It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).
As mentioned before, this tale is set largely in an alternative Latin America, here called Roman America because of migrations from Britain in the Dark Ages. (There are in fact documented migrations from western Britain to Brittany and Galicia in Spain at around this time.) But to get to Roman America our heroine Dido has to travel from where we left her in Night Birds on Nantucket.
Dido leaves the island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, en route for England on a British man o’ war, as she hopes; but sea battles with first a pirate ship and then a Hanoverian merchantman force HMS Thrush to backtrack to the island of Bermuda. A second attempt to sail to London is forestalled by a message from Admiral Hollingsworth in Trinidad — delivered by a doughty carrier pigeon — to proceed south two thousand miles across the equator to New Cumbria. Crossing the equator proves a nightmare: instead of a line-crossing ceremony, common in the 19th-century for those who’d never sailed over the equator, the ship is assailed by seaborne cockroaches, which sally all over the ship. Charles Darwin, when crossing the line in 1832 suffered different indignities, which may possibly have been worse than cockroaches:
[I] was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. — They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. — a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. — at last, glad enough, I escaped. — most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces. — The whole ship was a shower bath: & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.
Darwin’s journeys in and around South America took place between 1832 and 1835, around the time our young heroine is in Roman America — in fact, he even gets a passing reference in The Stolen Lake. He travelled to Montevideo more than once, even journeying up the River Plate watershed as far as Santa Fe, sited on the Plate’s main tributary, the Paraná river. These expeditions doubtless provided one model for Dido’s trip up the River Severn to Bewdley and Bath Regis, as we will see.
Between 1810 and 1828 most of South America achieved independence from Spain and Portugal, previously consisting of the viceroyalties of Peru, Rio de la Plata, New Granada, and Brazil. In Roman America the principal lands we’ve been previously introduced to — New Cumbria, Lyonesse and Hy Brasil — have already been independent for centuries, since 577 CE when they were settled by Britons fleeing here after the battle of Deorham — the modern Dyrham, north of Bath.
Tenby in New Cumbria is the only way into New Cumbria. The port is situated somewhere near our own Montevideo or Buenos Aires, but on a much smaller scale. A quarter of a mile upriver an island sits in the middle of the River Severn, covered in black and white half-timbered houses similar to those Dido knew in Battersea or Southwark. Other houses line the headlands either side of the estuary, all enclosed within a palisade. From one bank, lined with warehouses, a road leads uphill. Halfway up the hill is “a decent-looking establishment with an arch for coaches to pass under”: this is the White Hart, the name chosen from a former pub that Joan Aiken and her family lived in during the 1960s. Secret stairs lead down from the inn underground to near the warehouses by the river. A few stores such as a chandlery line the main street, which also boasts a few market stalls.
At the top of the hill stands a monument: “a sword stuck in a large granite rock, on top of a high plinth.” This very Arthurian symbol has VIDE UT SUPRA engraved on the plinth, a Latin phrase which we usually associate with academic texts: “See above” is what it means. The sword handle’s inscription, the Arthurian-sounding NON IN AETERNUM MORIAR (which Captain Hughes translates as “I shall not die for ever”) is adapted from verse 17 of Psalm 117 / 118. In part this reads Non moriar, sed vivam (‘I shall not die, but live”), a phrase which Martin Luther adopted as the first half of his personal motto. This unusual monument is reminiscent not just of the Sword in the Stone of Arthurian legend but also of 20th century war memorials, such are still to be seen in most towns and villages of the United Kingdom. Perhaps Joan Aiken was inspired by T H White’s description in The Sword in the Stone of how the young Arthur comes across the object that will decide that he is the rightful king:
“How does one get hold of a sword?” he continued.
He turned his mount and cantered off along the street. There was a quiet churchyard at the end of it, with a kind of square in front of the church door. In the middle of the square there was a heavy stone with an anvil on it, and a fine new sword was stuck through the anvil.
“Well,” said the Wart, “I suppose it is some sort of war memorial, but it will have to do. I am sure nobody would grudge Kay a war memorial, if they knew his desperate straits.”
Dido of course is no future monarch: this is a prefiguring of Mr Holystone’s role as Rex Quondam.
Turning to the right along a new dirt road, the first house is the British Agent’s Residence. It has “a monkey-puzzle tree in front, white palings all around, a cactus by the steps, and the name Mon Repos on the gate.” This description is highly ironic, of course, for not only have Captain Hughes and Dido been led a dance by Sandai Bando on the way here (a real monkey puzzle) but the British Agent will not be reposing at Mon Repos for very much longer. Beyond the house “the earth road came to a abrupt stop, barred by a pair of locked gates set in a high palisade;” this fence, made from palm trunks, is Tenby’s fortification (unlike the medieval stone walls of the original Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales).
It is soon time for Dido to embark on another journey by water, this time up the river Severn. Entering the interior of this southern continent will take our young heroine through terrains both familiar and unfamiliar as Joan’s imagination takes flight above the mundanities of our own world. In particular you will look upon the Regency city of Bath with new eyes.
To be continued
The ‘other’ Tenby, with stone walls and towers and an associated island: