Joan Aiken’s Happiest Birthdays – and a couple of alarming ones…

1st Birthday

On September 4th 1924 Joan Aiken was born, in a haunted house, named after a mysterious astrologer Samuel Jeake (who was supposed to have built a flying machine) in a street named after a mythical mermaid (who Mr Jeake may have rescued from an angry mob in his flying machine…) in the little town of Rye by the sea in East Sussex.  All these elements were to have a lasting effect on her life, and recur in many of her stories.

Wychwood

From the age of five Joan lived in a remote village with a new step-father, and her much loved mother who taught her at home, but in 1936 her life changed dramatically – she was sent to a small boarding school in Oxford, and spent her twelfth birthday away from home for the first time. She said it was an inconceivable shock, and that from then on she stopped growing. But her first term’s report says she shows promise…and she did grow to love her time there, publishing her first poems in the school magazine.

Only a few years later World War II, declared just days before Joan’s birthday in September 1939, led to the school’s bankruptcy and eventual closure.

Birthday crop

Some years later, a very important birthday was recorded by Joan on an early manuscript – this was the beginning of  her most famous book, originally named after its heroine Bonnie Green – now known to everyone as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – which she began on September 4th 1953 in an old exercise book, but which wasn’t to be published until nearly ten years later.

September 1976 was also a special birthday, when two days before, Joan married New York painter Julius Goldstein; they were to share nearly thirty years of happiness, dividing their time between her home in Petworth, Sussex, and his apartment in Greenwich Village New York.

J&J September

Joan’s most amazing birthday, which would have been her 91st, came the year when Google decided to make the 4th September  Joan Aiken Day, and celebrate her wonderful career as the writer of over 100 books which have become favourites and classics all over the world.

Joan Aiken’s 91st Birthday GOOGLE

Happy Birthday Joan Aiken, and happy us with all the books she left for us to enjoy!

*******

See the complete Joan Aiken Picture Timeline

Advertisements

Missish heroines? Not from Austen or Aiken…

Spanish Heroine

Joan Aiken’s sequels take Jane Austen’s heroines to new and dangerous situations, but still allows them the same indomitable characteristics they display in the original novels. Which sister did you identify with in Sense and Sensibility – cautious Elinor who guarded her pain and hid her broken heart, or extravagant Marianne who gave hers away and broadcast her delirious grief? Or would you follow in the footsteps of Aiken’s Eliza, first heard of as a by-blow of Willoughby’s cast off mistress, whose dubious background makes her ineligible for marriage, and who therefore eschews commitment in favour of self sufficiency, an extraordinary career, and adventure abroad…

As many commentators have pointed out, although world events may only have been in the background of her novels, Austen’s family were closely affected by the wars and politics of her day; Jane knew plenty about both through the careers of her naval brothers, and also through the experiences of her extraordinary cousin, another Eliza, born in Calcutta and married in Paris to the Comte de Feuillide who was executed at the Guillotine.

This Eliza, a notorious flirt until she married Jane’s brother Henry, may have inspired Austen’s worldly Mary Crawford; the adventures of this namesake cousin certainly influenced Joan Aiken in her sequel to Sense and SensibilityEliza’s Daughter.

In Aiken’s imagination we meet the sisters again, later in life and suffering a different series of vicissitudes. For example Marianne is sent abroad with Colonel Brandon and his regiment:

“for nothing would serve but she must pack up and accompany him to India, despite the wicked climate, and the ferocity of the natives, despite the warnings of her friends, and the fact that she had seemed very happy at Delaford.”

Even the serious Elinor suffers an alarm or two, she nearly dies when Delaford is ravaged by a flood, and is later discovered to have a fantastic secret of her own…

But the heroine of Aiken’s novel is the young Eliza, first seen as a bright small girl, the eager acquaintance of two gentlemen called Sam (Coleridge) and Bill (Wordsworth) who enjoy her company and do a good deal to foster her intelligence, and who later, after a brief education in Bath, becomes a talented opera singer, and finally an adventuress in Portugal during the Napoleonic wars, where she travels with a knife down her boot to fend off villains – and where she finally discovers the truth about her feckless father.

Aiken’s ‘Austen Entertainments’ as she called them, were thoroughly researched; not only was she deeply familiar with the original novels, but she had fully studied the period, its language, customs and history, and offers some fascinating background detail of her own. One wonderful discovery ( a reminder that this is a country at war!) was about the bedding offered to the girls in the Queen’s Square seminary that Eliza attends.

They sleep under “Napoleon blankets (with tapes attached, so that they could be worn as outer garments in the event of a sudden French invasion taking place in the middle of the night).”

Missish? Certainly not!

>>>>>*<<<<<

The illustration above is from Pat Marriot’s cover

for Joan Aiken’s The Teeth of the Gale

 which has another indomitable ( and Spanish) heroine!

Eliza’s Daughter  is coming to Kindle from Penguin Random House UK.

Eliza's Daughter - cover

Here is a feisty  New York Review of Books appreciation

of Aiken’s six Austen Entertainments

 

 

On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining ‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course some of those wishes will certainly come true!

To read more about the amazing adventures of the Armitage family – perfect Summer reading for all – try Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

E.Nesbit and Joan Aiken – best loved classics

Nesbit &amp; Aiken

The sincerest form of flattery…? Beware spoilers!

Joan Aiken and Edith Nesbit had a good deal in common – for a start they both lost their fathers at an early age, and later they also lost husbands, or found themselves the chief breadwinner of their family, struggling to feed children from their not always successful writing careers. Nesbit portrayed a mother in just this situation in The Railway Children, and it is striking that in this book, unlike in her more fantastic stories, there are no magical solutions. Having been an avid Nesbit reader since early childhood, Joan Aiken didn’t discover this Nesbit classic until much later:

JA Rwy Children1

There was for her an instant recognition of the straitened circumstances of the family, and of the poignant loss of the father; her mother was married to a struggling often absent writer, and losing a husband was something she was to discover for herself just a few years later, and so it was with enormous sympathy she wrote:

JA Rwy Children2JA Rwy Children3a

Joan Aiken, like Edith Nesbit was able to take the most poignant events of her life and transform them into stories, and also most tellingly, even into happy endings. By the time she had written her own most memorable classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken had overcome the more desperate events of her early life and her writing career would take off with this book.

Perhaps because her own early reading had been so inspiring, and that particular happy ending was something she too had so strongly wished for, she was especially determined to have it come true for her own heroine, Bonnie Green.

>>>>>*<<<<<

Read more about the astonishing background to Joan’s classic story here

and see more of Bill Bragg’s illustrations for the beautiful Folio Edition of ‘Wolves’ here

Look for a new edition of The Railway Children  from Virago

with original C.E.Brock illustrations as above

…and forgive Joan’s occasional typo – writing at speed!