New Cumbria (3)

Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath
Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath

Dido Twite has been doing a lot of travelling, first on a British naval ship from Nantucket to Tenby, and then by riverboat and railway to Bath Regis. Why Joan Aiken chose to bring her young heroine here is complex — I’ve discussed some of the background elsewhere — but as this is the most involved part of the story in The Stolen Lake where geography is concerned it’s only right that I outline, in greater detail and in a separate post, how matters stand.

When Dido, Captain Hughes, Mr Holystone and the others arrive late evening in the capital of New Cumbria it soon becomes apparent that Bath Regis has a sinister air about it: after alighting from the train Dido finds herself “on an icy, windswept stone pavement, inadequately sheltered by a thatched canopy. The air was bitter.” They take a pair of hackney carriages from the paved forecourt of the station (despite the allure of a sedan chair for Dido) and the impression she gets is that “for a capital city [Bath Regis] seemed very quiet and glum”; the captain deems it “a devilish dismal place, and … cold as a coffin.” A ten-minute trot takes them over “a covered bridge with closed market-stalls on either side, and along an extremely wide street” to Sydney Hotel, where Dido manages to catch some sleep in a damp and freezing bed.

Late 18th-century plan of Bath with Bath Regis locations superimposed
Late 18th-century plan of Bath with Bath Regis locations superimposed

All these descriptions of this South American Bath will put readers in mind of Jane Austen’s Bath in the Regency period. In Northanger Abbey the young heroine Catherine is “all eager delight; her eyes were here, there, and everywhere,” and you may remember the cri de coeur “Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?” On the other hand, when we come to the posthumously published Persuasion, Anne Elliot is described as disliking Bath, “and did not think it agreed with her.” Similarly, the young Dido has great hopes for Bath Regis — she’s been told the streets are paved with silver — but like the mature Jane she soon finds herself no longer so enamoured of the place.

Sydney Gardens labyrinth
Sydney Gardens labyrinth: image credit Bath in Time,

The Sydney Hotel of The Stolen Lake is based on the original 18th-century building in England’s Bath now known as the Holburne Museum. The Austen family would eventually take rooms at nearby No 4 Sydney Place, but even before that, as Jane writes in a letter dated 21st January 1801 to her sister Cassandra, “It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens; we might go into the labyrinth every day.” The Pleasure Gardens were a popular public place in this period: 19th-century plans show a spiral pattern on the lower south side of the open space (later encroached on by the railway) which indicates the labyrinth that Austen refers to and which clearly gave the 25-year-old author great pleasure. However, the labyrinth — whether or not Joan Aiken intended it or not — is a splendid metaphor for The Stolen Lake‘s convoluted plot as well as a prefiguring of the maze-like paths that Dido has faced and will face, from the secret steps down from the White Hart Inn to the wharves in Tenby, to the passages in the silver mines served by an underground railway that lead to the Royal Palace.

It will not have escaped your notice that Bath Regis shares its epithet with our own Bognor Regis and Lyme Regis, two seaside resorts favoured by Georgian royalty (and in fact Lyme Regis, where the Austen family holidayed, famously features in Persuasion). Regis means ‘of the King’ and is therefore appropriate for this city where Queen Ginevra awaits her Rex Quondam, the King Who Once Was.

From a balcony in the Sydney Hotel Dido sees the whole of Bath Regis laid out in its hilly basin. She looks down the silver-cobbled Pulteney Street to the covered bridge (our Pulteney Bridge, here in New Cumbria named after Venice’s Rialto Bridge). On her left is a high wooded hill crowned with a tall slender tower (the equivalent of Bathampton’s Sham Castle of the mid-18th century, though the latter is a many-tower’d façade).

The Sham Castle, Bathampton, Bath from an old postcard
The Sham Castle, Bathampton, Bath from an old postcard

The bridge spanning the River Severn is covered in booths advertising meat, milk, flowers, vegetable and fruit as well as bread. Across the bridge is Orange Grove, “a small street of superior dwellings,” where a sign saying Mme Ettarde, Modiste indicates the classical villa from which the witch — variously titled Court Dressmaker, Mistress of the Queen’s Robes and First Lady of the Bedchamber — plies her business. Adjacent to Orange Grove is what Lieutenant Windward notes is a very ‘singular’ building: Bath Palace is large, circular and surrounded by a moat fed by the Severn. Five or six storeys high and covered in reflective metal it revolves on itself, like the BT Tower in London, though the forthright Dido declares it looks more like “an outsize milk-churn”. Entry is through a revolving door, accessible only when the palace returns to a position facing a narrow bridge over the moat. (In our world Bath Abbey is found in the self-same location, its façade revealing angels ascending to heaven by means of ladders.)

The Palace’s alternate name is Caer Sisi, the second word perhaps taken by the Spanish for ‘yes’ and which Mr Holystone occasionally mutters. It derives from the medieval Welsh poem The Spoils of Annwn. As Caer Sidi it is one epithet amongst many for the Celtic Otherworld — Caer Rigor is another, meaning Royal Castle — which King Arthur and his men raid. The expedition seek for treasures like a giant cauldron rimmed with pearls, and rescue prisoners incarcerated within (we’re told that “except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi”). Sidi is variously translated as ‘revolving’ or ‘faery’.

Detail of 1810 plan of Bath showing Orange Grove, Pulteney Bridge, the river and Great Pulteney Street
Detail of 1810 plan of Bath showing Orange Grove, Pulteney Bridge spanning the river and Great Pulteney Street; in Bath Regis the circular Palace is found just off Orange Grove.

Nearby is the Museum, another ancient Roman building, its entrance sporting a Medusa head. (This first appeared on the pediment of Bath’s Roman temple, copied in 1909 for the temple erected in Sydney Gardens.) The Museum features the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, while the Zoological Garden displays the Four Oldest Creatures; both these legendary collections of course derive from medieval Welsh traditions, such as the Mabinogion. The Roman Baths are here too, the waters heated by means of the nearest volcano, Mount Damyake, and the Pump Room, the mineral water tasting “like unwashed duck’s feet,” as Dido has it.

Captain Hughes, Ludovic Brandywinde and Silver Taffy are later incarcerated on Beechen Cliff in the Wen Pendragon tower, a residence built by the Queen in anticipation of the return of King Arthur. Joan Aiken may have in mind the descriptions of the heights overlooking Bath from the south which she knew from Austen’s Northanger Abbey. (Maybe the suspense built up in this Gothick story inspired Aiken to do the same for this present narrative.)

They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill, whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath. “I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”‘

It now remains to furnish the final details of Dido’s perambulations around Bath Regis. When Dido, King Arthur and the army from Lyonesse approach the city from the south, they march over Odd Down (“one of the foothills of Mount Damyake”), naturally arriving at the South Gate (now commemorated by Southgate Street). They then proceed north up Damask Street (a thinly disguised Stall Street) and lastly east, turning right into Ertayne Street (Cheap Street) before approaching the Palace and the confrontation with the White Queen.

Whence these names — Ertayne, Damask, Damyake — and what is their significance? Our investigation of these will require us to abandon Jane Austen and instead seek enlightenment with Sir Thomas Malory and his ilk, examining as we go the themes that Joan Aiken has interwoven in The Stolen Lake and which pattern to a greater or lesser extent all the Wolves Chronicles. Bear with me as we finally near the end of luxuriating in the rich texture of this particular narrative. I promise you’ll find a reading (and subsequent re-readings) so much more comprehensible, and even more enjoyable!

• I’ve consulted a number of sources, both from my shelves and online, for this series of posts. I shall be listing some Arthurian references in the next post; here are a couple of online links I found useful for quick consultation on Jane Austen’s time in Bath:
Jane Austen in Bath: The Sydney Garden Galas (1) Music

6 thoughts on “New Cumbria (3)

    1. Thanks, Dale! You won’t be surprised to know that I hoped the notes I made when I first undertook a comprehensive read/reread of the Chronicles would eventually morph into a reference book — provisionally entitled Croopus! A Dido Twite Companion.

      Failing an interested publisher emerging like a fairy godmother it could be that these posts will provide an acceptable substitute! (And they’re much more interactive of course!)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. True. Something to think about when I’ve got through all twelve books! (Or fourteen, if you include the ‘prequel’ The Whispering Mountain and the ‘postquel’ Midnight is a Place.)

          Liked by 1 person

  1. It all sounds not so much like a labyrinth but fractal, in that, no matter how closely one looks, the level of detail remains the same. (I’ve not read this far into the series. ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ is among those childhood favourites that is still a favourite, but I never quite ‘took’ to ‘Black Hearts in Battersea’ and stopped there. You’ve convinced me I should jump ahead/start over. Thank you.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From Black Hearts in Battersea onwards (apart from two books following Dido’s half-sister, who’s formed from a similar mould) the series really hinges on this little mop of a girl who despite everything thrown at her maintains an honest integrity that appeals so, so much. I do hope you get to know her better and so see that appeal!


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