Time and tide

Blenkinsop's rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)
Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake comes this, the first of a series of posts looking at various aspects of Dido Twite’s adventures in South America. Here we will look at the chronology of the tale, touching on one or two other aspects to clarify the undoubted differences between Dido’s world and ours. Please look away now if you don’t want to know plot details …

The chronology of Night Birds on Nantucket, the previous volume in Dido’s saga, established that she probably awoke from her coma in early October 1834 and that the action finished in summer 1835 soon after the period when Nantucket Island is prone to mists (generally in July). At the end of the novel Dido was embarked on HMS Thrush and expecting a swift passage back to Blighty. However, encounters with the pirate ship Queen Ettard and a Hanoverian merchantman meant that the Thrush was diverted to Bermuda. After “a great deal of repair” occasioned by the engagements the naval vessel set sail for Britain, only to be diverted under orders two thousand or more nautical miles south, across the equator and down the east coast of what is here known, not as Latin America, but as Roman America. Why? Because classical Latin is an official language here following the wholesale migration of many Dark Age Britons after the Battle of Dyrham in 577 CE.

The Thrush being a new-fangled steam-screw vessel, it is estimated it will only take a week from somewhere in the North Atlantic down to the port of Tenby. (This town we may assume to be somewhere in the vicinity of Montevideo or Buenos Aires.) Allowing for much tacking, engagements at sea and extensive repairs we must surely expect the story to have reached a couple of weeks or so into August?

At Tenby the travellers are expected to travel a long distance up the River Severn (the River Plate, perhaps) by tidal bore. Now bores are frequent during spring tides; these happen during new moons and full moons, when tides are strongest. When the party including Dido embark on the river-boat it is at “a black and silent time of night”. Looking at the moon’s phases for 1835 I find that the most likely dates for nighttime travel coinciding with new or full moon are August 24th (new moon) and September 7th (full moon). Chapter 4 of The Stolen Lake explicitly says that “sometimes the ship was in shadow, sometimes in moonlight as it swept upstream,” thus firmly establishing September 7th.

The boat travels up this southern hemisphere River Severn the rest of the night and the next day, finally arriving at Bewdley as the sun sets (September 8th). From here they catch the rack-railway, which is to take them to Bath Regis, 12,000-13000 feet above sea level, between 3,700 and 4,000 metres high, passing a series of cataracts and gorges before reaching the town as dusk falls (September 9th). The next day Dido and some of the party explore Bath Regis, a close carbon-copy of the English town of Bath, and visit Queen Ginevra in her revolving palace. Dido visits the palace the day after too, September 11th, and then most of the party set off for the kingdom of Lyonesse via Lake Arianrhod at dawn on September 12th.

It takes them all day to cross the arid plain south of Bath Regis by burro, through the torrid heat of the day and plagued by savage wildlife. The next day, September 13th, sees them crossing the dry bed of the lake, reaching the end by mid-afternoon. After a brief overnight stop at the Guardian of Sul’s stable they’re off south across the border into Lyonesse, heading towards Wandesborough, fifty miles from the frontier. It takes less than a day by mule to reach the assize town (September 14th). That night Dido is scrobbled and taken as dawn rises on September 15th by underground railway through silver mines back to Bath Regis.

How long this takes exactly we’re not told but there is a bit of a mysterious hiatus here. When Dido and her friend Elen are led into Queen Ginevra’s presence we discover that the new moon is due “in three days”. The next new moon in 1835 would have been due on September 22nd, meaning this audience with the Queen should be taking place on the 19th. Perhaps the underground journey took much longer than expected, as it is “an immense interval” — during which Dido “thought she might have slipped into a kind of faint, the time slid past in feverish fits and starts as it does during illness” — before the train arrives at its destination under the palace.

Dido and Elen are then taken by underground train again to the Temple of Sul overlooking the lake. Here they are kept prisoner until the evening of the third day (the 22nd) when, by various means (to be detailed in another post) they both escape, and meet up with old friends heading north from Lyonesse back towards Bath Regis. On the morning of September 23rd they approach and enter the city, at which point the climactic events of the story take place.

If my timeline calculations are correct then this date — Wednesday September 23rd 1835 — is also the day of the September equinox: the beginning of Autumn in the northern hemisphere, and the start of Spring in the southern. Of course all this takes place south of the equator, so it’s symbolic that the reign of cold and calculating Queen Ginevra, who represents the ancien regime, comes to an end as the Spring season is ushered in.

Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest summit in the Andes by Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest summit in the Andes, by Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There we have it then, a narrative that, as it takes us from the north to the south, also leads us from Summer into … Spring. A seeming paradox, and all at one with Joan Aiken’s imaginative novel.

. . . (o) . . .

Lizza Aiken, Joan Aiken’s daughter and co-author with Joan of the Mortimer and Arabel stories, cannily pondered whether The Stolen Lake and Limbo Lodge were “good escapist reading for these troubled times.” We both however agreed that a bloated autocrat in their tower — who claims to have a special relationship with Britain, closes down borders, preys on helpless citizenry and has sycophantic advisers — was uncomfortably close to real life and that Joan, here as elsewhere, did have “some terrible premonitions about the possible villainy of the world.”

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