The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer 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; this one has a special magic for me, because it always goes back to that same special place, carrying 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. Replying to a letter from a fan she also mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:
The story starts in a hot dusty city, the 1950’s 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.
Here is the first page of her original copy:
This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all 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 right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.
Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:
In a publisher’s brief Joan wrote that she was trying to convey ‘what happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner, open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’ so that events sometimes do turn out to be More Than You Bargained For.
Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer you will certainly recognise these moments as 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 carries 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:
– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be. Have 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