Joan Aiken celebrates Jane Austen, writing the stories she never told…

Much to their surprise, Jane Austen fans are still discovering that Joan Aiken wrote Austen sequels – one of the greatest admirers of Jane Austen, she knew the books inside out and has written six wonderful novels of her own as a tribute to her admir’d predecessor!   In this entertaining review and summary, an Aiken admirer tells all – spoilers abound, but they will whet the appetite too!

If there can be one incontestable criticism of Jane Austen, it is that she leaves too many juicy stories untold. Scattered through her works are secrets for which we never get answers. Who, for instance, was the mother of Emma’s passion project, Harriet Smith? What becomes of Willoughby and Eliza’s infant in “Sense and Sensibility”? Whom does Anne de Bourgh marry after Lizzy Bennet snatches her putative fiancé out from under her nose? Does Fanny Price’s sister Susan, who emerges late in the novel, flourish at Mansfield Park — and what really passed between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at Weymouth in “Emma”?

Joan Aiken, in five companion novels to Jane Austen’s works (she also completed the Austen fragment “The Watsons”), never tells who the flighty Miss Smith had for a mother. But in her expansive set of prequels, concurrent fictions and sequels, published between 1984 and 2000, she is particularly adept at picking out the characters one would wonder about most, and writes them so well as almost to make Austen seem remiss for telling us only one side of the story.

Aiken, who died in 2004, is the author of more than 100 books for children and adults, most notably the clever and fantastical Wolves series, in which a threesome of children triumph over adults and lupines in a Stuart-ruled, steampunk England. (You really had to be there.) In the annals of “Austen Entertainments,” as she called them, she rules supreme as the only unabashed fan and creative peer. Her companion works display both affection and gentle admonition, and are sometimes as hard on Austen’s heroines as Austen could be on their associates. (Janeites, prepare for a bitter, disillusioned Edward Ferrars, and a Jane Fairfax who wears Churchill’s ring like a “penitential chain.”)

Aiken’s “Mansfield Park Revisited” and “Jane Fairfax” are so seamlessly aligned with the originals as almost to read like spoilers. (Spoiler alert!) The first follows Fanny Price’s sister Susan, who has taken Fanny’s place at Lady Bertram’s side. It is four years later, but Aiken has no leisurely sisterly interlude in mind. With great dispatch, she sends Fanny and Edmund to Antigua, kills off Sir Tom and Mrs. Norris, and installs a sickly Mary Crawford in Mrs. Norris’s now vacant home.

Aiken’s aim, however, is not to upend plot, but motivation. Mary’s coquetry, which was so vexing to Edmund and Fanny in “Mansfield Park,” here redeems her. After Mary acknowledges using it on Tom Bertram for practice, “Susan was fascinated, almost frightened, almost repelled.… It was like witnessing the final stages of a conflagration in some great mansion, when the flames, which the firemen had thought extinguished, suddenly leap out of an upper window with terrifying power to annihilate all within their reach.” What Susan does not yet know is that Mary flirted with Tom to awaken his feelings for Susan. In Aiken’s world, Susan can acknowledge the danger of Mary’s powers without preventing their ability to do good.

Jane Fairfax also proves a wily character, unwilling to remain within the tame confines in which “Emma” places her. This Jane pities Frank Churchill, who tries hard to make everyone like him, and, unlike her, grew up with unloving guardians. In Weymouth, we learn Matt Dixon is indeed in love with Jane, and she with him. Her acceptance of Frank is slow in coming — her other choice is Mr. Knightley — and the great achievement of the book is not to let the lovers find each other, but to have Jane and Emma learn they should have been friends.

These first two books hew closely to Austen’s familiar devices: the poor relation; the dashing, dangerous suitor; romantic rainstorms; exotic brother-sister pairings; and group outings to Roman ruins. “Eliza’s Daughter,” the rollicking story of Willoughby and Eliza’s offspring, and “Lady Catherine’s Necklace,” a mystery about paternity and jewelry, explode them completely.

In “Eliza’s Daughter,” the neglected relation is an orphan raised in a house where a child is sold to Gypsies; the dashing suitor sets up Eliza for a (narrowly averted) gang rape; and the minor rainstorm is a flood that destroys a town. Elinor Dashwood, now the put-upon wife of a miserly Edward Ferrars, becomes a famous novelist. As the novel ends, Eliza inherits — as a single mother. And those of you who always felt Marianne Dashwood might grow up to be a spiteful jerk: Your prayers are richly answered.

“Lady Catherine’s Necklace” allows us a closer look at a character we didn’t even know we missed: Anne de Bourgh. Anne, it turns out, is neither boring nor sickly, nor is the familial line of Lady de Bourgh as spotless as she thinks. You can’t hide the amount of noodling in these books by doing your best Austen — Lady Catherine is seemingly kidnapped, and left in a cell slowly filling with water — and Aiken doesn’t try to. These two sequels are pure celebration, the cover songs of a fellow artist.

With only a tenuous connection to “Mansfield Park” (Aiken took that on twice; she didn’t get around to “Persuasion” or “Northanger Abbey”), “The Youngest Miss Ward” follows Harriet Ward (not Harriet Smith, alas!), who is sent to her uncle’s family in Portsmouth to save expenses as her bedridden mother weakens. Hatty is a poet, housewife and governess in training, underappreciated, like many an Austen heroine, by the small-minded, and championed by the powerful. Her story reveals Aiken’s knowledge of everything from Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) to redemption agreements to the making of rag rugs — with a series of charming, original poems to boot. Like the best of Austen, it is rich with penetrating dialogue and subtle displays of erudition, and we see how fully this modern author can take the reader beyond the confines of Emma’s Box Hill.

And there lies the eternal conundrum: Is Austen’s restraint, her reliance on the same set of devices, a comment on the few roles available to women, or a limitation of the author herself? Critics always have to make the case that Austen was radical. (See this year’s “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical,” by Helena Kelly.) Is Austen’s passing attention to Antigua and tenant farming, they ask, an act of courage, or proof of blithe indifference? Is she insufficiently attentive, as a book like Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” suggests, to those below stairs, or is it miraculous that we see them at all? It doesn’t help matters that some Austen museums are about as literary as an American Girl store — tea-party option included — or that we don Austen’s plots as breezily as a Lizzy Bennet bonnet. (Despite “Shamela,” we are not likely to see “Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded and Zombies” on the shelves anytime soon.)

Aiken’s work acknowledges rather than answers the question. In “Mansfield Park,” when Mary Crawford praises the “heroism, danger, bustle, fashion” of the navy over the quiet life of a cleric, she may as well have spit on the Bible. (Or on Edmund.) But Aiken’s characters are free to be dangerous sailors, heroines at the firm center of the action, wearing such fashions as necessary.

They are also free to be explicitly radical. In “Jane Fairfax,” the title character notices that no one in Highbury asks her about her time in the West Indies, and in “Mansfield Park Revisited,” Susan Price corrects Julia’s husband on a point about the slave trade. In “Eliza’s Daughter,” Eliza wonders at her lack of opportunity (“By the holy mistletoe… women lead miserable, driven lives”). Helena Kelly has to remind the reader that Austen’s novels take place in the context of Napoleon’s conquests; Aiken’s Eliza wanders over a war-ravaged Portugal, fighting off evildoers with a knife concealed in her boot.

But this doesn’t mean Aiken’s works imply that Austen’s heroines are not courageous enough — or that Austen lacks some crucial perspective. These works aren’t meant to challenge Austen, but to challenge us as readers. By interposing her own stories among Austen’s, changing heroines and making mischief, Aiken forces us to see what Austen made her own heroines see: themselves from another perspective. Knowing that a young Emma was a bully to Jane, or that Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter, Anne, was privately an inquisitive, liberated person, does not conflict with the characters; it complements them. Aiken’s tributes don’t so much enlarge Austen’s world as they allow us to see how large that world is.

Lizzie Skurnick is the founding editor of the young adult imprint Lizzie Skurnick Books and the author of “Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.”

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At Joan Aiken.com find all the UK and US editions of the Aiken ‘Austen Entertainments’

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“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

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     Joan Aiken writing at her cheerful best was a perfect reader’s companion. Well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, she also had the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the enjoyment of the writing process.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her plots, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal read on holiday then (or even a substitute for one?) would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package, as in the novels of her equally readable predecessor Mary Stewart, she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island!

Imagine for example, your much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with a canopy of scented jasmine and grape vines growing up from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn.  Joan Aiken reminds you of the the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also allows you the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae:

‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’

     And this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot to keep you turning the pages. To quote one jacket blurb:

“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”

Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!

     Added to this are discussions about the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso: ‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’ (which could be a comment on our times), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children,  and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration that  she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is, but provides excellent food for thought as you lie idly on your beach…

For example our heroine engages (with a murderer…) in  a comparison of the narrative methods of various authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in  Mansfield Park.

(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)

He (the possible/ would-be murderer) and Georgia are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine brood about her situation in a playful comparison with that novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson.  To distract herself from her troubles (broke, tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe on an unknown island for the arrival of her cousin) she wonders how Esther would have coped. How would it be, she wonders (the ultimate unreliable narrator!) if she was the heroine of a novel?

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  (And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)

 In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday,  leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion…

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PS. That should be Mr Guppy of course, shameful editor’s slip  for an Aikenesque name she would have admired and not misquoted.

 

The Butterfly Picnic (aka: A Cluster of Separate Sparks in the USA )

Now out as an EBook 

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern novels now out as EBooks

 

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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

Happy Ever After? Joan Aiken heroines expect more…

Suspense Group 1…and it doesn’t all end with romance! Joan Aiken’s  modern suspense novels, full of grown up heroines who are every bit as plucky and determined as Dido Twite, and who have just as many extraordinary adventures, are now all being re-published as EBooks.

Joan Aiken’s writing for adults drew on her own fairly colourful  life experience, as much as on 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 financial responsibility for 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.

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.

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.

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