Bath Bricks, Senna and Sassafras – Joan Aiken’s unexpected American roots

 Littlest House2

  Joan Aiken had a very American childhood; although she was born in England, on September 4th in Rye, the historical seaport on the Sussex coast, her family was American, and she was the only one of her siblings never registered as an American citizen.

Best known for her classic, almost Dickensian novel – The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan Aiken  has always seemed quintessentially English.  In fact she had a Canadian mother, Jessie MacDonald, and an American father, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Conrad Aiken, whose pioneering ancestors travelled to America on the famous pilgrim ship,  The Mayflower, just over four hundred years ago in September 1620.

Back in the 1920’s the Aiken family, with Joan’s older brother and sister who had been born in New England, in Boston Massachusetts, voyaged back to the old England, to make a new home just before Joan was born in 1924.  They bought an ancient house looking towards the marshes and the sea in the little Sussex town of Rye.   Although her parents had divorced by the time she was five, and Joan wasn’t to visit her father in America until many years later, she kept contact with her American roots through her childhood reading, books passed on by her older siblings with a language and stories familiar to them, but which   must have seemed strange and mysterious to an English child.

Joan Aiken was supplied with all the old favourites familiar to American or Canadian children – from Little Women, Uncle Remuswith his stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox – and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to the great pioneer tales like A Girl of the Limberlost and The Wide Wide World, or Anne of Green Gables and of course the Katy books. Her older brother and sister later introduced more recent American pleasures and a very different style of language with stories by Damon Runyan, or the extraordinary poems of Archy and Mehitabel – the typing cockroach and his friend the superior alley cat.
These books were passed down to me, and I shared my mother’s passion for the mysterious lives and language of American children – they did extraordinary things, like sitting rocking on the porch – which would of course be impossible in England, where a porch is a little roof over the front door to keep the rain off while you find your door key, and not as I later discovered, a wonderful covered verandah surrounding a shingled wooden house. For fun they pulled Taffy,  or chewed sassafras sticks, and went coasting in the snow; at night they slept in truckle beds under patchwork quilts. The strangeness was endless, but only added to the magic.

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Cape Cod

But the real thing, as I discovered on our first astonishing journey across the Atlantic was even more mysterious – for me it was a major culture shock the first time I visited my Grandfather for a summer at his house in Brewster on Cape Cod in the 1960’s. There I encountered coca cola and potato chips (in England absolutely unheard of at the time, but now confusingly known to us as crisps!) and was amazed to meet long haired boys who went surfing and wore cut-off denims. I had gone there looking for pumpkin pie and mockingbirds… We did re-visit some of the family history when we went to the ‘Plimoth’ Plantation, and saw early wooden houses like those built by our Quaker ancestors with stockaded gardens full of corn on the cob and pumpkins, and went on board the Mayflower II, the replica of the astonishingly tiny original pilgrim vessel now anchored in the harbour at Plymouth Rock.

Mayflower

The mystery of an unknown foreign culture seems to work just as powerfully in reverse; writers like E.Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote stories about children having adventures on London Omnibuses or in the British Museum, or in a Secret Garden in the wuthering wilds of Yorkshire have engaged the imagination of American children just as powerfully. Maybe this accounts for the first astonishing success in America of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – set as it was in an imaginary historical time of wolves and wicked governesses, steam trains and secret passages, and the enormously grand and extravagant country mansion – the Willoughby Chase of the title.

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Nantucket

On our second trip over the Atlantic we visited the wonderful island of Nantucket, where our earlier ancestors, Delanos and Akins from some of the first voyages over from England, and later Quaker whaling sea captains with names like Spooner Babcock and William Claghorn, had lived or worked.  Inspired by this family history Joan had come up with an idea to write her own version of Moby Dick, for her third book of the Wolves Chronicles – Nightbirds on Nantucket. Here, her intrepid English cockney heroine Dido Twite wakes up on a whaling ship which is in hot pursuit of a pink whale, and is landed on this mysterious American shore where not only the language but the customs are strange – within minutes poor Dido is scrubbed with a bath brick, dosed with senna and sassafras and buttoned into brown calico… Interestingly this story inspired by her family’s American history was almost more successful back in England where these New England customs had long since died out!

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And so the multicultural range and richness of language in Joan Aiken’s writing, especially in the wild and wonderful vocabulary of her heroine Dido Twite, is something that has come to endear her to readers, whether English or American, and only helped to confirm her own experience of childhood reading – that mystery and inscrutability, and wonderfully odd sounding language in a children’s book can be a very attractive quality when enlivened by an exciting story, and can lead to wonderful discoveries in later years when you finally understand what was really going on in these strange and foreign words and worlds.

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Brewster Ladies' Library

In The Brewster Ladies’ Library on Cape Cod (shown here with a beautiful porch or two!) I first read one of my own childhood treasures –The Littlest House  by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a New England childhood in Hingham, Massachusetts, a little seaport not unlike Rye, where she lived with her family, as illustrated, in the picture at the top by Marguerite Davis.

Elizabeth was married to the writer Henry Beston a New England Transcendentalist and poet, writing in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, and later, my grandfather Conrad Aiken.

Conrad Aiken’s house in Mermaid Street, Rye, known as Jeake’s House, after the seventeenth century Astrologer who lived there, (and was supposed to have built a flying machine!) was Joan Aiken’s birthplace and became the setting of many of her stories.

It can be seen here illustrated in this map by Conrad’s third wife Mary.

Mary's Map tiff copy

See more about Joan’s birthplace here, the old seaport of Rye, which itself rather resembles a small New England town

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Read Conrad Aiken’s ‘poetic parody’ of the Aiken Pilgrim Ancestry

 In this previous post

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Joan Aiken’s Feeling for Snow…

Opening

‘It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels.’

The opening of Joan Aiken’s classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is famous for the snowy landscape it depicts, and soon the element of snow becomes as important in the story, and as threatening as the wolves in the title.

Orphaned Sylvia enduring a terrifying train journey through snow covered, wolf infested miles of empty English countryside, with only a strange man in her railway carriage for company, is haunted by a terrible nightmare:

‘She dreamed, without being really asleep, of arctic seas, of monstrous tunnels through hillsides fringed with icicles. Her travelling companion, who had grown a long tail and a pair of horns, offered her cakes the size of grand pianos and coloured scarlet, blue, and green; when she bit into them she found they were made of snow…’

But presently, within the safety of Sir Willoughby’s carriage, the falling snow adds to the cosy closeness of the two little girls,  riding home together:

‘There had been a new fall of snow and their progress was silent as they flew over the carpeted ground, save for the muffled hoof-beats and the cry of the wolves behind them.

There was something magical about this ride which Sylvia was to remember for the rest of her life – the dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’

snow

At first they are safe within Bonnie’s grand home, and happy to explore and play in the snow outside, even skating for miles down a frozen river, knowing they have a warm refuge to return to:

‘Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

But when the ‘wolves’ take over, invading inside their refuge, even the weather takes on a different aspect:

‘The next morning dawned grey and louring. Snow was falling fast out of the heavy sky, the flakes hurrying down like dirty feathers from a leaking mattress.’

Or like feathers from a wandering goose, seized unaware by a wolf?

Soon, on another carriage ride through the ever present snow, they are being carried away to another kind of home, as cold within as it is without, and away from every kind of shelter…

‘At last they drew near the great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare of Blastburn, where the huge slag-heaps stood outlined like black pyramids against the red sky.’

Blastburn

‘Young ladies!’ said Miss Slighcarp sharply. They caught sight of her face by the swaying carriage light; the look on it was so forbidding that it made them shiver. ‘One word from either of you, and you’ll have me to reckon with! Remember that you are now going to a place where Miss Green of Willoughby Chase is not of the slightest consequence. You can cry all day in a coal-cellar and no one will take notice of you, if I choose that it shall be so. Hold your tongues, therefore!

Long before the end of the trip they were almost dead of cold, and their feet were like lumps of ice, for Miss Slighcarp had all the fur carriage rugs wrapped round herself, and the children had to make do without. They were too cold for sleep, and could almost have wished for an attack by wolves, but, save for an occasional distant howl, their passage was undisturbed. It seemed that Miss Slighcarp was right when she said that the wolves feared to attack her.’

Wolves and snow are images that Joan Aiken drew from the European Fairy Stories and Folk Tales she read as a child, and uses to conjure images in her own books, which bring a sense of warmth and comfort from a place of safety, or can be employed to send a shiver down your spine when you imagine you are outside and far from home…..

Chase

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Illustrations by Bill Bragg from the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Read more about this edition and Joan Aiken’s fascination with wolves here 

 

 

Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

Herondale small

“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.

Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years of Dedication to the Aiken family and their world of books.

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 while still at the office!) has died this week at the age of 86. He was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years, and only recently decided to retire; he was sad to give up his daily subway journey  to the Agency’s offices in Times Square where he saw the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – which he originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate of his vast experience and acquaintance in the publishing world. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet and novelist, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which had, according to Nichols  already sold over 11,000 copies within the first few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and remained one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever afterwards, assisting with the publication of more than 100 further books – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin-offs, story collections plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would often shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”

It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married American painter Julius Goldstein, and began to spend half her year in Greenwich Village in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example, of one of her modern novels he wrote:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”

For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the Hollywood movie of the same name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s more current meaning…

Books of Wonder

Charles introduced me to the owners of Small Beer Press, huge fans of Joan Aiken, who have now published three of her story collections; here we met for the launch of The Serial Garden in 2008 at celebrated children’s book store, Books of Wonder, together with another admirer, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post.  I returned to New York in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and as Joan’s  daughter and literary ambassador, with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore  we hosted an evening of celebration for her acclaimed classic children’s book. Rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before the truly devastating hurricane Sandy hit town, and so it was not until some time later, when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a double celebration!

Joan’s father, poet Conrad Aiken died in 1973, but his work continues to be published and honoured, and her grand daughter Arabel Charlaff, therapist and literary consultant, who worked for the Feminist Press in New York, also did a spell as an intern in the offices of Brandt & Hochman. Charles kindly and ably supported us through the last fifteen years since Joan Aiken’s death, and I will miss his gracious messages, his delightful phone calls and the encouragement he has always given with the handling of the Aiken Estate. Usually I would send him these posts, for his comment and enjoyment, and it is very sad that for the first time he is not there to read this one.

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You, Dear Charles (and Brandt & Hochman!) for over fifty wonderful years,  as you cared for four generations of the Aiken family.

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CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Charles with Gail Hochman celebrating his 80th Birthday at the New York office!

 

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Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)

Joan Aiken is also represented by the London office of co Agents A.M.Heath

See related posts:  Thanksgiving for Joan Aiken and End of an Era