Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

    By creating her own period of alternate history Joan Aiken gave herself the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, music, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  All of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

     This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

     “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -“

Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, was probably just as bewildering to the children of her own home village, but fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she became a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, which can be read as a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles

is  published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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Joan Aiken on Waiting for Inspiration…

“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,”   Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories.  Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did.       Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift –  although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture.   As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.

Monkey Intro

But what when the voice doesn’t come?  When a dream remains just that,  an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer.   Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..

Writer's Block W2WYour block has unblocked and you are off again!

Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.

voice in ear

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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.

Find some of them here.

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

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan 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, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back 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 town of Rye.   Although her parents had 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   must 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 Remuswith 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 his friend 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, and 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 the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There 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 did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden 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 an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote 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, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can 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 in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing 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, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s 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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Girls Running from Houses…

3.The Fortune Hunters2

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 what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960’s and 1970’s paperbacks has now become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with its typically romantic cover images, 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 war work and 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 American TV series Madmen 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 but restrictive 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.

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 by reading the works of other women – escaping 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….

Herondale Edit cover

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Find all Joan Aiken novels on her website

Six Early Aiken Gothics now available from Orion Murder Room 

Ribs of Death & Fortune Hunters

Also available from Bello Macmillan

Period Romances and Austen Sequels