…for light in darkness, and inspiration in simple things
“We’re on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, picking up gold and silver” comes from an old children’s game – they run and help themselves to riches left lying unattended…
Joan’s poems can be found in a collection called The Skin Spinners
and see more pastel drawings here
Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?
Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her books came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who now like to post and share their thoughts on book sites like Goodreads, or leave reviews on Amazon, and the wild variety of tastes and opinions they seem to offer on their reading of the same novel!
It has to be said that Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various ghoulish or gruesome ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not her forte; she believed her writing for children should have a positive outcome, and have, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to young 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 wasn’t always a romantic outcome for these adult 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, but they would have a lot of useful experience along the 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 appeared in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – girls ran from castles in their nighties while brooding villains looked on, when the girl in the novel in question was in fact 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 when novels are misrepresented in their presentation or description, 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 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.”
Yet another finds:
“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”
or alternatively that the 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 off beat view of the world, the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres and wicked ear for dialogue, plus her generous dollops of years of interesting journeys and life experience, as opposed to a chocolate box full of make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her 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’ this one might turn out to be for you – ‘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!
Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here
and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here
Lots more coming to EBooks soon
One of these people is Gladys, in Joan Aiken’s story about her strange ‘reappearance’, written, and equally mysteriously illustrated, when she was about seven years old.
Joan was taught at home by her mother, who gave her exercises in writing – in this case she had to create a whole story told only through conversation – which makes you wonder about the ones she overheard as a small girl, and what she made of them…?
This one is certainly mysterious.
Here is the whole story:
This is simply masterful and full of dramatic technique!
Joan as the narrator runs rings around poor Mrs L. who tries to be pleasant and chatty but gets the most gnomic responses in reply. Gladys and her cat have clearly had an unfortunate history, but it seems as though the cat has the upper hand…? Sadly Joan isn’t going to share that story.
Instead of entering into the comfortable and hopefully scandalous gossip Mrs L. is clearly angling for, Joan brutally changes the subject:
“Look at that holly.”
Did Gladys try to dispose of the cat in some way? Has the cat also reappeared? We are left to imagine all sorts of possible horrors…maybe even ghosts?
Luckily at this point David, a third character joins the conversation, (in fact he is Joan’s little brother!) Mrs L. tries to save face, and look as though she is completely in the picture (which for all we know she is?) and take a grown up stand in the dialogue, commenting on the trouble Gladys has caused her ‘poor mother’ while perhaps also delivering sly snub of her own to the cheeky storyteller.
Meanwhile Joan’s own mother, probably well aware of the social parody in her small daughter’s writing – and perhaps suspicious about the characterisation of Mrs L. – gets her own back by sharply underlining a spelling mistake; in fact there is another, but she seems to have missed that one!
Knowing both these two characters makes the whole exercise even more fascinating – Joan had a great respect for her mother, but always saw her with a very clear eye – in fact she reappears more than once as the model for a much loved, but fairly mysterious parent in many of Joan’s later novels…
A typical day for the Jones Family – mayhem with Mortimer, or occasionally miracles; although Joan Aiken described him as the personification of a wonderfully childish ID to the sensible Arabel’s Ego, his wilful mischief which severely tried their patience was just as likely to turn up lost treasure and bring delight to his weary but ever-loving family!
As a couple of Mortimer fans have observed, ravens have a long and significant history in legends and literature, there is much fascinating material to be found about them, whether as ‘tricksters’ or all knowing clowns, or prophets of doom; Joan Aiken would have been familiar with many of these myths and stories. She was also an early reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and even won a china bust of the writer as an award for one of her own mysteries – and Poe is obviously responsible for Mortimer’s one and only utterance of ‘Nevermore!’ taken from his poem The Raven.
In fact Joan Aiken’s raven is as much a parody of Poe’s aggravating night time visitor, as he is a figment of Aiken’s own imagination; but he also owes a good deal of his insouciant character and the wicked twinkle of his eye to his artist creator, Quentin Blake who drew the characters of the Jones family and their ‘great awful bird’ for the first Jackanory stories where he appeared.
In this one, ‘Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass’ which has luckily been preserved, he is also given voice (as, charmingly is Arabel too) by the great Bernard Cribbins in a fantastic tale of a typical Jones family holiday which includes the gleeful destruction of a glass factory and the discovery of a dinosaur…
Joan Aiken had an enormous amount of fun incorporating the worst disasters that could occur in or out of the family home in a way that is deeply cathartic to the parents of small children, and which all can enjoy sharing at any reading aloud session.
Thanks are also due to the amazing puppet team led by Francis Wright, with designs by Malcolm James for the BBC who brought several series of the stories to life on CBBC, and built wonderful sets that even took Mortimer back to his ancestral home at The Tower of London.
So if you are out Trick or Treating over the Hallowe’en season, one door you should perhaps not knock at is that of the Jones Family in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 and a half…like the burglar from that story above coming back for his sock…?
You are likely to get more of a trick than you bargained for!
Other recommended reading for Mortimer fans:
a lovely blog on Three Sets of Ravens by Nick Swarbrick,
and posts from the always erudite Calmgrove
Quentin Blake can also be seen here talking about working with Joan Aiken