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?
Like Dido, in her book Dido & Pa, Joan Aiken was separated from her father as a small child, but recognised him at once when she met him again. The American poet, Conrad Aiken spent half of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, but for many years still kept and came back to the house they both loved, and where she had been born, Jeake’s House in Rye. Aged two, when her mother and father divorced, she went to live with her mother and new stepfather, on the other side of Sussex but after a few years Joan went back with her older sister on a visit to the house that she could just remember, and, as with Dido, what really sparked her memories was the music:
Conrad had also lost his father in childhood, but Joan was able to revisit hers, and had a chance to rebuild the relationship with him; it is probably significant that especially in the early days this was mostly conducted by letter, and both of them saved their correspondence all their lives. He encouraged both her reading and writing habits, often sending her books, and she was keen to impress him by sending back early poems and stories. Joan & sister Jane on a visit at Jeake’s House – Conrad in the USA in his garden on Cape Cod
After a few Summer visits, and a gradual re-acquaintance on both sides, the father and daughter were separated again, this time by the second world war; as an Alien he had to return to the USA and the house near the coast was requisitioned for the services. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that they were able to meet regularly again – Joan was by now a working but fairly impoverished writer, and fares across the Atlantic were not cheap. Finally with the publication of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase she was able to visit Conrad in his house on Cape Cod, and impressed by her obvious talents and her growing success he arranged for her to meet agents and publishers in New York.
As a father and serious writer himself, Conrad could be sharp and critical, but he took his daughter’s work very much to heart. Joan Aiken’s Dido & Pa, which concludes the dangerous and dubious career of Dido’s father, wasn’t written until ten years after the death of her own, and perhaps this freedom allowed her to express a very dark side of that father daughter relationship – did his needs as an artist always come first?
There are very few pictures of Conrad and Joan together, but this one captures both well:Joan who for most of her life had very long hair, had just had a fashionable sixties’ hair cut, and they are surrounded by the tools of their mutual trade – books, manuscripts and of course a typewriter…
The only thing missing is a piano – they both played, and enjoyed singing, and you may have recognised the title of one of Conrad’s tunes mentioned above, as one that Joan gave to a song by Dido’s Pa – Raining, raining all the day – this is the title of one of his popular and catchy songs which come to play a significant part in Dido & Pa, and also in her very last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws. Joan Aiken’s final book ends with a joyful scene, paying tribute, and celebrating the musical and poetic skills of both fathers, real and fictional, despite the difficulties and distance there may have been in their relationships with their daughters – as the marching armies sing, it is the music that conquers all:
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Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, future saviour (many times over!) of her Kingdom and much loved inspiration to readers, Dido first appears in the second of the Wolves Chronicles, Black Hearts in Battersea, but from her humble beginnings, she goes on to rule the series from the moment when she first accosts the hero Simon in Rose Alley:
“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
Dido’s real life model thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way. In 1957, determined to create a permanent home for herself and two small children after the death of her husband, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the Sussex village where she had grown up. On moving-in day, (supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction!) the family were met in the street by a small neighbour who looked just like the description above. Sitting on the steps up to their new house, barefoot and clutching a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she had the run of the town and from then on would arrive at all hours, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on rooftops, sailing the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry, all of which turned out to be true.
After the book was written, Joan Aiken famously told the story of the many agonised letters she received from fans who reached the end of Black Hearts, the first Dido story, only to discover that their newly found heroine has disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, she decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket in New England, home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so sent her off on an extraordinary series of adventures.
But over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought many more fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave a mystery clue about Dido’s origins. Her meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord for her, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners she couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, and who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?
Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her now avidly faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until Joan’s death. Finding these letters then set off another mystery – how to bring this almost impossible quest to an end and send a message to her without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post the the various readers’ letters on the new Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…
The American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch, she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years. Also via the website an old neighbour from those Sussex days, now living in Australia was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who nearly sixty years later also came from Australia to visit, and learned for the first time that she was part inspiration for an incredibly well loved fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures with them for the first time.
Even more magical Aiken serendipity meant that this happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:
Many readers have speculated that Dido is even an alter ego for Joan Aiken, which does ring true, and certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined for herself as a small girl. She dreamed of sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, like Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams, as, when Joan grew up to be a writer she was able to give her all the wonderful adventures she had imagined for herself, and encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.
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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures are by Robin Jacques
More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here