Nearly fifty years ago Joan Aiken was asked to write a letter to children for International Children’s Book Day.
Here it is. I’m sure she’d say much the same thing today.
“If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose? A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper!) a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, or a mouth organ…?
It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, as you could make up your own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture – I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.
One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.
And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before.
A book you love is like a friend.
It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ ”
There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.
When you read a story you do something that only man can do – you step out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person and making your own mind work – the most interesting thing there is to do!
So I’d sit in my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them. Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…
It would be like having another person in the boat. A book you love is like a friend, something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.
“If every single person in the world had a book – just one book – we’d have a lot less trouble.”
How shall we start?
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From the age of five until her eightieth year Joan wrote stories. Whether you like myths, magic, fantasy, history, adventure or romance there are stories here for everyone! This is her website BOOKS PAGE do come and explore…
Family anniversaries spark memories, but they can also open chasms back into the past; although birthdays may be celebrated, they can also become haunted by the deaths of those remembered…
While I was reading some old letters about the life of my Grandmother Jessie, Joan Aiken’s beloved mother, whose birthday falls on the first of March, I discovered a series of strange coincidences, which told stories of their own, weaving our family history into memorable new patterns.
The First of March is a day I like to celebrate every year. It’s a day usually marked with daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower with a bright and glowing colour that suited Jessie, but March primroses and cowslips would have been her preference, as they grew plentifully in her garden and wild on the Sussex Downs in the countryside where she and Joan lived and walked.
Jessie died a day or so before her birthday in 1970, when she would have been eighty-one. That year she didn’t stay for the first of March; she knew how ill she was, she had resigned herself to going, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, in the early hours of the 27th of February, having waited only for the return of her daughter Joan.
Joan had been in Savannah Georgia, in America, visiting her father Conrad Aiken – Jessie’s first love, separated but never forgotten, painfully divorced by Jessie after the agonising discovery of his constant infidelity, more than forty years earlier, when Joan was just four. Always able to draw the attention of the family, Conrad was himself in hospital, and Joan had to divide her attention between two dying parents one on either side of the Atlantic. She had to go, should she take a message? Yes, said Jessie, ‘Give him my love.’
Jessie first met her American poet husband when they were students at Harvard in the spring of 1911. They had been married very young, and the marriage, which produced three children, lasted only for about fifteen turbulent years; when they parted they never met or spoke again. Joan grew up with her Canadian mother in England, but gradually over the years she went to meet and came to know her American father again. Now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex; she was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, he knew she was ill, and was asking about her, and he also when asked, sent a message of love.
Describing her visit to Conrad on the night of her return to Sussex, Joan related a dream of her father’s; he often had extraordinary dreams and liked to share them. He was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them, and force them into a dory, and row them out to a larger ship anchored further out in the harbour.
‘What kind of birds?’ ‘Kearsages,’ he answered. Joan had never heard of such birds.
And when he had with some difficulty carried the birds up the steep companion-way to the deck of the ship, he noticed far away on the shore that there was someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said
Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love, and the story of the dream to Jessie. Conrad lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time they were together; Jessie died later that night, in the early hours of the 27th of February.
Curiously the 27th of February was also the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron. The father of her children, he was quite a bit older; he was born in 1911 at about the same time, and in the very year when her parents were falling in love in a Boston spring, but he died of cancer in his forties in 1955, leaving Joan widowed, in her twenties with two small children. For us children his death was a more important date, the tragic change it made to our family was sadly more memorable than his birthday; this year I even had to look up an old passport to check the date. I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, was that why the date seemed rather elusive? But looking through some letters and papers to confirm the date I came across another piece of family history from that exact same date, that I am sure I was unaware of until now.
I discovered that the 27th of February, even longer ago, in 1901 had been a day of even more memorable family tragedy; this was the day when Conrad’s own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to their eleven year old son to close the door into the nursery where he had found them, leaving his younger brothers and sister in the care of their maid, and going down the street by himself to report this unthinkable story to the police.
Conrad Aiken mourned the loss of his beloved mother all his life. Finding his parents dead, he wrote, he ‘felt possessed of them forever.’ He also wondered throughout his adult life, if his constant infidelities, which destroyed two marriages and caused the break up of his own children’s family, had really been a search for the long lost mother who he had idealised, resented, and mourned ever afterwards… His most potent early memory was of her reading to him, sitting on the nursery floor, which was to be overlaid by the second memory he could not erase. At the end of his life he returned to Savannah, and lived in the house next door to the one which was the scene of his childhood tragedy.
These are lines he wrote about that return, they come from his last poem:
“Death is a toy upon the nursery floor, broken we know that it can hurt no more
and birth, much farther back, begins to seem
like that recurring and delicious dream.
Dream, or a vision, we could not stay and it is lost.
How can old age receive such Pentecost?”
How strange that there should be a second death, another final loss, on the very same date, of another wife, another mother, his long lost love, the mother of his children, made unattainable because of unstoppable human folly, and mourned for many years, and whose absence could only be bridged by the visits and stories of their writer daughter.
A year or so after both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting. She called it The Watcher on the Shore.
Nowadays everyone can be a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?
Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in the papers during her writing career as her many adult novels came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who are now able to share their thoughts on sites like Goodreads, or to post their reviews on Amazon, and to see the wild variety of tastes and opinions that can be offered on individual readings of the same novel.
As a writer Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away – sometimes finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various unexpected or sometimes ghoulish ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not necessarily her forte….
She believed that her books for children should have a positive outcome, with, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to younger readers who had followed, heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.
But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there certainly wasn’t always a classically romantic outcome for her heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man; it was rather more likely that they would need to find a way to earn their own living, but by the end of an Aiken adventure they would have encountered a good deal of useful experience along their way…
Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels used to appear in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – a terrified girl appeared to be running from a castle in a diaphanous nightdress while a brooding villain looked on – while the actual heroine of the novel in question might be described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory but they haven’t necessarily helped the books find readers who will really appreciate them.
Instead, when novels are misrepresented with over romantic cover art or enthusiastic but misleading publisher’s descriptions, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:
“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”
Quite so, very sad.
But then another reader of the same story finds that:
“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”
Whereas ‘Disappointed’ of Clacton finds: “The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”
or another reader finds that for them the same novel offers:
“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”
So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly offbeat view of the world, sharing the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres, her wicked ear for dialogue, especially in the voice of her much admir’d Jane Austen, plus lots of interesting journeys to foreign parts, a certain amount of suspense and sometimes heart-rending life experience, as opposed to sadly predictable romances full of flimsy make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her novels a go.
But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’ ‘with no shooting’ (although there may be other unexpected deaths…) you may just have the luck to discover what one reader called – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’
And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!
All of Joan Aiken’s historical novels, whether Regency Romp, Gothic Melodrama or Austen Entertainments (or sometimes a mixture of all three!) are now being republished as EBooks and new paperbacks, so if your well thumbed copies are falling apart, or you want to re-find a long lost favourite or discover a whole new world of ‘Joan Aiken for Grown-ups’ – now is the moment to stock up your collection!
The three novels above known as the Paget Family Trilogy are all partly set in Joan Aiken’s own home, the (unsurprisingly!) haunted Hermitage, in Petworth Sussex where she spent the last years of her life. But the Paget women are great travellers; the first novel is set at the time of the French revolution in the 1790’s, with a hazardous escape – by balloon! and the last is set partly in Brussels and the salons of Paris in about 1860. The second covers a fantastic journey from northern India all the way back to England; all make use of historical events and characters of the time – back in the small Sussex town we meet the 3rd Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth House, and of course the Prince Regent on a visit from his Pavilion in Brighton…
Between them, this loosely related series, and Joan Aiken’s other period novels, draw on the innovative literary and historical style of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when Mrs Radcliffe was inventing the Gothic Romance with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Jane Austen, who read her predecessor avidly, produced her own Gothic parody with Northanger Abbey, and proceeded to create a new style of ‘romantic’ novel that has been a model for female authors ever since. In her styles and settings, Joan Aiken goes on to encompass the rest of the nineteenth century – an extremely fertile period for the development of the novel – that takes us through the Brontes and Dickens, from completely Gothic to more urban settings, and then on to the sensational novels like Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, right up to the ghostly tales and grand international romances of Henry James.
It is hard to pin down Joan Aiken’s style, she revels in Gothic Romance, with romance in the sense of finding beauty and adventure even in the everyday, and Gothic in her use of mystery and suspense and fantastic settings, but also with a keen eye for period style and historical detail, and always with a strong and sometimes humorous or parodic critique of the role of the heroine, in the novel and in society. Add to that an understanding of literary tradition, and usually a well-read heroine, who is sometimes a writer herself, and some pacey dialogue, eccentric characters, and a thoroughly modern interpretation of relationships (and sometimes a touch of terror!) and you begin to get the picture…
‘Regency’ has also become a pretty wide ranging category, more or less invented by the prolific Georgette Heyer, who also took Jane Austen as an early model, but which has come to mean a comedy of manners in a period setting rather than a full on Romance. These next three novels go from the very Heyerish Five Minute Marriage (with elements of Dickensian London) to full on Gothic Horror in the style of Mrs Radcliffe or Sir Walter Scott with her Castle Barebane, and finally Deception – dedicated to all female writers – is a moving family saga and high drama set in a remote Northumbrian mansion.
Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them take up the stories of some of Austen’s lesser characters or younger sisters – one of the four Ward sisters from Mansfield Park for instance, The Youngest Miss Ward –to give them their own stories – in this case a reversal of Austen’s plot – rich girl goes to live with poor relations! In another she completes The Watsons one of Austen’s own unfinished fragments with Emma Watson.
These two are now out as handsome new paperbacks.
Jane Austen was Aiken’s most admired literary predecessor, and though the adventures of the Aiken heroines may be a trifle wilder, as she allows them an independence that Austen could not, there is nothing in these imaginative sequels that a young Jane Austen – author of some fairly tongue-in-cheek parodies herself in her younger years – might not enjoy!
It is delightful to see all these novels becoming available again, a hugely important part of Joan Aiken’s literary career, whether for old Aiken aficionados, or new readers moving on from the Willoughby Chase series or her other children’s works, who never dreamed that these gripping and eminently readable titles even existed. Find out much more about all of them on the Joan Aiken website – and welcome to the Aiken ABC!
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Find Period Novels here, and Austen Entertainments here