Midnight is a Place – one of Joan Aiken’s best nightmares

Midnight

Scenes from Midnight is a Place one of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas apparently came to her in a dream about a terrifying carpet factory.  The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans,  the doubly disinherited Lucas Bell and Anna-Marie, was hailed in many lively reviews when it came out partly as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour. While on the one hand “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,” and “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”

(Beware spoilers…!!!) They continue:  “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman  ‘charred to a wisp’ in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.”   “Despite delectable exaggerations and ironic twists on the conventions of 19th century fiction this is not a parody…the tears and laughter are meant to be enjoyed for their own sake…” and while “the melodrama manages to avoid even a hint of sentimentality, the story never flags, and finally reaches a happy ending.” (This is not a spoiler –  by now you need hope!)

Meanwhile: “This author does not so much write for children as conscript them, and indeed all of us into her fantastic chiaroscuro.  The writing is rich and utterly un-condescending, there is no mercy for stragglers…”

Phew!

Or as one ‘Goodreads’ reviewer put it: ‘Read it. Love it.’

(With thanks to The New Statesman, the T.L.S., The Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, The HornBook and Kirkus reviews from 1974)

Factory

The story was dramatised by Southern Television with reference to the marvellous Pat Marriott illustrations, here showing the deadly carpet making machinery, and a haunting theme tune which set the central song to music originally composed by Joan Aiken’s son – prophetically named John Sebastian Brown – who provided songs for many Aiken plays and productions.

“Night’s winged horses
No one can outpace
But midnight is no moment
Midnight is a place.”

The series is being re-shown in the Autumn of 2020 on Talking Pictures TV in the UK on weekend mornings at 9.00am

Midnight TV Titles

You can hear that haunting theme song again here on You Tube

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

“Such devoted sisters…”

Mansfield

A sister played a more important role than a romantic hero in Jane Austen’s own life; Cassandra was her lifelong confidante, and literary consultant, and after Jane’s death took charge of her reputation and legacy even to the extent of burning many of her sister’s letters. Perhaps because of this special relationship, sisters are of supreme importance in the lives of Jane Austen’s fictional heroines.

All six of her completed novels deal with what Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park considered a young girl’s ‘most interesting time of life’ –  the short period when she has the possibility, or in many cases the necessity, of finding a husband – interesting hopes and dreams which may or may not be shared with a bosom companion. When Cassandra’s intended husband died tragically, she gave up any further romantic expectation and turned to the younger Jane for this kind of enduring companionship.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the prolonged absence of their father Sir Thomas allows the Bertram sisters to fulfil all the fears he had entertained about their possible misconduct, as they fall into rivalry, flirtation and finally disgrace.  In Joan Aiken’s sequel, it is the more loving Price sisters, Fanny and Susan, daughters of a less fortunate sister of Lady Bertram who are the heroines,  and Susan, the younger, is left more or less in charge of matters at Mansfield Park when the older Fanny, now married to Edmund has gone abroad with him to look after the family’s affairs.  Bereft, and left at the mercy of mean spirited Julia Bertram, here playing the role of her wicked ‘step-sister’,  Susan is adopted as companion by the mysterious Mary Crawford, the dangerous heartbreaker of the original Austen novel, whose intervention and encouragement allow romance to blossom for Susan in this imagined sequel.

Joan Aiken’s passion for, and knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen was shared by her own sister, Jane Aiken Hodge,  a historical novelist, who also wrote a biography of Jane Austen. The two Aiken sisters shared the early drafts of their novels with each other throughout their writing lives, and benefited from coming from a family of readers and writers who enjoyed communicating their literary passions, just as the Austen family  had done.

Joan went on to write six novels in this series which she described as ‘Austen Entertainments’, and for those who know their Austen they are extremely entertaining – readers will enjoy not just the coming of age, and ‘interesting time of life’ and romances of the younger sisters first introduced in the original novels, but a wealth of tongue in cheek references to characters in those earlier works, and to incidents from Jane Austen’s own life which demonstrate Joan Aiken’s love for, and delight in the world and writing of her heroine Jane Austen.

Perhaps one of the most poignant references in Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited is the description of the “arrangement of three chairs” on which the returned, and now ailing Mary Crawford is found resting in her garden. In a letter, a niece of Jane Austen’s described how when  Mrs Austen (a possible model for the constantly suffering Lady Bertram?) is in possession of the sofa, while the seriously unwell but self denying daughter Jane is “laid upon 3 chairs which she arranged for herself.”  With this parallel in mind it is interesting to speculate about other similarities Joan Aiken draws between Jane Austen and her heroine Mary Crawford, perhaps using her as an imagined alter-ego who she endows with all sorts of cheerfully witty and ‘wicked’ qualities that she may have shared herself, but which after her death, Jane’s more concerned sister Cassandra sought to suppress and conceal, in order to give a more traditional portrait of her author sister.

Jane Austen may well have had adventures of her own, at her own ‘interesting time of life’, but deprived of many letters about her own life, the closest we can come to an understanding of how important these other, unfulfilled romantic relationships may have been to Jane, is through the intimate conversations of the sisters in her novels.

Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited, a sequel to Austen’s Mansfield Park was published in a delightful little hardback volume and as an EBook

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These Four Aiken Austen titles are now available on Kindle

Cape four covers.png

Joan Aiken also completed Jane Austen’s The Watsons and a Mansfield Park sequel about another of the Bertram sisters – The Youngest Miss Ward

Find EBooks or paperbacks here

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All You’ve Ever Wanted – a Joan Aiken wish comes true!

Pat painted AYEW“May all your way be strewn with flowers…”

Joan Aiken’s modern fairy tale, All You’ve Ever Wanted  is the title story of her first book published in 1953, and imagines an unfortunate orphan called Matilda, who is showered with magical wishes that will keep coming true.  Think of the joys of spring  –  lovely at first when the garden is busting out all over, but what if it can’t be stopped…?

Every year Matilda receives a birthday greeting in a pink and silver envelope from an absent Aunt (unfortunately also a witch) invariably couched in the usual poetic and flowery terms:

‘Each morning make another friend,

Who’ll be with you till light doth end…’

Written in the 1950’s this seems like an alarming premonition of the then unheard of joys of social media where announcements of a possible 365 new friends’ birthdays could be signalled to your phone every morning… But it is the most flowery tribute of all that brings Matilda’s otherwise burgeoning career to an abrupt end. No stranger to London office life in wartime Joan Aiken conjures a wickedly vivid picture:

That is, until her next birthday arrives bringing her own post:

Forced to resign from her job, Matilda attempts to send a telegram to Aunt Gertrude, ‘causing a good deal of confusion by the number of forget-me-nots she left lying around in the Post Office’ and soon realises that even her  journey home is going to be a nightmare:

    Aunt Gertrude is finally run to ground, when she spots a ten month old advertisement in The International Sorcerer’s Bulletin and rushes back from abroad, to find her desperate niece forced to isolate in a summerhouse at the end of the garden, armed with an axe to keep the worst of the foliage at bay… But there is one more unstoppable wish still to come for the poor girl’s twenty-first birthday:

‘Matilda now you’re twenty-one

May you have every sort of fun;

May you have All you’ve Ever Wanted,

And every future wish be granted.’

Happily the by now all too experienced Matilda makes the most sensible wish of all: “I wish Aunt Gertie would lose her power of wishing”. But Aunt Gertie with her usual thoughtlessness has already granted her ‘All You’ve Ever Wanted’ so she has ‘quite a lot of rather inconvenient things to dispose of, including a lion cub and a baby hippopotamus…’

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This and many other delights is now available in Virago’s latest collection of Joan Aiken’s favourite stories

The Gift Giving

Gift Giving &amp; back

Read Joan Aiken’s own introduction to her Stories

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Illustration by Pat Marriott, Joan Aiken’s long term colleague,

cheekily coloured in!