Memories of Joan Aiken’s mother, Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

This little picture shows Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, at the age of about one.  She was born in Montreal in 1889, to parents whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; from them she inherited a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she eventually returned to live in England, spending the last half of her life in Sussex,  where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become, and what a devastating effect this would have on her future. 

Many years later her younger sister Grace in a family memoir wrote:

“Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she caught the eye of a young man called Conrad Aiken, and she fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.” (Near the family home.)

In the 1920’s the Aikens, Conrad attempting to support his family as a struggling poet, moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, hoping to further his career.  Joan was born there, in Rye, so she was the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

However times were hard, and when teaching work was offered back in Boston he returned to America. Sister Grace writes, curiously matter-of-factly, that not very long after Joan’s birth:

“Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her, as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (another writer and an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.”

It was the time of the great Depression, Jessie had three children to support, and ever practical, had turned to a friend. So it was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie decided that the little village school would not provide much of an education for her. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ – in this case a girl called Winnie – as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

This impersonal and unjudgemental attitude, described by Joan in her own memories of childhood, came back to me last year, when, remembering it was almost Jessie’s birthday, on the first of March, I went to look at this small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box, a curiously touching gift that she had given me near the end of her life – which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’ – was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the oil lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could so easily be restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity in the line down from mother to daughter and grand-daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me. It was my daughter who had given me the small oil lamp.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken gave her favourite heroine the same birth date as Jessie of March 1st. The two shared the same indomitable spirit, and sense of optimism that carried them through all kinds of troubles.

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was Joan Aiken, and how far did she go in writing about her own life?

“This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story she submitted. Remembering this years later, she said:  “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”

Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage about dangerous disclosures from their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?

It was for instance accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’  Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – in fact the family  were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?

Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter,  has many different names, and does speak in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Deathanother quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:

“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”

Certainly this can’t have been autobiographical, as when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.

Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman  à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.

So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:

‘“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.

“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”

Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.’

True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters?  How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:

‘Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.’

In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken novel I turn to.

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P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…”  The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?

Foul Matter is now published as an EBook, and also available as a paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks

 Find new editions of  Orion early thrillers here

and  Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here

Suspense Group 1

Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’  This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age, with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making  inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of Our Island’s Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

The solutions to dangerous situations in all  the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS.

In the previous book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.

At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers, despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before.  Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her endless adventures, and even from her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.

Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today; what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it can illustrate the patterns of history in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.

As she said:

  “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “

People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself,  ‘stories don’t have a tell by date…’

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Witch page

Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series

Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

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Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?

Remembering Joan Aiken – and her Haunted House.

hermitage

The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home

Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month because she said it was the most hopeful time of all with the new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, and found in an old notebook, and although it had clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.

This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived.  The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to Petworth House.

It was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with this over familiar apparition  too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:

hermitagenews-clip

 Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could almost have been one of her own.  She  was completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material –  as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,

set in her own house and the town of Petworth

The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash

(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)

All now out as EBooks

All Paget novels

Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd