Joan Aiken Black Hearts in Battersea
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1964)
Late summer, 1833. The second in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles opens with Simon, the orphan who helped cousins Sylvia and Bonnie Green to regain Willoughby Chase, looking for his friend Gabriel Field in London: Dr Field has offered him space in his Southwark lodgings so that Simon can attend an art academy in Chelsea. But Simon is encountering difficulty finding Rose Alley, having been misdirected a few times. When he does eventually find No 8 it is to discover no sign of the good doctor, only a streetwise little urchin called Dido and her rather strange family.
The mystery of Gabriel Field’s disappearance is only one of several puzzles that Simon meets during the course of this inventive novel, a good example of a sequel that is not only the equal of the first novel but in some ways almost surpasses it.
It combines the twin thrills of pantomime and melodrama by means of a series of extraordinary coincidences: typically, every character Simon meets somehow has a connection with him, and every individual turns out to be either his friend or his foe. Only rarely is there a hint of ambiguity, and with two potential adversaries — Dido and her nefarious Pa — we soon realise that their personalities are more nuanced than expected. In fact with Dido, who almost literally drops out of the story, her peccadilloes have so endeared herself to us that we are cheered when somebody at the end declares, “I feel in my bones that we shall hear of her again. So do not grieve too much.”
I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out what it is that strikes me about what might otherwise be regarded as a very slight adventure story for youngsters, and I think I’ve finally twigged: the year that Black Hearts in Battersea was published — 1964 — was the year in which we celebrated the fourth century of Shakespeare’s birth, and I wonder if, consciously or subconsciously, Aiken drew inspiration for her plot from his plays. For a start, Rose Alley (just a narrow service street now) commemorates The Rose which, erected in 1587, was the fifth purpose-built London theatre as well as the first on Bankside. Bankside is where The Swan was erected in 1595 and The Globe transferred in 1599 from another part of London, sited close to where its modern counterpart is. Bear Gardens, which runs parallel to Rose Alley, reminds us that here too stood an arena dedicated to the cruel sport of bear-baiting.
But even if Aiken deliberately sited the Twites in this area that doesn’t necessarily prove a Shakespearean inspiration, but there are other clues. First, let’s remember this is an alternate history and that Hanoverian rulers are plotting to overthrow the rightful Stuart king James III (who, oddly, still retains his Scots accent). There is a sequence which strongly suggests to me the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and his associates planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, due to be opened by the Scottish-born king James VI of Scotland, by now also James I of England.
Next, it’s often proposed that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the aftermath of the Plot, in 1606, and the dastardly deeds of the usurping thane of Glamis may find an echo in Aiken’s subplot of a rightful heir to a duke’s title.
Another related subplot is about twins, both missing and unsuspected, and some Shakespeare comedies are full of this universal theme, as we know from The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Add to that the Shakespearean commonplace of a shipwreck following a storm (The Tempest, of course, and Twelfth Night) which Aiken also cunningly includes in Black Hearts in Battersea and it’s hard to avoid the impression that Joan may well have been cock-a-hoop with delight at how many references she could include. To include more here would be to spoil the story for anyone yet to enjoy this tale of derring-do, but she may still have been surprised that it might have taken till the fourth centenary of Shakespeare’s death to pick this Gordian knot apart.
The title of Black Hearts utilises a phrase associated with the moral depravity of villains, but I also suspect that Joan used it to substitute for blackguard, commonly pronounced to rhyme with laggard and meaning a rogue, scoundrel, rascal or, indeed, anyone who acts in a dishonourable or contemptible way. In a just world such people would get their deserts, but you will have to read the novel itself to discover if in fact this holds true here. But one can hope!
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- As with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase there is too much of interest in Black Hearts to contain within a review. Again, I propose to dedicate a series of posts to unravelling some of the intricate strands that make up this novel, from geography and placenames to names and family trees, from timelines and chronology to folktales and lingo.