A Thanksgiving Poem – Conrad Aiken & William Blackstone

In his poem The Kid  Joan Aiken’s American father Conrad Aiken celebrated the optimistic and peaceful spirit of the early Americans, some of whom were the family’s own Pilgrim Ancestors. In particular he admired an early solitary English scholar, William Blackstone, whose story Aiken imagined, and whose life of reading, philosophising and growing fruit trees he emulated in a Massachusetts farmhouse of his own some centuries later.

From The Kid:

 

Morning and evening, Lord, I beseech Thee,

suffer my cry from this woode to reach Thee,

these are Thy presents, Thy heart I find

in the dark forest in sleet and winde.

As on the sea Thou sailedst before,

a cloud, that our shippe might see this shore,

so now Thou walkest, these trees Thy feet,

and in this brooke Thy heart doth beat.

Lorde, I am fearless, Thy mercy shown,

for where Thou art there is nought unknowns

what are these seemings save Thine own?

Audubon free site small

 

He moved to the north: by the harbor found

a sweet spring bubbling in open ground:

on a clear hill, by an oystred river,

and here, he thought, I shall dwell forever.

A plat of roses, a plot of trees,

apples, pears, and a skep of bees,

friends in the village, true Indian friends,

here Lord in joye my journey ends.

What should I want but bookes on shelf—

these few I have—and that dark selfe

that poures within me, a chartless sea,

where every landfall is named for Thee?

What other voyage could solace me?

Thou being pilot, Lord, I find

untrodden kingdoms in the minde:

freedom is all my coin: and these

humilities and simplicities,

Thy humblest creatures, birds and flowers,

instruct and ornament my hours.

ground squirrel small

 

The full poem can be found in Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems

from Oxford University Press

 

The Aiken Family – living with Ghosts…

Writing has been the Aiken family trade for several generations, and provides a lasting framework for all our stories, real or fictional. So much of our history and family memories have been stored for posterity in books – in stories, novels, letters, lectures, poems, plays and papers of every kind, which happily means that it is always there to revisit…

Another kind of memory lingers on as well, the dreams,  which were always a family fascination and were often shared at the breakfast table; these became a  treasured souvenir that one always hoped would come again,  dream visitors returning in the night for a secret meeting, or in the case of long lost  family members, a re-meeting.

Ghosts have their story to tell too, and some of these are just as welcome; in one very special case I have in my home a lasting echo of a long lost furry friend who used to jump in through my bedroom window at night, and on this occasion picked his way through the wet white paint on the windowsill and so left his mark forever.

Cats have always been important members of our family, and yet another channel of communication. Joan wrote about visiting her father Conrad, aged about ten, after a gap of some years when her parents had divorced:

CA & JA & Cats

This piece and two others by Joan’s older brother John, and sister Jane, both published novelists, can be found in a little book they produced called Conrad Aiken Remembered  – published in 1989 to mark the centenary of his birth. The siblings met in Rye, in the house where Joan had been born in 1924, Jeake’s House on Mermaid Street,  to unveil a blue plaque which now commemorates the former Aiken family home, and that of Squidge, January and other unforgettable cats…

CA Remembered

Find the book and more about the life of Joan Aiken, and some of her special cats at Joan Aiken.com

The cover picture of the book is taken from a painting by another Rye resident and friend, Ed Burra.

The current whereabouts of the painting itself is unknown.

Jeake's House

“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

Cape four covers.png

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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