The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

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Who was Joan Aiken, and 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 she submitted. Remembering this 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, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage about dangerous disclosures from their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance 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. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, 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 – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak 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 Deathanother 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 this 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. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in 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 Foul Matter  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 novel 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

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

Happy Ever After? Joan Aiken heroines expect more…

Suspense Group 1…for them life doesn’t end with romance!  Joan Aiken’s  modern suspense novels have grown up heroines who are every bit as plucky and determined as her much loved character, Dido Twite, and who have just as many extraordinary adventures. If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s children’s books these may be for you, and now you can find them all as EBooks.

Joan Aiken’s adult novels drew on her own fairly colourful  life experience, as much as her enjoyment of dramatic and sensational reading, and while she had planned since childhood to be a writer and carry on in her family profession, the early death of the husband she met at nineteen, had a profound effect on her, leaving her, in her twenties, free to pursue her chosen career, but with the terrifying financial responsibility of a young family – a combination which strongly marked not only her own personality but  that of her fictional heroines.

As one reader commented, she usually wrote about young women who found themselves, in true Gothic style, without family or funds, left to make their own way in the world, learning often painfully who was friend or foe, and discovering where their true talents lay. Short on support they were figuring it out as they went along, and often confronting not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but the extremes of human nature, and the intricacies of finding relationships outside of marriage.

Joan Aiken loved to travel, enjoyed theatre, art and music as well as her wide reading, and these novels are stuffed full of reflections and descriptions of all the places and interests that fascinated her. Fancy a (fairly exciting!) Greek holiday? Try The Butterfly Picnic. Recovering from a failed relationship, or indeed the loss of your nearest and dearest? Foul Matter will be excellent company. Having second thoughts or even worse, strange suspicions about a new partner? – Blackground will have you reading late into the night…

Suspense Group 2

Written between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, originally developing out of the stories she wrote to sell to sixties women’s magazines, these novels do now have a period flavour, but they reflect the positive early days of ‘Women’s Lib’ as it was known, while at the same time portraying the ideas and adventures of some very grown up heroines who have more on their minds than just finding a man.  These girls certainly meet and captivate quite a few, despite being on the whole fairly small plain and gap-toothed (not unlike Joan herself!) but with enough charm and spirit to lead perfectly exciting lives of their own – albeit within the covers of their books.

The self-reflective nature of these characters is always a delight; not only do you feel you are getting a slice of their author’s own thoughtful and ever engaged personality, but you find in them friends you can happily empathise with as they grapple with whatever the world (or their author!) throws at them. Usually eminently practical and self reliant, often talented or inspired in their fields whether as painters or pianists, actors or chefs, these women are almost mischievously thrown into appalling situations for the entertainment of their creator – and us readers! They may be locked into a gradually overheating pottery kiln, imprisoned in a French château by slavering guard dogs, kidnapped by international terrorists or gangsters, left in charge of an amnesiac old lady while pursued by escaped criminals…while also attempting to pursue their chosen careers and work out their relationships.

If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s younger heroines but you hadn’t heard of these ones, now is your chance to come meet them, and discover much more about a favourite author!

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Find all these novels as EBooks and read more about them at

Bello, Macmillan

or discover more about Joan Aiken’s early life on her website

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

Gollancz

A thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone a utopian publisher?  This charming letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather throughout her long writing life. (And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot house, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a writer ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand  Gollancz had written to her saying:

Gollancz 2

Of course she already had another one up her sleeve; in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for adults and children in every possible genre.

Her next highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair: Joan Aiken produced a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs Lamb of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more…

  “This thriller starts, as many Joan Aiken books do, with a heartbroken and misused young woman trying to move on with her life. This is Martha Gilroy, who works at a London advertising agency, writing snappy copy to sell soup and dishwashers.

When a new client brings them an evocative new perfume, she unwisely suggests as a shooting location a remote Cornish castle where she spent her honeymoon with her husband before he had a nervous breakdown and left her. When the crew go down there and start working on the campaign- using Cara, the beautiful young Italian wife of the client as a model- problems start. The client doesn’t seem to be able to get the formula of the perfume quite right, the monks who live nearby oppose the filming, tins of soup explode with deadly force, a poisonous spider is mailed as a mysterious gift, a wealthy Sheik keeps dragging people out to the disco in the evenings, a baby is kidnapped, Martha’s friend Tom seems altogether too interested in Cara, the weather is dodgy, and who is the mysterious cowled monk who looks so familiar to Martha?

Thrilling sequences include a creepy night-time chase around the perfume factory surrounded by the scent of violets, a gruelling escape to the monastery across the Cornish moors, and of course the patented Aiken Big Dramatic Finish where the heroine battles it out with the eeevil bad guy.

This is one of her best and most fun novels.”

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are just discovering these wonderfully exciting Gothics for grown ups – as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Product X cover

Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

and this fantastic cover

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of that first publisher has now brought these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s S.F.Gateway site – to read more about Joan Aiken’s  early thrillers

Read more about Joan Aiken’s sixties gothics here

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X