Of people and pink whales

19th-century whaler
19th-century whaler attacking a Right Whale around 1860 (public domain)

Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket is the second of the Wolves Chronicles to feature the irrepressible Dido Twite and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, features more and more of the author’s virtuoso play with themes, scenarios and words, not to mention sheer fun! This post follows the pattern of my previous responses to the series with a discussion of particular (and often peculiar) aspects of the volume already reviewed. As always, spoilers follow …

The Sarah Casket
A square-rigged three-masted whaler based on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

Dido Twite is the castaway found unconscious in the North Sea and kept alive for nearly a year as the whaler journeys round the Horn and into the Pacific. When she awakes she is, by her own reckoning, “around 11”. As we will eventually discover she was born on March 1st 1824, and so by October 1834 she will be a little over 10 years and seven months old and thus well on her way to her eleventh birthday.

Jabez Casket, captain and owner of the Sarah Casket, named after his deceased wife, Sarah from Boston (née Allerton?). His biblical name implies sorrow, unsurprising given his wife’s recent death. Being a Quaker he addresses individuals as ‘thee’. Like Captain Ahab of the Pequod, on whom he is partly modelled, Captain Casket is obsessed with pursuing a whale. His family name is a reference to Coffin, a common surname found among leading Nantucket families, and plays on the name of the rectangular mortuary box more familiar from the 19th century in the US as distinct to the body-shaped hexagonal coffins preferred in the UK. (Other leading Nantucket families included Macy, Hussey, Folger, Rotch and — possibly the best known now — Starbuck.)

Dutiful Penitence Casket is the nine-year-old daughter of Jabez and Sarah Casket. She is so distressed by her mother’s death she locks herself away below deck, seeing no-one and fearful of being at sea because she associates it with her mother’s illness. Dido ends up calling her ‘Pen’, perhaps a subconscious use as Dido’s older sister is called Penelope (mispronounced ‘Penny-lope’ by the Twite family). Pen’s full name is one of a few names in the novel that relate to sin and guilt, the others being Pardon and Tribulation.

Ebbo Slighcarp is the first mate. He lives up to his names, as Ebbo means ‘boar’ and Slighcarp confirms that he’s both sly and prone to grumble. He is a supporter of the Hanoverian cause.

Letitia M Slighcarp, sister to the first mate and a stowaway; she is also a strong-minded, cruel bully and a ruthless conspirator, using her height and utter self-belief to dominate all and sundry. Will the villainess from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase finally get her come-uppance?

Elijah Pardon, second mate and steersman. He is Nate’s uncle.

Nathaniel Pardon, known as Nate, is the youngest member of the crew, being about 16 years old. He’s very musical, composing nautical songs which he sings, often while accompanying himself on a zither. (I wonder if this is similar to an Appalachian dulcimer?) He has made it his business to nurse Dido Twite over the ten months she is in a coma, placing her in a straw-filled wooden box or casket on deck where he feeds her with whale oil and molasses. His mother is a famous confectioner on Nantucket.

‘Doctor’, nickname of the ship’s cook.

The Dark Diamond
Sister ship to the Dark Dew (which we encountered in Black Hearts in Battersea) and the Dark Dimity. Their owner is arms smuggler and Hanoverian conspirator Nathaniel Dark. The ships made regular runs between Deptford, Newcastle and Holland, running arms and no doubt contraband

HMS Thrush
Not the same as the 18-gun brig-sloop in our world, renamed as HMS Thrush in 1806, that was wrecked in 1815 and subsequently sold. Nor the gunboat launched in 1856. Nor HM Sloop Thrush that, in chapter 31 of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Fanny’s brother William is made a Second Lieutenant of

Captain Osbaldestone of HMS Thrush has been chasing the crew of the Dark Diamond, manned by associates of the Slighcarps. It has followed the Dark Diamond from Spithead to Nantucket via Trinidad in the Caribbean. He and his crew join in the final celebrations, agreeing to take Dido on board for her eventual return to England. This naval vessel is one of several ‘bird’ appearances in this and subsequent novels including, here, the twite and Nate’s pet mynah bird Mr Jenkins.

Another whaler from Nantucket

The Martha‘s Captain Bilger agrees to a ‘gam’ at sea off the west coast of South America to exchange letters with Captain Casket. Mr Slighcarp is the untrustworthy go-between. Bilger’s name alludes to bilge water, whatever doesn’t drain off the side of a ship’s deck or through the scuppers, and of course ‘bilge’ means spoken rubbish or drivel.

Nantucket ship

Captain Sam Turvey (who’s called the ship after his own surname) woos and wins the larger-than-life Tribulation Casket.

Massachusetts residents

Ann Allerton, Dutiful Penitence’s cousin (probably on her mother’s side), very strict and conservative, living in New Bedford. (Allerton is perhaps a common Quaker name in these parts: an Isaac Allerton was known from Cape Cod in 1627.) Her gaunt maid is called Keziah and the dressmaker she employs for Dutiful Penitence is the prim Miss Alsop.

Tribulation Casket, sister to Jabez and with a reputation as a bit of a dragon. She marries Captain Sam Turvey of the Topsy-Turvey and is the intended guardian of the motherless Pen.

Dr Enoch Mayhew of Orange Street is both a physician and the Mayor of Nantucket, very upright and slow to believe children’s reports.

Miscellaneous, including non-humans

Professor Doktor Axeltree Breadno, engineer in charge of the cannon designed to fire on London. He’s been fed what Dido would call ‘a Bunbury story’, that the monarch to be assassinated is not James III but George IV (in our world of course the real King of Great Britain in 1835).

Mungo is what might be called a ‘homing’ mule, making its own way between the Casket residence and Nantucket Town and back. Perhaps named after St Mungo, a peripatetic missionary from Dark Age Scotland.

Mr Jenkins is Nate’s mynah bird who flew away from the ship at New Bedford on the outward journey. From his copious store of phrases we may guess he was formerly owned by Sir Henry Fothergill back in England.

Rosie Lee, the pink whale rescued by Jabez Casket in his youth. Pink dolphins are not unknown in our world but there have been no reports of sperm whales of that colour, so it could be argued that Aiken was being hugely imaginative. However, it’s known that barnacles often attach themselves in profusion to whales (Cryptolepas rhachianecti to grey whales, for example, and Coronula diadema to humpbacks), and Conchoderma auritum or the rabbit-ear barnacle, which is distinctly pink, is often seen on humpbacks. It’s possible to argue, I suppose that Rosie Lee is seen as pink because of the barnacles hitching a ride, rather than an albino whale like Moby Dick (or its real-life model, Mocha Dick) which could be seen as pink in the right lighting conditions.
Unusually for a sperm whale, Rosie Lee is rather playful among humans, behaving more like a dolphin than the larger cetacean. Within the first few pages this novel gives a factual account of the processing of a whale caught by Casket’s ship, not so graphic as to bludgeon most readers’ sensitivities but reflecting the realities of the industry. As if to compensate Aiken at the end presents Rosie Lee as a mammal with almost human sensibilities, gratitude certainly and perhaps even affection. One of the last actions described is the sinking of a ship but, unlike Moby Dick’s enraged attack, Rosie Lee’s seeming revenge is absolutely inadvertent, Aiken’s brilliant way of paying homage while also subverting her source material.

6 thoughts on “Of people and pink whales

  1. It’s difficult to beat Aiken’s knack for naming characters (very Dickensian, as I believe you’ve noted elsewhere). I’m particularly intrigued by the name “Breadno”. It makes me think of “dreadnought”.

    I love the illustrations you’re using with these posts. NYC’s Met Museum recently had an exhibit of Turner’s whaling pictures (http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2016/turners-whaling-pictures). As a Melville fan, I’m fascinated by anything to do with whaling, and glad to see you note the various overlaps between Aiken’s novel and Moby-Dick.

    Thanks for pointing out the differences between ‘casket’ and ‘coffin’. It’s interesting that a casket is considered less appalling (http://mentalfloss.com/article/81835/whats-difference-between-coffin-and-casket) because it doesn’t reveal the shape of the human body. I would have thought the coffin an invention of the US funeral industry, but it looks instead as if they’ve co-opted the casket to ease the grieving process. [Note the last name you’ve given Dutiful Penitence — an interesting slip of your pen.]


    1. Thanks for pointing out the Coffin-for-Casket slip, Lizzie — corrected now! [As an aside, French casquette (a diminutive of casque, meaning helmet or — nowadays — hard hat, headphones or hair dryer) is a cap, especially the now universal baseball type.]

      The Turner whaling paintings are new to me: fascinating and worth more investigation, I think! I’ll look out for them next time I’m in London now that the Met exhibition has finished.

      “Breadno” is a strange case: all I can discover is that it seems to be based on the Eastern European surname Brudno, mostly borne by those of Jewish origin. Perhaps it was originally a term of disparagement, as Polish brudno means ‘dirty’ or ‘sullied’.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Just reread your post, Lizza, and good to be reminded of all those New England links — particularly intrigued by Joan’s Delano middle name, shared by Roosevelt and derived from the Mayflower pilgrim Philippe de Lannoy. Wonder if my discussion of the name Breadno (above, with Lizzie Ross) should have noted its similar ending as Delano!


  2. So many wonderful articles, so late to catch up… Allerton was an Aiken ancestor, from the Mayflower, one of the earliest arrivals in New England, who had a six year old daughter who survived the voyage so perhaps a model for Dido and her Atlantic crossing? Family members later lived in New Bedford, including Conrad’s Great Aunt Jane who took him as an eleven year old orphan and who was clearly the tongue in cheek inspiration for Joan’s straight laced elderly Allerton cousin…


    1. That’s a fascinating insight into Joan’s choice of names, Lizza, both here and generally (remembering how the fictional Armitage was modelled on Martin Armstrong’s step family). I’m pleased my instincts about the name were well founded!


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