A homage to 19th-century adventure stories

Arno’s Castle, the model for the stables at Asshe in Go Saddle the Sea

Joan Aiken Go Saddle the Sea Harcourt 2007 (1977)

Twelve-year-old Felix Brooke, ill-treated at home in Northwest Spain, resolves to travel to England to find out the truth about his father. Thus begins a young adult novel, set after the Peninsular Wars in the early 19th century, that is enjoyable both on its own merits but also for its many references, influences and intricacies. Joan Aiken wrote this after field trips to Galicia and her careful research and attention to detail add weight to the seeming authenticity of the story told by its young hero, whom one implicitly believes is a thoroughly reliable narrator.

Initially Felix recalls Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island in that there is a document (a letter from his father in place of the map of Stevenson’s novel) which initiates a quest from home to a port and thence by sea to the sought destination. But Felix (whose father’s middle names are, significantly, Robert Lewis) though no less resourceful is a more reflective character than Stevenson’s Jim. There are also aspects which remind one of Dickens’ rags-to-riches tales of young men, such as Oliver Twist or Pip in Great Expectations. There is even a school setting that could have been partly inspired by Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by way of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but which could just have easily reflected the experiences of the 12-year-old Joan at Wychwood Boarding School in Oxford in 1936; a similar scenario is depicted in Aiken’s The Shadow Guests.

However, the text that may have most influenced the plot of Go Saddle the Sea is arguably Northanger Abbey, by the author who shared the same initials as Joan Aiken. Aiken proposes that the first draft of this novel, originally titled Susan, was – unbeknown to Austen – actually published, a treasured copy finding its way to Spain via Felix’s father. Both novels start from the protagonist’s fictional home, Fullerton in Wiltshire for the tomboy Catherine and Villaverde in Galicia for Felix. Both youngsters travel across country, Catherine across southern English counties and Felix across northern Spain, largely traceable on the map. Both arrive in the Somerset spa town of Bath, where extant roads and buildings supply verisimilitude to the two tales. The second volume of Austen’s novel then takes us to the fictional Gloucestershire residence of Northanger Abbey where Catherine’s expectations are finally overturned, not least by the boorish behaviour of General Tilney and her enforced return to Fullerton. At the end of Go Saddle the Sea Felix is no less disappointed by his reception by the Duke of Wells and Taunton at the fictional Asshe House, setting the scene for a planned return to Galicia in the sequel.

Still, despite the fiction, Aiken manages to introduce further real places, albeit under different names. Asshe, where Felix’s English grandfather lives, is probably a compound of several genuine localities. First, the stables are based on Arno’s Castle in the Bristol suburb of Brislington; this is a Gothic-style folly built from copper-slag giving it its more familiar name of the Black Castle (the author of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole, called it “the Devil’s Cathedral”). There was even a tunnel linking it to the nearby Arno’s Court Mansion, which may thus be the model for Asshe; or it may be the more imposing Ashton Court further west, the name of which is at least suggestive. (There is also, as Aiken will have known, a village called Ashe, the neighbour of Steventon where Austen revised Northanger Abbey.) Of course modern Bristol also encompasses Blaise – Austen’s Blaize – Castle, the folly that Austen mentions early on in her novel though planned visits there never materialise, and so her concept of Asshe may be another way of referencing the earlier novel by choosing a similar setting.

The sending-up of Gothic romances in Northanger Abbey is however reversed in Aiken’s novel. Where Catherine’s fears are mostly self-generated, Felix’s are real. Law and order can’t be taken for granted in a Europe suffering from the aftermath of the Napoleonic conflicts. The individual may fall prey to brigands, conniving relatives, corrupt officials or even kidnappers of the most sinister kind: as described by Victor Hugo, the Comprachicos were in the habit, using surgery and potions, of deforming children who fell into their clutches. This evil practice is apparently referred to in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when a character is told Get you gone, dwarf; | You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made. This is Gothic horror indeed. So many villains stalk the pages that Felix, lucky by name and nature, is fortunate to fall in with decent human beings in almost equal measure.

Go Saddle the Sea is full of Aiken trademarks in her use of tropes and themes. In her fiction, especially in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, villains often meet their downfall by drowning, villainesses are much in evidence as is folklore in the form of songs, instrumental music, doggerel and traditional proverbs, and storms at sea and wolves running free are ever a danger. (Other animals though get a mention here including a cat, horse, pig, mule, ox, parrot and, obliquely, a ring-dove.) Aiken also introduces potential McGuffins: like the slip of paper in the closet of Catherine’s bedroom in the Abbey which turns out to not reveal a secret, we wonder if the treasured letter from Felix’s father is a false lead; another possible red herring is the gold of General Moore’s army lost in the Spanish hills, the goal it seems of every adventurer and opportunist in North Spain whose path Felix happens to cross.

Joan Aiken is a delightful writer, offering us a yarn which is neither parody nor pastiche but instead a homage to nineteenth century adventure stories, with their wrongdoers, derring-do and cliffhangers. But she is also more subtle than that: with her use of authentic language and convincing recreation of period and place you can relax and enjoy the unfolding chronicle without fear of anachronism. And while Victorian authors often serialised their novels in instalments before publication in book form, the chapter headings here retain an older descriptive style, such as Chapter 2 “In which I encounter dangers from swamp, fire and wolves; & am enabled by God’s help to foil some Assassins”, or the final “In which I am sent to School, and come to a Decision”.

And as always, the more you examine what she writes the more you are rewarded. For example, Felix’s Spanish grandfather rules with a tight rein. You won’t be surprised then to learn that Cabezada, the family name, is Spanish for ‘bridle’; and that the next novel in the sequence is Bridle the Wind.

13 thoughts on “A homage to 19th-century adventure stories

  1. Wonderful connections you’ve found – good digging and delving! Joan donated the Mss and research papers from her behind-the-scenes work on this trilogy to the Sevens Stories Children’s Lit. Museum in Newcastle and I would love to find the time to go and explore them- there was all sorts of fascinating stuff, Spanish and English. Yes hooray for Random House for reprinting with boldly styled “adventure” covers – hopefully they help will find new readers!


    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed the three novels and was impressed by her careful background work which all added to the colour and veracity of her narratives. Do hope you get the opportunity to see the originals in Newcastle, and also that the colourful new covers attract the new readership they deserve! Do they include Pat Marriot’s lovely illustrations, or are those only available in the out-of-print Puffin editions?


      1. Sadly not, though I offered them – they are astonishing, almost beyond Goya in their sinister characterisation and tremendous religious symbolism – Pat Marriott also did her research and knew her period references. I’ll have to put some of them up on the website.


        1. That’ll be great if you could post them. I’ve got the Puffin edition of Bridle the Wind with her atmospheric line drawings but the other two titles are in Harcourt and Red Fox editions with, sadly, no illustrations.


  2. Wow! I’m glad I didn’t even try to do a review of this book. This is a fantastically interesting and intelligent review. I usually don’t enjoy it when people ‘know so much’ but this is an exception.


    1. I’m blushing even now… Thank you for your kind words. I sometimes wish I did ‘know so much’ but then perhaps I wouldn’t get the pleasure of enjoying a novel for its own sake, followed by exploring the ideas behind it. And I also hope to entertain a bit as well as elucidate!


  3. Thanks for this — entertaining, elucidating, and certainly covering “the world of ideas”! I saved reading these reviews until I’d finished the series (borrowed from my neighbor — an avid Aiken fan). I kept thinking I should get out a map, to follow as I read, but the stories never let me go. Perhaps on the next read through. I hope Lizza posts some of the Marriott illustrations. My neighbor’s editions have nothing. BTW, I searched for a Goya like the once referenced in Teeth of the Gale, but no luck.


    1. Thank you too for your kind words! Yes, I too tend to avoid detailed reviews until after I’ve read the book, but I also devour reviews in general as a guide to what to read next. Some contradiction there I think!

      I did follow Felix’s routes in the trilogy because I happened to have a large-scale map of Spain to hand, but for details about Felix’s English adventures I drew on several decades of living in the Bristol and Bath area. I passed near Arno’s Castle (illustrated above) every day en route to school, and Ashton Court (which I suggest is a model for Asshe) is in public parkland we favoured when our children were growing up.

      I don’t recall the Goya mentioned in The Teeth of the Gale, but it could be the etching The Sleep of Reason which I used to illustrate an Ursula Le Guin short story collection (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-mk). Yes, I also would like to see Lizza's choice of Marriott illustrations. It's a shame that so many editions omit her atmospheric drawings; I particularly value her illustrations for the Dido Twite books.


      1. The Goya mentioned in The Teeth of the Gale is a portrait of Don (can’t remember his name — Manuel’s evil brother) when he was younger — eyepatch and all. Goya did a few portraits, but none of them have eyepatches.
        LeGuin! Another master of fantasy. Are you familiar with Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s work?


        1. Ooh, you’ve got me puzzling! I started searching through http://www.franciscodegoya.net/ but Goya’s oeuvre is so vast!
          With ‘aristocrat’, ‘portrait’ and ‘eye-patch’ as key words I was directed to this curious blog:
          http://madameguillotine.org.uk/2012/02/25/ana-de-mendoza-y-de-la-cerda-princess-of-eboli/ but as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ana_de_Mendoza,_Princess_of_Eboli
          also makes clear, Ana is (a) female and (b) not painted by Goya and (c) a few centuries too early. But Joan may have had this example in mind — perhaps Lizza can tell us!

          The only other famously blind (and armless) contemporary was Lord Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar. But apparently it was a myth that he wore an eye-patch: none of his portraits show it. He may only have had some loss of sight in his right eye, and he wasn’t able to claim an extra pension on the basis of blindness as he did for his missing arm.

          I haven’t got round to Sylvia Townsend-Warner yet, but I must do.


          1. Ooh, that Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda. Sword fighting with pages when she was young — how many YA heroines does that remind you of?
            I think I have something on Townsend Warner on my other blog. I’ll hunt it out and re-post it.


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