The Village… Joan Aiken’s Childhood Inspiration

10. Sutton Village May Day parade    This 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, and filling her local landscape with imaginary characters from the books she read like Mowgli, or Puck, or the Greek heroes; also discovering the legends and local stories, for instance about ‘The Cuckoo Tree’ – where the cuckoo built its nest, or learning to run past  the ghost of an angry 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 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, the photographer who provided pictures 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 watching the parade 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 is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics

And in the USA by Small Beer Press