Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, seen at the age of about one in this picture, was born in Montreal in 1889, to a couple whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; she had a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she spent the last half of her life in Sussex, England, where her daughter Joan was born.
The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become. Many years later her younger sister Grace wrote:
‘Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she met a young man called Conrad Aiken and fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.’
In the 1920’s the Aikens moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, and Joan was born there, the only English member of the family.
Grace writes that not long afterwards:
‘Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.’
It was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie knew that the little village school would not provide much of an education. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ , a girl called Winnie, as she remembered:
I thought of this impersonal and unjudgemental comment recently, when, remembering Jessie’s birthday on March 1st, I went to look at the small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box she had given me near the end of her life which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’, was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture. Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the lamp which broke.
I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with so many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could be so easily restored.
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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history, which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity, in the line down from mother to daughter and grand daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me.
Some readers who know Dido Twite, and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken decided to have her favourite heroine share Jessie’s Birthday of March 1st.