The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963
The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency, (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 while still at the office!) was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years. He only recently decided to retire and give up his daily subway journey to their offices in Times Square where he has seen the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he became practically an institution himself.
As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on. Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!” and which according to Nichols had already sold over 11,000 copies within a few weeks and gone into a second edition.
Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and has been one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever since, and has assisted with the publication of more than 100 further books since then – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin offs, plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity. Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”
In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!) as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:
“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!” It certainly did.
Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:
“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ). If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome. Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”
Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA. When in 1976 Joan married the American painter Julius Goldstein and began to spend half her year in New York, they all became close friends.
Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American. For example of one novel he writes:
“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!” For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted – but since the movie of this name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s other meaning…
Sadly Joan was not there in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but as her daughter and literary ambassador I was in New York with Charles that autumn and with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore hosted an evening of celebration – rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before hurricane Sandy hit town! So it was not until some time later , when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a triple celebration!
So here’s a heartfelt Thank You Charles
(and Brandt & Hochman!)
For fifty wonderful years, and wishing you many more Happy Birthdays! x
Celebrating his 80th Birthday at the office!
Now sending love and All Best Wishes for his 85th
(with endless help from Charles!)
Joan Aiken writing at her cheerful best was a perfect reader’s companion. Well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, she also had the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the enjoyment of the writing process. What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her plots, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.
The ideal read on holiday then (or even a substitute for one?) would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.) In one perfect package, as in the novels of her equally readable predecessor Mary Stewart, she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island!
Imagine for example, your much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with a canopy of scented jasmine and grape vines growing up from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn. Joan Aiken reminds you of the the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also allows you the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae:
‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’
And this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot to keep you turning the pages. To quote one jacket blurb:
“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”
Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!
Added to this are discussions about the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso: ‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’ (which could be a comment on our times), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children, and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration that she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is, but provides excellent food for thought as you lie idly on your beach…
For example our heroine engages (with a murderer…) in a comparison of the narrative methods of various authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)
He (the possible/ would-be murderer) and Georgia are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine brood about her situation in a playful comparison with that novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson. To distract herself from her troubles (broke, tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe on an unknown island for the arrival of her cousin) she wonders how Esther would have coped. How would it be, she wonders (the ultimate unreliable narrator!) if she was the heroine of a novel?
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(And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)
In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday, leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion…
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PS. That should be Mr Guppy of course, shameful editor’s slip for an Aikenesque name she would have admired and not misquoted.
The Butterfly Picnic (aka: A Cluster of Separate Sparks in the USA )
This is Joan’s idyllic picture of a swimming afternoon at the river with school friends; her (rather stylish!) signature is on the left.
In the 1930’s Joan went to a small girls’ school in Oxford which had many eccentricities. One was that their pioneering art teacher Marion Richardson preferred the girls to write with dip pens (and inkwells) and a special Dudley nib, to produce a beautiful patterned script. But she was clearly a gifted teacher and encouraged Joan and others to express themselves through painting; a lovely and mysterious picture of Joan’s appears in Richardson’s book Art and The Child. Richardson wrote:
“When a teacher frees the artist’s vision within a child he inspires him to find a completely truthful expression for it. The vision itself is so lovable that nothing short of sincerity will serve…satisfaction may be found in projecting the wish for something that real life has so far denied.”
An inspiration that transferred itself to Joan’s writing as well, perhaps.
A slightly mixed blessing was the school’s access to a rather muddy bathing place by the Rhea island on the River Cherwell near the school on the Banbury Road; those more experienced could use the deep end with diving boards, and also join the sculling club, or learn the more dangerous arts of punting and canoeing! Beginners – non swimmers – were dangled on the end of a pole as in this illustration from Jean Webster’s famous tale , and illustration, of an earlier college girl’s education:
On hot days it must have been a very welcome resource, muddy or not, and there was always the fun of frightening new girls with the fable of the dead donkey once seen in it’s depths…
On a hot day, an afternoon with friends at the Oxford riverside must have been wonderful, and Joan never lost her fondness for swimming in rivers, or for painting portraits and landscapes, or even for causing a sensation by telling scary stories..!
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So how far did she go in writing about her own life? “This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story by Joan Aiken. Years later she said: “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”
Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, or be at the mercy of endless letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage from their own relatives… Does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?
It was accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape, and a clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’ Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who died when his ship sank off the coast – as does Dan’s, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – they were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?
Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, our heroine in Foul Matter, also has plenty of names, and speaks in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Death – another quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:
“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”
Certainly that can’t have been autobiographical, as, when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.
Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. These forms and references were in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; her family history, like this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.
So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:
“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.
“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”
Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.
True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters? How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own? Is this novel set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:
Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.
In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.
Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken I turn to.
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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…” The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?
All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks
– perfect for Summer reading?