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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Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

“Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter,” and for Joan Aiken they often provided the inspiration for stories full of  music which the reader can hear only in his imagination. She created some wonderful imaginary music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life, or a record which turns itself over while sending the listener into a story world of her own, or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, ‘a harp that no man has ever played.’  Music is seen as a powerful and magical force.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music before anyone in her family had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, she became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred her imagination too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, takes the same title as a piece of French harpsichord music, and produces a fantasy set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it is also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she worked in the 1940’s helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of this deadening bureaucracy could only be lightened by a flight of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Music was a great support to her – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing then writing or finding  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

One of these purported to be a memorandum from one of the tiresomely bureaucratic  Government Departments that she had worked in herself:

Music Argosy

    It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree.

    He fails to fall for a whole series of magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Countess**********

The cover illustration above is from the Japanese translation of a collection of Joan Aiken stories.The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy

Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

And find this story in the new Joan Aiken collection from Small Beer Press

The People in The Castle small png

The People in the Castle

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The Dangers of Reading in Bed

Argosy webpage

If you enjoyed Joan’s early story about Sir Denis and the Devil you might like to see how the character appears in Joan’s later writing – the Devil continued to be a figure of fascination for her!  Here he meets a young Polish officer in a small fishing village, hoping to lead him astray, but this hero is no willing Faust and things turn out rather differently for him as you can read for yourself …

read the story online here.

‘Reading in Bed’ can be found in The Monkey’s Wedding

Other stories from the collection are described here by Publishers Weekly:

“Focusing largely on prolific British fictionist Aiken’s early works from the late 1950s and early 1960s, this imaginative posthumous collection includes among others six never before published short stories and two originally published under a pseudonym. “Honeymaroon” chronicles the adventures of a castaway typist who lands on an island inhabited by sentient mice; “Girl in a Whirl” features a motorcycle-riding, man-hating, daredevil albinoess; “Octopi in the Sky” follows a man haunted by images of cephalopods; and in “A Mermaid Too Many,” a sailor’s exotic present for his lover–a mermaid in a bottle–has unforeseen consequences.

The charm and unrestrained quality of Aiken’s early stories are put into stark perspective by an introductory essay from her daughter Lizza, who offers up glimpses into a particularly difficult period in her mother’s life: Shortly after the end of WWII, widowed and homeless with two young children, Aiken made the bold decision to support herself and her family by writing. Wildly inventive, darkly lyrical, and always surprising, this collection – like the mermaid in a bottle – is a literary treasure that should be cherished by fantastical fiction fans of all ages.”

 

Monkey's Wedding

published by Small Beer Press

Cover art by Shelley Jackson

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