Joan Aiken’s stories for Dark Times

Downs JA

~ Joan Aiken painting of the Sussex Downs~

One of the darkest times in Joan Aiken’s own life, and that of her children, came in the 1950’s when she lost both her husband and the family home – a beautiful farmhouse in a Cornish valley – and her livelihood which had been taking in paying guests while she wrote stories and tried to sell them to magazines. This turned out to be the spur which turned her into a full time writer, and drew the remaining family into a shared bond which was to help them through times of difficulty.

Years later she described this time to a class of students, how her ability to write had developed from telling stories to her younger brother while keeping him happy on long walks on the Sussex Downs near their house, as in her painting above, using them to distract and cheer him when he was tired and thirsty.

As she told them:

  “Well, presently my younger brother grew older and stopped wanting stories, and I took a job, and then got married, and had two children of my own. By the time the children were reaching an age when they liked listening to stories, we were living in Cornwall, and I was running a guest-house. Of course I really wanted to be a writer – I’d had a book published, a collection of fairy stories, and written another book and a half.  I hadn’t made much money from writing and I didn’t have much time for it, between the guest-­house and my children. But I used to write stories  – rather short ones – between podding beans and washing tablecloths. I sold 2 or 3 of these stories to a magazine called Argosy – and that was tremendously exciting, because I got paid twenty-five pounds for each of them. Twenty-five pounds! That seemed to me about what two hundred pounds would today!

  Then a sad thing happened to us. My husband fell ill, and died, when my two children were aged three and five so I had to move back to London and get a job, and, because I couldn’t look after the children and go to an office, they had to go to a kind of boarding-school; we only saw each other at weekends. It was very miserable for them-losing their father and their beautiful home in Cornwall, and only being with me two days a week. And it was during that period, which lasted three years, that I learned the real power of stories. Because as soon as I went to fetch my children on Friday evening (their school was near Hampton Court) they would say “Tell a story, tell a story” and all the way in the train from Hampton Court to Wimbledon, where I had a flat, all the way in the bus from the station, and walking across Wimbledon Common, and all the rest of the weekend, I had to tell them stories, one after another, one after another, as fast as I could make them up. And on my holidays from the office, when we used to go and stay with friends on a farm, it was the same: every spare minute had to be filled with stories. The stories were like a kind of bandage for the children; as if their own life was so sad that they needed something to take their minds off it, to protect their pain from the cold air.”

Joan Aiken became especially well known for her children’s writing, The Wolves Chronicles series, and many collections of fantasy stories which were always among her favourite work, but there is one thing they all have in common. She didn’t believe in easy solutions, either in life or in stories, and felt that children were not easily fooled either and demanded better than a simple happy ending.

In a book of advice for would be writers she was very firm about the real value of stories. She wrote:

Life is a Riddle 1

How much more satisfactory it is for children, she concludes, how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties to be told this, than to be told the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place with everything mapped out…they need to get from the stories they read a real sense of their own inner existence, that matches their own inner vision, however dark it may sometimes seem.

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Joan’s thoughts on writing for children are published in this heartfelt guide

The Way to Write for Children

Although of course she said it wasn’t the only way!

 

 

Keeping up with Joan Aiken

mushrooms

One of Joan Aiken’s pastel drawings – mushrooms for supper

“Just because I’m sweeping leaves doesn’t mean I’m not thinking,” she would say – or she might be drawing a picture of mushrooms, or staking runner beans, or making Rowan jelly or sewing hessian curtains…. the activities were endless.  But whether she was gardening, homemaking, feeding visitors delicious dinners, and inventing new recipes, reading to children or taking them for walks on the Sussex Downs…all the while she was making up stories, and telling them, brooding on plots, working out how to rescue a heroine, or kill off a villain…

Joan Aiken was born from two strong outgoing family strains, with  a Scots Canadian mother, and an American father descended from a long line of puritan pilgrims.  Both families had braved alarming sea voyages to reach new countries, and struggled to work the land and build a future, and Joan had inherited strong genes and a determined outlook on life that kept her going through many vicissitudes.  Anything that needed making, building, growing or sewing she would tackle, any journey or adventure that she could pursue she would take up with alacrity, and any new experience however alarming or exhausting could be put to use in a plot, and usually was.  As her daughter I sometimes found this bewildering  as whole chunks of her, or my own experience could appear, lightly disguised, in a murder mystery or a children’s comic serial; unhappy love affairs, confrontations with brutal bosses, tales of travels gone scarily aglay, all was an inspiration or a useful piece of background that might turn up in an unfamiliar context as I was innocently reading through her latest manuscript.

At the time I might have been furious, felt my life was being snatched away, my experiences only material for her imagination; now when I read, and re-read her books I find they are full of gifts from her which only I can really appreciate – I remember the flat in Paris that inspired that nightmare, the garden in York where those apple trees were planted, the theatre production with the egg box masks, the terrified old lady who kept ‘the wealth’ safety-pinned into her liberty bodice.

The house and the garden were sold, the mushroom chicken pies, the Rowan jelly and the walks over the chalk downs are only memories now, but when I want to relive those memories,  go on those journeys with her and visit those places again, I have them all in her books, and as I marvel at her energy and resourcefulness, I realise that I am still keeping up with Joan.

For the last dozen years I have been putting together an online resource which links all these blog pieces and what someone delightfully called a ‘deep’ website, a virtual Joan Aiken museum which has become a wonderful world of its own, a place to travel and explore and meet Joan and read about her life and writing.

It has just had a refurbishment and moved to a new secure site, where I hope it will be preserved for many years to come, so you can all come and wander at will.

A great way to keep up with Joan Aiken…

Drawing crop

Do come and visit

The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

 ‘a day in the life’ from the 1990’s

TELEGRAPH TEXT.

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A Spooky Picture (and new book coming out!) by the multi-talented Joan Aiken…

Joan Aiken Mill pastel

Joan Aiken’s haunted mill – setting for The Shadow Guests

Joan Aiken always carried a sketchbook, and made a note of locations for a story or novel, and this sinister old watermill surrounded by dark trees gives the flavour of a particularly spooky novel she wrote for younger readers. The Shadow Guests ends in a setting just like this, by moonlight of course, with a hair-raising fight to the death over its rotting floorboards with a member of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ – although he is now a ghost of course..!

But it begins with a different kind of horror – that of starting a new school, something that many readers’ children will be facing this autumn; but although this one may seem strangely old fashioned now, and fairly eccentric, the school experience Joan Aiken describes here in all its painful detail was in fact based on the boarding school she went to herself in 1936.

Although she makes use of her own unhappy memories of being ‘hazed’ or bullied as a new girl, and even sent to Coventry by her class for being too cheeky, Joan did later make some lifelong friends at the school, and was able to practice her storytelling skills on them when they all had to go down and shelter in the basement during the air-raids of World War II.

And spooky stories were obviously the best for distracting them…

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The new Puffin edition of The Shadow Guests is out now –

Just in time for Hallowe’en…!

Shadow Guests Puffin

Cover art by Joe Wilson – who hadn’t seen Joan’s picture – spooky or what?

See more about Joan’s art and school days here:

https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/joan-aikens-school-days/

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