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

 

 

 

 

 

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A Joan Aiken Weather forecast…

Winterthing

What if Winter came and never ended? We now know our world and our climate are changing, and the outcome may be already beyond our control.  Joan Aiken imagined a time where our actions, as in the old stories before science gave us the alarming facts, would bring the wrath of  the Gods or Nature down upon us; now the reality of our future  is not so different.

One poetic but salutary summing up of the possibilities of increasingly wild weather conditions was given in the Beaufort Scale, a weather system devised by a Royal Navy officer, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, which shows by detailed observation increasingly worsening conditions at sea, and on land. Joan Aiken was very taken by its descriptive language and desperate message of foreboding and adapted it into a song for her play about a family trapped on a tiny Winter-fast island about to disappear into the  snow and the Northern Lights…

Beaufort SongBeaufort Verses

Joan Aiken allows a bit of fun with the earlier verses and rhymes, suggesting a moderately accepting frame of mind, an observer who notes the changing conditions and takes precautions, ‘canoes return to port as…’ but Beaufort’s description for Force Twelve is simply one word – Devastation – and here we understand that everything is finally out of our hands – we may as well try and count the flakes of snow.

Kaye Webb the inspired and inspiring Editor of Puffin Books commissioned Joan Aiken to write this play in the 1970’s, and it was produced at the Young Vic Theatre. She wrote in the introduction to the Puffin edition:

“Joan Aiken’s stories are all touched with magic…so it is not surprising that she has written plays about mysterious, lonely places… and here a group of children come to the island named after the deadly ‘Winterthing’, the time when the island is so swallowed up in winter that it disappears from mortal sight.”

And of course this is not just a story, we do need to pay attention to the changes going on around us, for as Joan Aiken also wrote :

Purpose of stories

…and maybe take action before it is too late?

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More about Joan Aiken Plays can be found here

Illustration by Arvis Stewart from the Holt Rinehart Winston edition

Music by Joan’s son John Sebastian Brown

 

 

Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Could this be a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and their adopted niece Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Bonnie must be off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and perhaps bag her another wolf stole?) or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences…

Many readers hoped to meet the heroines of Willoughby Chase one more time, and have them meet Simon’s new found family, and here Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her own pretty wild standards to ever see the light of day:Halloween at Willoughby 1aWhen she imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken was planning to replicate the eye-watering reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as these were the kinds of wild adventure that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children growing up in the 1920’s. But when she herself became a children’s writer, she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Endings Way to WriteVery good, but what about actual happy endings? They are not necessarily believable, because they so rarely last for long in real life; besides, if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

In this madcap short festive tale that Joan has cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – who is seen off, together with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who luckily have been practising with crossbows:

Halloween end 1The ever resourceful Bonnie, determined that the Christmas preparations will not be spoiled, turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea (Simon’s Aunt Hettie) who was bringing the pudding diamonds from London, saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end finalEven for Christmas Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas Day, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here

 

 

Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box &amp; Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise, until we hear the stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in The Box of Delights, and it was a potent image from her childhood reading, mixed up with snow and all kinds of Christmas traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the wolves as she put it: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father the poet Conrad Aiken, from the early 1900’s and the first Masefield novel she came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived.  Joan was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning but Masefield’s own books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books with their stories of desperate snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of these books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken’s writing.  Rather than her ‘Wolves’ it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17 to tell to her small brother called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the books the two of them knew and loved, and Joan Aiken fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would be published.

But years later when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said: ‘all young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

Another review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall, describes the influence John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis. We can all share their enthusiasm for his skill in crafting an exciting fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

KingdomAndCave_B_9780349005874

The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

  Joan Aiken originally wrote this article for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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