Girls Running from Houses…

3.The Fortune Hunters2

What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960’s romance novel covers which invariably show 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 1960’s and 1970’s paperbacks has now become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with its typically romantic cover images, 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 1960’s 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 paperback covers, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their pages. 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 war work and the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product X

The American TV series Madmen 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 at the end of 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 but restrictive 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 produce more realistic writing for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative 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 probably 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 picture of 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 Eyre

6.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.

Apparently 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 before them, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have 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 by reading the works of other women – escaping 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….

Herondale Edit cover

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Find all Joan Aiken novels on her website

Six Early Aiken Gothics now available from Orion Murder Room 

Ribs of Death & Fortune Hunters

Also available from Bello Macmillan

Period Romances and Austen Sequels

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

Product X strapline

New paperback edition of hilarious Joan Aiken thriller

When it first came out in 1965 her publisher called this a thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone one so charmingly praised by her utopian publisher?  This 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 from her readers throughout her long writing life.

Gollancz

(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 budding writer plenty of useful ideas!)

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

Gollancz 2

Of course she did have 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 both adults and children in every possible genre.

This second highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, to whom she dedicates the book with a rueful comment:

JWT dedication Product X

Aiken’s imaginary agency Salmon & Bucknell are filming a TV commercial on location in Cornwall for a new client, the eccentric owner of a chemicals company, which has invented a new and almost irresistible perfume; heroine Martha is in charge of shooting the romantic ads – unfortunately starring the client’s difficult daughter-in-law. In a witty parody of the classic Gothic style popular in the 1960’s, Martha soon becomes embroiled in a conspiracy over the missing perfume formula and other increasingly astonishing plot strands – including an amorous sheik, a series of exploding soup cans, mysterious black robed monks in a cliff top monastery, and a kidnapped baby ‘who steps into a key role in a headlong series of chases…’ as one reviewer wrote, adding: ‘This is a superior stylish thriller…with the characterisation of bizarre cast bang on target…’   all of which mounts of course to a hair raising climax..

Trouble with Product X  is an absolute romp of a read – funny and terrifying and also a hilarious parody of her experience in the Mayfair advertising agency – think Madmen re-set in rural England, with Mary Quant being chased over the Cornish moors by Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner –  carrying , as another reviewer put it  ‘one of the nicest babies in literature.’

(I am happy to confess that the baby was based on myself, and is given my own family nickname!)

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles may not be aware that she wrote equally exciting novels for adults, and some are just discovering these wonderful 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.”

Period covers give a wonderful flavour:

Product X cover

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

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of Joan Aiken’s first publisher has brought out

a set of her early novels as EBooks

Also available as paperbacks and new Audio recordings by the author’s daughter Lizza Aiken

Read more about Joan Aiken and the fashion for 1960’s Gothics

Girls Running from Houses

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And on the Joan Aiken Website

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

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 have now been 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 adult heroines through the kinds of difficulties she had faced herself (but with the odd murderer or evil fanatic thrown in their way as well!) and so, 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

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was the real 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 well loved home town or village, or heaven forbid, incur outrage even closer to home with dangerous disclosures familiar to their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious possibly autobiographical 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 any of them her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes, where she did live, or perhaps 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,  a picturesque little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up, and which he yearned for constantly when back in America.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, junk the lingering Foul Matter,  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 available as a new 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

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