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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