Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

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“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”  Sound familiar? The opening lines of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase could almost describe a scene from Joan Aiken’s first adult novel, The Silence of Herondale published just two years after her most famous children’s classic.  The novel draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense  with thrilling chases across wild snowy  landscapes, but this time the story is for grown ups, so will there be a happy ending?

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women were still struggling for independence but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based more on models from her own reading of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or indeed on her own experience of being left a young widow with two children and an urgent need to earn a living for herself and her family.  In Northanger Abbey  Jane Austen wrote a parody of the Gothic Novels of her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho where the innocent and virginal heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.  Jane Austen’s early skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 at age fourteen, poked fun at the Gothic school whose heroines, like Emily in Udolpho, faint at every emergency, both major and minor.  Sophia, one of the heroines of Love & Freindship, when dying, advises her friend Laura: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”  Over-indulgence in fainting  brought on pneumonia, which finished her off!

Aiken’s versions of the 1960’s Gothic Romance were just as tongue in cheek – having arrived at the remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, the heroine has first to start the generator and get the lights on ( no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is rendered almost as a comedy with a guard dog throttling himself at the end of his chain while our heroine wrestles with the machinery. Nevertheless all the trappings of romance are there – the heroine, Deborah has mysteriously lost all her possessions in a burglary, her family have all disappeared, the employer who takes her on as a governess to a young prodigy almost immediately establishes a mysterious hold over her with veiled threats and blackmail, and it is impossible to tell whether the hero is the villain, or vice versa…

A trademark of Aiken’s writing familiar to all who have been brought up on her books for children, is that she never writes down to her audience, her language is rich and often riotous, her settings exotic and extraordinary, and her plots absolutely bursting with action and excitement, so that the books appeal just as much to adults, who seem to re-read them with pleasure throughout their lives. So what is the difference in her writing for adults – not a great deal perhaps?  In The Way to Write for Children she writes:

“Children have tough moral fibre. They can surmount sadness and misfortune in fiction especially if it is on a grand heroic scale…it may help inoculate them against the real thing.  But let it not be total tragedy, your ending must show some hope for the future.”

So in her writing for adults, is the difference that the book need not end happily?   You will have to read on and see…

An early reviewer wrote:

” After a long life reading thrillers…I tend to turn impatiently to the end. Not so in the case of The Silence of Herondale – rather than wanting to rush ahead and discover the ending…I wanted to spin out to the last possible moment the pleasure of that discovery.”

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On December 14th  The Murder Room at Orion  publish six early thrillers

by Joan Aiken.

Read more about her Adult novels here.

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A Heroine’s Life…or a dog’s?

Silence Excerpt

 “Blow it all,” thought Deborah… “he’ll just have to kill me if he’s going to.”

   In fact at this point it’s a slavering guard dog, not the villain of the piece that she’s worried about – there are still a choice of three or four contenders for top villain, so at this point it’s probably a good idea to make friends with the dog.  Trapped in an isolated farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors our heroine Deborah, a young lady of no uncommon resources, and certainly not faint hearted, is grappling here with a diesel engine to get the power and lights on in aforementioned isolated farmhouse, and has also been left in charge of assorted geese, chickens and a runaway infant prodigy who may be lost on the snowy moors, but chiefly on her mind is an escaped prisoner possibly lurking nearby, cheerfully referred to on local news broadcasts as The Slipper Killer.

These are only a selection of the many ingredients generously stirred together in Joan Aiken’s first thriller, originally published fifty years ago in Gollancz’s famous yellow jacket series, and with all their usual panache, covered in rave reviews like this one:

Silence review

Having had considerable success with her ‘Gothic’ children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Joan Aiken turned her talents to writing for adults – previously she had only published adult short stories for various magazines – and turned to the Romantic Gothic model popular in the 50’s & 60’s with alacrity. This gave the opportunity for pre-feminist heroines to demonstrate the resourcefulness and intelligence of the unshrinking violet – the girl who could look after herself, and usually the hero as well, and Joan Aiken’s own life had equipped her with plenty of practical experience of this kind as well as her writing skills.  Widowed with two small children and left homeless and in debt after her husband’s early death, she needed a whole range of practical and literary skills to keep the family afloat. By 1964, when this novel, The Silence of Herondale was published she was finally beginning to make a living from her writing, so no wonder she put absolutely everything into it.

Out of print for too long, this wonderfully entertaining and hair raising read is coming back in December courtesy of Orion’s  The Murder Room   EBook Library as part of a series of Joan Aiken adult titles.  Look out for them all – and give yourself some cheerful winter thrills!

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s adult novels on the website

Click on book above to read this excerpt!

Letters from You…we love Mortimer!

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However badly he behaves Mortimer is still finding friends…

Some readers will always remember Joan Aiken for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or her heroine Dido Twite in later books in the Wolves series, but many of the letters that still arrive from her fans are about Mortimer – the ‘feathered fiend’ who worries the life out of Mr and Mrs Jones, a taxi driver and his wife  who live in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 1/2,  but who is besottedly beloved by their daughter Arabel.  Somehow she always sees the right side of him, and in return he would do anything for her.

Here’s a lovely letter from a fan so devoted to these stories she’s even used them for her email address.

I am writing to you because Joan Aiken’s books are amazing! My love for her books all started when my mom was a kid and was sick in the hospital. My grandad bought Arabel and Mortimer and read it to her to cheer her up. She really loved the book and kept it until she was an adult. When I was around eight, my mom read me Arabel and Mortimer. I loved it so much, we got the whole series. In fact, my email address is inspired by Arabel and Mortimer!

One time, when my parents and I went camping, my Mom had to go to a store next to the campground because we were out of milk. When she came back to our car, she said, “I’m so glad there aren’t any RAVENS here…..” at that moment she made a weird noise and threw a black thing into the backseat. I picked it up and looked at it for a moment. Then I said “Thanks Mom!” because the thing that she threw back to me was a stuffed raven. She asked me “What are you going to name him?” and I said: “Mortimer.” and I’ve had that silly bird ever since.

Just a couple of months ago, my Mom crocheted Mortimer a scarf. (It looks handsome on him.)

In the book Mortimer’s Cross, Mortimer has a special box that is labelled Mortimer’s Cross, H.A.R.R.I.S (Hush, A Resting Raven’s Inside! Shh!). Arabel’s Great-Aunt Olwen mails it off by accident, thinking that it is a box with the same address with clothing inside! I have re-created that same box and Mortimer likes to sit in it.

We also read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and loved it. So now we are reading Blackhearts in Battersea.

Joan’s books have made such an impact on my life, I just really wanted you to know how special and funny they are!

Sincerely,

Sarah

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Sarah’s Mortimer & Box!

Many more letters ask where, oh where can they get hold of the  CBBC TV Mortimer and Arabel series that came out in the 1990’s? Where indeed! Let’s get up a petition for a reissue!

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“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

Joan Aiken

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     Joan Aiken writing at her very best was the perfect companion.   She was well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, and the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the very process of writing.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her story at the full stretch of her imagination, and in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal holiday read then, or even as a hopeful anticipation or substitute for one, would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   ( in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package she gives you a trip to a Greek island – imagine for…

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