“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

Watermelon2a

     Joan Aiken writing at her cheerful best was a perfect reader’s companion. Well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, she also had the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the enjoyment of the writing process.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her plots, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal read on holiday then (or even a substitute for one?) would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package, as in the novels of her equally readable predecessor Mary Stewart, she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island!

Imagine for example, your much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with a canopy of scented jasmine and grape vines growing up from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn.  Joan Aiken reminds you of the the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also allows you the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae:

‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’

     And this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot to keep you turning the pages. To quote one jacket blurb:

“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”

Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!

     Added to this are discussions about the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso: ‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’ (which could be a comment on our times), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children,  and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration that  she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is, but provides excellent food for thought as you lie idly on your beach…

For example our heroine engages (with a murderer…) in  a comparison of the narrative methods of various authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in  Mansfield Park.

(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)

He (the possible/ would-be murderer) and Georgia are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine brood about her situation in a playful comparison with that novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson.  To distract herself from her troubles (broke, tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe on an unknown island for the arrival of her cousin) she wonders how Esther would have coped. How would it be, she wonders (the ultimate unreliable narrator!) if she was the heroine of a novel?

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ButterflyPicnic full quote

  (And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)

 In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday,  leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion…

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PS. That should be Mr Guppy of course, shameful editor’s slip  for an Aikenesque name she would have admired and not misquoted.

 

The Butterfly Picnic (aka: A Cluster of Separate Sparks in the USA )

Now out as an EBook 

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern novels now out as EBooks

 

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A World of Women – Joan Aiken’s feminist education

Jessie's Diary

In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.

Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.

But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.

Wychwood

War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade.  Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself,  the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women  (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:

Argosy Bio

Argosy webpage

The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press. 

From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction.  She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.

Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.

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Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,

Girls Running from Houses and Aiken Austen heroines

 

 

 

 

 

Creating Alternate Worlds…

Sun God's castle

Why do we want them? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

One of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose death this week has brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin says:

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which had threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – you can read more about it here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustration by Jan Pienkowski above comes from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales – The Kingdom Under the Sea. In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but after a brush with the Sun God and having fallen into grandiose ideas about their earthly powers and prospects they are rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Sun God ending

Cross over into fantasy, or ignore it, but only at your own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here

 

 

 

Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Could this be a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Bonnie must be off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and perhaps bag her another wolf stole?) or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences…

Could this ever be possible? Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her wild standards to ever see the light of day:Halloween at Willoughby 1aWhen she imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken was planning to replicate the eye-watering reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as it was these wild adventures that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children in the 1920’s. But when she herself became a children’s writer she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Endings Way to WriteVery good, but happy endings? Not necessarily, besides they so rarely last for long in real life, and if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

In this festive tale that Joan once cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – now seen off with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with crossbows.

Halloween end 1The ever resourceful Bonnie turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea, Simon’s Aunt Hettie, who was to have provided the diamonds for the puddings saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end finalEven now Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas Day, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here