“Such devoted sisters…”

Mansfield

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 Jane Austen’s fictional 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 kind of enduring companionship.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park the prolonged absence of their father Sir Thomas allows the Bertram sisters to fulfil all the fears he had 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, here 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  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 first introduced in the original novels, but a wealth of tongue in cheek references to characters in those earlier works, and to incidents from Jane Austen’s own life which demonstrate Joan Aiken’s love for, and delight in the world and writing of her heroine Jane Austen.

Perhaps one of the most poignant references in Joan Aiken’s Mansfield Revisited is the description of the “arrangement of three chairs” on which the returned, and now 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, while the seriously unwell but self denying daughter Jane is “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 using 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, in order to give a more traditional portrait of her author sister.

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, unfulfilled romantic 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 was published in a delightful little hardback volume and as an EBook

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These Four Aiken Austen titles are now available on Kindle

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Joan Aiken also completed Jane Austen’s The Watsons and a Mansfield Park sequel about another of the Bertram sisters – The Youngest Miss Ward

Find EBooks or paperbacks here

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Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

Although she was born in England, and was never registered as an American citizen,  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood.

Best known for her classic almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, four hundred years ago in September 1620.

But in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex coastal town of Rye.   Although her parents were divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which would have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, not as I later discovered a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But he real thing was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s, where I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds! We visited the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote their stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod ( shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood, illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet,  in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye,  known as Jeake’s House,  was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by his third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

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Happy Ever After? Joan Aiken heroines expect more…

Suspense Group 1…for them life doesn’t end with romance!  Joan Aiken’s  modern suspense novels have grown up heroines who are every bit as plucky and determined as her much loved character, Dido Twite, and who have just as many extraordinary adventures. If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s children’s books these may be for you, and now you can find them all as EBooks.

Joan Aiken’s adult novels drew on her own fairly colourful  life experience, as much as her enjoyment of dramatic and sensational reading, and while she had planned since childhood to be a writer and carry on in her family profession, the early death of the husband she met at nineteen, had a profound effect on her, leaving her, in her twenties, free to pursue her chosen career, but with the terrifying financial responsibility of a young family – a combination which strongly marked not only her own personality but  that of her fictional heroines.

As one reader commented, she usually wrote about young women who found themselves, in true Gothic style, without family or funds, left to make their own way in the world, learning often painfully who was friend or foe, and discovering where their true talents lay. Short on support they were figuring it out as they went along, and often confronting not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but the extremes of human nature, and the intricacies of finding relationships outside of marriage.

Joan Aiken loved to travel, enjoyed theatre, art and music as well as her wide reading, and these novels are stuffed full of reflections and descriptions of all the places and interests that fascinated her. Fancy a (fairly exciting!) Greek holiday? Try The Butterfly Picnic. Recovering from a failed relationship, or indeed the loss of your nearest and dearest? Foul Matter will be excellent company. Having second thoughts or even worse, strange suspicions about a new partner? – Blackground will have you reading late into the night…

Suspense Group 2

Written between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, originally developing out of the stories she wrote to sell to sixties women’s magazines, these novels do now have a period flavour, but they reflect the positive early days of ‘Women’s Lib’ as it was known, while at the same time portraying the ideas and adventures of some very grown up heroines who have more on their minds than just finding a man.  These girls certainly meet and captivate quite a few, despite being on the whole fairly small plain and gap-toothed (not unlike Joan herself!) but with enough charm and spirit to lead perfectly exciting lives of their own – albeit within the covers of their books.

The self-reflective nature of these characters is always a delight; not only do you feel you are getting a slice of their author’s own thoughtful and ever engaged personality, but you find in them friends you can happily empathise with as they grapple with whatever the world (or their author!) throws at them. Usually eminently practical and self reliant, often talented or inspired in their fields whether as painters or pianists, actors or chefs, these women are almost mischievously thrown into appalling situations for the entertainment of their creator – and us readers! They may be locked into a gradually overheating pottery kiln, imprisoned in a French château by slavering guard dogs, kidnapped by international terrorists or gangsters, left in charge of an amnesiac old lady while pursued by escaped criminals…while also attempting to pursue their chosen careers and work out their relationships.

If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s younger heroines but you hadn’t heard of these ones, now is your chance to come meet them, and discover much more about a favourite author!

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Find all these novels as EBooks and read more about them at

Bello, Macmillan

or discover more about Joan Aiken’s early life on her website

 

 

Joan Aiken’s Best Advice? Read aloud to your child!

Reading Aloud

Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer, as here in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories – illustrated by Quentin Blake.  In fact Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find some facts from her Children’s Encyclopaedia quite amazing – and very useful later on in their adventure…!

Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:

Reading Aloud quote

But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her own mother Jessie, and wrote about this happy relationship:

“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”

Sadly in those days, after this infectious illness, many of her books had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan remembers  that those first stories read aloud to her had great potency, because of the element of mystery – of only partly being able to understand the language – and in this case as she was ill, and possibly slightly delirious, they remained particularly special for her.

One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old,  but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.

The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.

5 - Pinocchio

As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four years old:

Corpse painting

(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, as mother to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)

Corpse painting 2

Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family.  All those shared stories – especially the slightly hair raising experiences – become markers of family history; familiar quotations which are landmarks in their own right, and then live on in the family memory.

It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when, as with some special favourites, it is the same story you have to read over and over again…

Reading Aloud 2

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Read some excerpts from Joan Aiken stories about the power of reading aloud –

A Boy who read to the Sea, and a Girl who read to a Dragon

from the Virago collection The Gift Giving

 

 Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares!

A Necklace of Raindrops or Past Eight 0’Clock

Or of course Arabel and Mortimer, now out in TWO wonderful NEW Puffin Compendiums

Two New Mortimers

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