Joan Aiken’s Happiest Birthdays – and a couple of alarming ones…

1st Birthday

On September 4th 1924 Joan Aiken was born, in a haunted house, named after a mysterious astrologer Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex.  All these elements were to have a lasting effect on her life, and recur in many of her stories.

Wychwood

From the age of five Joan lived in a remote village with a new step-father, and her much loved mother who taught her at home, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing. But her first term’s report says she shows promise…and she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.

Only a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.

Birthday crop

Some years later, a very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript – this was the beginning of  her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green – now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – which she began on September 4th 1953 in an old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

September 1976 was also a special birthday, when two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein; they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.

J&J September

Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September  Joan Aiken Day, and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy us with all the books she left for us to enjoy!

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See the complete Joan Aiken Picture Timeline

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E.Nesbit and Joan Aiken – best loved classics

Nesbit & Aiken

The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!

Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:

JA Rwy Children1

There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:

JA Rwy Children2JA Rwy Children3a

Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.

Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.

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Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here

and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here

Look for a new edition of The Railway Children  from Virago

with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above

…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!

Writer’s Block….. no joke!

Writer's Blockpic

Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.

Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!

To Do list

And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”

Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself  ‘The Book.’

In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly,  she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death.   Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she  is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider.  Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:

Writer's Block

This is clearly drawn from  her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.

Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!

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Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?

Find entry details here

Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?

Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…

 

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Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents and their children or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation and proximity to each other had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade.

The  Father or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with  volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.

An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!

Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.

Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time,  both in England and America, where Aiken lived and worked.

But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:

  “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Born in beautiful Savannah

to which he lifelong sang hosanna

yet not of southern blood was he

he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:

two Mayflower buds

were in his bloods

and one of them was not so blue —

Allerton, the crook of the crew.

The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived in New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of them not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather was a well known protestant minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Emerson, of the New England Transcendental movement.

Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the separation of his siblings and himself, sent off to family in New England:

His pa a doctor, painter, writer,

his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?

And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then

four orphaned children taken north again.

To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:

this, I suppose, was his second chance.

Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly shipping to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:

Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking

and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:

there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em

novels to write and he had to write ’em

short stories too and he had to indite ’em.

…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…

And now waits for death by heart or by head,

or dying piecemeal and daily instead,

of whom at his grave it can truly be said

he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.

Separate we come, separate go.

And this be it known is all that we know.

Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?

conrad-joan-jpg

Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and  when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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