Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, as illustrated here by Quentin Blake. (Actually Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…!)
Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:
But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her mother Jessie, and wrote:
“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 an infectious illness all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, ( and possibly being slightly delirious!) that made them so 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.
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:
(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, 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…)
Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family. All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings.
It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…
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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?
Family anniversaries spark memories, but they can also open chasms back into the past; although birthdays may be celebrated, they are also haunted by the deaths of those remembered… While I was reading back about the life of my Granny Jessie, Joan Aiken’s beloved mother, whose birthday falls on the first of March, I discovered a series of strange coincidences, which told stories of their own, weaving our family history into memorable new patterns.
The first of March is a day I like to celebrate every year. It’s a day usually marked with daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit Jessie, although primroses and cowslips would have been her preference, and grew plentifully in her garden and wild on the Sussex Downs in the countryside where she and Joan lived and walked.
I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday in 1970, when she would have been eighty-one. That year she didn’t stay for the first of March; knowing how ill she was, she had resigned herself to going, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary in the early hours of the 27th of February, having waited only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again.
Joan had been in Savannah Georgia, visiting her father Conrad Aiken – painfully divorced by Jessie after the agonising discovery of his constant infidelity, more than forty years earlier, when Joan was just four. Always able to draw the attention of the family, Conrad was himself in hospital, and Joan had to divide her attention between two dying parents one on either side of the Atlantic. Should she take a message? Yes, said Jessie, ‘Give him my love.’
Jessie met her American poet husband when they were students at Harvard in the spring of 1911. They had been married very young, and the marriage lasted only for about fifteen turbulent years; when they parted they never met or spoke again. Joan grew up with her Canadian mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. Now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex; she was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, he knew she was ill, and was asking about her, and he also when asked, sent a message of love.
Describing her visit to Conrad on the night of her return, Joan related a dream of her father’s; he had extraordinary dreams and liked to share them. He was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them, and force them into a dory, and row them out to a larger ship anchored further out in the harbour. ‘What kind of birds?’ ‘Kearsages,’ he answered. Joan had never heard of such birds. And when he had with some difficulty carried the birds up the steep companion-way to the deck of the ship, he noticed far away on the shore that there was someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.
Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love, and the story of the dream to Jessie. Conrad lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died later that night.
Curiously the 27th of February was also the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron. The father of her children, he was quite a bit older; he had been born in 1911 at about the time and in the very year when her parents were falling in love in a Boston spring, but he had also died many years before, in 1955. For us children his death was more important, and has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?
But looking through some letters and papers to confirm the date I came across another piece of family history from that same date, that I am sure I was unaware of until now.
I discovered that the 27th of February, even longer ago in 1901 had been a day of memorable family tragedy; this was the day when Conrad’s own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to their eleven year old son to close the door into the nursery, leaving his brothers and sister in the care of their maid, and going by himself to report this unthinkable story to the police.
Conrad Aiken mourned the loss of his mother all his life. Finding his parents dead, he wrote, he ‘felt possessed of them forever.’ He also wondered throughout his adult life, if his constant infidelities, which led to two further marriages and the break up of his own children’s family, had really been a search for the long lost mother who he had idealised, resented, and then mourned for the rest of his life. His most potent early memory was of her reading to him, sitting on the nursery floor, which was to be overlaid by the second memory he could not erase. At the end of his life he returned to Savannah, and lived in the house next door to the scene of his childhood tragedy.
These are lines about that return, that come from his last poem:
Death is a toy upon the nursery floor broken we know that it can hurt no more and birth, much farther back, begins to seem like that recurring and delicious dream
… Dream, or a vision, we could not stay and it is lost. How can old age receive such Pentecost?
How strange that there should be a second death, another final loss, and on the very same date, of a wife, a long lost love, the mother of his children, also unattainable because of unstoppable human folly, and mourned for many years, and whose absence could only be bridged by the stories of their writer daughter.
A year or so after both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.
A thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone a utopian publisher? This charming letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather throughout her long writing life. (And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot house, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a writer ideas!)
Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale– had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand Gollancz had written to her saying:
Of course she already had another one up her sleeve; in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for adults and children in every possible genre.
Her next highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair: Joan Aiken produced a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X– and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs Lamb of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more…
“This thriller starts, as many Joan Aiken books do, with a heartbroken and misused young woman trying to move on with her life. This is Martha Gilroy, who works at a London advertising agency, writing snappy copy to sell soup and dishwashers.
When a new client brings them an evocative new perfume, she unwisely suggests as a shooting location a remote Cornish castle where she spent her honeymoon with her husband before he had a nervous breakdown and left her. When the crew go down there and start working on the campaign- using Cara, the beautiful young Italian wife of the client as a model- problems start. The client doesn’t seem to be able to get the formula of the perfume quite right, the monks who live nearby oppose the filming, tins of soup explode with deadly force, a poisonous spider is mailed as a mysterious gift, a wealthy Sheik keeps dragging people out to the disco in the evenings, a baby is kidnapped, Martha’s friend Tom seems altogether too interested in Cara, the weather is dodgy, and who is the mysterious cowled monk who looks so familiar to Martha?
Thrilling sequences include a creepy night-time chase around the perfume factory surrounded by the scent of violets, a gruelling escape to the monastery across the Cornish moors, and of course the patented Aiken Big Dramatic Finish where the heroine battles it out with the eeevil bad guy.
This is one of her best and most fun novels.”
Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are just discovering these wonderfully exciting Gothics for grown ups – as here:
“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”
Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet
Jan Mark, a fellow twentieth century children’s writer and keen reviewer of contemporary children’s literature in the Times Educational Supplement, was also a staunch Joan Aiken fan.
On the cover of one of Jan Mark’s own books, about the joy of libraries, and their magical power to change the lives of otherwise isolated children, I spotted this magical tribute, for which I am sure she must have been responsible.
Do you recognise the book on the shelf in the library above? It’s a real book, by Joan Aiken, and also tells the story of a lonely child, who had one special book to keep him company on a dangerous adventure; I can’t believe it is there by chance.
Jan Mark wrote about and for real children, and in her book reviews she took other authors severely to task for any slipshod practice, or any ‘writing down’ – she believed children deserved the best, and among these, Joan Aiken, she wrote, was
“a solid gold original to the very end.”
Jan Mark wrote about the last two Wolves Chronicles, the final Dido Twite adventures which were published after Joan Aiken’s death, saying that to keep faith with her readers Aiken was determined to bring the saga to a conclusion even ‘if it meant taking some wild leaps…and leaving some things unexplained.’
Writing about Aiken’s long writing history, and especially her lifetime’s collections of fantasy stories, where almost anything could happen, and often did, and the most terrifying wishes sometimes came true, Jan Mark concluded with a lovely tribute:
“For half a century anyone who wanted a new Joan Aiken story had only to wish, and another one would be along shortly. I grew up with her books and watched successive generations adore them. Impossible to believe there will be no more.”
Jan Mark is herself much missed, but thanks to her many supporters is having a revival, and you can read about her life and prize winning books for children at https://janmark.net/
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More about Joan Aiken, The Wolves Chronicles and all her books as always at