You might imagine that Joan Aiken’s famous writer father, Conrad Aiken, would have been her most formative literary influence, or even her stepfather, British author Martin Armstrong. Hardly ever mentioned, but of huge importance in the development not only of Joan’s writing, but of her whole character and imagination, is her mother, Jessie – who never published a book.
Jessie MacDonald graduated from McGill University in Quebec, where she grew up, and then as a post graduate, from Radcliffe, where she met Conrad, her first husband, in 1911. Sadly for this highly educated woman, the life of a poet’s wife was not an easy one, and by 1929 she was divorced and living with her three children on the other side of the Atlantic in Rye, Sussex, where the family had moved just before Joan was born. The two older children were sent away to boarding school, and Jessie became Joan’s sole companion and educator for large stretches of her daughter’s early life, as they lived in a small country village with Jessie’s second husband, Martin Armstrong, until Joan, too, was sent away to school at the age of twelve.
Luckily Jessie was a formidable instructress in every way. The many, many books she read aloud to Joan as a small child, the songs she sang, and her particular style of teaching and day-to-day upbringing had an enduring effect on her daughter. Joan’s earliest and indelible literary memories were of gripping and sinister scenes not only from traditional children’s fare such as Peter Rabbit but also from Collodi’s original tale of Pinocchio with its terrifying villains, or Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, which was set amid plague and persecution in fifteenth-century Holland. Before the age of five she knew by heart many of De la Mare’s haunting Peacock Pie poems with their stories of loss and mystery, ghostly visitors and vanished children, and the plaintive ballads of Jessie’s earlier Scottish ancestry in which old ladies are robbed by pedlars, damsels elope with gypsies, and lords are poisoned by their lovers. As a twentieth-century upbringing, this may sound extraordinary, but Joan took these subjects as a matter of course, and their stories and flamboyant styles of writing became the foundation of her literary imagination and formed the common vocabulary of her relationship with her mother, which was perhaps the greatest inspiration of her life.
Lessons were learned in the morning. Joan might be instructed by Jessie to re-write the Bible as Shakespeare, or produce a poem in the style of Wordsworth or Chaucer; to write a sonnet or a villanelle or take down dictation from The Oxford Book of English Verse. Learning poetry by heart helped keep her mind busy while Joan helped Jessie work about the house, which in the 1920s had no running water or electricity (water was pumped from a well, and oil lamps and fires had to be prepared daily). Jessie was an excellent cook, and all the family food was produced by her, including preserves made from their garden fruit and vegetables. There was only a small shop in the village, so most supplies were fetched from the nearest town once a week by a carter with a horse. During their work, or while going for walks in the afternoons, they would hold long conversations, and Jessie continued to read aloud from a wide range of literature: from the Brontës to the Bible, Dickens to Dumas, or even stories by the Comtesse de Segur in French. In the evenings Joan would do her own work; from the age of five, she kept a writer’s notebook.
Jessie was strong minded and set high standards for herself and others in every area of life. Joan quoted her as saying, “Use your wits! Think about what you are doing. You must learn to use your mind all the time.” However, Jessie’s critical nature was leavened by her reckless energy and enormous charm and creativity, and she was the living embodiment of her principles. She produced exquisite embroidery, knitting, tatting, and handmade clothes. She sketched, played the piano and sang, gardened, chopped wood, bicycled around the countryside as a social worker assisting with evacuated children during the war, and lectured on modern drama to the local Women’s Institute. She continued to read widely and concern herself with current affairs. The only thing she didn’t do, having been the wife of two struggling poets, was try to publish her own books.
The real difficulties in the lives of my grandmother and mother spurred them on, not just to find self-reliant role models in literature but to use the very medium of language and literature to assuage the difficulties and loneliness of their lives, and to pass on this ability to their children. One of our family phrases is “comfort reading”—meaning one’s personal store of fictional friends to whom one can always go for uplift or distraction, to escape from some unhappiness or find a way to deal with it. Joan Aiken took it a step further: being aware of the power of stories to heal or distract, to uplift and encourage, she used her gift to pass them on and eventually, to her own immense joy, to write them as a means of earning her own living and supporting her family.
Apart from my mother’s books, which for me are a treasury of family memories, my lasting legacy from my mother, and from my grandmother, too, is the voice in my head saying, “Use your mind.”
By reading aloud to me as a child, they taught me that the greatest gift is our imagination, and our ability to remember, foresee, imitate – in short, to see how life works out in stories, and try to re-use them – as a blueprint or model – to create our own best outcome. In the tales of heroes and witches, or heroines and monsters, there are wonderful examples of triumph over adversity, whether in fact, or in the imagination. Care of others and kindness along the way is rewarded in your time of need, even if not in the way you expect.
Some of these stories may be very scary indeed, but then so is real life, and if you have been able to imagine total loss, then you are able to face the fear and deal with it when it happens: a tough lesson, but one I haven’t forgotten.
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This comes from an article by Lizza Aiken first published in The HornBook in 2009. The photograph shows Joan with daughter Lizza, son John and her mother Jessie.
Re-posted & updated from 2014