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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Joan Aiken & Pa – writing family memories.

Dido&Pa pic.

Like Dido, in her book Dido & Pa, Joan Aiken was separated from her father as a small child, but recognised him at once when she met him again. The American poet, Conrad Aiken spent half of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, but for many years still kept and came back to the house they both loved, and where she had been born, Jeake’s House in Rye. Aged two, when her mother and father divorced, she went to live with her mother and new stepfather, on the other side of Sussex but after a few years Joan went back with her older sister on a visit to the house that she could just remember, and, as with Dido, what really sparked her memories was the music:

CA Tune Raining raining

Conrad had also lost his father in childhood, but Joan was able to revisit hers, and had a chance to rebuild the relationship with him; it is probably significant that especially in the early days this was mostly conducted by letter, and both of them saved their correspondence all their lives. He encouraged both her reading and writing habits, often sending her books, and she was keen to impress him by sending back early poems and stories.J & Jane at Jeake's & Conrad Joan & sister Jane on a visit at Jeake’s House – Conrad in the USA in his garden on Cape Cod

After a few Summer visits, and a gradual re-acquaintance on both sides, the father and daughter were separated again, this time by the second world war; as an Alien he had to return to the USA and the house near the coast was requisitioned for the services. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that they were able to meet regularly again – Joan was by now a working but fairly impoverished writer, and fares across the Atlantic were not cheap. Finally with the publication of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase she was able to visit Conrad in his house on Cape Cod, and impressed by her obvious talents and her growing success  he arranged for her to meet agents and publishers in New York.

As a father and serious writer himself, Conrad could be sharp and critical, but he took his daughter’s work very much to heart. Joan Aiken’s Dido & Pa, which concludes the dangerous and dubious career of Dido’s father, wasn’t written until ten years after the death of her own, and perhaps this freedom allowed her to express a very dark side of that father daughter relationship – did his needs as an artist always come first?

There are very few pictures of Conrad and Joan together, but this one captures both well:conrad-joan-jpgJoan who for most of her life had very long hair, had just had a fashionable sixties’ hair cut, and they are surrounded by the tools of their mutual trade – books, manuscripts and of course a typewriter…

The only thing missing is a piano – they both played, and enjoyed singing, and you may have recognised the title of one of Conrad’s tunes mentioned above, as one that Joan gave to a song by Dido’s Pa – Raining, raining all the day – this is the title of one of his popular and catchy songs which come to play a significant part in Dido & Pa, and also in her very last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws. Joan Aiken’s final book ends with a joyful scene, paying tribute, and celebrating the musical and poetic skills of both fathers, real and fictional, despite the difficulties and distance there may have been in their relationships with their daughters – as the marching armies sing, it is the music that conquers all:

Raining,raining end of Witch

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See also Conrad’s letter  of celebration about Joan

And a further taste of Conrad Aiken – a jokey “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 

 

Joan Aiken’s best advice for World Book Day? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel enjoys reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, illustrated here by Quentin Blake.  Mortimer is actually busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud for her mother, and wrote: “She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising – but her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were equally scary…

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote, a particular highlight after this was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth; here you will notice that she is still barely four:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved it of course, but I can see my nerves were not quite as steely as hers:)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings. It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, but then you’ll always have to read another story!

And today, March 1st is Jessie’s Birthday, and so a fitting day to celebrate her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A World of Women – Joan Aiken’s feminist education

Jessie's Diary

In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.

Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.

But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.

Wychwood

War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade.  Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself,  the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women  (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:

Argosy Bio

Argosy webpage

The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press. 

From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction.  She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.

Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.

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Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,

Girls Running from Houses and Aiken Austen heroines