A World of Women – Joan Aiken’s feminist education

Jessie's Diary

In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.

Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.

But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.

Wychwood

War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade.  Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself,  the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women  (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:

Argosy Bio

Argosy webpage

The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press. 

From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction.  She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.

Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.

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Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,

Girls Running from Houses and Aiken Austen heroines

 

 

 

 

 

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Meet Joan Aiken…

JA Movie

Would you like to go for a walk with Joan Aiken, and hear how she came up with the ideas for her most famous books, the Wolves Chronicles,  or visit her in her home?

Well you can!

This short film was made by Puffin Books, and shows her on the Sussex Downs, near the village where she grew up, and in the little town of Petworth, where she bought her first home – an old pub called The White Hart.

You can also see her visit the real Rose Alley where she imagined Simon meeting Dido Twite for the first time, on the banks of the Thames, near the new Globe Theatre and opposite St.Paul’s Cathedral.

And finally see the real Cuckoo Tree that inspired one of her titles – quite famous locally, and even visited by fans from as far away as Japan… but extremely hard to find!

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Click here to watch

 Or go to the Joan Aiken Website FUN page and click on the MOVIE

 

 

 

Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box &amp; Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise, until we hear the stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in The Box of Delights, and it was a potent image from her childhood reading, mixed up with snow and all kinds of Christmas traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the wolves as she put it: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father the poet Conrad Aiken, from the early 1900’s and the first Masefield novel she came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived.  Joan was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning but Masefield’s own books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books with their stories of desperate snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of these books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken’s writing.  Rather than her ‘Wolves’ it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17 to tell to her small brother called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the books the two of them knew and loved, and Joan Aiken fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would be published.

But years later when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said: ‘all young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

Another review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall, describes the influence John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis. We can all share their enthusiasm for his skill in crafting an exciting fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

KingdomAndCave_B_9780349005874

The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

  Joan Aiken originally wrote this article for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society

 

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The mysterious Joan Aiken – where did she get her ideas?

Gladys Mystery Picture

One of these people is Gladys, in Joan Aiken’s story about her strange ‘reappearance’, written, and equally mysteriously illustrated, when she was about seven years old.

Joan was taught at home by her mother, who gave her exercises in writing – in this case she had to create a whole story told only through conversation – which makes you wonder about the ones she overheard as a small girl, and what she made of them…?

This one is certainly mysterious.

Here is the whole story:

Gladys Mystery story

This is simply masterful and full of dramatic technique!

Joan as the narrator runs rings around poor Mrs L. who tries to be pleasant and chatty but gets the most gnomic responses in reply. Gladys and her cat have clearly had an unfortunate history, but it seems as though the cat has the upper hand…? Sadly Joan isn’t going to share that story.

Instead of entering into the comfortable and hopefully scandalous gossip Mrs L. is clearly angling for, Joan brutally changes the subject:

“Look at that holly.”

Did Gladys try to dispose of the cat in some way? Has the cat also reappeared? We are left to imagine all sorts of possible horrors…maybe even ghosts?

Luckily at this point David, a third character joins the conversation, (in fact he is Joan’s little brother!) Mrs L. tries to save face, and look as though she is completely in the picture (which for all we know she is?) and take a grown up stand in the dialogue, commenting on the trouble Gladys has caused her ‘poor mother’ while perhaps also delivering  sly snub of her own to the cheeky storyteller.

Meanwhile Joan’s own mother, probably well aware of the social parody in her small daughter’s writing – and perhaps suspicious about the characterisation of Mrs L. – gets her own back by sharply underlining a spelling mistake; in fact there is another, but she seems to have missed that one!

Knowing both these two characters makes the whole exercise even more fascinating – Joan had a great respect for her mother, but always saw her with a very clear eye – in fact she reappears more than once as the model for a much loved, but fairly mysterious parent in many of Joan’s later novels…

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