The Watcher on the Shore

Sometimes anniversaries spark memories, sometimes they seem to open chasms back into the past; sometimes it is the birthdays that are celebrated, sometimes the deaths are remembered… This has been a week of discoveries, and strange coincidences, weaving family history into odd new patterns.

The first of March was the birthday of Joan Aiken’s mother Jessie, a day I like to celebrate every year, as she was much loved, and is fondly remembered. It’s a day usually marked with Daffodils, for the Welsh patron saint, a cheerful flower and a bright and glowing colour that seem to suit her.

The 27th of February 1911 was the birthday of Joan’s first husband Ron, the father of her children, but since he died young, and much longer ago, his death has become more memorable than his birthday, and this year I even had to look it up to check the date; I knew it was at the end of February, but we hadn’t celebrated it often because I was only three when he died. Racking my memory, I wondered whether his birthday might have occurred in a dangerous Leap Year? Might he have missed out on his birthday celebration for years at a time, and was that why the date seemed rather elusive?

Then I remembered that Jessie had died a day or so before her birthday, when she would have been eighty-one; that year she didn’t stay for the first of March, she had resigned herself to leaving, and with her usual tact, left a few days before the anniversary, waiting only for the opportunity to see her daughter Joan again. Might that have been on the 27th? Would that have been an unfortunate coincidence? But looking through some books and papers to confirm these dates I came across another that I am sure I never knew until now.

I discovered that the 27th of February 1901 had been a day of memorable tragedy, but not for Joan, for Joan’s father, Jessie’s first husband the poet Conrad Aiken, as it was the day when his own father, suffering from a mental breakdown, shot his wife and then himself, and it was left to the eleven year old boy to go and report this to the police.

Jessie had been divorced from this poet husband for over forty years; they first met as students at Harvard in the spring of 1911 (around the time of Ron’s birth). They had been married very young, and only for about fifteen turbulent years; they parted when Joan was only three, and never met or spoke again. Joan lived with her mother in England, but gradually over the years came to know her American father again. But now, in 1970, Conrad had also been ill, and Joan had been summoned to his hospital bed in America, leaving her mother in the care of a nurse at her home in Sussex, and was booked to fly back just before Jessie’s birthday. Despite not having spoken for all those years, Conrad and Jessie were concerned for each other, both seriously unwell, and each when asked, sent a message of love to the other.

Describing her visit to Conrad on the day of her return to Jessie, Joan related a dream of her father’s where he was trying to rescue some recalcitrant birds at sea, and had to struggle and fight with them and force them on to a boat for safety. Far away on the shore he was aware of someone looking on, a familiar figure, observant but detached, and dressed all in black. ‘I wonder who she was?’ he said.

Parting from him wasn’t easy, but Joan flew back, taking his love to Jessie. Her father lived for another year or so, and Joan was glad she had returned in time to see her mother again, as this was to be the last time; Jessie died late that night.

A year or so after  both her parents had died, Joan wrote a piece about this strange week of coincidences and messages, dreams and omens of parting.

She called it The Watcher on the Shore.

 

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Joan Aiken does Romance..!

5Min Marriage x2

…and reviewers are incredulous:

“What is Joan Aiken doing back in Regency land? Having fun – with the most ingenious Impostures and Deceits, not to mention attempted Murders, practiced on a most agreeable heroine. A country dance in the high style twirled to the tune of a proven virtuoso.”

This Kirkus reviewer obviously enjoyed this very un-Aiken frivolity as have quite a few other readers and bloggers and indeed, as does Joan Aiken herself!

 A huge fan of Georgette Heyer whose stories were serialised in magazines like Woman’s Journal where her own short stories also appeared, Joan Aiken couldn’t resist having a go at the style herself, and revelling in nonsensical dialogue and period detail, took a leaf or two out of Heyer’s books…

Here the scene is set with our heroine Delphie consoling her clueless Mamma:

“Why do you all scold me so,” she sobbed, “when I only did it for the best?”

“Did what, Mamma? What did you do?”

“Why, went to St. Paul’s to pray for a husband for you, naturally!”

Delphie hardly knew whether to laugh or weep. What a hopeless quest! What a piteous pilgrimage! At least it had not involved Mrs. Carteret in any outrageous, wild expense, but it seemed highly probable that she might have caught her death from wet and exhaustion.

“That was a very kind, thoughtful thing to do,” Delphie said, giving her parent a warm and loving embrace, and then proceeding to whisk off the sodden shawl, “but, you know, I don’t want a husband, I would rather by far remain with you.”

“Of course you want a husband,” said Mrs. Carteret, shivering miserably as the draggled silk was peeled away from her shoulders. “For if you had a good one, we could all live together and he would support us!”

The heroines of most Regency Romances may put up a struggle against the bonds of matrimony and fight for their independence, but when the choice is between marriage or a life of penury – in this case Delphie works as a struggling pianist coaching snobbish and grumpy society maidens – we know where their hearts and hopes really lie…

But Joan Aiken was not known for giving her poor heroines an easy ride, let alone even a happy ending, as many readers have remonstrated: “It’s more of a comedy with an excess of plot…and turns totally Gothic towards the end” or they describe the novel as “a lunatic farrago of wackiness” which is happily also “funny, fluffy and frothy.”

However in this particular case, although they may have been (formally!) married for the entirety of the novel, when the hero, having at last overcome all obstacles, manages to clasp the wretched girl in his arms and beg:

“But do you love me?”

Delphie’s reply is unexpected:

“Oh, good gracious! How can you conceive of such a notion? Why, I came to Chase—walking five miles through a downpour, I may say, because that odious Mordred made off with my carriage-followed you up onto the roof—clambered over I do not know how many obstacles—dragged your lifeless corpse back from the chasm’s brink—all from motives of the calmest—most phlegmatic—neutrality—and altruism—”

The last words came out of her in jerks, for he was shaking her.

“Oh, you little wretch! How often have I not longed to wring your neck! Or at the very least to do this—”

And he set his lips on hers.

Huzzah! You know that’s what you really wanted…

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 The Five Minute Marriage

As reviewed by ALL ABOUT ROMANCE

More Joan Aiken

Regency Romances, and Austen Entertainments and gloriously Gothic adventures for Grown Ups:

Now out on Kindle in the USA and in the UK

2018 Aiken adult novels

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‘Joan Aiken changed my life…’


Today, the 4th of January 2019 is, unbelievably, fifteen years since her death, and since I have been, as she asked me: ‘looking after the books’ on her behalf. A sad reflection, of course, but also a good moment to be thankful for all that I have been given.

One of the great pleasures of being Joan Aiken’s daughter and now representative, has been answering letters, requests, enquiries, searching into mysteries, and trying to explain the inexplicable in her books, fielding rumours and random nonsense in the ever expanding farrago of the internet – and sometimes having the extraordinary pleasure of meeting the people whose lives, like mine, she has changed.

One of these, a fan not just of Joan Aiken, but of her alter ego Dido Twite, corresponded with her over a period of five years, and was one of the people I hoped to reach by creating the website, and replying to some of the letters above.

On the page I wrote:

“Joan Aiken loved to get letters from her readers, and as she was a terrific letter writer herself, some of these correspondents turned into good friends. I couldn’t write back to all of you when she died, but I wanted to let you know how much pleasure you gave her, and share some of your best letters here, and also some of the secrets behind the books that a few of you may already have found out for yourselves… “

And one of them, now a writer herself, answered with something I completely understood, and that I wish I could have said myself:

“I never quite managed to explain that her characters assuaged my own loneliness. I never quite managed to explain that I was a writer because of her…”

And then she herself came on a visit from America, and I was able to show her the letters she had written to my mother years before. She wrote:

“I try to tell Lizza what her mother’s books meant to me — mean to me — but I stumble, because even now I’m not sure of the extent of their meaning. There have been other books, of course, that have wrapped themselves around my entire existence. I cloak myself in their characters and wear them around. These books are different from each other, and I am different reading them, living them, but taking them on amounts to the same thing. Like Dido Twite, like Joan Aiken, like the rediscovery of myself on the page at Lizza Aiken’s kitchen table, these books all say the same thing. They say, “You are worthy. Be brave.”

And so, on Joan Aiken’s behalf, here I am…

Visit the website – maybe your letter is there?

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

Read more: Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

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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