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Joan’s writing desk

Visit the Joan Aiken You Tube Page to see her at home using this typewriter

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Joan Aiken’s Happiest Birthdays… and a couple of alarming ones!

1st Birthday

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. The one with the mermaid was called A Jar of Cobblestones, you can find it in The Gift Giving

Wychwood

     At the age of five when her parents separated, 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.

The new edition of The Shadow Guests   has added material about Joan’s school days and more!

Just a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, and this unfortunately led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.

In 1953 a very important and memorable birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript:

Birthday crop

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 Chasewhich she began on September 4th 1953 in this old exercise book, but which due to all kinds of troubles wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

This year, 2022 the book is celebrating its own birthday – 60 Years in print, and still acclaimed as ‘A Genuine Small Masterpiece’ in editions in many languages around the world, and here in a new Birthday Edition from Puffin, celebrating the story behind the story – how it came to be published after a very extraordinary history of its own…

   September 4th 1976 was another special birthday.  Two days before, Joan had 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.

J&J September

But perhaps Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came in 2015 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.

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE

For Joan’s Birthday this week we have reprints and returns of two old favourites , demonstrating the wide range of her writing talents – Nightfall – a Young Adult thriller which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the USA (which in turn inspired her series of stories about a troublesome Raven called Mortimer…) and one of her memorable ‘Austen Entertainments’ an imaginative completion of Jane Austen’s unfinished fragment – The Watsons – called Emma Watson

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and Happy all of us

thanks to the many books she left for us to enjoy!

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Visit the website to see more of her life in the Joan Aiken Picture Timeline

Joan Aiken and Jane Austen – in good company.

In a piece written for the Jane Austen Society called Grim Evenings with Jane Austen, Joan Aiken writes:
“There is a widespread misapprehension among many people that Jane Austen’s novels are a genteel feast of sweet ladylikeness and innocent merriment. But of course it wasn’t like that at all. Not at the time.”

She continues:

“Jane Austen knows and describes as few other writers have done with such intensity, the suffocating dullness, the deadly monotony, the sense of entrapment that comes from living in a small country place with no means of escape. From an early age she had referred to this predicament, sometimes jokingly – ‘Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted solely of your Mother.’ she wrote in an early pastiche Love and Freindship at the age of about fifteen, but in fact for well bred ladies of the period this was no joke.”

When Austen first began her story, the fragment known as The Watsons, the subject matter may have been too close to Jane Austen’s own situation for her to continue it with any possibility of lightening the mood – sisters about to lose their father, and their home, with no possibility of improving their future circumstances, even in Jane’s case, by inventing imaginary happy endings.

Even in her six novels, Joan Aiken wrote, gloom, solitude and monotony are the daily diet of Austen’s heroines, which is why they so easily fall prey to cosmopolitan interlopers like Henry Crawford, Wickham, Willoughby and Mr. Elliot.

So in sisterly fashion, Joan Aiken decides to rescue Austen’s heroine, in this case Emma Watson, and by using her own powers of writerly imagination, to create a more engaging outcome which may or may not accord with the expectations of Janeites…

Aiken speculated:

“A common mistake made by readers about writers is to imagine that each of their works reflects their emotional progress…but Austen’s work, at first done for fun, and to entertain her family, became, later, something very different, the main function of her life and, perhaps an assuagement for a feeling of emptiness.”

So if Joan Aiken takes a few liberties with her ‘Jane Austen Entertainments’ such as her completion of The Watsons it seems only proper to see it as an exercise in the spirit of sisterly sympathy – to allow a more cheerful outcome for Jane and her heroine.

For as she reminds us:

“For Jane Austen herself it ended very badly; she lost her lover, she died, after a lot of pain, away from her beloved village home, and bitterly disappointed that her mother had not been better provided for.”

So for those who would like to give one Jane Austen heroine a very happy ending (no spoilers here, and you will never guess!) despite all dreadful expectations to the contrary – welcome to Joan Aiken’s completion of Emma Watson…!

Out today in a brand new paperback:

Copyright of ‘Unseen Jane Austen Portrait’ Dr.Paula Byrne

Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation in their Yorkshire vicarage had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade despite living all over the world.

The Father, or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with  volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.

An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!

Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.

Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to his friendships (and quarrels!) with many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time, both in England and America, as Aiken lived, worked and travelled between the two countries.

But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:

  “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Born in beautiful Savannah

to which he lifelong sang hosanna

yet not of southern blood was he

he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:

two Mayflower buds

were in his bloods

and one of them was not so blue —

Allerton, the crook of the crew.

The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived from Europe to New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of whom were not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was a well known Unitarian minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, initiator of the New England Transcendental movement.

Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the subsequent separation of his siblings and himself, when he was sent off to family in New England:

His pa a doctor, painter, writer,

his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?

And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then

four orphaned children taken north again.

To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:

this, I suppose, was his second chance.

Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly taking ship to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:

Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking

and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:

there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em

novels to write and he had to write ’em

short stories too and he had to indite ’em.

…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…

And now waits for death by heart or by head,

or dying piecemeal and daily instead,

of whom at his grave it can truly be said

he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.

Separate we come, separate go.

And this be it known is all that we know.

Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?

conrad-joan-jpg

Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and  when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.

Born 5th August 1889

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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See also Joan Aiken’s American Roots, and the Mayflower 400th Anniversary

Save

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Joan Aiken may have imagined that many years after she wrote them, these books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today. She put all her knowledge of history, human nature, and her hope for the future into this series of twelve books, written until the last days of her life, and possibly hoped to leave us a message, or indeed a warning…

Our lives may have been turned upside down recently, but she was ahead of us in her imagination, particularly in her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles whose predictions seem destined to become part of the fabric of our own history.  If you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations and entire families, who left a last gift – a final book  for fans who had followed this series set in her own alternate world, for over fifty years, those who had grown up with the books and who could not be left without a farewell.  Sadly this last book was posthumously published, like Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown  and Amanda Craig in her review suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It is certainly a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the second heroine along with the much loved Dido Twite – of this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – is also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom. Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators, offering their own hopes and dreams for the future?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and literary jokes for the well-read follower – they are both also sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly, perhaps free at last to unleash their prophecies and to prepare us for what may be coming.

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’  This was a story written in old age, but one she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted from the mock Victorian century begun in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to parallel Saxon times in the last two books of the series – almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a kind of virus, but in her world Joan Aiken offers a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit perhaps, and then by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like the waves of lost immigrants we see today; her hopeless army of Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after cheerfully fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of ‘Our Island’s Story’. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

The solutions to dangerous situations in the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In a previous book, Dido and Pa, we had met the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created their own circle of trust with their Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now since they have experienced isolation from school friends, being kept at home by a virus, most have come to value even depend on online communication, but have also learned its dangers. In Joan Aiken’s world, lost and abandoned children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, so they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; then Facebook was unheard of, and in fact only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death in 2004 when the last of this series was published, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as recently, by a wave of devastating illness, could find a way that they would be able to communicate through the ether.

But she saw every kind of joining together as important. At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although some reviewers have questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean Jig of a tale to sustain her readers, despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating everything she has gained from her endless journeys and adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

  “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,

‘Stories don’t have a tell by date…’

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

This year Puffin Books will celebrate the 60th Birthday of the first of these fantastic Books

with a special New Edition of

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase