It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page…

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her many adult novels came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who are now able to share their thoughts on sites like Goodreads, or  to post their reviews on Amazon, and to see the wild variety of tastes and opinions that can be offered on individual readings of the same novel.

As a writer Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away – sometimes finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various unexpected or sometimes ghoulish ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not her forte. She believed that her books for children should have a positive outcome, with, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to younger readers who had followed, heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there certainly wasn’t always a classically romantic outcome for her heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man; it was more likely that they would need to find a way to earn a living, but they would have encountered a lot of useful experience along the way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels used to appear in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – a terrified girl appeared to be running from a castle in a diaphanous nightdress while a brooding villain looked on – while the actual heroine of the novel in question might be described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory   but they haven’t necessarily helped the books find readers who will really appreciate them.

Instead, when novels are misrepresented with over dramatic cover art or enthusiastic but misleading publisher’s descriptions, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But then another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Whereas ‘Disappointed’ of Clacton finds:

“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or another reader finds that for them the same novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly offbeat view of the world, sharing the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres, her wicked ear for dialogue, plus lots of interesting journeys to odd places, delicious dishes and sometimes heart-rending life experience, as opposed to sadly predictable romances full of flimsy make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her novels a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’  ‘with no shooting’ (although there may be other unexpected deaths…) you may just have the luck to discover what one reader called  – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!

>>>>>***<<<<<

Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon at Macmillan

 

 

 

Advertisements

Girls Running from Houses…

Herondale Edit cover     What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960’s romance novel covers which invariably show a beautiful young woman fleeing a dark, sinister house in the middle of nowhere? Not at all what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960’s and 1970’s paperbacks has become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with the images that represented it, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol?

Joan Aiken would never have expected her 1960’s suspense novels to be seen as part of the genre but the rather astonishing artistic conventions of the time dictated otherwise. She was often amazed to see her heroines flamboyantly pictured on American paperback covers, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their pages. What were the literary roots of these ‘Gothic Romances’, and what caused  their popularity in the middle of the twentieth century?

Women of the period were torn between a post-Second World War retreat to the ‘haven’ of marriage and domesticity and the stirrings of consciousness brought about by the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product XThe recent TV series Madmen has portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option… the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring! 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century at another time of change and revolution, and the genre was later parodied by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, which made fun of young ladies who read too many sensational novels about sinister goings-on in dark castles, and were thus blinded to the rather more present perils of single women in real life. The option, even half a century later, of becoming a governess like Jane Eyre, led more often to a life of drudgery than to romance and marriage. In Victorian times, although marriage was still the safest option, women may yet have dreamed of escaping their idealised role as ‘Angel of the House’ and yearned to go off into the world like Mary Kingsley or Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, popular novelists like  Dickens and Wilkie Collins were having their vulnerable heroines incarcerated in mental asylums, or dying of wasting diseases, and so kept firmly in their place. It wasn’t until after the First World War that women novelists really began to make their ideas heard, and to produce more realistic writing for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative but to make an independent life when, following the vast losses of men, married domesticity was not an option. At the same time, the growth of local lending libraries, distributing novels by and for women, sustained and tantalised their married sisters, who, like the heroine of Brief Encounter, had given in to a safer solution, but with it given up all hope of adventure or personal fulfilment. At the very end of this inter-war period, one of the great romantic literary models appeared – Daphne du Maurier, who, with her novels such as Frenchman’s Creek and more especially Rebecca, set a trend for later romantic novelists to follow.

5.Mistress of Mellyn You have probably never heard of Eleanor Hibbert, but under the names of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, she sold more than 100 million copies of her own romance novels. Her first title was Mistress of Mellyn – in plot terms, the ultimate Gothic Romance, modelled on Rebecca – in which a governess goes to a lonely Cornish mansion haunted by presence of the hero’s mysteriously deceased previous wife. The novel is credited with establishing the form, and is now widely regarded as the model for the last flowering of the Romantic Gothic novel of the 1960s. It also bore the cover that would set the trend for the many that followed – the picture of the haunted heroine, torn between past and future, traditional relationship or escape?  The girl running away from the house.

Until then, especially in the USA, pulp fiction magazines (so called because they were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, unlike the more expensive ‘glossies’) were providing most of the escapist fiction available, whether horror or romance, with gaudy, sensational artwork on their covers. The new paperback companies, like Ace or Dell, who took pre-published novels from the hardback houses and produced them in inexpensive ‘pocketbook’ editions, began to take over the market, but they continued the tradition of illustrated magazine covers and used them to signal particular ‘genres’, such as what came to be known as the Gothic Romance.

7.Jane Eyre6.Argosy Weekly

Suddenly these paperbacks were available everywhere, in drugstores, supermarkets, train stations and, of course, airports – leading to the term ‘airport reading’ – and they had to be eye-catching and easily identifiable, or ‘cover coded’, with what was now a brand image of the girl and the house.

Authors like Joan Aiken, who might be perfectly aware of the conventions of the genre, and who were more likely to be writing parodies of the style, in the manner of Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, could nevertheless find that paperback copies of their novels featured startling images on their covers that bore no relation to the content. Even if your heroine was a jeans-wearing, car-driving, educated working girl, she could still find herself depicted at a complete loss, running away from a haunted house in her nightdress, if the publisher thought this would sell more copies. 3.The Fortune Hunters2Apparently women readers identified with the fantasy of a heroine of spirit, intelligence and heart, battling alone against tremendous odds of a rather colourful kind!

But it is worth looking, as feminist critics of the genre have since done, at what is beneath this lonely quest. Is the choice really between submission to marriage and its hoped-for security, or being swept into the evil embrace of a dark stranger – or is the escape depicted on these dramatic covers actually from something still more sinister? There is a reason why no actual villain appears on these covers, because it is the House that they are escaping from, and all that it represents – the life that their mothers led, and the repressive conventions, sexual and social, that would otherwise keep them trapped in the roles expected of them – those hitherto portrayed by male novelists.

Of course they want to escape – even if they have to do it barefoot over the rocks at midnight. And if it had to be shown in these strangely subversive images, then at least it was a format that was recognisable, and that to readers signalled a form of liberation if only in fiction, that they could achieve.

Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier and many others before them, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have had their work and their heroines apparently belittled by this sensational packaging. But at the same time, a powerful subliminal message was being conveyed: you too could free yourself from the conventions of society!  There was nothing to be ashamed of in using your imagination and reading the works of other women – even just by getting away from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so.

Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

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

Now available from Macmillan on Kindle ( but without the sensational covers!)

Also available Joan Aiken Gothic romances in Orion EBooks