I’ve said before that I have certain seasonal books: Moominland Midwinter, for example, being a strong one for me, and The Secret Garden being another. Well, for late summer or the very beginnings of fall, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard always pops to mind, and usually into my hands for reading. Just this past week I noticed the first leaves drifting down from the trees while the air was still warm, and on Labour Day we took the Changeling to pick apples, and… and… well. Do you know Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, by Eleanor Farjeon? (You want the one with Richard Kennedy’s illustrations when you search AbeBooks or your local second-hand bookstores. Sorry this one’s a little harder to find, but there are plenty of copies online and around.) (Also, you may remember me gushing about Eleanor Farjeon before, when I wrote about The Little Bookroom.)
Well, it’s one of the half-lost treasures of the literary world. When our civilization collapses and a new generation of humans (or whatever comes after us) is excavating our world, one of the books I hope they find intact is Martin Pippin. I want to know what they’d make of us and how they’d interpret a world which could produce such a beautiful work. But what bothers me now is that, well, as I said– it’s half lost.
You see, mostly what I post here is news of the new books, picture books, mostly. Ones you’ll find in most bookstores, often with a nice, neat face-out display. Ones which are winning awards. Oh, I look for the quirky ones, the ones which have a twinkle in their eyes, and wink at you roguishly as you walk past them, but, still, they’re not hard to find. But every once in a while some old excellence tugs at me and that’s when I bring you the quirky books of days long gone, whether or not they’re still easy to find.
Martin Pippin has always been my secret friend. I remember when I was a day-dreaming, awkward little pipsqueak of around nine or ten, I somehow was introduced to Martin. My copy of the book (unceremoniously lifted from my mother’s library– sorry, Mum, although I think I did ask permission for this one) has stamps saying that it was withdrawn from the Middle Sackville School Library, so my mother probably got it at some book sale. And I think my sister read it and gave it to me. I fell completely and wholeheartedly in love, so I did what any book-lover does: I shared the love. The lot of us are very into free love, I’ve always thought. Well, I lent it to my one friend who was a big reader at the time. She completely, totally, entirely didn’t get it. She barely read enough to decide she didn’t get it, in fact, which wounded me to the quick. I don’t know what the issue was– a bad match between book and reader? or maybe she was just too young? I didn’t know and I don’t know, but what I do know is that I was pretty crushed by that. Crushed, and also relieved. I got the book back, you see, and I wanted to read it again myself. Maybe it was good I didn’t have to share Martin, I thought. After all, since he was rejected by my friend, well, maybe that meant that he and I had something special we were sharing, something a bit unique. Martin wanted to tell me his stories, not other people.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably true: Martin Pippin was basically my first boyfriend. (Also the best boyfriend I had until I met my now-husband.) But you’re also thinking something like this: “Deborah, your personal history with this Martin fellow is certainly enlightening and fascinating, but do you mind shutting up about it and giving me some idea of what this book’s about?” And, yes, I can do that. It’s pretty pointless until you just read the book, but it’s a slightly less accessible book than most, so I’ll do my best to be clear.
The whole premise of the book is that stories matter. They live and breathe and tell us something about yesterday, something about today, and something more than either. Martin Pippin, often called the Singer or the Wandering Singer or the Minstrel, wanders into Adversane in Sussex on one spring day where he sees an unhappy young man, Robin Rue, who’s bewailing the loss of his lady love, trapped in the well-house in an orchard. Martin offers to be of service and brings the lovelorn youth a primrose from her hair. It’s all very chivalric– the squire who helps his master to gain the lady’s favour, and yet it’s also entirely new and original, set in the idyllic countryside in a time which feels like it was always just a bit nostalgically gone by. Well, again in the summer Martin comes by and is of service. And finally when the apples are ripe he comes by and finally offers to free the girl, whose name is Gillian, from the orchard so that the two can be married.
The problem is that Gillian is guarded by six young women, all sworn virgins and enemies of men, each with a key to the well-house, and Martin needs the time to persuade them to each give up her key, so he dupes them into believing that if he tells them six new love stories which have never before been heard, Gillian will be cured of her sorrow and her love. So he’s admitted to the apple orchard where each day he devises new fun for the six guardians, and each evening he tells a new story. And yet each day’s fun is a story in itself, and each night’s story is somehow part of the fun and entertainment, and is somehow tailored perfectly to suit each maiden… The craftsmanship of these stories is exquisite is what I’m saying. As each story is told, each little milkmaid hears the underlying message aimed at her, relents, and gives Martin her key.
Needless to say, Gillian is ultimately freed, but Robin Rue, as useless and rueful as ever in his dependence on Martin, can’t bring himself to marry her– he’s not good enough, he claims (and we agree with him!). So Martin goes to Gillian himself and, in their own distinct fashions, each confesses to the love which has grown between them during those days of stories in the orchard. And so the season and the stories are all wrapped up and the Wandering Singer marries Gillian.
I just read over what I wrote, and realized how bare it sounds, even though I was as clear and diffuse as I could be. I haven’t told you how distinctly each girl in the orchard is drawn, or how funny, sympathetic, and complex Martin is. I haven’t told you about little Joan, the smallest of the milkmaids, and the dearest. I haven’t told you about Gillian’s grey eyes, or about how, despite being trapped in the well-house, she manages not to be stripped of all agency, but to be a full character in her own right. I haven’t told you any of that, nor have I told you about the full range of stories Martin tells, including a tale at sea, a fairy tale tale, a rather spooky story about a golden rose– and even so all of these stories are strongly rooted in Sussex itself, just like the overarching story of Martin and Gillian.
You have to read the book yourself to get those details, I’m afraid. But what you’ll also be getting is this: a sense of particular intimacy with stories and storytelling. You’ll fall in love with the craft and art of it. You’ll fall in love with the characters, with the apples, with the girls and the fun they have playing away each day with Martin in Arcadian simplicity and joy. You’ll fall in love with how old the stories feel, and yet how new– stories as old as mythology, dressed up in England’s finest folkloric garb, and brought forward a little in time. You’ll fall in love with Martin and little Joan and even, in the end, with Joscelyn (the tallest and the sternest of the maids). And you’ll be happy in their ultimate happiness.
So, I beg you, find time this autumn to find a copy of this book and read it. It’s old, it’s a bit archaic (purposefully so), but you’ll feel initiated into a delicious secret when you read it. And maybe, if enough of us still read and love it, enough copies will be around so that even when we’re long gone, Martin’s stories will still live on. I think he’d like that.