The perfect story for a hot May day, this is one which even suits the strange state of lockdown in which we are currently living. Joan Aiken said that favourite stories are like places you can re-visit, going back to somewhere you have known since childhood, and this one has a special magic, because it also turns into a wonderful dream of escape, and carries its heroine, and us, out of our own constricting four walls and away to the most beautiful garden imaginable.
This was the title story of only the second book she published, written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. In a letter to a fan of her father Conrad Aiken’s stories she talks about their mutual creative process:
The story starts in a dusty city, the London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square!) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified!) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor but not unhappy with their lot.
It has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and appreciation of the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the good things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.
In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote:
Joan Aiken’s own particular magic is in showing how, if you get off at a different bus stop, go round the wrong corner by mistake, quite unexpected things can happen, and you have to be on the look out for them and recognise your own good fortune.
I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it takes you all away to a special magical place of your own.
A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:
From my hot, dusty, London May day, to wherever you may be,
Here is a lovely cooling dream.
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The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics
along with many more favourite stories
also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long!
Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator