Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the  beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that you too can learn to take charge of your own experience.  It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”Watkyn2

Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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Read this story  In The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback

 

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A World of Women – Joan Aiken’s feminist education

Jessie's Diary

In 1911, Joan Aiken’s mother heard Sylvia Pankhurst speak about Suffrage at Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard, Massachusetts, where she was studying for her master’s degree. In the same week, according to her diary above, she saw the pioneering actress Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. Jessie McDonald was wife and muse to two renowned writers, US poet Conrad Aiken, and the English author Martin Armstrong, but her real claim to fame is perhaps as the strong-minded educator and home-schooler of Joan Aiken, who always said that her mother was an enduring presence in her life, and had the greatest influence on her future career as a writer.

Until the age of twelve Joan lived an isolated life in a remote Sussex village, with only the highly educated Jessie to teach her and guide her reading habits; then she was suddenly transported to a raucous community of girls – a small progressive boarding school in Oxford – where she said the constant company and clanging of bells caused her to stop growing and develop hearing problems. However as she became accustomed to this new world, Joan made some firm friends who stayed close to her all their lives, and she also won the respect of the headmistress and teachers, women who ever afterwards continued to correspond with Joan and were delighted to follow the progress of her career and read her books.

But this was to be the end of Joan’s formal education.

Wychwood

War, work and widowhood dramatically changed the course of Joan Aiken’s life in the following decade.  Although she once confessed in an interview to having dreamed of retiring into domestic life, like her mother, while working as a writer herself,  the early death of her husband and the necessity of supporting two small children forced her out into the world again. Good women friends helped her find a job on a small short story magazine called Argosy, staffed entirely by women  (despite being aimed primarily at men!) which was to provide an invaluable education that served her much better than going to university:

Argosy Bio

Argosy webpage

The best of Joan Aiken’s stories from this period, even those originally published under a male pseudonym, because she had to produce so many to supplement her meagre wages, have recently been collected and published by Small Beer Press. 

From her fiercely independent mother, a postgraduate at Harvard in 1911, influenced in her early life by particularly courageous and ambitious women, to Joan’s own post-war years and the example of working women who had, by rigorous self training found their own place in their professions, Joan Aiken found role models who she then translated into her fiction.  She created heroines who would survive on their wits and will power, even when education or position in society was denied them, from the sparky Dido Twite of the pre-industrial age, or the regency anti-heroines inspired by Jane Austen, to her mock ‘gothic’ heroines pitted against the odds in her 1960’s thrillers.

Many of these characters had a strong flavour of Joan’s own personality about them, and thanks to those who had shaped her own life were invariably courageous, socially minded, and committed to their female friendships through thick and thin.

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Check out the links above to previous posts on Joan Aiken’s indomitable heroines,

Girls Running from Houses and Aiken Austen heroines

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Aiken’s Uses for Verses… feat. The New Yorker ( aka. Owen Ketherry!)

JA Argosy jingle

Practical poetry was always an Aiken staple – charms and rhymes, jingles and odes flew from her pen, as here when she was office dogsbody for Argosy magazine and used her skills (under the nom de plume John Silver!) with cartoonist Graham to sell their copies…

Another recently discovered treasure was a letter of complaint to The New Yorker about a gadget purchased from their pages which promised to rid her garden of moles. Sadly the amazingly named ‘GopherIt’ failed to fulfil its promises, and after a few weeks of frustration the only possible riposte was a burst of doggerel…

JA Moles poem

The response from their perfectly prepared personnel (apparently under another nom de plume to protect the personality of the poet?) came from ‘Owen Ketherry’ who handled many of the more tricky correspondents to the journal from the 1980’s on – it is of course an anagram of The New Yorker – invented by a gal after Joan’s own heart, Lindsley Cameron who gleefully fulfilled a similar role to the one Joan held at Argosy.

JA Moles NY poem

…and here also perfectly preserved  with a rather familiar signature – and gothic reputation – can this be the real Charles Addams? is that actual 4th of July cartoon:

JA Moles NY cartoon

Which all goes to show that anyone is free to celebrate National Poetry Day  – as we are currently doing in the UK today – and also the freedom for all to practise their penchant for poetry – Long Live Poetic Licence!

Argosy webpage.png

Joan Aiken was also busy honing her story writing skills while at Argosy and thanks to Small Beer Press an entertaining collection of her strangely surreal early stories

( and a few mad verses!) can be found in this collection –

The Monkey’s Wedding & Other Stories

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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 now we’ll be waiting to see how those wishes  come true…

The amazing adventures of the Armitage family continue in

Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

  Perfect Summer reading for all

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

Andi Watson dragon