Joan Aiken was born on September 4th 1924 in a haunted house named after a mysterious astrologer, Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex.
All these elements were to have a lasting place in her imagination, and that particular haunted house would appear in many of her favourite stories.
At the age of five Joan moved to a small village and the house of a new step-father; it was a place she came to love, as she had a good deal of freedom and was taught at home by her mother, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing! Years later she wrote about the experience in a novel called The Shadow Guests, where a boy deals with the difficulty of school life by retreating into a world of ghostly imaginary friends. Writing was clearly the answer, and her first term’s report said she showed promise… she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.
Just a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.
Another very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript:
This was the beginning of her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green, and now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – which she began on September 4th 1953 in this old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.
September 1976 was also a special birthday. Two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein, they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.
Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September Joan Aiken Day and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.
Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy US thanks to all the books
she left for us to enjoy!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Here is the new edition of The Shadow Guests now out from Puffin Books
with added material about Joan’s school days and more!
* * * * * * *
When Joan Aiken was sent away to school at the age of twelve, she found her new world an unfriendly place. A 1930’s boarding school in Oxford full of the chatter of posh slang and constantly clanging bells was a noisy nightmare for the small girl who had hardly ever left her village; at home her mother Jessie had also been her strong-minded teacher, and her smaller brother was her only companion in the fantasy world of books they read and inhabited.
Her shocking introduction to the uncongenial institution of school was the world she re-created for Cosmo, lonely hero of her teenage novel The Shadow Guests. Having also lost a mother and a brother, he is sent away to an unknown country and new school where, excluded by classmates, he becomes haunted by unwelcome visitations, the friends, or enemies, of his imagination…
Joan was a fearless child, completely secure at home she adored scary stories – poems and tales of haunting by ghosts and possession by demons. Imaginary friends were her daily companions, and in her fantasies she enacted glorious battles against evil and undertook countless heroic journeys. She also said she had always wished she was a boy, and when young spent a good deal of time constructing tree houses, making bows and arrows and having the kind of wild outdoor adventures she gives to Cosmo at the haunted Mill House where he stays at weekends with his enigmatic cousin Eunice. Known as Dracula’s Aunt to his school companions, she is as forthright in her conversations with him as Joan’s mother might have been – Jessie cheerfully explained Coleridge’s opium habit when her six year old daughter asked about the wailing woman and the demon lover in Kubla Khan…
Part of Joan Aiken’s inspiration for The Shadow Guests, the ghostly visitors conjured up by an unhappy boy, was the experience of a neighbour’s child whose imaginary friend had started to become harsh and tyrannical. Lonely and unhappy children, like the writers who have created stories about them, tend to have rather fickle fantasy companions. Barrie’s Peter Pan is contrary enough but is then supplanted by the utterly terrifying Captain Hook; Robert Louis Stevenson’s benign unseen playmates from his idyllic children’s verses lead on to more haunting tales about the alter ego – the purely evil element of Mr Hyde.
But if Cosmo can’t control the behaviour of his bullying classmates, he can learn to be in charge of his imagination. His early experience, from reading and from his previous life with his mother and brother provide him with the means to manage and understand his ghostly visitors in very practical ways:
He thought about Con, and about Sim. Had he dreamed them, or made them up? Were they products of his own mind? How could he ever tell? They had seemed perfectly real. There, moored by the bank, was the boat in which Sim had been lying, reading his book; there, across the lawn, was the walnut tree, the look- out platform defended by the poles that Con had helped hammer into place. Surely they were real people? If I had made them up, if I had invented them, he thought, I’d have liked them more from the start; I would have made them into ideal friends. But I didn’t like them, not at first. And then, later, I found out things about them that I hadn’t expected – so they must have been real, mustn’t they?
With all the technological gadgetry and virtual realities available to children these days, they have the constant possibility of escape into other worlds, not just those offered by books or their own imaginations. But they still have to deal with the real world, the walk to school, the taunting or worse, of unfriendly companions when they get there.
This story of Joan Aiken’s is based on her own memories – the shock of going to a new school – a subject particularly poignant to many at this time of year, but is at its heart a celebration of friends – how, when you keep your wits about you, you can get to know people and learn to trust them. From the moment he lands at the airport Cosmo is unsure of himself, expects nothing from strangers, least of all that he will be liked. Sure enough when no one is there to meet him, and he tries to imagine a voice over the tannoy, it is a taunting one:
‘Will the friends meeting Cosmo Curtoys–?’
Friends sounded wrong– he had no friends over here, it seemed like presuming on people’s good-nature to call them his friends in advance.
The prospect of school is even more unnerving:
‘I wish I didn’t have to go to school,’ Cosmo said. ‘I’m sure school was invented just because parents can’t be bothered to look after their children.’
Cousin Eunice considered this.
‘Very possibly. But there are some advantages to it. After all, specially nowadays, you do have to learn a lot of things, just to keep alive; look how useless babies are, they don’t even know how to prise the lids off treacle tins. They wouldn’t last a day without help. What schools ought to be – I don’t say they are – is places where you can pick up all that kind of know-how very quickly and compactly. And, of course, make friends, learn how to get on with other people.’
Cosmo felt he could have done without that part.
But by the end of the story he has – as Joan herself presently did at her own school – made three close friends and said goodbye to the ghostly visitors.
Joan Aiken used to say that when she was a child, books were her friends, and that this was the pleasure she wanted to share with others through her own writing; this story, although it may seem alarming at first sight, could be one that will stay with you for life.
* * * * * * *
Although Joan Aiken lived in various supposedly haunted houses, she was disappointed never to see their ghostly inhabitants. The picture above was taken by a visiting friend…
The new edition of The Shadow Guests out from Puffin Books this September
with added extras about Joan’s own school days and more!
Joan Aiken always took a sketchbook on holiday, often to make a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers, The Shadow Guests, which ends in a setting just like this, and a fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course!
But it begins with the horror of starting a new school, something that many of her readers will be facing this autumn, and although this one may seem not just eccentric but pretty beastly, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.
Although she makes use of her more unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.
And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…
* * * * * * *
The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is coming out on September 1st –
Just in time for school…!
Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?
See more about Joan’s art and school days here:
* * * * *
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!)