The Village… Joan Aiken’s Childhood Inspiration

10. Sutton Village May Day paradeThis Sussex village where Joan Aiken lived from the age of five was to inspire the Armitage Family stories that she returned to over and over again throughout her life, and which are now published in a collection called The Serial Garden.

She wrote:

 ‘Childhood almost entirely shapes one’s later outlook – I’m sure it is true that we never escape from our early conditioning.  Chagall, to his ninety-seventh year, painted the village where he grew up, and I have total sympathy with his cows and cottages – I know them too.  When I start to lay out a setting for a story – unless it is unmistakeably located in Battersea, or Nantucket, or the Pyrenees – I too inevitably begin by thinking of a village – a village of forty houses.  When I think about my life, the adult years are just like anyone else’s, whereas my childhood was the village…’

When Joan Aiken was five, her parents divorced and her Canadian mother married  English writer Martin Armstrong, and took the family to live in his beautiful ancient cottage in a small village under the grassy Sussex Downs. The village was remote,and in the 1920’s few people had cars of their own, so Joan’s brother and sister, seven and twelve years older, were sent away to school, and Joan was taught at home by her mother, a graduate from Radcliffe college in Boston.

‘My mother had quite correctly estimated that I would learn a great deal more from her, than by attending the village school, without considering how much this would cut me off from the communal life of the village children.  They used to shout “Gin-ger” after me in the street, and I was scared and shy of them.’

But she had the freedom of the countryside, climbing the slopes of the Downs, filling the landscape with characters from the books she read like Mowgli, or Puck, or the Greek heroes; discovering the local stories, for instance about ‘The Cuckoo Tree’ – where the cuckoo built its nest, or learning to run past  the ghost of a game-keeper who sat on a leaning tree on the deep-banked road that ran past her house…

These were just some of the memories that formed the background to The Armitage Family Stories that she would go on to write throughout her life – stories that re-imagined for example the many elderly widows in the village, whose husbands had died in World War I,  as mysterious ‘Old Fairy Ladies’ to be treated with respect… In her recreation of those early years,  she transformed many of the village customs she remembered into her own myths, creating her own magical village.

‘The best event of the year for me was May Day. This had been revived by the Rector, who was a morris-dance enthusiast, and opened with a grand procession.  First came the young males of the village, prancing, white-trousered, straw hatted, cross gartered, accompanied by bells, fiddle, and accordion, and by the scoffing comments of their relatives lined along the grassy banks of the village street.  Then came the crowning of the May Queen with a wreath of primroses and pink campion, and while she sat enthroned the schoolchildren did elaborate dances with ribbons round the white maypole.’

In her stories, the Armitage children, Mark and Harriet may also have regarded some of these customs with scorn, and taken them with a pinch of salt, but for Joan Aiken as a small girl they were an inspiration.  On the left of the photograph above is a figure in a long coat, standing on the bank watching the procession go by. Many years later at a sale of old photographs from the archives of George Garland, photographer to all the local newspapers from the 1920’s onwards, Joan Aiken came across this picture, and recognised herself as the small red-headed girl who so longed to be part of it all.

‘From that age I knew I was going to be a writer. Of course my personal ambition was to be the May Queen myself, but even then I knew this was out of the question. But that hope translated itself to the stories of my imagination. The whole ceremony, the music of the dances, the intricate turnings and spider-web patterns made by the ribbons filled me with supreme ecstasy.’

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Joan Aiken’s collection of Armitage Family Stories The Serial Garden will be published this summer by Virago Modern Classics

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A Fondness for Ghosts…

governess

A passion for ghost stories seems like an unusual taste for a six year old, but at this early age Joan Aiken was absolutely relishing them:

I had already read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James,
and nearly died of delicious terror at “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You”.

Searching for more fodder of a similar kind – children
of that age seem to be infinitely tough and infinitely masochistic
– I was immediately attracted by the picture of a corpse dangling
from a gallows on the front cover of Spook Stories by E.F.Benson, and rather
disappointed to discover that this corpse never actually figured in
the text.

She had already begun writing herself,using her favourite authors as a model and was attempting such titles as ‘Her Husband was a Demon’ or ‘Sir Denis and the Devil in the Starry Teapot,’ and another remarkably scary tale about a haunted sofa…

Her first published book was a collection of stories for children that included ‘The Ghostly Governess’ pictured above, who terrorised the children of the house – but in this case only by making them do homework all night reciting lessons from invisible books.

They finally dispose of her by locating the naughty child from over sixty years previously who had never learned his lesson, now an ageing retired admiral, and teaching him the dates of Queen Anne so his poor governess, and the exhausted children, can finally sleep in peace.

Born into a house in Rye that was reputedly haunted by the philosopher Samuel Jeake, she often said that she was disappointed never to have seen any ghostly apparition herself, but she certainly relished writing about them, whether in stories for children or adults.

‘Horror appeals to children,’ she wrote, ‘the margin between the two genres is very narrow, and children as much as adults enjoy having their fears made explicit.  The difference lies in how the story ends…’

Certainly some of her adult ghost stories are very alarming indeed, but as she points out, the reader will do quite a bit of the work himself –

‘The worst, the most frightening stories, are those in which the reader is not told precisely what happens, but is left to guess.’

‘The way I build a ghost story is to start with what I call the moment – the climax, though it may not be the end. The classic example of this is the person waking in a fright, putting out a hand in the dark, and the hand goes into a mouth, hot and wet, with sharp teeth.. .Other examples: You ring the bell of a familiar house, but when the door opens, the interior is completely unfamiliar, and the person who opens the door is a stranger. You answer the phone, and the voice of a long-dead person says, “See you later.”
You confidently put your hand in your pocket for keys and encounter – what?   Something hideously out of place…’

Joan Aiken went on to produce more than a dozen collections of spooky stories for adults and younger readers, but these days they would possibly not be recommended reading for those as young as she was  when she started reading, and writing them herself – she must have been a fairly unusual six year old to have had such ghoulish tastes…

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Discover more spooky stories by Joan Aiken

and for younger readers The Serial Garden -The Armitage Family Adventures, including the Ghostly Governess, coming to Virago in2015

Illustration by Joan’s long time collaborator, Pat Marriott