At home with the Armitage Family …

7 Page 175At least these unexpected visitors can’t come into the house!

Joan Aiken’s imaginary family began in her stories about them as a tongue in cheek parody of her own childhood, but turned into lifelong companions, a family who always dealt with the vicissitudes of life with charm and good humour, and just a little magic…

Even when the parents are turned into ladybirds, in Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, or the family cat becomes a wolf, or when they are sharing their bathroom with a ghost, or their garden with unicorns, nothing seems to disturb them for long, but in these days of lockdown, or sheltering at home – how would they fare?

In one story, The Apple of Trouble, Mark and Harriet are left at home in the care of their tetchy and very old-fashioned Great Uncle Gavin while their parents are away, and he proceeds to take them firmly in hand.

“Little gels should be seen and not heard,” he boomed at
Harriet, whenever she opened her mouth. To get her out from
underfoot, he insisted on her enrolling in a domestic
science course run by a Professor Grimalkin, who had
recently come to live in the village.
As for Mark, he had hardly a minute’s peace.
“Bless my soul, boy”—nearly all Great-uncle Gavin’s
remarks began with this request—“Bless my soul, what are you
doing now? Reading? Bless my soul, do you want to grow up a
muff?”
“A muff, Great-uncle? What is a muff, exactly?” And Mark
pulled out the notebook in which he was keeping a glossary of
Great-uncle Gavin.
“A muff, why, a muff is a—a funk, sir, a duffer, a frowst, a
tug, a swot, a miserable little sneaking milksop!”
Mark was so busy writing down all these words that he
forgot to be annoyed.
“You ought to be out of doors, sir, ought to be out playin’
footer.”
“But you need twenty-two people for that,” Mark pointed
out, “and there’s only Harriet and me. Besides it’s summer. And
Harriet’s a bit of a duffer at French cricket.”
“Don’t be impident, boy! Gad, when I was your age, I’d have
been out collectin’ birds’ eggs.”
“Birds’ eggs,” said Mark, scandalized. “But I’m a subscribing
member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.”
“Butterflies, then,” growled his great-uncle.

Mark is presented with a bicycle on which he is ordered to take his daily exercise, even in the pouring rain, but by a stroke of luck just when he is at the end of his tether, he meets a man who offers to exchange the bike for a golden apple.

“Nice, eh?” the little man said, giving the apple to Mark,
who nearly dropped it on the floor. It must have weighed at least
four pounds.
“Is it real gold all through?” he asked. “Must be quite valuable.”
“Valuable?” the man said impressively. “Such apple is
beyond price. You, of course, well-educated, familiar with Old
Testament tale of Adam and Eve?”
“W-why, yes,” Mark said, stammering a little. “But you—you
don’t mean to say that apple—?”
“Self same one,” the little man said, nodding his head.
“Original bite marks of Adam and Eve before apple carried out
of Eden. Then—see stain? Blood of Abel. Cain killed him for
apple. Stain will never wash off.”
“Goodness,” Mark said.

Apple

But his Uncle is not impressed when Mark relates what the little man has told him about the Golden Apple’s long and powerful history:

Great-uncle Gavin nearly burst a blood vessel when he learned
that Mark had exchanged his new bicycle for an apple, albeit a
golden one.
“Did what—merciful providence—an apple?—Hesperides?
Eden? Asgard? Never heard such a pack of moonshine in all me
born—let’s see it, then. Where is it?”
Mark produced the apple and a curious gleam lit up Uncle
Gavin’s eye.
“Mind,” he said, “don’t believe a word of the feller’s tale,
but plain that’s val’ble; far too val’ble an article to be in your
hands, boy. Better give it here at once…
Mark felt curiously relieved to be rid of the apple, as if a load
had been lifted from his mind as well as his pocket.
He ran upstairs, whistling. Harriet, as usual, was in her room
mixing things in retorts and crucibles. When Uncle Gavin, as in
duty bound, asked each evening what she had been learning that
day in her domestic science course, she always replied briefly,
“Spelling.” “Spellin’, gel? Rum notion of housekeepin’ the johnny
seems to have. Still, daresay it keeps you out of mischief.” In
fact, as Harriet had confided to Mark, Professor Grimalkin was
a retired alchemist who, having failed to find the Philosopher’s
Stone, was obliged to take in pupils to make ends meet.

However the Apple of Discord is soon discovered by its true owners (calling themselves The Kindly Ones, but looking most alarming with bats’ wings and snakes for hair) who arrive on the doorstep and refuse to leave without avenging their loss:

“And what did you wish to see Sir Gavin about?” Mark knew
his great-uncle hated to be disturbed once he was settled in the
evening with a glass of port and The Times.
“We attend him who holds the apple.”
“There is blood on it—a brother’s blood, shed by a
brother.”
“It cries for vengeance.”
“Oh, I see!” said Mark, beginning to take in the situation.
Now he understood why the little man had been so anxious for a
bicycle.

Then the three wolfish ladies disconcertingly burst into a
sort of hymn, shaking tambourines and beating on them with
brass-studded rods which they pulled out from among their
draperies:
“We are the daughters
Of darkness and time
We follow the guilty
We punish the crime
Nothing but bloodshed
Will settle old scores
So blood has to flow and
That blood must be yours!”

Harriet puts her home ‘Spelling’ lessons to good use to create a friendship philtre to attempt to make the ‘Kindly Ones’ see reason, while Mark makes a bow and arrows of horn to discourage the visitors – but things don’t go entirely to plan…

By the time the Armitage parents are due to return home and Great Uncle Gavin is despatched back to his life abroad, the house is more or less returned to normal, except that the three ladies seem to have enjoyed their visit and sometimes return to sleep in the coal cellar.

M&H

And Mark and Harriet and their friendly ghost

have their home to themselves at last.

*   *   *   *   *

Story from Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden,  the complete Armitage Family stories

Illustrations by Andi Watson in the US and Peter Bailey in the UK

Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Fruhstuckgarten

   A haunting moment from Joan Aiken’s own childhood was turned into one of the most memorable stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’, but this sad story went on to haunt her too.

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been completely turned out, and some of your much loved, if dusty treasures tossed in the bin, only to have your mother say in reply to your outrage and anguish: “Oh you didn’t want that did you? I thought you’d finished with it.” And this (spoiler alert!) was the terrible memory that inspired one of the saddest stories Joan Aiken ever wrote.

In this rather tragic story, one of the many she wrote during her lifetime about the eccentric Armitage Family,  Joan Aiken has the son, Mark discover 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. When he goes into the magic garden he meets the Princess of Saxe Hoffen-Poffen und Hamster, and learns that the garden comes from an old book of pictures belonging to her, and that she herself is imprisoned in the book, in the garden (thanks to a bit of parlour magic!)  and still waiting to be rescued by her long lost love,  the Court Kapellmeister and music teacher who her father had forbidden 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 PicThe original illustration of the cut out ‘cereal’ packet garden was by Pat Marriott

   But the maid who was supposed to give the book to her beloved Kapellmeister never delivered it, and the book is lost.  Only when the pictures are reproduced on the back of a Brekkfast Brikks cereal packet many years later, and found by Mark, can the garden be re-created; the tune which has unwittingly been passed on to Mark by his music teacher, turns out to be the one which can bring it to life – is there an amazing last 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 brisk, no nonsense character of Mrs Armitage,  was based on Joan’s own mother,  Jessie Armstrong, who re-married after her divorce from Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, to her second writer husband, Martin Armstrong.  When Joan was young, Armstrong was famous for his own series of children’s stories for the BBC radio Children’s Hour, about a rather polite 1940’s family in thrall to their various talking pets: Said the Cat to the Dog, and Said the Dog to the Cat. Joan’s own ‘Armitage’ family stories, the first of which she also sold to the BBC, had begun as a tongue in cheek parody of his, and were based very much on the family’s life in their remote Sussex village where Joan lived until she was twelve; but the Armitage family’s ongoing magical adventures went on to become her lifelong passion.

The story of ‘The Serial Garden’ was originally published in Jessie’s lifetime, in a collection of Joan Aiken’s fantasy stories called A Small Pinch of Weather ; the book 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 was taken aback by the many letters she got 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, once written, she said the story could not be undone, but she thought she could perhaps give Mark and poor Mr Johansen another chance to find the vanished garden and the lost princess.

So, just before she  died Joan  was preparing a last book –  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 to the sad story, that it might finally be on the way.

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

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

See a picture Timeline showing the history of this haunting story

and the family and village that inspired it

in The Guardian newspaper online

3.Farrs

Joan’s childhood village home

Read more about Joan’s childhood in the village that forms the magical background to The Armitage Family stories

Read about the Prelude to the stories

which tells how the family come to have their magical Mondays

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Visit the Joan Aiken Website to find UK & US copies of The Serial Garden

Serial Gdns Webpage

Joan Aiken’s 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 had discovered and 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.”

She adds:

“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 was rather
disappointed to discover that this corpse never actually figured in
the text.”

By the age of six, she had already begun writing stories herself, using her favourite authors as a model and was producing 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…

Joan first writing book

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, as they struggle to recite lessons from invisible text books.

They finally get rid of her by locating the naughty child from over sixty years previously who had never been able to learn his lesson; now he is an ageing retired admiral, but by teaching him the dates of Queen Anne and finally putting her mind at rest, they allow his poor governess to retire happy, and the exhausted children can finally sleep in peace.

Born in a house in Rye that was reputedly haunted by the seventeenth century astrologer and 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 mystery is important in the telling as she points out, and then 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 considered suitable for those as young as she was when she started reading Edgar Allan Poe, or even the fairly scary stories by her own father and step-father, and then in imitation, writing them herself. She must have had a very secure childhood, or 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 Stories including the Ghostly Governess, is now out from  Virago

Illustration by Joan’s long time collaborator, Pat Marriott