A Joan Aiken Heroine for Our Times

Ribs of Death & Fortune Hunters

Feminists of the 1960’s were breaking the mould writing a new kind of fiction that appealed to a wide audience, and Joan Aiken’s early thrillers which are now being reissued as EBooks and paperbacks have lost none of their appeal since they were first written.

Fellow novelist Amanda Craig is a fan who has championed Joan Aiken not just for her award winning children’s books, but also for ‘the imaginative vitality that makes all her fiction so unmistakable, interesting and delightful.’

Writing a stirring foreword to these new editions from Orion’s Murder Room imprint, Amanda Craig describes what makes an Aiken heroine tick in these modern Gothics:

  “An Aiken heroine is observant, shrewd, often witty and always slightly out of place. Unlike the traditional Gothic heroine, she isn’t an innocent – though she is usually vulnerable. Often she is watching the behaviour and actions of people much richer, more flamboyant and more famous than herself, and drawing her own shrewd conclusions about them. She’s naive, but no fool, and when the climax comes, fights back with unexpected courage and determination. She won’t, in other words, be defined by love, but by her own choices and talents.”

She goes on to draw a parallel between Joan Aiken and her own heroines:

  “At the heart of Aiken’s stories there is often a question about creativity, expressed in poetry, music, painting or storytelling, and whether it makes someone more or less vulnerable in negotiating the world and its dangers.

It’s not much of a stretch to see this as coming from Aiken’s own experience of life. An astoundingly productive author who wrote over a hundred books in a wide variety of genres, she finished her first novel at sixteen and was published at seventeen, with a story about a man who cooks his wife’s head in a pressure cooker. She published her first collection of magical stories for children, All You’ve Ever Wanted, in 1953 but did not begin writing for a living until her husband died in 1955, leaving her with two young children. To make ends meet she joined the magazine Argosy, and then the advertising agency J. Walter Thomson, writing jingles for Dairylea cheese by day and stories by night.”

It was at Argosy magazine that Joan Aiken began to publish short stories to supplement her salary; she then went on to sell romantic fiction to Woman’s Journal, Vogue, Good Housekeeping and more, which were then developed into these first thrillers.

Amanda Craig continues:

“Yet as the daughter of the famous Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer Prize-winner and Poet Laureate of America, with an elder brother and sister who were both novelists, she knew more about the writer’s life than most. ‘I don’t aspire to be the second Shakespeare. I want to be the first Carreen Gilmartin,’ says the young playwright in The Silence of Herondale, and the bestselling Tuesday in The Ribs of Death is also not content to rest on mere precocity. Although Aiken published so much that she makes creative writing seem easy, Tuesday comes closest to what actual writing is like when she complains that ‘if you think it’s not hard work scraping out your thoughts from inside you and putting them on paper, that just shows how crass you are’.”

These heroines are very much women of their own time, struggling against the elements to stay afloat.

  “The landscape and weather through which Aiken’s heroines travel are always bound up with the plot. Fans of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase will recognise her fictional Yorkshire village of Herondale as the same remote place where Bonnie, Sylvia and Simon hole up after the cousins’ escape from the terrifying orphanage. More often, heroines go to Cornwall, where Aiken lived and often holidayed herself, and are exposed to its changeable weather and storm-lashed cliffs. The mood is always one of threat and gloom, even on the rare occasions when, as in the funniest of these novels, Trouble With Product X, the sun shines; ultimately, it’s the damp that does for everything, whether it’s a top-secret formula or a serial killer. This very British version of pathetic fallacy is one of the things that make Aiken such fun, as is the familiarity of the ordinary struggle to stay warm, dry and fed.”

Joan Aiken puts her heroines through the kind of difficulties she faced herself  (with the odd murderer or evil fanatic thrown in their way as well!) but as Amanda Craig concludes:

“The essential struggle of an Aiken heroine is always to hang onto her kindness and innate sense of who she really is. We follow her through thick and thin, because the author’s deceptively fluent, witty, atmospheric style tells us a good deal more about human nature than we expect, while never forgetting to give us a thoroughly entertaining story.”

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1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

 

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern Gothics on the JOAN AIKEN website

And find them all HERE at Hachette’s SFGateway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

Herondale small

“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”  Does this 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 famous children’s classic.  This novel, also set in a snowy landscape, draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense and sinister villains, with thrilling chases across wild snowy moors; but this time the story is written for grown ups, so will there be a happy ending?

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women’s struggle for independence had barely started, but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based on earlier models from her 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 one of Joan Aiken’s favourites,  Northanger Abbey,  Jane Austen had written a parody of the Gothic Novels she was reading in her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s best-seller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, where hapless heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.

Jane Austen’s juvenile skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 when she was fourteen, also 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 writing her 1960’s Gothic Romance was just as tongue in cheek! Her poor heroine, having arrived by night at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, has to start up the generator to get the lights on (no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is written almost as a comedy, with a hysterical 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 at first sight 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 her children’s 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 – a guide commissioned by the Arvon Writers’ Foundation – she says:

“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 chief difference that the book need not end happily?

You will have to read on and see…

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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.”

 

The Murder Room at Orion are re-issuing six early thrillers  by Joan Aiken.

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

All EBook Titles will be available with this dramatic new look

The Silence of Herondale is reissued in Paperback January 2020

Read more about all her Adult novels here.

Pastoral Elegy, Autobiography or Gothic Mystery..? It’s a Joan Aiken!

HGazebo crop.pngSo how far did she go in writing about her own life?  “This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story by Joan Aiken. Years later she said:    “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, or be at the mercy of endless letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage from their own relatives… Does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was accepted literary practice  in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape, and a clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who died when his ship sank off the coast – as does Dan’s, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned –  they were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, our heroine in Foul Matter, also has plenty of names, and speaks in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Death – another quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly that can’t have been autobiographical, as, when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. These forms and references were in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; her family history, like this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”
Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own?  Is this novel set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken I turn to.

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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now published as an EBook, and also available as a paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

– perfect for Summer reading?

Find early thrillers here and new Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

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 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…

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 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 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 in these imaginative sequels 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/