How to keep the Reader on the edge of his Seat? Joan Aiken writes suspense…

Silence

This January sees the reissue of Joan Aiken’s first adult thriller,  published two years after her best known children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which garnered some impressive reviews at the time:

Silence review

The Silence of Herondale  published in 1964,  set the style for another dozen or so adult novels which were to follow, alternating with her now much better known children’s books.  Initially published by Gollancz in their famous Yellow Jacket editions, the books were covered in remarkable reviews, like this one which soon earned her a devoted following, including many fellow crime writers. Now, more than fifty years after its first appearance, this, and the next five suspense thrillers she wrote are being re-issued by the Gollancz parent company Orion, and will hopefully have you reaching for the loofah…!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Joan Aiken was sometimes accused of throwing absolutely everything into the page- turning plots of her novels. Her fertile mind used them as a backbone for all the ideas that were currently absorbing her in her daily world – music, philosophy, landscapes, travel, people, politics, art, and of course, the work of other writers. This is not surprising when you look at some of her literary influences, such as John Masefield who could also enjoy endless digressions into anything that took his fancy – whether it was church politics, ancient history, or juicy details about murder mysteries in the local paper – while his hero was on the way to buy muffins for tea. Another of her literary heroes, Charles Dickens, could be just as easily distracted from his main plotline since he had the occupational hazard of writing his plots serially, which gave him plenty of opportunity to totally change his ideas as better ones came along.

Among the writers that Joan Aiken admired, self-discipline was not the main order of the day, so much as an ability to enrich a tale by adding whatever embroidery would serve to bend the ear of the listener. She was often compared to Mary Stewart, who was writing her own thrillers at the time, and who used a similar Romantic or Gothic suspense format while also making full use of a wide literary background and extensive education; this and the use of exotic settings added enormously to the appeal of her books.

Aiken’s constantly active imagination, her quirky inventiveness, and imaginative recall of her own travels and journeys enabled her to blend all the available ingredients into a continual inventive tapestry of ‘What if…?’ without in any way detracting from the headlong progress of her story. Despite her magpie eye,  Joan Aiken always maintained a firm grip on the plot, and was enormously skilled at keeping the reader on the edge of his seat…

Conversely, if she arrived rather too rapidly at her conclusion and found she had too many characters to deal with, she developed a rather cavalier habit of polishing them off in whatever speedy manner came to hand –  automatic hedge clippers, kitchen beater attachments, exploding soup cans or spa-room steam cabinets. Having created some horribly seedy or demented villains, she would then show no mercy in dispatching them swiftly at the end; she could be gleefully ghoulish, but never gory – it was the lead-up to the climax she enjoyed, and suspense became her speciality….

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Gollancz cover

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

And Joan Aiken’s heroines? They were always a version of Joan herself of course, and would be heartlessly thrown in at the deep end. In the true Gothic manner of hapless heroines, they would become embroiled in a series of events not of their own making, but were usually possessed of many stalwart characteristics – not least a literary education – if not always endowed with obvious physical charms. Often they were, as she was herself, small, slightly gap toothed, and red haired, but they were generally extremely enterprising, physically intrepid and fearless to the end, and would emerge from their adventures breathless but undaunted. They were not necessarily rewarded with romance, and on the odd occasion did come to a sad end themselves, but shocked remonstrations from readers discouraged her from allowing this to happen too often.

What comes across most clearly is her impulse to share thoughts and experiences from her own life; as for example, with the agonising but often hysterical day to day business of living with a slightly dotty old lady, or the frequently curious requirements of a job working in an advertising agency, or even the alarming and humiliating possibilities of having treatments in a health spa – all was grist to her mill and became sympathetic background or even foreground, for the novel currently in her imagination. For those who knew her, there was also the dubious pleasure of discovering (albeit disguised!) episodes from their own lives in her books; but when these were re-told with her usual warmth and humour, her intelligence and added insight, one could almost be grateful to have shared a good story with her, and even more so not to have had one’s own experience end in the hair-raising way that she had gone on to imagine it….

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Six of Joan Aiken’s thrillers are now being reissued by Orion

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

 

The Silence of Herondale will be re-issued in paperback in January 2020

See a full list of Joan Aiken’s suspense novels here

See more of Joan’s thrillers now available as E Books at Orion’s The Murder Room

Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

Herondale small

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

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women’s struggle for independence had barely started, but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based on earlier models from her 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 one of Joan Aiken’s favourites,  Northanger Abbey,  Jane Austen had written a parody of the Gothic Novels she was reading in her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s best-seller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, where hapless heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.

Jane Austen’s juvenile skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 when she was fourteen, also 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 writing her 1960’s Gothic Romance was just as tongue in cheek! Her poor heroine, having arrived by night at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, has to start up the generator to get the lights on (no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is written almost as a comedy, with a hysterical 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 at first sight 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 her children’s 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 – a guide commissioned by the Arvon Writers’ Foundation – she says:

“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 chief 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.”

 

The Murder Room at Orion are re-issuing six early thrillers  by Joan Aiken.

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

All EBook Titles will be available with this dramatic new look

The Silence of Herondale is reissued in Paperback January 2020

Read more about all her Adult novels here.

Joan Aiken does Romance..!

5Min Marriage x2

…and reviewers are incredulous:

“What is Joan Aiken doing back in Regency land? Having fun – with the most ingenious Impostures and Deceits, not to mention attempted Murders, practiced on a most agreeable heroine. A country dance in the high style twirled to the tune of a proven virtuoso.”

This Kirkus reviewer obviously enjoyed this very un-Aiken frivolity as have quite a few other readers and bloggers and indeed, as does Joan Aiken herself!

 A huge fan of Georgette Heyer whose stories were serialised in magazines like Woman’s Journal where her own short stories also appeared, Joan Aiken couldn’t resist having a go at the style herself, and revelling in nonsensical dialogue and period detail, took a leaf or two out of Heyer’s books…

Here the scene is set with our heroine Delphie consoling her clueless Mamma:

“Why do you all scold me so,” she sobbed, “when I only did it for the best?”

“Did what, Mamma? What did you do?”

“Why, went to St. Paul’s to pray for a husband for you, naturally!”

Delphie hardly knew whether to laugh or weep. What a hopeless quest! What a piteous pilgrimage! At least it had not involved Mrs. Carteret in any outrageous, wild expense, but it seemed highly probable that she might have caught her death from wet and exhaustion.

“That was a very kind, thoughtful thing to do,” Delphie said, giving her parent a warm and loving embrace, and then proceeding to whisk off the sodden shawl, “but, you know, I don’t want a husband, I would rather by far remain with you.”

“Of course you want a husband,” said Mrs. Carteret, shivering miserably as the draggled silk was peeled away from her shoulders. “For if you had a good one, we could all live together and he would support us!”

The heroines of most Regency Romances may put up a struggle against the bonds of matrimony and fight for their independence, but when the choice is between marriage or a life of penury – in this case Delphie works as a struggling pianist coaching snobbish and grumpy society maidens – we know where their hearts and hopes really lie…

But Joan Aiken was not known for giving her poor heroines an easy ride, let alone even a happy ending, as many readers have remonstrated: “It’s more of a comedy with an excess of plot…and turns totally Gothic towards the end” or they describe the novel as “a lunatic farrago of wackiness” which is happily also “funny, fluffy and frothy.”

However in this particular case, although they may have been (formally!) married for the entirety of the novel, when the hero, having at last overcome all obstacles, manages to clasp the wretched girl in his arms and beg:

“But do you love me?”

Delphie’s reply is unexpected:

“Oh, good gracious! How can you conceive of such a notion? Why, I came to Chase—walking five miles through a downpour, I may say, because that odious Mordred made off with my carriage-followed you up onto the roof—clambered over I do not know how many obstacles—dragged your lifeless corpse back from the chasm’s brink—all from motives of the calmest—most phlegmatic—neutrality—and altruism—”

The last words came out of her in jerks, for he was shaking her.

“Oh, you little wretch! How often have I not longed to wring your neck! Or at the very least to do this—”

And he set his lips on hers.

Huzzah! You know that’s what you really wanted…

* * * * * * *

 The Five Minute Marriage

As reviewed by ALL ABOUT ROMANCE

More Joan Aiken

Regency Romances, and Austen Entertainments and gloriously Gothic adventures for Grown Ups:

Now out on Kindle in the USA and in the UK

2018 Aiken adult novels

  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

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

 

WatsonsMuch to their surprise, Jane Austen fans are only just 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, Lizzie Skurnick, 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.”

Six Austen covers.png

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