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

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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/

In the spirit of Joan Aiken…

WLV_S_03

‘Once upon a time that never was…in an England that never existed…’ Joan Aiken wrote a story that was to become her signature work, a story that would live in the memories of readers and haunt them ever afterwards, just like the wolves of the now famous title.

One of the people who responded enthusiastically was an American schoolboy called William Akers in Tennessee, whose teacher read the story aloud to his class.  He decided that one day he would write a screenplay of the book and get it filmed, and years later he did, having shared his plan with Joan Aiken, and sold his dream to British production company Zenith.

Although they assembled a fantastic cast including Mel Smith, Richard O’Brien and Stephanie Beacham they also ran amok with the Gothic action – having villainess Miss Slighcarp terrorise the two small heroines with a steam powered sledge and a devastating array of kitchen knives so the dream became more of a nightmare…Steam sleighAnother young reader who never forgot the story was Russ Tunney, and his adaptation first produced in 2010 in a collaboration between the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton where he was artistic director, and touring company Forest Forge Theatre directed by Kirstie Davis, has since been published by Nick Hern Books, and presented by amateur and professional companies.

The latest hugely successful sell-out production has been at the tiny Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, where the company, like Tunney, have brought out the poetry of the book, and shown the seasons and landscape described by Joan Aiken as an ever-changing background to the adventures of the two heroines and their struggle to defeat the human ‘wolves’ of the title. This dramatic story moves from the misty snowy woods and rivers of the great house of Willoughby Chase, to the blossoming Yorkshire Dales of their journey south to find friends.

This script also uses folk songs – Wild Mountain Thyme and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair – as well as scenes of skating and travelling to give a visual sense of the journey of discovery made by the characters, and their developing relationships, and this production has some lovely sequences of movement and dance, not just with the wolves, but with the snowy and then greening trees on their way.

Slighcarp

Tunney’s script is also pure pantomime, in the best sense of storytelling, and allows for some wild comedy in the performances.  The actors are often visibly seen changing from one role to another, and collude with the audience, moving in and out of their characters in the story just as a parent does when reading aloud.  This allows a dramatic suspension of disbelief and scenes of riotous humour at the expense of what might otherwise be terrifying villains like Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess – here in The Jack production appropriately dressed in wolf skins! Just as Joan Aiken’s original story appealed to adults and children alike, with excitement and comedy blended with poetic atmosphere, this is the best kind of family entertainment.

It seems like the perfect day,  January 4th,  on the anniversary of Joan’s death in the middle of the bleak midwinter, to celebrate another honouring of her most famous story with its evergreen depiction of hope and friendship, and the fact that it still, after fifty years in print, keeps springing up in new versions and wonderful re-incarnations and finding new audiences.

I have to say the oddly perfect moment (now luckily with its own happy ending!) was when the actress playing Bonnie Green confronted her evil governess and in attempting to knock a giant cane out of her hands, was herself injured but carried on bravely to the end of the show. Simon her dear friend and protector, who in the story helps her escape in his donkey cart full of geese on the way to market, was also on hand after the performance to convey her to A & E in Lewisham and make sure no bones were broken!

Thanks to all these passionate followers, the spirit of Joan Aiken lives on.

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Tunney play

Script published by Nick Hern Books

Read more about Tunney’s adaptation here

Thanks to all at The Jack Studio for a fantastic evening!

Illustration from the Folio edition by Bill Bragg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page…

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements 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 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 more likely that they would need to find a way to earn a living, but they would have encountered a lot of useful experience along the 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 dramatic 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, plus lots of interesting journeys to odd places, delicious dishes 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!

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Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon at Macmillan