“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

Watermelon2a

     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 as 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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ButterflyPicnic full quote

  (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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A Joan Aiken ABC – An Aiken Book Bonanza for Completists!

Paget NovelsAll of Joan Aiken’s historical novels, whether Regency Romp, Gothic Melodrama or Austen Entertainments (or sometimes a mixture of all three!) are being brought out as E- Books this week, so if your well thumbed copies are falling apart, or you want to find a long lost favourite or discover a whole new world of  ‘Joan Aiken for Grown-ups’ – now is the moment to stock up your Kindle for the Summer!

The three books above, known as the Paget family novels are all partly set in Joan Aiken’s own home, the (unsurprisingly!) haunted Hermitage, in Petworth Sussex where she spent the last years of her life. But the Paget women are great travellers; the first novel is set at the time of the French revolution in the 1790’s, with a hazardous escape – by balloon! and the last is set partly in Brussels and the salons of Paris in about 1860. The second covers a fantastic journey from northern India all the way back to England; all make use of historical events and characters of the time – back in the small Sussex town we meet the 3rd Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth House, and of course the Prince Regent on a visit from his Pavilion in Brighton…

Between them, this loosely related series, and Joan Aiken’s other period novels, draw on the innovative literary and historical style of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when Mrs Radcliffe was inventing the Gothic Romance with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Jane Austen, who read her predecessor avidly, produced her own Gothic parody with Northanger Abbey, and proceeded to create a new style of ‘romantic’ novel that has been a model for female authors ever since. In her styles and settings, Joan Aiken goes on to encompass the rest of the nineteenth century –  an extremely fertile period for the development of the novel – that takes us through the Brontes and Dickens, from completely Gothic to more urban settings, and then on to the sensational novels like Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, right up to the ghostly tales and grand  international romances of Henry James.

It is hard to pin down Joan Aiken’s style, she revels in Gothic Romance, with romance in the sense of finding beauty and adventure even in the everyday, and Gothic in her use of mystery and suspense and fantastic settings, but also with a keen eye for period style and historical detail, and always with a strong and sometimes humorous or parodic critique of the role of the heroine, in the novel and in society. Add to that an understanding of literary tradition, and usually a well-read heroine, who is sometimes a writer herself, and some pacey dialogue, eccentric characters, and a thoroughly modern interpretation of relationships (and sometimes a touch of terror!) and you begin to get the picture…

Five Min Barebane Deception

‘Regency’ has also become a pretty wide ranging category, more or less invented by the prolific Georgette Heyer, who also took Jane Austen as an early model, but which has come to mean a comedy of manners in a period setting rather than a full on Romance. These next three novels go from the very Heyerish Five Minute Marriage  (with elements of Dickensian London) to full on Gothic Horror in the style of Mrs Radcliffe or Sir Walter Scott with her Castle Barebane, and finally Deception – dedicated to all female writers – is a moving family saga and high drama set in a remote Northumbrian mansion.

Joan Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them take up the stories of some of Austen’s lesser characters or younger sisters, one of the Ward sisters from Mansfield Park for instance, to give them their own stories – in this case a reversal of Austen’s plot – rich girl goes to live with poor relations! In another she completes The Watsons one of Austen’s own unfinished fragments with Emma Watson.  Austen was Aiken’s most admired literary predecessor, and though the adventures of the Aiken heroines may be a trifle wilder, and she allows them an independence that Austen could not, there is nothing in these imaginative sequels that a young Jane Austen – author of some fairly tongue-in-cheek parodies herself – might not enjoy!

Bello Austen Entertainments

It is delightful to see all these novels becoming available again, a hugely important part of  Joan Aiken’s literary career, whether for old Aiken aficionados, or new readers moving on from the Willoughby Chase series or her other children’s works, who never dreamed that these gripping and eminently readable titles even existed. Find out much more about all of them on the Joan Aiken website – and welcome to the Aiken ABC!

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Find Period Novels here,  and Austen Entertainments here

And all of them on the Joan Aiken Amazon Page and the Macmillan website

(and here’s an idea of what NOT to expect…!)

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/its-a-joan-aiken-novel-what-did-you-expect/

Jane Austen, Joan Aiken and Jane Fairfax – Secrets at the Seaside…

Weymouth

The seaside resort of Weymouth, was, according to Jane Austen:

” Altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind…” 

Writing to her sister Cassandra she was partly joking, but clearly the resort, then frequented by King George III, his brother the Duke of Gloucester and their fashionable circle, was seen as rather a racy location, ‘a gay bathing place’, like Brighton where Lydia comes to grief in Pride and Prejudice. In fact it becomes almost a metaphor in Austen’s writing; when characters from her novels are talked of as having visited Weymouth it is usually to some ill effect, and the novels themselves never actually go there..!

Joan Aiken however finds the town irresistible, and in her Jane Fairfax, a companion novel to Austen’s Emma we at last  get to visit this exciting seaside resort, and discover what  happens in Weymouth…

We learn from Austen’s novel that Jane Fairfax has stayed there and met not only with the mysterious Matt Dixon – about her relationship with whom there is much speculation in Emma’s village of Highbury,  but also another powerful object of Emma’s interest – Frank Churchill.

It is obviously the perfect place for meetings and even dissipation, as Emma’s mentor and arbiter of good taste, Mr Knightley, remarks about Frank Churchill’s extended visit there:

 ‘’He cannot want money – he cannot want leisure. We know, on the contrary, that he has so much of both, that he is glad to get rid of them at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.”

And then, Emma hears, regarding Jane Fairfax and her conduct, there is worse:

“You may well be amazed. But it is even so. There has been a solemn engagement between them ever since October—formed at Weymouth, and kept a secret from every body.”

This revelation obviously whetted Joan Aiken’s imagination – how could this apparently restrained and modest character, the simply brought up, orphaned Jane Fairfax, who is destined through lack of fortune to become a governess, ever have entered into a romantic situation which, if discovered could have ruined her?

Was it the atmosphere of liberation, the meeting of young people perhaps less supervised than usual and in high spirits, that could make these more passionate situations possible..?

A young lady’s head might easily be turned in the company of new people, with boating excursions, picnics, and assemblies in seaside ballrooms like those Jane Austen herself had experienced at nearby Sidmouth.

As she wrote to Cassandra about one Ball:

“My Mother and I stayed about an hour later…and had I chosen to stay longer I might have danced with Mr Granville…or with a new odd-looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease…”

Irish…as was Jane Fairfax’s mysterious new friend Matt Dixon, and also Jane Austen’s  early romantic interest, Tom Lefroy.

A description of the Sidmouth ballroom gives the impression – and Jane Austen mentions she was there on the night of a full moon – of floating between sea and sky as seen through the tall Georgian windows, romantic indeed, and enough to make any girl lose her head.

Joan Aiken was well researched in Austen’s historical background and her novels, and may have seen a parallel here; of a young girl tempted by romantic yearnings and hopes of a fortune that would not otherwise have been within her reach. In Aiken’s imagined story of Jane Fairfax there may well have been more than one temptation to escape a life of drudgery and penury.

Lizzie Skurnick in the New Yorker writes about Joan Aiken’s development and re-working of Austen’s novels, as one of the first to attempt these ‘Austen sequels’:

Joan Aiken, in five companion novels to Jane Austen’s works writes them so well as almost to make Austen seem remiss for telling us only one side of the story.

What really passed between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill at Weymouth in “Emma”?  In Aiken’s world, Jane Fairfax proves a wily character, unwilling to remain within the tame confines in which “Emma” places her. In Weymouth, we learn Matt Dixon is indeed in love with Jane, and she with him.

Jane Fairfax, in Aiken’s interpretation, like Austen’s heroine Emma, does not immediately understand her own heart, and takes a while to reflect on her experiences, before finally realising that there may be a truer ‘unromantic’ reality to love and marriage – and what it really means to find and accept a partner for life.

Skurnick continues:

Jane’s acceptance of Frank is slow in coming —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.

The two young women are rational and thoughtful creatures, even with the odd romantic yearning or susceptibility, and could well have been friends if they had not been set up in competition with each other by the confines and expectations of their society.

However there is a very nice touch at the end of Emma where Austen offers her heroine at least one excursion away from her rather claustrophobic village of Highbury:

Emma and Mr. Knightley… had determined that their marriage ought to be concluded while John and Isabella were still at Hartfield, to allow them the fortnight’s absence in a tour to the seaside…

Jane Austen loved the seaside, much has been written about her love of  bathing and enjoyment of the healing properties of the sea air, and perhaps also the sense of freedom it offered? One of the most touching pictures of her, drawn by Cassandra shows her sitting  looking out to sea, but her thoughts, like her face, are hidden.

C.A. .JA Sketch

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Joan Aiken’s companion novel to Austen’s Emma  – the secret life of its second heroine –

 Now available in a  Kindle edition

New Jane fAIRFAX

“I felt like I was reading Emma for the first time, even though it is one of my most beloved books over the decades, frequently re-read.  As Booklist said, ‘extraordinarily well done.’ Not a ‘badly done’ in it.”   – Goodreads Reviewer

 

View of Weymouth from The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803)

by John Feltham

 

It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her many adult novels came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who are now able to share their thoughts on sites like Goodreads, or  to post their reviews on Amazon, and to see the wild variety of tastes and opinions that can be offered on individual readings of the same novel.

As a writer Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away – sometimes finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various unexpected or sometimes ghoulish ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not her forte. She believed that her books for children should have a positive outcome, with, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to younger readers who had followed, heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there certainly wasn’t always a classically romantic outcome for her heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man; it was more likely that they would need to find a way to earn a living, but they would have encountered a lot of useful experience along the way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels used to appear in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – a terrified girl appeared to be running from a castle in a diaphanous nightdress while a brooding villain looked on – while the actual heroine of the novel in question might be described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory   but they haven’t necessarily helped the books find readers who will really appreciate them.

Instead, when novels are misrepresented with over dramatic cover art or enthusiastic but misleading publisher’s descriptions, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But then another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Whereas ‘Disappointed’ of Clacton finds:

“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or another reader finds that for them the same novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly offbeat view of the world, sharing the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres, her wicked ear for dialogue, plus lots of interesting journeys to odd places, delicious dishes and sometimes heart-rending life experience, as opposed to sadly predictable romances full of flimsy make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her novels a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’  ‘with no shooting’ (although there may be other unexpected deaths…) you may just have the luck to discover what one reader called  – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!

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Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon at Macmillan