Globetrotting with Dido

sarah-casket-chartIn a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.

You may recall that Dido was picked up unconscious from the North Sea, somewhere off the coast of northeastern England near the fictional island of Inchmore (possibly based on Lindisfarne). The Sarah Casket, named after the wife of the widowed captain, had been chasing the pink whale after it was sighted off Madeira, following it northwards past Finisterre in Spanish Galicia and then Brittany’s Finistère with its island of Ushant (famed in lines from a sea shanty: “from Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues”). From Land’s End in Cornwall it sailed past the Thames (“London’s River”) and into the North Sea.

It’s sometime in mid-December 1833. After rescuing Dido Captain Casket spies the whale off John O’Groats on the northern tip of Scotland and gives chase. Southwards into the Atlantic they go, down to the tip of South America, round the Horn and then past the Galapagos Islands up to Alaska; they drop anchor just north of the Russian peninsula dubbed by Captain Cook the East Cape (here called Cape East). The whaler has now lost the pink whale but catches another sperm whale, which is then processed — the author describes some of this in technical detail — just as Dido comes out of her coma. It’s now October 1834, and Dido has been kept alive by young Nate with a mixture of whale-oil and molasses, resulting in her growing another six inches.

Position of Sarah Casket October 1834 [from http://www.old-maps.com, cropped]
Position of Sarah Casket October 1834 [from http://www.old-maps.com, cropped]

A few weeks later (early November, perhaps) the Sarah Casket has reached the Galapagos again, where a ‘gam’ or interchange takes place with the Martha, “eight months out of New Bedford”, Massachusetts. The captain of the Martha reports that the pink whale, nicknamed Rosie Lee, has been spotted off the Peruvian coast, and the Sarah Casket resumes the chase. Rosie Lee is spotted south of Cape Horn and the game of cat and mouse continues into the Atlantic, up the Brazilian coast, through the Sargasso Sea, past Bermuda, Cape Hatteras and towards Nantucket. The ship puts in at New Bedford (this is “almost seven months later”, so around May 1835) where Dido and her eight-year-old charge Dutiful Penance Casket disembark; the Sarah Casket continues past Cape Cod and into the Gulf of Maine, where ten days later Captain Casket and Nate Pardon are somehow transported by the whale — it’s a long story, best read in the book — onto Sankaty beach on Nantucket Island.

Nantucket, from the sketch map in the Puffin edition of Night Birds in Nantucket
Nantucket, from the sketch map in the Puffin edition of Night Birds in Nantucket

Meanwhile, Dido and Dutiful Penance take a packet boat — the small schooner Adelaide — from New Bedford to Nantucket, rounding Brant Point with its lighthouse and finally arriving in the harbour. From Nantucket Town it’s a further nine miles to Soul’s Hill Farm by donkey cart, but before the two girls set off it’s a question of exploring the town.

nantucket_1838_mitchelllc_web
Map of the Island of Nantucket, Including Tuckeknuck, Surveyed by William Mitchell 1838 [Source: http://www.old-maps.com ]

The appropriately named Whale Street (C) sits on the waterfront, facing the harbour and its wharfs. The Sarah Casket was later to berth at the North Wharf — either the Old North Wharf (A) or the newer north wharf marked on an 1834 map prepared by William Coffin Jr. (Note this name: we shall be discussing Aiken’s use of names in a future post.) Dido was to buy some clothes at Bracy and Starbuck Ships’ Outfitters and General Soft Goods positioned on the corner of Main Street and Union Street (B). Orange Street (D), noted as only a few minutes from Whale Street, was where resided Dr Enoch Mayhew, the Mayor of Nantucket. Around 1835 Nantucket was regarded as the whaling capital of the world with reportedly 150 ships in harbour at its peak.

nantucket_1834_coffin_web
Map of the town of Nantucket in the state of Massachusetts surveyed by William Coffin Jr 1834 A: Old North Wharf. B: Bracy & Starbuck. C: Whale Street on the waterfront. D: Orange Street. [Source: http://www.old-maps.com ]
The girls travel by cart, drawn by Mungo the donkey, to Soul’s Hill Farm, the family home of the Caskets. Aiken has based this on the Saul’s Hill area of eastern Nantucket, near a part that includes Altar Rock and Macy’s Hill, claimed on an 1869 map as the highest point in the island at 91 feet (now given as 62 feet). Further east was the Hidden Forest stretching towards Sankaty lighthouse (though the author was keen to point out that in reality this wasn’t built until 1850). The forest of course is where the giant cannon was concealed, and the lighthouse is where the three youngsters — Dido, Pen and Nate — are incarcerated and near where the final climactic events take place.

Nantucket surveyed and drawn by Rev R O Ewer 1869
Nantucket surveyed and drawn by Rev R O Ewer 1869 [Source: http://www.old-maps.com, cropped]
One final point: towards the climax of the novel Dido and Penitence get lost looking for sheep on the moors, enshrouded by mist. This establishes that we have got to late June or early July in our chronology, the time of Nantucket’s celebrated ‘sheep storms’ when fog alternates with summer heat.

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8 thoughts on “Globetrotting with Dido

  1. Thank you for all the lovely maps! May well steal…

    There was a nice comment from fellow author Peter Bunzl on the Sankaty Light date change and Joan’s pre-emptive footnote – as he put it: “Take that copy editors!”

    Another note is that Ushant was the name of her father Conrad Aiken’s autobiographical novel which voyages between ‘New’ England where his and Joan’s family roots lay (their ancestors were descended from the Mayflower voyage in the other direction, with wonderful names like Spooner Babcock) and Old England where she was born on one of Conrad’s journeys.

    1. Do feel free to use any of this, Lizza, if you feel it’s of worth — after all, I’ve mercilessly plundered whatever I could find online for this post!

      I didn’t know the biographical significance of Ushant — mentioned only in passing (literally) in the novel — but that adds immeasurably to the richness of the text that it references your grandfather’s work.

      I liked your mention of Spooner Babcock — comparable to one of my favourite English Civil War names, Praisegod Barebones! — and reminds me to get on with my discussion of names in NBN, especially the fun Joan had with the Coffin/Casket punning. 🙂

    1. An atlas is sort of my intention, Lizzie. And a prosopography. And a dictionary of Dido-isms. And a leitmotiv index … Hopefully I’ll get near the end before you start your reread!

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