Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

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“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”  Does this sound familiar? The opening lines of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase could almost describe a scene from Joan Aiken’s first adult novel, The Silence of Herondale,  published just two years after her famous children’s classic.  This novel, also set in a snowy landscape, draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense and sinister villains, with thrilling chases across wild snowy moors; but this time the story is written for grown ups, so will there be a happy ending?

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women’s struggle for independence had barely started, but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based on earlier models from her reading of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or indeed on her own experience of being left a young widow with two children, and an urgent need to earn a living for herself and her family.  In one of Joan Aiken’s favourites,  Northanger Abbey,  Jane Austen had written a parody of the Gothic Novels she was reading in her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s best-seller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, where hapless heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.

Jane Austen’s juvenile skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 when she was fourteen, also poked fun at the Gothic school whose heroines, like Emily in Udolpho, faint at every emergency, both major and minor.  Sophia, one of the heroines of Love & Freindship, when dying, advises her friend Laura: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”  Over-indulgence in fainting  brought on pneumonia, which finished her off!

Aiken writing her 1960’s Gothic Romance was just as tongue in cheek! Her poor heroine, having arrived by night at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, has to start up the generator to get the lights on (no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is written almost as a comedy, with a hysterical guard dog throttling himself at the end of his chain while our heroine wrestles with the machinery. Nevertheless all the trappings of romance are there – the heroine, Deborah has mysteriously lost all her possessions in a burglary, her family have all disappeared, the employer who takes her on as a governess to a young prodigy, almost immediately establishes a mysterious hold over her with veiled threats and blackmail, and at first sight it is impossible to tell whether the hero is the villain, or vice versa…

A trademark of Aiken’s writing, familiar to all who have been brought up on her books for children, is that she never writes down to her audience; her language is rich and often riotous, her settings exotic and extraordinary, and her plots absolutely bursting with action and excitement, so that her children’s books appeal just as much to adults, who seem to re-read them with pleasure throughout their lives. So what is the difference in her writing for adults – not a great deal perhaps?  In The Way to Write for Children – a guide commissioned by the Arvon Writers’ Foundation – she says:

“Children have tough moral fibre. They can surmount sadness and misfortune in fiction especially if it is on a grand heroic scale…it may help inoculate them against the real thing.  But let it not be total tragedy, your ending must show some hope for the future.”

So, in her writing for adults, is the chief difference that the book need not end happily?

You will have to read on and see…

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An early reviewer wrote:

” After a long life reading thrillers…I tend to turn impatiently to the end. Not so in the case of The Silence of Herondale – rather than wanting to rush ahead and discover the ending…I wanted to spin out to the last possible moment the pleasure of that discovery.”

 

The Murder Room at Orion are re-issuing six early thrillers  by Joan Aiken.

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

All EBook Titles will be available with this dramatic new look

The Silence of Herondale is reissued in Paperback January 2020

Read more about all her Adult novels here.

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.

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The 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.

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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.

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Apparently 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….

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Find all Joan Aiken novels here

Early Aiken Gothics now available from Orion Murder Room  (with all new covers!)

Also available from Bello Macmillan  Period Romances and Austen Sequels