A fatal flaw makes a memorable heroine…

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“Oh I am sorry…it is a dreadful fault I have…”

 Juliana Paget might be just another Regency Miss with romantic hopes of meeting the man of her dreams – and in this case he must of course resemble King Charles  the First, heroic subject of the Biography she has been assisting her father to write – but aside from this handicap,  romance for Juliana is hindered by another dreadful fault…

A perfect heroine, like a fairytale princess, is a copybook case, sure to meet her prince, let alone obviously recognise him at first sight. A Joan Aiken heroine is likely to have ideas of her own – or in this case ones she has gleaned from books, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – and which will lead her into all kinds of trouble.

What if she doesn’t know who’s friend or foe?

When our heroine, having rescued a stranger fleeing from French revolutionaries is then being rescued right back by him, and borne away to safety in a hot air balloon, he naturally enough tries to clasp her in his arms.

But while helpfully mending one of the tapestries he is carrying over the channel to the Prince Regent at Brighton – for naturally:

  “She carried a housewife full of needles and thread in her reticule and hated to be idle”

– she has inadvertently mislaid a spare needle…

” He let out a most appalling oath, fortunately in Dutch.”

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And does she learn from her mistake?  Of course not. Joan Aiken is able to use this as a handy plot twist a couple more times, so that when the proposal scene finally arrives, does the hero go down on one knee? Absolutely not, as he understandably says:

” It’s odds but you’ve left a needle sticking somewhere in that grass!”

And is he the one who looks exactly like King Charles the First?

You’ll have to read it and find out…!

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The Smile of the Stranger is the first of four Joan Aiken Romances

  being reprinted by Sourcebooks this year

Read more about Joan Aiken’s rip roaring period novels here

And an interview with Sourcebooks Editor and Aiken fan Deb Werksman

Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

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

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women were still struggling for independence but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based more on models from her own 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 Northanger Abbey  Jane Austen wrote a parody of the Gothic Novels of her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho where the innocent and virginal heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.  Jane Austen’s early skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 at age fourteen, 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’s versions of the 1960’s Gothic Romance were just as tongue in cheek – having arrived at the remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, the heroine has first to start the generator and get the lights on ( no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is rendered almost as a comedy with a 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 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 the 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 she writes:

“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 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.”

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On December 14th  The Murder Room at Orion  publish six early thrillers

by Joan Aiken.

Read more about her Adult novels here.

“Such devoted sisters…”

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A sister played a more important role than a romantic hero in Jane Austen’s own life; Cassandra was her lifelong confidante, and literary consultant, and after Jane’s death took charge of her reputation and legacy even to the extent of burning many of her sister’s letters. Perhaps because of this special relationship, sisters are of supreme importance in the lives of Austen’s heroines.  All six of her completed novels deal with what Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park considered a young girl’s ‘most interesting time of life’ –  the short period when she has the possibility, or in many cases the necessity, of finding a husband – interesting hopes and dreams which may or may not be shared with a bosom companion. When Cassandra’s intended husband died tragically, she gave up any further romantic expectation and turned to the younger Jane for this companionship.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the absence of their father allows the Bertram sisters to fulfil all the fears he entertained about their possible misconduct, as they fall into rivalry, flirtation and finally disgrace.  In Joan Aiken’s sequel, it is the more loving Price sisters, Fanny and Susan, daughters of a less fortunate sister of Lady Bertram who are the heroines,  and Susan, the younger, is left more or less in charge of matters at Mansfield Park when the older Fanny, now married to Edmund has gone abroad with him to look after the family’s affairs.  Bereft, and left at the mercy of mean spirited Julia Bertram, playing the role of her wicked ‘step-sister’,  Susan is adopted as companion by the mysterious Mary Crawford, the dangerous heartbreaker of the original Austen novel, whose intervention and encouragement allow romance to blossom for Susan in this imagined sequel.

Joan Aiken’s passion for, and knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen was shared by her own sister, Jane Aiken Hodge,  a historical novelist, who also wrote a biography of Jane Austen. The two Aiken sisters shared the early drafts of their novels with each other throughout their writing lives, and benefited from coming from a family of readers and writers who enjoyed communicating their literary passions just as the Austen family members had done.

Joan went on to write six novels in this series which she described as ‘Austen Entertainments’, and for those who know their Austen they are extremely entertaining – readers will enjoy not just the coming of age, and ‘interesting time of life’ and romances of the younger sisters introduced in the original novels, but a wealth of tongue in cheek references to characters in the earlier works, and to incidents from Jane’s own life which demonstrate Joan Aiken’s love for and delight in the world of Jane Austen.

Perhaps one of the most poignant references is Joan Aiken’s description of the “arrangement of three chairs” on which the ailing Mary Crawford is found resting in her garden. In a letter, a niece of Jane Austen’s described how when  Mrs Austen  ( a possible model for the constantly suffering Lady Bertram?) is in possession of the sofa, the seriously unwell but self denying daughter Jane “laid upon 3 chairs which she arranged for herself.”  With this parallel in mind it is interesting to speculate about other similarities Joan Aiken draws between Jane Austen and her heroine Mary Crawford, perhaps seeing her as an imagined alter-ego who she endows with all sorts of cheerfully witty and ‘wicked’ qualities that she may have shared herself, but which after her death, Jane’s more concerned sister Cassandra sought to suppress and conceal.  Jane Austen may well have had adventures of her own, at her own ‘interesting time of life’, but deprived of many letters about her own life, the closest we can come to an understanding of how important these other relationships may have been to Jane, is through the intimate conversations of the sisters in her novels.

Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited, a sequel to Austen’s Mansfield Park is published in a delightful little hardback volume on November 7th,

a companion volume to Lady Catherine’s Necklace a continuation of Pride and Prejudice which was re-issued last year.

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Joan Aiken’s Felix & Jane Austen’s Susan – Unlikely Travelling Companions?

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Aiken’s Felix Brooke and Austen’s ‘Susan’ – or should that be Catherine Morland..?

Joan Aiken’s passion for history often led her to wonder ‘what if’ things had turned out differently.  What if, for instance,  Jane Austen’s early novel, originally entitled ‘Susan’ when she sold it to a publisher in 1803, and which then languished unpublished until she furiously bought it back for £10 thirteen years later, had in fact appeared, even maybe without the knowledge of its author, and had been in the pocket of a young nobleman who ran away to join the Peninsular wars in Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.

The young man falls in love, and marries an aristocratic Spanish girl who dies having his baby, and he watches over the boy, disguised as a groom until his own death. He leaves a letter, and his treasured book, to the boy, Felix Brooke,  with a message telling him to seek out his long lost family in the city of Bath, England where the action of Austen’s novel had taken place.  For Joan Aiken imagined that this was actually Jane Austen’s early novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’  written in the full enthusiasm and confidence of youth, and  a delightful parody of all the Gothic romances so popular at the time.

The novel is also a description of an innocent abroad, a heroine with a head full of fantasy from reading too many novels,  who finds herself alone in a dangerous world struggling to make sense of the behaviour of unscrupulous villains or apparently solicitous friends with nothing but the world of fiction to guide her.  This is much the same situation in which the Spanish orphan, young Felix Brooke finds himself, but in a truly wild and Gothic landscape with terrifying brigands and murderers, mountain tribesmen looking for a human sacrifice, or even pirates who specialise in the kidnap of children,  with only the assistance of Austen’s novel to sustain and comfort him.

In Joan Aiken’s Go Saddle the Sea Felix tells us about it as he is recounting his story:

“The book, Susan, was an odd tale about a young lady and her quest for a husband; to tell truth, I wondered what my father had seen in it, that he had even carried it with him into battle; I found it rather dull, but since it had been my father’s I kept it carefully (his bloodstains were on the cover).”

Later in his adventures, having escaped various perils by the skin of his teeth and the use of his not inconsiderable wits, Felix has time to look into the book again, and reconsiders:

“I had opened it at the place where Miss Susan, going to stay with her great friends in their abbey-residence, is terrified at night by a fearful storm and the discovery of a paper,hid in a closet in her bedroom, which she takes to be the confession of some wicked deed of blood – only to find, next day, that the mysterious paper is naught but a washing bill!  For the first time, this struck me as very comical; yet, reading it through again, I could see that the writer had represented the poor young lady’s terrors very skilfully; just such a nightmarish terror had I felt myself among those unchancy people in that heathen village – and yet for all I knew, my fears were equally foolish and unfounded!  I began to see that this was not such a simple tale as I had hitherto supposed, but must be attended to carefully; and I gave my father credit for better judgement than I had at first…wondering what kind of man my father had been..and hoping that some person in England would be able to tell me more about him.”

In an article for the Jane Austen Society, Joan Aiken describes with relish the content of  Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Austen had gleefully satirised:

“If we take a look at the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, we can easily see what tempted the youthful Jane Austen to poke fun at them…[they were] enormous historical canvases splashed over with forests and beetling fortresses and dark crags in the Appennines.  Mrs. Radcliffe went in for immense casts of characters on a positively Shakespearian scale (she was in fact much influenced by Shakespeare for whom she had great admiration); she had stabbings and shootings, suicides and assassinations, immensely complicated family relationships, long-lost relatives in every possible connection, suggestions of incest, mysterious resemblances, and, besides all this, a large number of startling, apparently supernatural occurrences..”

From this we can see that these writers had an equally powerful influence on Joan Aiken’s own work, and by setting her novel,  Go Saddle the Sea in just such a rip roaring Gothic world of her own imagination in 19th century Spain, and with a nod at Austen’s own parody, she could have the best of all worlds!

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Go Saddle the Sea is the first of the three ‘Felix’ Novels in new editions in the UK

For more details visit the Joan Aiken page at Random House

or visit the Felix pages at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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