Memories of Joan Aiken’s mother, Jessie…

Lamp Glass Granny

This little picture shows Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, at the age of about one.  She was born in Montreal in 1889, to parents whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; from them she inherited a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she eventually returned to live in England, spending the last half of her life in Sussex,  where her daughter Joan was born.

The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become, and what a devastating effect this would have on her future. 

Many years later her younger sister Grace in a family memoir wrote:

“Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she caught the eye of a young man called Conrad Aiken, and she fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.” (Near the family home.)

In the 1920’s the Aikens, Conrad attempting to support his family as a struggling poet, moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, hoping to further his career.  Joan was born there, in Rye, so she was the only English member of the family.

JA birth page

However times were hard, and when teaching work was offered back in Boston he returned to America. Sister Grace writes, curiously matter-of-factly, that not very long after Joan’s birth:

“Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her, as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (another writer and an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.”

It was the time of the great Depression, Jessie had three children to support, and ever practical, had turned to a friend. So it was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie decided that the little village school would not provide much of an education for her. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ – in this case a girl called Winnie – as she remembered:

Two small lamp glasses

This impersonal and unjudgemental attitude, described by Joan in her own memories of childhood, came back to me last year, when, remembering it was almost Jessie’s birthday, on the first of March, I went to look at this small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box, a curiously touching gift that she had given me near the end of her life – which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’ – was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture.  Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the oil lamp which broke.

I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could so easily be restored.

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The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history,  which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity in the line down from mother to daughter and grand-daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me. It was my daughter who had given me the small oil lamp.

Some readers who know Dido Twite, from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken gave her favourite heroine the same birth date as Jessie of March 1st. The two shared the same indomitable spirit, and sense of optimism that carried them through all kinds of troubles.

Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents and their children or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation in their Yorkshire vicarage had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade despite living all over the world.

The Father, or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with  volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.

An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!

Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.

Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to his friendships (and quarrels!) with many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time, both in England and America, as Aiken lived, worked and travelled between the two countries.

But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:

  “Obituary in Bitcherel”

 In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Born in beautiful Savannah

to which he lifelong sang hosanna

yet not of southern blood was he

he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:

two Mayflower buds

were in his bloods

and one of them was not so blue —

Allerton, the crook of the crew.

The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived from Europe to New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of whom were not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was a well known Unitarian minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, initiator of the New England Transcendental movement.

Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the subsequent separation of his siblings and himself, when he was sent off to family in New England:

His pa a doctor, painter, writer,

his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?

And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then

four orphaned children taken north again.

To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:

this, I suppose, was his second chance.

Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly taking ship to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:

Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking

and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:

there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em

novels to write and he had to write ’em

short stories too and he had to indite ’em.

…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…

And now waits for death by heart or by head,

or dying piecemeal and daily instead,

of whom at his grave it can truly be said

he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.

Separate we come, separate go.

And this be it known is all that we know.

Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?

conrad-joan-jpg

Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and  when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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See also Joan Aiken’s American Roots, and the Mayflower 400th Anniversary

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