The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken “is the first complete collection of Joan Aiken’s beloved Armitage stories — and it includes four new, unpublished stories.”
The world of the Armitage Stories has explicit magic, with wizards who write popular nonfiction books and witches who teach school, but it’s always treated as very mundane. I love the matter-of-fact responses of the characters to everything from a unicorn appearing in their garden to being summarily evicted from their home by a wizard school. Sometimes, the end of the story adds an additional dose of weirdness, that can be unsettling in a way that elicits a sense of wonder rather than fear. The voice and tone are everything in this collection, and I respect the skill it took to make everything that happens seem utterly logical and right.
The time scale is not explicitly laid out, with the Armitage children, Harriet and Mark, remaining in what to me seems an eternal school age; Harriet, the elder, is thirteen years old in “Harriet’s Hairloom,” midway through the collection. Having read some E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, I definitely felt I was reading in a similar genre.
The setting seems to be mostly 1950s England, possibly even late 1940s. There is no mention of World War Two, or rationing, or anything like that, which keeps it vague. However in “The Ghostly Governess,” the children are looking around in the attic of their vacation rental house, and among the boxed clothes are “large women’s hats with draggled bunches of feathers, and pairs of kid gloves.” Harriet remarks, “People wore things like these in the 1914 war.” The clothes are boxed with a newspaper from January 1914, which we know was about six months before World War One began. And when attempting to calculate the age of their neighbor, an admiral, the year they’re living in is definitely no earlier than 1945, and more probably 1950 or a bit later.
Harriet and Mark also encounter a lot of childhood diseases! In “Tea at Ravensburgh,” Mark is quarantined for whooping cough (pertussis), and in “The Land of Trees and Heroes,” both children are recovering from that disease and sent to stay with their grandmother, who is deaf and can’t hear their incessant coughing at night. Pertussis vaccines were available in the 1930s and widespread by the mid-1940s…but one could easily say they simply hadn’t been vaccinated. In “Harriet’s Birthday Present,” she’s sent home from school and quarantined because everyone has German measles (rubella); that vaccine wasn’t licensed until 1969, if you’re wondering.
I don’t want to write too much about the individual plots, as a lot of the joy is the unexpected twists and details. Suffice it to say each story is a gem, and the collection as a whole is delightful.