to a mystery in these stories:

“As soon as Ermine put the needle down and the disc began to revolve, a strange thing happened…she found herself walking down a steep narrow lane, in between two high walls…an archway led to a small lawn in the centre of which grew a huge tree all covered with blossom..she started to cross the grass to it, but at that moment the music slowed down and came to an end…”

There are delicious meals – sometimes the simplest are the best.  On a hot day there is  “a bunch of radishes soaking in a blue bowl of water, ready for anyone who came in to take a cool peppery bite” or “an apple and the special birthday cream cheese which her mother had left for her” or “a tiny birthday cake decorated with pink candles and silver balls.”  Or a supper in front of the kitchen fire: “a cup of cocoa, piece of dripping toast, and the crusty end of the loaf spread thick with globby home-made yellow plum jam.”

There is that slightly wicked smiling voice:

“‘The sea promised to come and help me if ever I was in trouble. And it’s coming now.’  Sure enough, the very next minute, every single wall of the house burst in, and the roof collapsed like an eggshell when you hit it with a spoon. There was enough sea in the garden to fill the whole Atlantic and have enough left over for the Pacific too.”

  There is language for all ages – ‘The Ministry of Alarm and Despondency’, the ‘Ballet Doux’ – composed of blue blooded little girls, and lovely word-play, often on misread notices like: ‘load of spinach goes begging’ or:

        LOST: FIVE MINUTES.

FINDER PLEASE RETURN TO WORMLEY MUSEUM. REWARD.

Joan Aiken beautifully conveys the storyteller’s – and the listener’s – love of stories.  One of her  bewitched princesses finds herself in an oasis with a dragon:

“During their simple meals of dates he often looked hopefully at the book, and sometimes pushed it towards her with the tip of his tail, as if asking for more.” An old car begs: “Oh won’t some kind soul tell me a story? I have such a terrible craving on me to hear another tale!”  And at the moment when the boy Seb pauses in his reading aloud to the sea: “a thin white hand came out of the green water and turned over the page…”

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The voice that tells these stories is wise, and funny, and generous in the wish to pass on everything she has learned from reading and loving stories herself. There is treasure here, and wisdom, and a sense of what it is we sometimes only half-remember from the mysteries of childhood. These stories will take you there again.

Here is a taste of Joan Aiken mystery:

dilmun

At the end of the story these children, and all the other inhabitants of the village,  have parted with their own dearest treasure:

“They do not speak about these things. They are used to keeping secrets. But if anything at all hopeful is to happen in the world, there may be a good chance that it will have its beginnings in the village of Wish Wintergreen.”

Or in a Joan Aiken story?

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My grateful thanks to Virago Modern Classics for re-publishing these stories, and to Peter Bailey for his delightful illustrations.

Read more about The Gift Giving and find a copy here 

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More Joan Aiken classic Fantasy story collections coming back in 2023!