OR, Dido Twite leaves London
Imagine the scene: it is Christmas Eve, the date for the traditional Mince-pie Ceremony at Battersea Castle. An unfamiliar London custom? It’s not surprising as this is 1833 in the alternate history of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, also known as the James III sequence. James III is the Stuart monarch and he has travelled by sled from Hampton Court to be at the ceremony. On the frozen Thames.
If that seems unlikely, consider this: for two centuries we had a Little Ice Age when rivers regularly froze over. So deep and long lasting were these conditions that Frost Fairs were held on the Thames, when it was even possible to light bonfires on the ice without repercussions. The last great frost fair occurred during the winter of 1813 to 1814. A famous print shows people and tents on the ice: to the left is Three Cranes Wharf near Blackfriars in the City, and in the distance we see a bridge with around twenty stone piers; this must be Old London Bridge (Southwark Bridge wasn’t built till 1819) which had had its old houses and shops demolished in the mid 18th century.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Black Hearts in Battersea begins one “fine warm evening in late summer” with Simon leading his donkey over Southwark Bridge in London. Joan Aiken isn’t more specific than this so I’m guessing this might be at the tail-end of August. Alternatively it may be that late September is the period she means. Why? Here’s my thinking.
A few days of mild weather in late autumn or early winter in the medieval period were often referred to as a “gossamer,” meaning “goose summer” (nowadays meteorologists might call it an Indian summer). Thus the “fine warm evening”. But “late summer”? And where does the goose come in? Well, geese were associated with St Michael because Michaelmas was traditionally celebrated with a meal featuring a nice fat goose fed on the stubble fields after harvest. This feast day was just after the autumn equinox in late September — which might thus be said to mark the transition between summer and autumn. Remember too that Simon was a goose boy, taking geese all the way from Yorkshire to London each spring (as he did in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). And now of course he is off to be an art student at Rivière’s Academy where the academic term (“Michaelmas term”) is likely to have begun late September or early October.
One could argue either way, but I incline towards to late September. Why isn’t Joan more specific? Authors don’t have to dot every ‘i’ or cross every ‘t’, do they, but I suspect that the loose association of late summer, warm evenings, goose summer, goose boy, Michaelmas and a new academic year may have all coalesced in her imagination to produce a simply-put opening sentence.
Ten days are then described in detail, focused on Simon’s adventures. 1. Simon arrives at Rose Alley and meets Dido. 2. Goes to Chelsea and starts work at Cobb’s Coaches. 3. Starts at Rivière’s Academy and on the way to Battersea Castle meets up with Sophie. 4. Boards his donkey Caroline at Cobb’s. 5. Dido has ‘quinsy’ and Simon finds pictclobber and gunpowder in the Rose Alley cellar. 6. Dido continues feverish for ‘several’ days … 10. Simon plays chess with the Duke at the Castle. These ten days (perhaps from Monday 30th September to 9th October) are set against a background of mystery and obfuscation on the part of the Twites and their conspirator friends. In the meantime Simon settles to a pattern of studying at the Academy, working at Cobb’s and restoring a painting at the Castle.
“Several weeks later” Dido luckily has recovered from her fever but a series of potentially fatal incidents affect the ducal family. You may recall that The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has Simon painting the inn sign of the Snake and Ladder Inn on the journey down to London; this is symbolic I suspect of the ups and downs that affect Sylvia and Bonnie during the course of the novel. In Black Hearts in Battersea the symbolism is invested in two other works of art, the Battersea painting of The Wolf-Hunt and the Duchess’s tapestry. It is the painting that holds the key to who Simon and Sophie really are, and it is the tapestry that, like many a medieval hanging, plays its part in the ‘accidents’ that afflict the Battersea personnel.
First it is the Drury Lane fire (which takes place on a Thursday) where the Duke and Duchess are saved by Sophie’s quick actions with the tapestry. On Friday the Battersea barge sinks in the Thames outside Rivière’s, but luckily the tapestry wielded by Sophie helps save the day. On Saturday the painting of The Wolf-Hunt disappears. And on Sunday after Simon takes Dido and Justin off to the fair on Clapham Common he is scrobbled onto the Dark Dew.
There is no indication of exactly when all this takes place, but working backwards from the Christmas Eve Mince-Pie Ceremony this is how I think it works out. The fire and the sinking take place on 21st and 22nd November, while the fair and scrobbling are on Sunday 24th November. It is not until 29th — five days later — that Sophie, worried about Simon, learns that she and the Duke and Duchess are to travel to Yorkshire, hopefully there to hear from Simon. Extraordinary to relate, it takes just a day to travel by train to York, but it is not until the next day, the last day of November, that they are able to travel by carriage over Chipping Wold to the village of Loose Chippings and Chippings Castle.
Loose Chippings is of course another jokey fictional placename, but it sort of works because chipping or cheaping is also the old name for a market town. The village itself is dominated by the castle. En route to Chippings Castle from York Sophie is luckily able to retrieve a clue to her origins (while also courageously seeing off some wolves, armed incongruously with a croquet mallet). The castle itself is little described, but we learn that the Great Hall with its “nobly-proportioned” fireplace is where the Duchess spends much of her time ensconced in an oak settle, creating her great tapestry; the Duke meanwhile is often found in an attic leading on to the castle’s battlements, working on his experiments such as an air-balloon.
My map makes the assumption that the party — the Duke and Duchess, plus Sophie — travelled inland from York. I envisage somewhere like Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, with its former Knaresborough Forest, as a possible stand-in for Chippings Castle and Chipping Wold, despite it being on the edge of the Dales. The Yorkshire Wolds proper are between York and the coast, stretching down to Hull, so the Battersea couple could equally well have travelled eastwards: Chipping Wold is described as “a huge, wild, and desolate tract of country, moorland and forest” and like the rest of the wolds “wolf-infested”. Perhaps Sledmere House in the village of Sledmere is the model for Chippings. Or somewhere else. Or some place in the author’s imagination. Take your pick.
The trio are at Chippings “for three weeks” — from Saturday 30th November to Saturday 19th December — with snow starting to fall on Thursday 17th December. They are still waiting for news of Justin and Simon. What has happened to the boys since Sunday 24th November?
The unconscious Simon comes to in the hold of the Dark Dew, which has set sail from Deptford and has already run into a storm in the North Sea. Dido and Justin have followed surreptitiously and made their way into Simon’s place of confinement. The ship heads into another storm on its way to Inchmore, an island in the North Sea, and sinks on hidden rocks. The survivors somehow make their way to the island where they encounter two marooned personages; what amount of time this all takes we’re not told exactly. What we do know is that Simon and Justin are three days recovering on Inchmore, that on the fourth day the spar Simon and Dido had clung to is found washed up, and that on the fifth day the Dark Dew‘s sister ship the Dark Dimity appears, just as it starts to snow (17th December?). On the fifth day, after the crew have been tricked and drugged, the Dimity sails for Chipping Fishbury on the northeast coast of England.
Inchmore I take to be an Anglicisation of the Gaelic for ‘Great Island’, though not so great that Simon can’t make his way round it in a day. This makes the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the northeast English coast near the Scottish border a likely contender, though we may need to consider that Inchmore is out of sight of the mainland. Chipping Fishbury, where Simon, Justin and Gabriel Field arrive back on the mainland following a northeasterly wind could be any of the fishing villages along the coast — Whitby, Scarborough or Bridlington for example — giving access to the Yorkshire Wolds. Simon and friends arrive at Chippings Castle through the snow on Saturday 19th December. On Sunday 20th December the Duke’s air-balloon with its gondola passengers takes off from the castle battlements, and despite being blown off course for two days is taken on a northerly wind all the way to London, just in time for the Battersea Mince-pie Ceremony on Thursday 24th December, where events reach their conclusion.
I have mentioned the threefold escape of the Duke and Duchess before — from fire, water and air (when the air-balloon gets punctured — thanks to the quick thinking of Sophie and the provision of the tapestry. Now E Nesbit was a great favourite of Joan Aiken, and the various jeopardies that happen in The Phoenix and the Carpet (involving fire, water and air) may have been partly the inspiration for the Battersea ‘accidents’ — I’m thinking particularly of the fire at the Garrick Theatre in London as a direct parallel for the fire that threatens the Duke and Duchess in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
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And now I’m thinking that you’re wondering what happened to Dido, cast adrift in the North Sea. Did she drown? Or somehow survive? You’ll have to wait till I discuss the third in the Wolves Chronicles, Night Birds in Nantucket.