Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Serial cover 2

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been spring cleaned and much loved if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to hear:

    “Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.”

This was clearly  a memory from Joan Aiken’s own childhood, and she turned it into one of the most haunting stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’.

In this memorable story, one of the many she wrote about her imaginary Armitage Family,  Mark discovers that a cut out garden from the back of a series of cereal packets comes to life when he whistles or sings a certain tune. He then learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to the Princesss of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and that she herself is imprisoned in the garden – thanks to a bit of parlour magic – still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father forbade her to marry.

As the haughty princess explains:

“All princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”

– which was just what she used it for, concealing herself in the book, so that she could run away with her suitor.

Serial PicOriginal illustration by Pat Marriott

But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it.  Only when the pictures were reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks packet many years later,  could the garden be re-created, and the tune which had unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his own music teacher is the very one to bring it to life – is there finally a chance of happiness for the long estranged lovers?

But while Mark is out, urgently fetching his music teacher, Mr Johansen, his mother, Mrs Armitage has been spring cleaning….

The character of Mrs Armitage was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, married after her divorce from poet Conrad Aiken, to Joan’s second writer father, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young Armstrong was famous for his own children’s stories about a rather suburban 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets, but her  own Armitage stories which began as a tongue in cheek parody of his, became a lifelong passion.

This particular story, originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather was even dedicated to her mother, but in later years Joan came to be haunted by the sad ending of the story; perhaps she felt it was  unjust to her mother’s memory, she certainly received many letters from readers protesting against its rather shocking ending.   Joan wanted a chance to make amends, and although she couldn’t undo the dreadful ending of the first story, she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

Just before she  died Joan  was preparing a collection of all the Armitage Family stories she had written over the years, including four new ones  and a sequel to ‘The Serial Garden’ story, giving the chance of a hopeful solution to the estranged lovers.  She planned that the book would be published under the title of The Serial Garden to alert anyone still waiting for their long promised happy ending, that it might finally be on the way.

So if you missed it, and are one of the people still haunted by that unforgivable ending, all is not entirely lost – the book has come out and perhaps hope can spring again…and you can enjoy the entire collection of these witty and wonderful stories!

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to read  about the writing of  The Serial Garden

Follow the link to the introduction by Lizza Aiken to the American edition telling more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to the Armitage Family stories

Find NEW UK Edition here with cover and delightful illustrations by Peter Bailey

 published by Virago Children’s Classics

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The Source of Inspiration

Gorey Cuckoo Tree

This original Edward Gorey sketch for the cover of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (which sadly I don’t own..!) was in fact inspired by Pat Marriott the artist who originally illustrated Aiken’s ‘Wolves’ series, and who had been introduced to her in the 1950’s by publisher Jonathan Cape. The artists’ styles do have a certain similarity, and often Pat’s illustrations have been mistakenly attributed to Gorey, or even to another Edward – Ardizzone who was also popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. Coming from the pre- internet generations, Pat never had a website to immortalise her work, and although he original illustrations are still included in the UK editions of the books, thanks to the current classic Red Fox paperbacks,  I would like to make sure Pat Marriott’s timeless images are remembered!

Here below is Pat’s drawing, much more closely related to Aiken’s story, and which clearly inspired the later picture above; while hers shows characters one recognises from the story,  Gorey’s has a stylised small girl in a frock – a frock???  Dido Twite is usually dressed in her midshipman’s garb, and only willingly wore a frock once in her life, when dear Sophie made her a new blue merino to wear to the fair…   But Gorey does bring to life the overhanging threatening trees as seen by Dido,  and they echo her own eavesdropping on the evil plotters while under the effects of the hallucinogenic Joobie nuts – very much  as Marriott first imagined them.  It is certainly fascinating to have the opportunity to compare the two.

Cuckoo Trees

The partnership between Joan Aiken and Pat Marriott lasted for forty years, during which time Joan Aiken wrote eight of the twelve ‘Wolves’ chronicles,  for which Pat’s illustrations received reviews as positive as those for the books themselves, as did her work and covers for all of Joan’s classic collections of fantasy stories, also published by Jonathan Cape, in a handsome set of black white and gold editions .

Collections

This partnership was so inspired it deserves to be more widely celebrated, like that between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, whose depictions of characters like Matilda or the BFG seem to belong to the writer and illustrator inseparably.

  Joan Aiken writes about Pat, and other fruitful illustrator partnerships here.

There is however, one original piece of inspiration that is even less known.  When Joan Aiken sent off her first stories in the early 1950’s, she also included illustrations of her own –  as used to expressing herself in chalk and pastel as in words, she had no qualms about including her own pictures. The Editor’s reply was friendly but firm: ” Thank you for including your own illustrations to the stories.  I am afraid I cannot use them as they are – for one thing it would be difficult to reproduce them adequately – drawn as they are in blue ink – but they will be invaluable as a guide to the artist we eventually select.”

Singeing JA

Joan Aiken’s drawing of the unicorn and raven from an early Armitage story

Joan Aiken’s response when she saw Pat Marriott’s drawings and cover design of unicorns for All You’ve Ever Wanted – that first collection,  was:

“They are delightful, full of character, and exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for…I should like to congratulate the artist.”  Her only reservation about one drawing –  “The governess is a little too sweet and amiable…”   A premonition of evil governesses to come, perhaps?

Their friendship was to last a lifetime.

All You've Ever Wanted

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See the full collection of Edward Gorey covers for the Wolves Series here.

And some of Joan Aiken’s own work.

Meet Mortimer – Riotous Raven of Rumbury Town…!

MortFridge

It was a dark and stormy night (of course!) when Mortimer entered the life of Arabel and the Jones family – and Rumbury Town N.W.3 and-a-half would never be the same again.  Arabel’s Raven is the first of the many tales of his adventures told by Joan Aiken and masterfully characterised by Quentin Blake’s illustrations.  The devoted pair appeared on a series of Jackanory readings, and then in books and a puppet series for the BBC which earned them a following of fans of all ages.

It was love at first sight for the pair Joan Aiken described as her version of the relationship between the ego and the id:

MortFridge1

Before too long chaos reigns in Rumbury Town, and Mortimer (through no fault of his own of course!) is in the thick of it:

MortRaid

Amazingly he does, with the evil squirrel strapped to his back, and is soon holed up in the gangsters’ hideout – while Arabel goes into a decline wondering where he can be?  Everyone is on their trail…  and now strange things are happening at Rumbury Tube station, but no one can solve the mystery….ReporterReporter1Reporter2Pretty soon everyone is going round the bend, and it is up to Arabel to keep her wits about her and unravel the hilarious trail of chaos that leads her back to Mortimer…will she be parted from him again?  “Nevermore!” says Mortimer.

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Read more about Arabel & Mortimer and the BBC Puppet Series

on the Joan Aiken Website

NEW EDITIONS of the first stories OUT NOW from

Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Girls Running from Houses…

Herondale Edit cover     What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960s romance novel covers showing a beautiful young woman fleeing a dark, sinister house in the middle of nowhere? Not what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960s and 1970s paperbacks has become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with the images that represented it, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy, fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol? Joan Aiken would never have expected her 1960s suspense novels to be seen as part of the genre but the rather astonishing artistic conventions of the time dictated otherwise. She was often amazed to see her heroines flamboyantly pictured on American paperbacks, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their covers. What were the literary roots of these ‘Gothic Romances’, and what caused  their popularity in the middle of the twentieth century? Women of the period were torn between a post-Second World War retreat to the ‘haven’ of marriage and domesticity and the stirrings of consciousness brought about by the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product XThe recent TV series Madmen has portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option – the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring. 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared in the eighteenth century at another time of change and revolution, and the genre was later parodied by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, which made fun of young ladies who read too many sensational novels about sinister goings-on in dark castles, and were thus blinded to the rather more present perils of single women in real life. The option, even half a century later, of becoming a governess like Jane Eyre led more often to a life of drudgery than to romance and marriage. In Victorian times, although marriage was still the safest option, women may yet have dreamed of escaping their idealised role as ‘Angel of the House’ and yearned to go off into the world like Mary Kingsley or Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, popular novelists like  Dickens and Wilkie Collins were having their vulnerable heroines incarcerated in mental asylums, or dying of wasting diseases, and so kept firmly in their place. It wasn’t until after the First World War that women novelists really began to make their ideas heard, and to cater, with more realistic writing, for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative – like those writers themselves, perhaps – but to make an independent life when, following the vast losses of men, married domesticity was not an option. At the same time, the growth of local lending libraries, distributing novels by and for women, sustained and tantalised their married sisters, who, like the heroine of Brief Encounter, had given in to a safer solution, but with it given up all hope of adventure or personal fulfilment. At the very end of this inter-war period, one of the great romantic literary models appeared – Daphne du Maurier, who, with her novels such as Frenchman’s Creek and more especially Rebecca, set a trend for later romantic novelists to follow.

5.Mistress of Mellyn You have possibly never heard of Eleanor Hibbert, but under the names of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, she sold more than 100 million copies of her own romance novels. Her first title was Mistress of Mellyn – in plot terms, the ultimate Gothic Romance, modelled on Rebecca – in which a governess goes to a lonely Cornish mansion haunted by presence of the hero’s mysteriously deceased previous wife. The novel is credited with establishing the form, and is now widely regarded as the model for the last flowering of the Romantic Gothic novel of the 1960s. It also bore the cover that would set the trend for the many that followed – the haunted heroine, torn between past and future, traditional relationship or escape?  The girl running away from the house.

Until then, especially in the USA, pulp fiction magazines (so called because they were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, unlike the more expensive ‘glossies’) were providing most of the escapist fiction available, whether horror or romance, with gaudy, sensational artwork on their covers. The new paperback companies, like Ace or Dell, who took pre-published novels from the hardback houses and produced them in inexpensive ‘pocketbook’ editions, began to take over the market, but they continued the tradition of illustrated magazine covers and used them to signal particular ‘genres’, such as what came to be known as the Gothic Romance.

7.Jane Eyre6.Argosy Weekly

Suddenly these paperbacks were available everywhere, in drugstores, supermarkets, train stations and, of course, airports – leading to the term ‘airport reading’ – and they had to be eye-catching and easily identifiable, or ‘cover coded’, with what was now a brand image of the girl and the house. Authors like Joan Aiken, who might be perfectly aware of the conventions of the genre, and who were more likely to be writing parodies of the style, in the manner of Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, could nevertheless find that paperback copies of their novels featured startling images on their covers that bore no relation to the content. Even if your heroine was a jeans-wearing, car-driving, educated working girl, she could still find herself depicted at a complete loss, running away from a haunted house in her nightdress, if the publisher thought this would sell more copies. 3.The Fortune Hunters2Apparently women readers identified with the fantasy of a heroine of spirit, intelligence and heart, battling alone against tremendous odds of a rather colourful kind.

But it is worth looking, as feminist critics of the genre have since done, at what is beneath this lonely quest. Is the choice really between submission to marriage and its hoped-for security, or being swept into the evil embrace of a dark stranger – or is the escape depicted on these dramatic covers actually from something still more sinister? There is a reason why no actual villain appears on these covers, because it is the House that they are escaping from, and all that it represents – the life that their mothers led, and the repressive conventions, sexual and social, that would otherwise keep them trapped in the roles expected of them – those hitherto portrayed by male novelists.

Of course they want to escape – even if they have to do it barefoot over the rocks at midnight. And if it had to be shown in these strangely subversive images, then at least it was a format that was recognisable, and that to readers signalled a form of liberation if only in fiction, that they could achieve.

Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier and many others, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have all had their work and their heroines apparently belittled by this sensational packaging. But at the same time, a powerful subliminal message was being conveyed: you too could free yourself from the conventions of society!  There was nothing to be ashamed of in using your imagination and reading the works of other women – even just by getting away from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so. Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

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Originally posted on the Orion Murder Room Blog

Now available Joan Aiken Gothic romances in EBook