The Watcher on the Shore – Indelible patterns of family life

Jessie, Joan Aiken’s mother.

Family anniversaries spark memories, but they can also open chasms back into the past; although birthdays may be celebrated, they can also become haunted by the deaths of those remembered…  

While I was reading some old letters about the life of my Grandmother Jessie, Joan Aiken’s beloved mother, whose birthday falls on the first of March,  I discovered a series of strange coincidences, which told stories of their own, weaving our family history into  memorable new patterns.

The First of March is a day I like to celebrate every year.  It’s a day usually marked with daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower with a bright and glowing colour that suited Jessie, but March primroses and cowslips would have been her preference, as they grew plentifully in her garden and wild on the Sussex Downs in the countryside where she and Joan lived and walked.

  Jessie died a day or so before her birthday in 1970, when she would have been eighty-one. That year she didn’t stay for the first of March; she knew how ill she was, she had resigned herself to going, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, in the early hours of the 27th of February, having waited only for the return of her daughter Joan.

Joan had been in Savannah Georgia, in America, visiting her father Conrad Aiken – Jessie’s first love, separated but never forgotten, painfully divorced by Jessie after the agonising discovery of his constant infidelity, more than forty years earlier, when Joan was just four. Always able to draw the attention of the family, Conrad was himself in hospital, and  Joan had to divide her attention between two dying parents one on either side of the Atlantic. She had to go, should she take a message? Yes, said Jessie, ‘Give him my love.’

Jessie first met her American poet husband when they were students at Harvard in the spring of 1911.  They had been married very young, and the marriage, which produced three children, lasted only for about fifteen turbulent years; when they parted they never met or spoke again. Joan grew up with her Canadian mother in England, but gradually over the years she went to meet and came to know her American father again. Now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex; she was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, he knew she was ill, and was asking about her, and he also when asked, sent a message of love.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the night of her return to Sussex, Joan related a dream of her father’s; he often had extraordinary dreams and liked to share them. He was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them, and force them into a dory, and row them out to a larger ship anchored further out in the harbour.

‘What kind of birds?’ ‘Kearsages,’ he answered. Joan had never heard of such birds.

And when he had with some difficulty carried the birds up the steep companion-way to the deck of the ship, he noticed far away on the shore that there was someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love, and the story of the dream to Jessie. Conrad lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time they were together; Jessie died later that night, in the early hours of the 27th of February.

Curiously the 27th of February was also the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron. The father of her children, he was quite a bit older; he was born in 1911 at about the same time, and in the very year when her parents were falling in love in a Boston spring, but he died of cancer in his forties in 1955, leaving Joan widowed, in her twenties with two small children. For us children his death was a more important date, the tragic change it made to our family was sadly more memorable than his birthday; this year I even had to look up an old passport to check the date. I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, was that why the date seemed rather elusive? But looking through some letters and papers to confirm the date I came across another piece of family history from that exact same date, that I am sure I was unaware of until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February, even longer ago, in 1901 had been a day of even more memorable family tragedy; this was the day when Conrad’s own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to their eleven year old son to close the door into the nursery where he had found them, leaving his younger brothers and sister in the care of their maid, and going down the street by himself to report this unthinkable story to the police.

Conrad Aiken mourned the loss of his beloved mother all his life. Finding his parents dead, he wrote, he ‘felt possessed of them forever.’ He also wondered throughout his adult life, if his constant infidelities, which destroyed two marriages and caused the break up of his own children’s family, had really been a search for the long lost mother who he had idealised, resented, and mourned ever afterwards… His most potent early memory was of her reading to him, sitting on the nursery floor, which was to be overlaid by the second memory he could not erase. At the end of his life he returned to Savannah, and lived in the house next door to the one which was the scene of his childhood tragedy.

These are lines he wrote about that return, they come from his last poem:

“Death is a toy upon the nursery floor, broken we know that it can hurt no more

and birth, much farther back, begins to seem

like that recurring and delicious dream.

Dream, or a vision, we could not stay and it is lost.

How can old age receive such Pentecost?”

How strange that there should be a second death, another final loss, on the very same date, of another wife, another mother, his long lost love, the mother of his children, made unattainable because of unstoppable human folly, and mourned for many years, and whose absence could only be bridged by the visits and stories of their writer daughter.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting. She called it The Watcher on the Shore.


‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’

Every year, the anniversary of the 4th of January takes me further from my mother’s death, but since I have been with her every day ‘looking after the books’, it is also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given, and for the wonderful task she left me…

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter, and curator of her estate, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books – sometimes fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the Joan Aiken website, and replying to some of the letters she had kept – shown on the webpage above.

On that page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

One of these, is that the books themselves provide a lifelong companionship.

What I know readers feel, what I feel when I read my mother’s books, is that I am alone with her, while she is alone. Joan Aiken put so much of herself, her thoughtful personality into her books, that you will never be completely without her guiding vision again. In the same way, she filled her books with the memory of her own mother, here appearing as Masha, in Blackground and she describes the same powerful feeling:

That young correspondent, now a writer herself, did see her own letter on the website and so was able to get in touch, describing her devotion to the books, and the importance of her letters to Joan, and saying something I completely understood, and that I possibly could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness.”

When she came on a visit from America, having arranged to meet me, I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before.

Afterwards she wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on, amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, nearly twenty years later, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I still am…

And below in the comments are some more grateful messages about Joando add your own?

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there?

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life –

Joan Aiken ~ Return to a Haunted Childhood

     Joan Aiken was born, as I have just discovered, under an extraordinary series of planetary influences  –  with Mercury  Jupiter and Neptune rising, under a midnight Scorpio Moon, all marking her out to be an extraordinary teller of tales, someone able to communicate other worldly ideas, if not actually a psychic, and of course, making her first appearance at night in a haunted house full of history that her impoverished American/Canadian parents had just bought in the ancient sea port of Rye, in Sussex.

     Joan Aiken and her father, poet Conrad Aiken, were equally haunted by Jeake’s House, as it was called, after the astronomer philosopher whose family built it. She described it as ‘Full of a strange melancholy, with a haunted beauty not unlike the atmosphere of an Edgar Allan Poe story.’

Just before her birth Conrad wrote:

     Both of them were to leave and return to this house many times; Conrad abandoned the family when Joan was two, going back to America; she and her mother left when Joan was four, but Conrad kept the house and returned with a second wife, and then finally a third. Joan didn’t come back to Rye or see Conrad again until she was nine, as in Harken House to meet a stepmother, but memories of the house with or without her father were a potent background to her childhood.

    As an adult writer she revisits the house through her earlier memories in this ghostly re-telling of the traumas of a poignant period of her own childhood in the late 1930’s, but in her own strongly matter of fact manner, manages to make a sympathetic tale out of the trials of her young heroine, who suffers as much from her own rampant imagination, her loneliness and her hair raising diet of Gothic novels, as she does from the mysteries of adult relationships, and the rumblings of global upheaval as World War Two gathers pace.

     The book was originally called Voices, as young Julia not only hears ghostly voices, but apparently becomes possessed by earlier inhabitants of the house; she is equally haunted by the voice of Hitler bursting out of her Austrian stepmother’s radio, the voices of characters in her absent father’s plays, the voices of Faustus or The Duchess of Malfi in her grimly Gothic reading, and even ghostly commands from her brisk, no nonsense mother who she is desperately missing on this Summer away from home, and whose solid sensible advice bears no relation to the strange world of  historical ghosts and diffident grown ups, or incurious local characters among whom she now finds herself.

    Written as a Young Adult Ghost tale, this short novel is now just as gripping for the autobiographical light it shines on Joan Aiken’s childhood. The absent father is as potent a figure as the usually ever present mother, who has educated Joan at home for the previous half a dozen years; and Julia, the heroine, or Joan herself, is forced to come to terms with the extraordinary mix of cultures, personalities and the all pervading voices of literature, all of which go to make up the character, and the imagination of the writer she goes on to become.

Joan and her older sister at Jeake’s House. Conrad Aiken.

Return to Harken House is now out as an EBook from SFGateway

together with other Joan Aiken Y.A.Ghost and Fantasy titles