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 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 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.
The 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, as 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!
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See a Picture Timeline showing the history of this haunting story
and the family and village that inspired it
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