Joan Aiken & Pa – writing family memories.

Dido&Pa pic.

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:

CA Tune Raining raining

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.J & Jane at Jeake's & Conrad 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:conrad-joan-jpgJoan 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:

Raining,raining end of Witch

*   *   *   *   *

See also Conrad’s letter  of celebration about Joan

And a further taste of Conrad Aiken – a jokey “Obituary in Bitcherel”



9 thoughts on “Joan Aiken & Pa – writing family memories.

  1. Lovely to read this as I approach the midway point of The Cuckoo Tree having already heard the haunting hoboy music played anonymously during Miles Mystery’s Marionettes theatre show in Petworth. How lucky are you (and now we too) that they both saved their correspondence with each other?


  2. This is a lovely piece – thank you for writing it! Is the excerpt beginning, “Other rhymes from childhood…” from a published book? I would enjoying reading more of your mother’s memoirs.


  3. Thank you for the information – I found the book on U.S. Amazon as well and have ordered a copy! On a side note – my father, Basil Burwell, was a longtime theater director. He briefly corresponded with and worked with Conrad Aiken, although I don’t think we have the correspondence anymore. This was in September of 1954 (before I was born) and the play, Mr. Arcularis, was new at the time. He directed it for the Silvermine Guild Players, in Connecticut, and a distinguished character actor, Stefan Schnabel, played the lead role (Schnabel was in many movies and TV – his father was famous classical pianist, Artur Schnabel). There’s some mention of it in the Conrad Aiken papers at Harvard. I don’t remember much more, although I know that my father thought highly of Conrad Aiken. I never met him, but I remember visiting the Schnabel home several times when I was a kid. I will have to rummage and see whether we still have a play program in the family archives. Anyway, I thought you might find this bit of history mildly interesting!


    • Yes! I had heard of the play, but not that production, how interesting, and to hear about your family history too. Mr Arcularis is a particularly strange story, Joan remembered reading it as quite a small child and being most impressed! Always fascinating to hear of connections, thank you, and to know who is reading here.

      Liked by 1 person

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