Joan Aiken’s Haunting Garden…


   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.

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, 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

in The Guardian newspaper online


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

All Best Wishes…


 Wishes have always been at at the heart of fairy tales and story telling…they can be the seed that creates a whole new world or, more often, the first creak of discontent that brings on a landslide of disaster!

In her own stories Joan Aiken played with all the classic ideas – the dangerous wishes without forethought, the sometimes ludicrous results of gaily tossed off wishes, the indigestible effects of wishes that can’t be stopped, the wishes that come true in ways you would never have expected…

One of her most long lasting wish-gifts – given to Mrs Armitage, mother of Joan Aiken’s imaginary Armitage Family – was  that she and her family, while living out their traditional ‘Happy Ever After’ in her stories would ‘never, never be bored’.

This wish was to be prophetic also for Joan Aiken who was to go on writing their extraordinary stories throughout her life, with obvious enjoyment and relish.  One of her own last wishes was to have all the Armitage family stories collected together from the many different story books where they had appeared over the years, and which was first published in the US, as The Serial Garden This  is the title of one especially memorable story, and also a very Aiken pun describing a garden that grows week by week, which is made from cut-outs found on a packet of breakfast cereal. This last story collection was intended for those readers who had written to her saying that the story was one that would possibly haunt them forever…  The outcome of the original ‘Serial Garden’ story couldn’t be undone, but perhaps because of Joan Aiken’s original promise of a Happy Ever After, there would be a way to change it for the better?

Joan Aiken first started writing about the Armitage Family almost as a joke, a parody of her stepfather Martin Armstrong’s successful Children’s Hour series “Said the Cat to the Dog” which was being broadcast on BBC children’s hour in the 1940’s when she was in her teens.  But to her surprise this imaginary family took her over, and even came to supply a sustaining, alternative world which she returned to over and over again. During one of the bleakest periods of her life when her own future was deeply uncertain, she said that something extraordinary happened to help her through:

“I think my own most creative burst was during a week in April 1954 when I wrote a short story every day, children’s fantasies, some of which I think are among my best work.”

Luckily it was a gift that lasted all her life.

Here is part of the Prelude Joan wrote to go with the Armitage collection, explaining perhaps to herself, or maybe to Mrs Armitage, why the family should be blessed with such good fortune – could it be because, in best Fairy Tale tradition,  they knew when to stop wishing?

Serial Prologue


Read a Serial Garden story excerpt: The Apple of Trouble

Complete Stories now published in the UK by Virago Children’s Classics

Riddell quote

Best Wishes also to Joan Aiken’s life-long literary agent Charles Schlessiger,

 For a Very Happy 82nd Birthday!


Joan Aiken’s Fondness for Ghosts…


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…


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