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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Christmas Greetings, from Joan Aiken

JA Christmas Rose

 A picture and poem from Joan Aiken’s midwinter garden, with wishes for us all.

May your coming year disclose…answers to mysteries, and more, who knows?

Thank you for visiting, your company is much appreciated, do come back next year!

Hermitage

The Hermitage, Petworth, Vernon Gibberd

 

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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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Joan Aiken’s school days.

Wychwood bathers.png

This is Joan’s idyllic picture of a swimming afternoon at the river with school friends; her (rather stylish!) signature is on the left.

In the 1930’s Joan went to a small girls’ school in Oxford which had many eccentricities. One was that their pioneering art teacher Marion Richardson preferred the girls to write with dip pens (and inkwells) and a special Dudley nib, to produce a beautiful patterned script. But she was clearly a gifted teacher and encouraged Joan and others to express themselves through painting; a lovely and mysterious picture of Joan’s appears in Richardson’s book Art and The Child. Richardson wrote:

“When a teacher frees the artist’s vision within a child he inspires him to find a completely truthful expression for it. The vision itself is so lovable that nothing short of sincerity will serve…satisfaction may be found in projecting the wish for something that real life has so far denied.”

An inspiration that transferred itself to Joan’s writing as well, perhaps.

A slightly mixed blessing was the school’s access to a rather muddy bathing place by the Rhea island on the River Cherwell near the school on the Banbury Road;  those more experienced could use the deep end with diving boards, and also join the sculling club, or learn the more dangerous arts of punting and canoeing! Beginners – non swimmers – were dangled on the end of a pole as in this illustration from Jean Webster’s famous tale , and illustration, of an earlier college girl’s education:

Daddy Long Legs swim

On hot days the river must have been a very welcome resource, muddy or not, and there was always the fun of frightening new girls with the fable of the dead donkey once seen in its depths…

Wychwood and The Rhea

Those hot days,  afternoons with friends at the Oxford riverside must have been wonderful, and Joan never lost her fondness for swimming in rivers, or for painting portraits and landscapes, or even for causing a sensation by telling scary stories..!

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See some more pictures and Joan’s 1930’s school report  here

See more of Joan’s art here