Spoilers? Not a problem with Joan Aiken…

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Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, but it’s impossible to spoil the plot!  There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of the Paget Saga, set in Joan Aiken’s own home town – and house – but which also travels through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas back to the little town of Petworth, where she introduces us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and frequented by the Prince of Wales…that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.

“Mystery, murder, mayhem, menace…set in the English countryside…oh, except for the chapters that are set in India, Afghanistan, Persia and surrounding areas (yes, all in the same book…but it’s almost like two books in one, since the chapters alternate between two sets of characters…until they finally meet near the end). What more do you need? Plenty, if you’re Joan Aiken, who is never satisfied with the simple where the complicated will do just as well, or better.

Let’s start with young Fanny, aged sixteen, who’s just married a man three times her age. Which might not be so bad, if he hadn’t turned out to be a despicable brute (and that’s putting it mildly). Talk about a series of unfortunate events…Lemony Snicket had nothing on Joan Aiken. Fanny’s life with her horrible husband is getting worse by the minute…and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do. (Three surly stepdaughters, two of them slightly older than Fanny, aren’t helping matters any either.) Obviously, Fanny would benefit greatly from some cheerful company, which is on its way, in the form of…

Scylla and Cal, seventeen-year-old twins, children of a cousin of Fanny’s husband. They were living happily enough near the palace of a maharajah — Cal gambling with the maharajah’s eldest son, Scylla instructing two of the maharajah’s younger sons — until suddenly — the maharajah met with a fatal “accident” — most of his children were murdered — no one was safe — and Cal and Scylla were forced to flee for their lives (Cal, the poet, taking his precious manuscripts with him, of course). Where do they flee to? Logically enough, to their Cousin Juliana’s house in England — only now it’s being occupied by their middle-aged cousin Thomas Paget, his very young wife Fanny, and his three not-so-pleasant daughters. (Sound familiar?) What will happen when these two branches of the family collide? Wait and see!

If you know a little about Joan Aiken herself, not just her writing, bits of this book may start to seem slightly autobiographical…for instance, the bits about what it’s really like to be closely related to a poet (Joan knew this from experience…her father was one, and a good one…he was the poet Conrad Aiken…and he probably wasn’t always easy to live with!). And if she seems to know the house in the book quite well…there’s a reason for that…it’s her house. Yes, her actual house, or at least, inspired by it. The real house known as The Hermitage, Petworth (same as the one in the book) was where Joan Aiken lived in her later years. One hopes that her actual life there was far more peaceful than the lives of the people in this book. Perhaps that was exactly the trouble, though…it was TOO peaceful and she got a bit bored. And started concocting this tale of mystery, murder, mayhem…you know the rest. (Watch out if you are a writer and you go to live in a large old house in the English countryside…you never know what strange ideas the house might decide to put into your head. They’ve got minds of their own, these old houses…)

If you already know and love some of Joan Aiken’s works, this book will probably make more sense to you. (Then again…who said books had to make sense?) With or without prior knowledge of the author’s works, laughter and tears will accompany you through this wild romp (through various parts of the world) until the adventure comes to its own peculiar but oddly satisfying close at the house of…The Weeping Ash.”

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 Joan’s own haunted house on the website

And in case we have missed anything here are a few final words from another reader:
“Joan Aiken used her own house in Sussex as the main setting for the book, historical melodrama,  set in the late 18th century, and the two contrasting stories are a rather grim and frightening reminder of how harsh conditions often were in those times- and how cheap life was. You only have to look at old gravestones to see how many children people had- and how many died young. She also paints a nasty picture of the press-gangs which were operating then. Novelists of the time tended to see less of the whole picture, but Aiken, through hindsight, is able to show how great the contrasts were between rich and poor, and the injustice of the social system.

That said, this is still cracking entertainment, with a vengeful ghost, a haunted tree and lots of romance and thrills…”

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Thanks to Kit and Mrs H.Aver for these splendid reviews: read more here

More of Joan Aiken’s Romantic Sagas now coming from Sourcebooks

 

 

Girls Running from Houses…

Herondale Edit cover     What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960s romance novel covers showing a beautiful young woman fleeing a dark, sinister house in the middle of nowhere? Not what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960s and 1970s paperbacks has become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with the images that represented it, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy, fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol? Joan Aiken would never have expected her 1960s suspense novels to be seen as part of the genre but the rather astonishing artistic conventions of the time dictated otherwise. She was often amazed to see her heroines flamboyantly pictured on American paperbacks, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their covers. What were the literary roots of these ‘Gothic Romances’, and what caused  their popularity in the middle of the twentieth century? Women of the period were torn between a post-Second World War retreat to the ‘haven’ of marriage and domesticity and the stirrings of consciousness brought about by the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product XThe recent TV series Madmen has portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option – the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring. 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared in the eighteenth century at another time of change and revolution, and the genre was later parodied by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, which made fun of young ladies who read too many sensational novels about sinister goings-on in dark castles, and were thus blinded to the rather more present perils of single women in real life. The option, even half a century later, of becoming a governess like Jane Eyre led more often to a life of drudgery than to romance and marriage. In Victorian times, although marriage was still the safest option, women may yet have dreamed of escaping their idealised role as ‘Angel of the House’ and yearned to go off into the world like Mary Kingsley or Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, popular novelists like  Dickens and Wilkie Collins were having their vulnerable heroines incarcerated in mental asylums, or dying of wasting diseases, and so kept firmly in their place. It wasn’t until after the First World War that women novelists really began to make their ideas heard, and to cater, with more realistic writing, for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative – like those writers themselves, perhaps – but to make an independent life when, following the vast losses of men, married domesticity was not an option. At the same time, the growth of local lending libraries, distributing novels by and for women, sustained and tantalised their married sisters, who, like the heroine of Brief Encounter, had given in to a safer solution, but with it given up all hope of adventure or personal fulfilment. At the very end of this inter-war period, one of the great romantic literary models appeared – Daphne du Maurier, who, with her novels such as Frenchman’s Creek and more especially Rebecca, set a trend for later romantic novelists to follow.

5.Mistress of Mellyn You have possibly never heard of Eleanor Hibbert, but under the names of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, she sold more than 100 million copies of her own romance novels. Her first title was Mistress of Mellyn – in plot terms, the ultimate Gothic Romance, modelled on Rebecca – in which a governess goes to a lonely Cornish mansion haunted by presence of the hero’s mysteriously deceased previous wife. The novel is credited with establishing the form, and is now widely regarded as the model for the last flowering of the Romantic Gothic novel of the 1960s. It also bore the cover that would set the trend for the many that followed – the haunted heroine, torn between past and future, traditional relationship or escape?  The girl running away from the house.

Until then, especially in the USA, pulp fiction magazines (so called because they were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, unlike the more expensive ‘glossies’) were providing most of the escapist fiction available, whether horror or romance, with gaudy, sensational artwork on their covers. The new paperback companies, like Ace or Dell, who took pre-published novels from the hardback houses and produced them in inexpensive ‘pocketbook’ editions, began to take over the market, but they continued the tradition of illustrated magazine covers and used them to signal particular ‘genres’, such as what came to be known as the Gothic Romance.

7.Jane Eyre6.Argosy Weekly

Suddenly these paperbacks were available everywhere, in drugstores, supermarkets, train stations and, of course, airports – leading to the term ‘airport reading’ – and they had to be eye-catching and easily identifiable, or ‘cover coded’, with what was now a brand image of the girl and the house. Authors like Joan Aiken, who might be perfectly aware of the conventions of the genre, and who were more likely to be writing parodies of the style, in the manner of Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, could nevertheless find that paperback copies of their novels featured startling images on their covers that bore no relation to the content. Even if your heroine was a jeans-wearing, car-driving, educated working girl, she could still find herself depicted at a complete loss, running away from a haunted house in her nightdress, if the publisher thought this would sell more copies. 3.The Fortune Hunters2Apparently women readers identified with the fantasy of a heroine of spirit, intelligence and heart, battling alone against tremendous odds of a rather colourful kind.

But it is worth looking, as feminist critics of the genre have since done, at what is beneath this lonely quest. Is the choice really between submission to marriage and its hoped-for security, or being swept into the evil embrace of a dark stranger – or is the escape depicted on these dramatic covers actually from something still more sinister? There is a reason why no actual villain appears on these covers, because it is the House that they are escaping from, and all that it represents – the life that their mothers led, and the repressive conventions, sexual and social, that would otherwise keep them trapped in the roles expected of them – those hitherto portrayed by male novelists.

Of course they want to escape – even if they have to do it barefoot over the rocks at midnight. And if it had to be shown in these strangely subversive images, then at least it was a format that was recognisable, and that to readers signalled a form of liberation if only in fiction, that they could achieve.

Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier and many others, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have all had their work and their heroines apparently belittled by this sensational packaging. But at the same time, a powerful subliminal message was being conveyed: you too could free yourself from the conventions of society!  There was nothing to be ashamed of in using your imagination and reading the works of other women – even just by getting away from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so. Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

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Originally posted on the Orion Murder Room Blog

Now available Joan Aiken Gothic romances in EBook

Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…?

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 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.

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 in every possible genre.

This time, making gleeful use of her experience from a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, Joan Aiken had come up with a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs H V Aver of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more!  ( Find it here )

  “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.”

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No surprise then that the modern incarnation of that same publisher is now happy to bring these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s Murder Room imprint – where you can now find Joan Aiken’s first six Romantic Gothics

Read more about the background to them here

Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

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

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women were still struggling for independence but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based more on models from her own 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 Northanger Abbey  Jane Austen wrote a parody of the Gothic Novels of her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho where the innocent and virginal heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.  Jane Austen’s early skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 at age fourteen, 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’s versions of the 1960’s Gothic Romance were just as tongue in cheek – having arrived at the remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, the heroine has first to start the generator and get the lights on ( no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is rendered almost as a comedy with a 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 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 the 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 she writes:

“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 difference that the book need not end happily?   You will have to read on and see…

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.”

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On December 14th  The Murder Room at Orion  publish six early thrillers

by Joan Aiken.

Read more about her Adult novels here.