A fatal flaw makes a memorable heroine…

Stranger Old & New

…especially for the hero in this case – this girl is unforgettable!

 Juliana Paget, heroine of the first of Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels might well be just another Regency Miss with the usual romantic hopes of meeting the man of her dreams. But for Juliana her intended beau must of course resemble King Charles the First, whose looks and character she has come to admire as the heroic subject of the Biography she has been assisting her father to write.

( And aside from this undoubted handicap,  romance for Juliana will also be hindered, as we discover,  by another dreadful fault, or maybe two…)

A perfect heroine, like a fairytale princess, is a rather predictable copybook case, sure to meet her prince, let alone obviously recognise him at first sight. Not so a Joan Aiken heroine – she is likely to have ideas of her own – or in this case ones she has gleaned from reading too many books, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – and these ideas will certainly lead her into all kinds of trouble.

What if her romantic expectations deceive her and she doesn’t know who’s friend or foe?

When our heroine, no shrinking violet,  has rescued a stranger fleeing from French revolutionaries and is then being rescued right back by him, and borne away to safety in a hot air balloon, he naturally enough tries to clasp her in his arms.

But while she has been helpfully mending one of the tapestries he is carrying over the channel to the Prince Regent at Brighton – for naturally ‘she carried a housewife full of needles and thread in her reticule and hated to be idle’  – she has inadvertently mislaid a spare needle…

‘ He let out a most appalling oath, fortunately in Dutch.’

“Oh what is it?” cried Juliana, terrified. “Is something broken?”

“No,” he growled. “You have stuck your verdommte bodkin into the side of the basket, and it has run very nearly right through my thumb!”

“Oh I am sorry!” she exclaimed repentantly. “It is a dreadful fault that I have, I know! I am always sticking my needle into the arms of chairs…Papa has scolded me for it, times out of mind.”

And does she learn from her mistake?  Of course not. Joan Aiken is able to use this as a handy plot twist a couple more times, so that when the proposal scene finally arrives, and we are obviously expecting the hero to go down on one knee – does he?

Absolutely not, as he understandably says:

” It’s odds but you’ve left a needle sticking somewhere in that grass!”

And is he the one who looks exactly like King Charles the First?

You’ll have to read it and find out…!

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The Smile of the Stranger is the first a series of Joan Aiken historical Romances

Just published on Kindle by Bello at Macmillan

Read more about Joan Aiken’s rip roaring period novels here

And see the whole new series here

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A Joan Aiken ABC – An Aiken Book Bonanza for Completists!

Paget NovelsAll of Joan Aiken’s historical novels, whether Regency Romp, Gothic Melodrama or Austen Entertainments (or sometimes a mixture of all three!) are being brought out as E- Books this week, so if your well thumbed copies are falling apart, or you want to 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 Kindle for the Summer!

The three books above, known as the Paget family novels 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 more 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…

Five Min Barebane Deception

‘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 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 Ward sisters from Mansfield Park for instance, 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.  Austen was Aiken’s most admired literary predecessor, and though the adventures of the Aiken heroines may be a trifle wilder, and she allows them an independence that Austen could not, there is nothing that a young Jane Austen – author of some fairly tongue-in-cheek parodies herself – might not enjoy!

Bello Austen Entertainments

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

And all of them on the Joan Aiken Amazon Page and the Macmillan website

(and here’s an idea of what NOT to expect…!)

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/its-a-joan-aiken-novel-what-did-you-expect/

Jane Austen, Joan Aiken and Jane Fairfax – Secrets at the Seaside…

Weymouth

The seaside resort of Weymouth, was, according to Jane Austen:

” Altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind…” 

Writing to her sister Cassandra she was obviously partly joking, but clearly the resort, then frequented by King George III, his brother the Duke of Gloucester and their fashionable circle, was seen as rather a racy location, ‘a gay bathing place’, like Brighton where Lydia comes to grief in Pride and Prejudice. In fact it becomes almost a metaphor in Austen’s writing; when characters from her novels are talked of as having visited Weymouth it is usually to some ill effect, and the novels themselves never actually go there…

Joan Aiken however finds the town irresistible, and in her Jane Fairfax, we at last  get to visit this exciting seaside resort, and discover what  happens in Weymouth…

We learn from Austen’s Emma that Jane Fairfax has stayed there and meets not only with the mysterious Matt Dixon – about her relationship with whom there is much speculation in Emma’s village of Highbury,  but also another powerful object of Emma’s interest – Frank Churchill.

It is obviously the perfect place for meetings and even dissipation, as Emma’s mentor and arbiter of good taste, Mr Knightley, remarks about Frank Churchill’s extended visit there:

 ‘’He cannot want money – he cannot want leisure. We know, on the contrary, that he has so much of both, that he is glad to get rid of them at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.”

And then, Emma hears, regarding Jane Fairfax and her conduct, there is worse:

“You may well be amazed. But it is even so. There has been a solemn engagement between them ever since October—formed at Weymouth, and kept a secret from every body.”

This revelation obviously whetted Joan Aiken’s imagination – how could this apparently restrained and modest character, the simply brought up, orphaned Jane Fairfax, who is destined through lack of fortune to become a governess, ever have entered into a romantic situation which, if discovered could have ruined her?

Was it the atmosphere of liberation, the meeting of young people perhaps less supervised than usual and in high spirits, that could make these more passionate situations possible..?

A young lady’s head might easily be turned in the company of new people,  boating excursions, picnics, and assemblies in seaside ballrooms like those Jane Austen herself had experienced at nearby Sidmouth.  As she wrote to Cassandra about one Ball:

“My Mother and I stayed about an hour later…and had I chosen to stay longer I might have danced with Mr Granville…or with a new odd-looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease…”

Irish…as was Jane Fairfax’s mysterious new friend Matt Dixon, and also Jane Austen’s  early romantic interest, Tom Lefroy.

A description of the Sidmouth ballroom gives the impression – and Jane Austen mentions she was there on the night of a full moon – of floating between sea and sky as seen through the tall Georgian windows, romantic indeed, and enough to make any girl lose her head.

Joan Aiken was well researched in Austen’s historical background and her novels, and may have seen a parallel here; of a young girl tempted by romantic yearnings and hopes of a fortune that would not otherwise have been within her reach. In Aiken’s imagined story of Jane Fairfax there may well have been more than one temptation to escape a life of drudgery and penury.

Lizzie Skurnick in the New Yorker writes about Joan Aiken’s understanding and re-working of Austen’s novels:

Joan Aiken, in five companion novels to Jane Austen’s works writes them so well as almost to make Austen seem remiss for telling us only one side of the story.

What really passed between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at Weymouth in “Emma”?  In Aiken’s world, Jane Fairfax proves a wily character, unwilling to remain within the tame confines in which “Emma” places her. In Weymouth, we learn Matt Dixon is indeed in love with Jane, and she with him.

Jane Fairfax, in Aiken’s interpretation, like Austen’s heroine Emma, does not immediately understand her own heart, and takes a while to reflect, before finally realising the ‘unromantic’ reality of love and marriage – what it really means to find and accept a partner for life.

Skurnick continues:

Her acceptance of Frank is slow in coming —and the great achievement of the book is not to let the lovers find each other, but to have Jane and Emma learn they should have been friends.

The two young women are rational and thoughtful creatures, even with the odd romantic yearning or opportunity, and could well have been friends if they had not been set up in competition with each other by the confines and expectations of their society.

However there is a very nice touch at the end of Emma where Austen offers her heroine at least one excursion away from her rather claustrophobic village of Highbury:

Emma and Mr. Knightley… had determined that their marriage ought to be concluded while John and Isabella were still at Hartfield, to allow them the fortnight’s absence in a tour to the seaside…

Jane Austen loved the seaside, much has been written about her love of  bathing and enjoyment of the healing properties of the sea air, and perhaps also the sense of freedom it offered? One of the most touching pictures of her, drawn by Cassandra shows her sitting  looking out to sea, but her thoughts, like her face, are hidden.

C.A. .JA Sketch

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Joan Aiken’s companion novel to Austen’s Emma  – the secret life of its second heroine –

 now available in a  Kindle edition

New Jane fAIRFAX

“I felt like I was reading Emma for the first time, even though it is one of my most beloved books over the decades, frequently re-read.  As Booklist said, ‘extraordinarily well done.’ Not a ‘badly done’ in it.”   – Goodreads Reviewer

 

View of Weymouth from The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803)

by John Feltham

 

An Easter egg story from Joan Aiken…and Jan Pienkowski

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down. Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg! But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

Bed for the Night Pic

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Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken