Missish heroines? Not from Austen or Aiken…

Spanish Heroine

Joan Aiken’s sequels take Jane Austen’s heroines to new and dangerous situations, but still allows them the same indomitable characteristics they display in the original novels. Which sister did you identify with in Sense and Sensibility – cautious Elinor who guarded her pain and hid her broken heart, or extravagant Marianne who gave hers away and broadcast her delirious grief? Or would you follow in the footsteps of Aiken’s Eliza, first heard of as a by-blow of Willoughby’s cast off mistress, whose dubious background makes her ineligible for marriage, and who therefore eschews commitment in favour of self sufficiency, an extraordinary career, and adventure abroad…

As many commentators have pointed out, although world events may only have been in the background of her novels, Austen’s family were closely affected by the wars and politics of her day; Jane knew plenty about both through the careers of her naval brothers, and also through the experiences of her extraordinary cousin, another Eliza, born in Calcutta and married in Paris to the Comte de Feuillide who was executed at the Guillotine.

This Eliza, a notorious flirt until she married Jane’s brother Henry, may have inspired Austen’s worldly Mary Crawford; the adventures of this namesake cousin certainly influenced Joan Aiken in her sequel to Sense and SensibilityEliza’s Daughter.

In Aiken’s imagination we meet the sisters again, later in life and suffering a different series of vicissitudes. For example Marianne is sent abroad with Colonel Brandon and his regiment:

“for nothing would serve but she must pack up and accompany him to India, despite the wicked climate, and the ferocity of the natives, despite the warnings of her friends, and the fact that she had seemed very happy at Delaford.”

Even the serious Elinor suffers an alarm or two, she nearly dies when Delaford is ravaged by a flood, and is later discovered to have a fantastic secret of her own…

But the heroine of Aiken’s novel is the young Eliza, first seen as a bright small girl, the eager acquaintance of two gentlemen called Sam (Coleridge) and Bill (Wordsworth) who enjoy her company and do a good deal to foster her intelligence, and who later, after a brief education in Bath, becomes a talented opera singer, and finally an adventuress in Portugal during the Napoleonic wars, where she travels with a knife down her boot to fend off villains – and where she finally discovers the truth about her feckless father.

Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them, were thoroughly researched; not only was she deeply familiar with the original novels, but she had fully studied the period, its language, customs and history, and offers some fascinating background detail of her own. One wonderful discovery ( a reminder that this is a country at war!) was about the bedding offered to the girls in the Queen’s Square seminary that Eliza attends.

They sleep under “Napoleon blankets (with tapes attached, so that they could be worn as outer garments in the event of a sudden French invasion taking place in the middle of the night).”

Missish? Certainly not!

>>>>>*<<<<<

The illustration above is from Pat Marriot’s cover

for Joan Aiken’s The Teeth of the Gale

 which has another indomitable ( and Spanish) heroine!

Eliza’s Daughter  is coming to Kindle from Penguin Random House UK.

Eliza's Daughter - cover

Here is a feisty  New York Review of Books appreciation

of Aiken’s six Austen Entertainments

 

 

Spoilers? Not a problem with Joan Aiken…

weeping-ash

Readers gave five star reviews to The Weeping Ash, and they often can’t resist describing the story too,  but it’s impossible to spoil the plot!  There is so much action in this eighteenth century episode of her Paget Saga – set in Joan Aiken’s own home town, and her own house, but which also takes the reader through Afghanistan and Persia and across the seas before returning to the little town of Petworth, where she proceeds to introduce us to some of the inhabitants of the much grander Petworth House, seat of the Wyndham family, and regularly frequented by the Prince of Wales – that you couldn’t possibly give it all away.

One reader (or should I say guest blogger?) does the impossible and attempts to tell all:

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

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

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

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

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

hermitage-crop

 Joan’s own haunted house on the website

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

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

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

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

 

 

Girls Running from Houses…

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

Although the cover art of these 1960’s and 1970’s paperbacks has become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with the images that represented it, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol?

Joan Aiken would never have expected her 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 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 recent TV series Madmen has portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option… the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring! 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared 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 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.

3.The Fortune Hunters2

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 reading the works of other women – even just by getting away from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so.

Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

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Find all Joan Aiken novels here

Early Aiken Gothics now available from Orion Murder Room  (with all new covers!)

Also available from Bello Macmillan  Period Romances and Austen Sequels

A Heroine’s Life…or a dog’s? Joan Aiken goes Gothic…

Has Joan Aiken’s heroine met her match…? Read on to discover!

Joan Aiken’s first thriller published a couple of years after her children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has an equally irrepressible heroine, only this time she has more than wolves to handle:

Herondale pages

 “Blow it all,” thought Deborah… “he’ll just have to kill me if he’s going to.”

   In fact at this point it’s a slavering guard dog, not the villain of the piece that she’s worried about – there are still a choice of three or four contenders for top villain, so in any case it’s probably a good idea to make friends with the dog…  Trapped in an isolated farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, our heroine Deborah, a young lady of no uncommon resources, and certainly not faint hearted, is grappling with a diesel engine to get the power and lights on in an isolated farmhouse, and has also been left in charge of assorted geese and chickens and a runaway infant prodigy who may be lost on the snowy moors, but chiefly on her mind is an escaped prisoner possibly lurking nearby, cheerfully referred to on local news broadcasts as The Slipper Killer.

These are only a selection of the many ingredients generously stirred together in Joan Aiken’s suspense thriller, originally published fifty years ago in Gollancz’s famous yellow jacket series, and with all their usual panache, covered in rave reviews like this one:

Silence review

Having had considerable success with her ‘Gothic’ children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Joan Aiken decided to turn her talents to writing for adults – previously she had only published adult short stories for weekly or monthly magazines – and turned to the Romantic Gothic model popular in the 50’s & 60’s with alacrity. This gave the opportunity for pre-feminist heroines to demonstrate the resourcefulness and intelligence of the unshrinking violet – the girl who could look after herself, and usually the hero as well, sinceJoan Aiken’s own life had equipped her with plenty of practical experience of this kind as well as her writing skills.  Widowed with two small children and left homeless and in debt after her husband’s early death, she needed a whole range of practical and literary skills to keep the family afloat. By 1964, when this novel, The Silence of Herondale was published she was only just beginning to make a living from her writing, so no wonder she put absolutely everything into it.

Out of print for too long, this wonderfully entertaining and hair raising read is coming back in December courtesy of Orion’s  The Murder Room  EBook Library as part of a series of Joan Aiken adult titles.  Look out for them all – and give yourself some cheerful winter thrills!

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s adult novels on her website

Reissued in paperback by Orion Murder Room

Silence

Or visit the Hachette Orion SFGateway site for more

Click on book above to read this excerpt!