The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
by Joan Aiken
Published by Big Mouth House
304 pages, 2008
Today Is Tuesday
Reviewed by Iain Emsley
Joan Aiken's The Serial Garden collects all of the Armitage family stories together in one volume. Initially written on a whim, they span Aiken's published writing career from the 1950s until the present decade. Now best remembered for the Dido Twite books, an alternate England that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken is one of the strongest authors of the post-war boom in children's fantasy. Building on the work E. Nesbit and John Masefield, she brought a sense of Englishness and a matter of factness to the field.
Born in 1924, Aiken was the daughter of the writer Conrad Aiken. However, it was her stepfather, Martin Armstrong, who accidentally gave her the impetus to begin the Armitage stories. He wrote a series for Children's Hour on the BBC in the late 1930s called Said the Cat to the Dog which Aiken drew on for a skit called “Yes, But Today is Tuesday” in which the Armitage family wake up on a Tuesday to find a unicorn in their garden.
The story sets up the normal magical Armitage family who need to deal with the trials of various wizardly government departments coming into their home or out of sorts witches and ghosts or the development of every day life. Normally these things happen on a Monday, which they are prepared for, but the unicorn arrived on a Tuesday. It breaks the expected cycle of events and leaves the parents wondering what to do and the children adapting happily. Whilst they are playing with the animal, an inspector appears and asks them if they have a license to keep it and the fantastic world is broken by the banalities of reality. Aiken makes this so much fun. Rather than destroying the sense of wonder, this adds to it. One wonders if it fed from wartime Britain and its inevitable bureaucracy.
Perhaps this is where the magic of Joan Aiken stems from: the combination of the real and fantastic as co-existent. Unlike Edith Nesbit or John Masefield, the two exist together and don't need to be separated from each other in the school holiday or dreamscapes.
In the stories dating from the 1950s, we see Aiken developing her own style and taste from her childhood reading. The Dickensian “Ghostly Governess” sees the children, Harriet and Mark, discovering the ghost of a governess and being taught in Victorian fashion until they realize that she can be put to rest when her previous charge, now an admiral who lives down the street, needs to answer a question which he got wrong.
In “Sweet Singeing in the Choir,” the children are granted the wish of perfect voices so that they can join the carol singing choir but it can only last for a few days. In counterpoint to this fairy tale structure of limited wish fulfillment, there exists a ghost story where a house at Gramercy Chase is haunted by a harbinger of doom. During the service, Harriet and Mark's wish runs out and the ghost is seen. However Sir Leicester is happy when he finds that the house needs to be pulled down due to dry rot since he has been trying to do this for a while. In “The Frozen Cuckoo,” Harriet and Mark's cousin is due to arrive at the Armitage home when men from the ministry turn up and try to evict them, leading to a magical battle and a tactical withdrawal.
What really drives the writing is the sense of fun through out. There is a wry smile which underlies the stories with a fierce wit. As brittle and officiousness enters the stories through authority figures, she finds little things through which she is able to have fun.
The Armitage's world grows richer as it is extended. This is a collection of stories which allow -- in fact demand -- the reader joins in with their own imagination and remakes the story inside their own head. Aiken's pragmatism shows through in her stories. Instead of remaining in or reflecting upon the past like some of her contemporaries, they show an author making the best of the world and coming out ahead with humor and imagination. | December 2008
Iain Emsley is a reviewer and critic. He is researching a history of fantasy in chidren's literature and owns a specialist bookshop.