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.