Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s American roots

 Littlest House2

Although she was born in England, and was never registered as an American citizen,  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood.

Best known for her classic almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, four hundred years ago in September 1620.

But in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex coastal town of Rye.   Although her parents were divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which would have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remus, with his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, not as I later discovered a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But he real thing was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my American grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s, where I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds! We visited the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of a foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully the other way round; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote their stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod ( shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood, illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet,  in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye,  known as Jeake’s House,  was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by his third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

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Free Gift from Joan Aiken – Added Magic!

Gift Giving & back

The Gift Giving ~ Favourite stories by Joan Aiken

‘Storytelling is far, far older than the printed word, and it is still the basis of fiction for children – probably, though much neglected, the basic art of all fiction. 

Surprisingly though, the storyteller’s gift is by no means universal among children’s writers – their work may be thoughtful, evocative and beautifully written, but they don’t always make readers want to know what happens next…’ 

So wrote John Rowe Townsend, himself a much loved children’s writer who chronicled the Golden Age of children’s literature in the second half of the twentieth century, promoting the now widely accepted wisdom that children’s literature deserves to be taken more seriously by readers of all ages.

But what is the storyteller’s gift? Perhaps it is the gentle authority of  a voice which slips easily between the world of everyday and the world of fantasy, addressed not to child or adult, but to the memory of that fantasy world we all knew – a voice which allows the suspension of disbelief by taking us away on a magical ride before we even know it is happening.  More importantly, it is part of the current development in which the division between writing for children and writing for adults is starting to disappear, and where the standard of children’s writing, like the storytelling of the past that necessarily appealed to groups of all ages, is being more seriously regarded. Reading aloud, like storytelling, is increasingly being recognised as an important part of family life, and if books for children are to flourish, they must appeal to the older readers too!

Joan Aiken wrote both for adults and children, but increasingly recognised the pleasure of writing for an audience of all ages:

Universal storiesjpeg

Perhaps for a story to be really universal, it has to draw on the accepted references and rules of the folk or fairy tale, the patterns and forms of the stories that have been told through the generations; then with the addition of modern ingredients, and new or humorous twists that confound the expectation, it can take the listeners or readers into new and current territory.  Joan Aiken was certainly able to do this,as Townsend wrote:

‘ Her imagination was so endlessly fertile that she could afford to pour her ideas recklessly into her stories at a rate that would bankrupt other writers in a matter of weeks.’

Joan Aiken would take the conventions of the classic story – boy sets out to seek his fortune, girl helps wounded creature and is granted three wishes –  and turn the  pattern on its head.  Her characters seem to  have heard the stories too, they certainly know better than to push the ugly old crone out of their path – worst mistake ever! Or to neglect a squeaking gate, fail to share a last crust with an unpromising looking stranger, or to keep a secret – every child understands these rules. These modern heroes can tell their own story, add their own magic – by refusing the third wish, or deciding to take their fortune into their own hands, leave their parents’ kingdoms or cottages and become a cook, a train driver, a scientist – or even a reader of stories, like the boy who decides to spend his days reading to the sea.

Joan Aiken’s stories have that mysterious added ingredient that makes you return to them again and again at any age – as she said:

     ‘They come from nowhere, and they are aimed at nobody’s ear; or rather they are aimed at the ear of anybody who happens to pass by just at that moment’ 

…and they have a lasting flavour, just like those classic tales that came before.

Favourite storiesjpeg

One of my favourites, from Joan Aiken’s very first collection,  illustrated here by her early collaborator Pat Marriott, is called Cooks and Prophecies. It tells the story of a rather plain Princess, cursed at her christening of course, who decides to become a cook, but thanks to the scheming and jealousy of all the other cooks in the Kingdom, ends up in a desert with a mournful dragon.  Luckily she has her cookbook, so she can read aloud to him, and also a radish, which cheers him up instantly – because of course he isn’t really a dragon, and is merely the subject of another unfortunate prophecy!

ja2-copy

‘When the dragon feels saddish, Feed him on radish.’

But of course Joan Aiken tells it so much better…

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You can colour a dragon picture yourself on the Fun page of the Joan Aiken Website

 Read that story and others in a new collection

~ The Gift Giving ~ now at

Virago Modern Classics

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Reading Aloud – Joan Aiken’s lifelong campaign to share a love of stories

Colouring page

How does a Joan Aiken heroine tame a dragon in a desert? She reads aloud to him of course! In a story called Cooks and Prophecies, where due to various enchantments the pair find themselves living together at an oasis, they discover a shared love of stories:

Reading to Dragon

Joan Aiken was passionate about the power of reading aloud, the shared experience of communication through stories, and often talked about memories of her own childhood and the many books that were read to her and her siblings. In one of her talks to writers and teachers she became quite fierce, saying if parents couldn’t spare an hour a day to read to their children, they didn’t deserve to have any!

Often this shared process plays a powerful part in her own stories, together with the idea of a voice that remains through a book that has now become a bond with someone long after childhood, or even after they themselves are gone.

In The Boy Who Read Aloud Seb escapes from his cruel step-family, taking with him his last possession, the book of stories that his dying mother had left him:

Boy who read

Early one morning Seb runs away, and sees an advertisement on the village noticeboard:

ELDERLY BLIND RETIRED SEA

WOULD LIKE BOY TO READ

ALOUD DAILY

Not knowing that it was a very old notice that had been worn away by the weather, and which had originally asked for a boy to read the newspaper to an old sea captain, Seb sets off to see the sea with his book, and on his journey shares stories with a rusty abandoned car, an empty house and an old tree, all of whom listen with delight and respond in true fairy tale fashion by offering magical gifts in return for the stories that have whiled away their loneliness.

Finally,  he comes to the sea:

Boy who read 2

As she would sometimes say at the end of her stories:

‘There is no moral to this story I’m afraid.’

And nor need there be, what matters is  the voice.

 

Boy who read pic

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s own early memories of books shared in her family

and find these stories in the wonderful Virago collection of Joan’s own favourites

The Gift Giving

illustrated by Peter Bailey

 

gift giving

…or visit the dragon on the Joan Aiken website and colour him yourself!

Pat Marriott’s dragon illustration  from Joan Aiken’s first story collection

All You’ve ever Wanted

 

Happy Ever After? Joan Aiken heroines expect more…

Suspense Group 1…for them life doesn’t end with romance!  Joan Aiken’s  modern suspense novels have grown up heroines who are every bit as plucky and determined as her much loved character, Dido Twite, and who have just as many extraordinary adventures. If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s children’s books these may be for you, and now you can find them all as EBooks.

Joan Aiken’s adult novels drew on her own fairly colourful  life experience, as much as her enjoyment of dramatic and sensational reading, and while she had planned since childhood to be a writer and carry on in her family profession, the early death of the husband she met at nineteen, had a profound effect on her, leaving her, in her twenties, free to pursue her chosen career, but with the terrifying financial responsibility of a young family – a combination which strongly marked not only her own personality but  that of her fictional heroines.

As one reader commented, she usually wrote about young women who found themselves, in true Gothic style, without family or funds, left to make their own way in the world, learning often painfully who was friend or foe, and discovering where their true talents lay. Short on support they were figuring it out as they went along, and often confronting not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but the extremes of human nature, and the intricacies of finding relationships outside of marriage.

Joan Aiken loved to travel, enjoyed theatre, art and music as well as her wide reading, and these novels are stuffed full of reflections and descriptions of all the places and interests that fascinated her. Fancy a (fairly exciting!) Greek holiday? Try The Butterfly Picnic. Recovering from a failed relationship, or indeed the loss of your nearest and dearest? Foul Matter will be excellent company. Having second thoughts or even worse, strange suspicions about a new partner? – Blackground will have you reading late into the night…

Suspense Group 2

Written between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, originally developing out of the stories she wrote to sell to sixties women’s magazines, these novels do now have a period flavour, but they reflect the positive early days of ‘Women’s Lib’ as it was known, while at the same time portraying the ideas and adventures of some very grown up heroines who have more on their minds than just finding a man.  These girls certainly meet and captivate quite a few, despite being on the whole fairly small plain and gap-toothed (not unlike Joan herself!) but with enough charm and spirit to lead perfectly exciting lives of their own – albeit within the covers of their books.

The self-reflective nature of these characters is always a delight; not only do you feel you are getting a slice of their author’s own thoughtful and ever engaged personality, but you find in them friends you can happily empathise with as they grapple with whatever the world (or their author!) throws at them. Usually eminently practical and self reliant, often talented or inspired in their fields whether as painters or pianists, actors or chefs, these women are almost mischievously thrown into appalling situations for the entertainment of their creator – and us readers! They may be locked into a gradually overheating pottery kiln, imprisoned in a French château by slavering guard dogs, kidnapped by international terrorists or gangsters, left in charge of an amnesiac old lady while pursued by escaped criminals…while also attempting to pursue their chosen careers and work out their relationships.

If you enjoyed Joan Aiken’s younger heroines but you hadn’t heard of these ones, now is your chance to come meet them, and discover much more about a favourite author!

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Find all these novels as EBooks and read more about them at

Bello, Macmillan

or discover more about Joan Aiken’s early life on her website