Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…

Fruhstuckgarten

   A haunting moment from Joan Aiken’s childhood was turned into one of the most memorable stories she ever wrote – ‘The Serial Garden’.

Do you remember, as a child, coming home to find that your room has been rigorously 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 deeply memorable story, one of the many she wrote during her lifetime about the wonderfully 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) 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 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, and 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, 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!

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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 Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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Thank You Charles! Celebrating 50 Years of Dedication to the Aiken family and their world of books.

Aiken cartoon

The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963

The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency,  (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 while still at the office!) has died this week at the age of 86. He was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years, and only recently decided to retire; he was sad to give up his daily subway journey  to the Agency’s offices in Times Square where he saw the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – which he originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate of his vast experience and acquaintance in the publishing world. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he  became practically an institution himself.

As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on.  Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet and novelist, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her  hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!”  and which had, according to Nichols  already sold over 11,000 copies within the first few weeks and gone into a second edition.

Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and remained one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever afterwards, assisting with the publication of more than 100 further books – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin-offs, story collections plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity.  Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would often shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”

In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!)  as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:

“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”

It certainly did.

Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:

“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ).  If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome.  Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”

Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA.  When in 1976 Joan married American painter Julius Goldstein, and began to spend half her year in Greenwich Village in New York, they all became close friends.

Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American.  For example, of one of her modern novels he wrote:

“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”

For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted –  but since the Hollywood movie of the same name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s more current meaning…

Books of Wonder

Charles introduced me to the owners of Small Beer Press, huge fans of Joan Aiken, who have now published three of her story collections; here we met for the launch of The Serial Garden in 2008 at celebrated children’s book store, Books of Wonder, together with another admirer, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post.  I returned to New York in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and as Joan’s  daughter and literary ambassador, with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore  we hosted an evening of celebration for her acclaimed classic children’s book. Rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before the truly devastating hurricane Sandy hit town, and so it was not until some time later, when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a double celebration!

Joan’s father, poet Conrad Aiken died in 1973, but his work continues to be published and honoured, and her grand daughter Arabel Charlaff, therapist and literary consultant, who worked for the Feminist Press in New York, also did a spell as an intern in the offices of Brandt & Hochman. Charles kindly and ably supported us through the last fifteen years since Joan Aiken’s death, and I will miss his gracious messages, his delightful phone calls and the encouragement he has always given with the handling of the Aiken Estate. Usually I would send him these posts, for his comment and enjoyment, and it is very sad that for the first time he is not there to read this one.

So here’s a heartfelt Thank You, Dear Charles (and Brandt & Hochman!) for over fifty wonderful years,  as you cared for four generations of the Aiken family.

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CHARLES 80th crop at B&H

Charles with Gail Hochman celebrating his 80th Birthday at the New York office!

 

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Joan Aiken complete Bibliography

(with endless help from Charles!)

Joan Aiken is also represented by the London office of co Agents A.M.Heath

See related posts:  Thanksgiving for Joan Aiken and End of an Era

Hope, Joan Aiken’s greatest gift to us?

Mouse 3

What Joan Aiken brought to her stories was her own voice, with the assurance that the stories are written for you. By reading them, and so taking part in them – not unlike the  beleaguered protagonists she portrays as her heroes – struggling doctors, impatient teachers or lonely children – she shows that you too can learn to take charge of your own experience.  It is possible, she seems to say, that just around the corner is an alternative version of the day-to-day, and by choosing to release your imagination and share some of her leaps into fantasy you may find – as the titles of some of her early story collections put it – More than You Bargained For and almost certainly Not What You Expected…

One of the most poignant, hopeful and uplifting stories in a recent collection – and hope, Aiken believed was the most transforming force – is Watkyn, Comma.  She takes the idea of a comma – in itself almost a metaphor for a short story – to express: “a pause, a break between two thoughts, when you take breath, reconsider…” and encourages you, her reader, to seize something hitherto unimaginable.

In the course of this one short story our expectations are confounded by the surprising ability with which Aiken generously endows her central character – to see something we would not have expected. Our heroine is trapped in quite frightening, unpromising circumstances, but she refuses to be cast down, and Joan Aiken offers her, through the power of her own imagination, a wonderful release. By gently offering the possibility of previously unknown forces – our ability to develop new capacities, the will for empathy between the many creatures of our universe, and finally our real will to learn to communicate – she leaves us feeling like the characters in the story “brought forward.”Watkyn2

Joan Aiken draws us in – gives an example of how a story works its magic – an invitation to join in the process of creative sharing, making us ask:

“Could I do this?”

And hearing her answer:

“Oh never doubt it.”

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Read this story  In The People in The Castle

out now from Small Beer Press

People paperback