Lively and inventive

Cambriae Typus: map of Wales by Humphrey Llwyd 1527-1568 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken
The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)

Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).

Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.

Malyn’s chaise by Pat Marriot

Of especial interest is the Welsh setting and use of language and traditions away from Aiken’s usual specialities such as the southeast of England. Living in West Wales, I was particularly intrigued to see aspects of different real localities transmogrified to suit the story and the conceit of an alternative geography of Britain (Malyn Castle is like Harlech Castle transferred to the region of Aberystwyth); and the use of Welsh phrases and idioms (there is a glossary at the end) when characters speak English struck chords even for someone like me with only a passing acquaintance with the language. I also loved the puns, such as the placename Pennygaff which, although it has a Welsh look to it (real placenames include Pen-y-Fan and Pen-y-Bont, literally ‘Mountain Top’ and ‘Bridgend’ respectively), is actually taken from the name for a type of popular but seedy early Victorian theatrical show. Malyn Castle (and its Marquess of Malyn) is a wonderful composite of malign (a good description of the marquess), melyn (Welsh for ‘yellow’, perhaps a reference to the marquess’ love of gold) and Malin Head (the most northerly point in Ireland, famous from the BBC Shipping Forecast, with its 1805 Martello tower looking very castle-like).

And the story? This is the tale of Owen Hughes, son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush and the grandson of another Owen Hughes, keeper of the Pennygaff museum. Bullied at school, young Owen falls in with heroes, villains and bystanders: who to trust with the ancient harp kept in the museum? The villains are often the most memorable, ruffians like Toby Bilk (slang for ‘cheat’) and Elijah Prigman (‘thief-man’), and blackguards like the Marquess himself. To right the balance there are kind monks, a future king, a travelling poet and his daughter by a Maltese beauty, Arabis Camilleri. The daughter, also called Arabis (a kind of rockcress; also Welsh arabus means ‘witty’) is the same age as Owen. And we mustn’t forget a mysterious Eastern potentate and the equally mysterious cave-dwelling troglodytes under the eponymous Whispering Mountain. Which does more than whisper in the denouement, in an underground version of the famous Devil’s Bridge inland from Aberystwyth.

As I hope this account suggests, this a book worth reading for its spirited liveliness and sheer inventiveness even if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Aiken fan. Maybe after sampling The Whispering Mountain you may be tempted to try the other alternate histories in the series. There’s even a chance you might not be disappointed. To add to the delight there’s a map but, sadly, only a handful of illustrations by the inestimable Pat Marriott in the original hardback and the Puffin paperbacks. Later issues, such as the Red Fox edition, include neither map nor illustrations, a miscalculation especially with books aimed at a young adult market but no less a mistake with readers of all ages.

First published August 4th 2013, this repost is designed to introduce a series of linked discussions about the background to The Whispering Mountain and how it might fit into the chronology of the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence. Inklings of possible problems can be seen in the original 2013 comments from readers.

I can’t help posting a detail from one of Grayson Perry’s tapestries showing Wales in the 21st century, plus a bit of the West Country and the Northwest of England. It’s filled with his caustic comments on the Us and Them of British society: northwest Wales is “off grid”, west Wales is “excluded”, the motorway from London into Wales leads to “antidepressants” while the Isle of Man is marked as “tax evasion” (though, strictly speaking, that should be “tax avoidance”).

Grayson Perry’s Wales

28 thoughts on “Lively and inventive

  1. I still haven’t returned to this author, despite your reminders. Then, I have done a great deal more writing than reading, lately.
    I wonder what sense of false economy dictates the leaving out of so many good illustrations in later editions of many books? Completely unjustified in ebooks, in particular, subject to the limitations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you might have seen, I asked Joan’s daughter Lizza if the new print editions of the Felix books included Pat Marriott’s illustrations. Sadly not, she wrote, even though she did offer them! Why ever not?

      Elsewhere I’ve complained about reprints of even older classics omitting illustrations, such as the map in Treasure Island for heaven’s sake! It’s way out of copyright! And, as you say, there’s no excuse for eBooks. Do you think it’s unimaginative commissioning editors or whoever it is makes these decisions? It can’t be cost, surely, especially line illustrations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Probably a combination of admin decisions and general sloppiness. Have you noticed how many glaring errors appear these days in books from major publishing houses? I think I’ll have to stop editing mine too carefully – perhaps perfection shouts, ‘Indie’!


  2. I remember thinking, as I read this, that Dido is still asleep on the Thrush as this is happening. It’s good to know how Aiken plays with names: Prigman and Bilk are perfect. Thanks for the detailed info.
    BTW, no map in the US edition of this book. I’m taking note, so that any contracts I sign from now on will specify that all maps/illustrations/etc must carry forward into all editions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, the infamous chronology of the books! I had put The Whispering Mountain down as 1835, with Owen and Arabis both aged about 11, on the basis that when Owen reappears in The Cuckoo Tree (which I date to October-November 1836) he is described as “a pleasant enough boy”. My reconstructed timeline, still in draft and here in brief, is
      1832 James III crowned
      1832-3 Action of Wolves of Willoughby Chase
      1833 Action of Blackhearts in Battersea; Dido in coma for 10 months from October 1833 to summer 1834
      1834-5 Action of Nightbirds on Nantucket and then The Stolen Lake (summer 1835) when she meets Owen’s father, Captain Hughes
      1835 This is when I put the action of The Whispering Mountain when Owen meets David, Prince of Wales, son of James III and Limbo Lodge, when Dido is in the South Seas
      1836 Action of The Cuckoo Tree when Dido, after nearly three years voyaging with Captain Hughes, meets Owen Hughes at the coronation of the Prince of Wales as Richard IV in November

      Lizza Aiken, on the other hand, dates The Whispering Mountain as early as 1825:
      “There were only three [in the series] written out of chronological order.
      The first of these, The Whispering Mountain should be seen as a prequel to the whole series, because it concerns the young Prince of Wales (Davie Jamie Charlie Neddie Geordie Harry Dick Tudor Stuart! ) the son of James III, who becomes Richard IV at the end of The Cuckoo Tree. This was actually the next book in the series that Joan wrote, but the earlier book also mentions a baby son by Davie’s first marriage, the next Davie Prince of Wales, who has to be fifteen by the time we get to Is and Cold Shoulder Road so the action of the previous book has to have taken place much earlier” (

      Confusing, isn’t it! I follow Lizza’s reasoning, and it makes logical sense. If only Owen Hughes, searching for his long-lost father Captain Hughes, wasn’t described as a “pleasant enough boy”! Perhaps Joan had problems with chronological consistency when she wrote some of these novels out of order: as Lizza says, “Unfortunately she was less strict with herself about the historical consistencies – but that’s another story!”

      Lizza goes on to add that “the style of The Whispering Mountain also fits the early period of the sequence, although written later than, for instance Wolves, as it is actually more 18th than 19th century in style, like the hero Owen’s wonderful little book of knowledge.”

      You’ll see then, Lizzie, that Dido has either long woken up from her coma on HMS Thrush or, born on March 1st 1824, is only a one-year-old!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, my answer can only be: it’s fiction! (And I misremembered when she met up with Cptn Hughes.) I’ve done similar chronologies for the Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie series, which actually calculate quite easily even though only Wilder wrote hers in chronological order. We fans are an odd bunch of people, eh?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Aikenfans, such a delight to have others to share these mysteries..! My favourite absolutely Aiken conundrum is Joan’s Battersea Family Tree. Simon has come to London, about a year after the action of ‘Wolves’ aged about fifteen, and in the Battersea family tree his (or at least his substitute Justin’s) birth year is given as 1818. So although the story must be happening in 1833, the Duke of Battersea’s dates are given as: 1780 – 1840.
    Clairvoyance or what? But he has already died by the time Dido meets Simon again, as the new Duke at the time of The Cuckoo Tree/ Dido & Pa – by your reckoning 1836? No wonder the series is called an alternative history!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a certain king is supposed to have said, “Is a puzzlement!”

      It’s tempting to think up ‘explanations’ which might apply in this alternative (yes, Lizza, I agree it’s a less ambiguous description than the common ‘alternate’) history:
      the real 5th Duke, William did die in 1840 but a double expired soon after 1833, to allow Simon to become 6th Duke, for example;
      or maybe a fortune-teller prophesied (wrongly) that he would die in his 60th year, so it became the official record, and nobody thought to change it. Well, it’s possible!

      And maybe the young Davie that Dido’s half-sister Is meets in the mines is indeed Prince of Wales, as is his father — in the same way that the present Prince of Wales, Charles, has a son who is titled Prince Henry of Wales, even if he is commonly known simply as Prince Harry. This would solve the problem of whether The Whispering Mountain is set in 1825 or 1835: it’s set in 1835…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. jbulloug

    I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts about books, especially Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, and after finishing the series I started working on a timeline to try to place all of the stories in a consistent history. While I was finishing it up I came across this post and the timeline discussions here, and included a link to it in my draft. There is more information on a comment to a post on the Joan Aiken blog at:

    I suppose there is no one single “correct” timeline but it’s been enjoyable trying to piece the stories together. One of my own particular hang-ups has been trying to fit Midnight is a Place into the timeline – with that set unambiguously in 1842 in Blastburn, and Blastburn being destroyed during Is Underground, it was necessary to stretch the Chronicles stories out to ensure there was time for Gold Kingy to take over and for the underground city to be built after 1842.

    Anyway, thanks for your interesting insights and I look forward to your review of the Wolves Chronicles this coming year!


    1. I’m not going to be able to delay things much longer with my revisit to the sequence, am I — at least I’ve read Wolves and am putting together a review! I also plan to do one or at most two companion posts to each book which should tackle, amongst other things not strictly review-material, the thorny chronological questions.

      My view of Midnight is that Joan liked her concept of Blastburn and its ‘satanic mills’ so much that she just had to re-use it, and that the best way for me to regard it is to count it as part of an ‘alternate history’ to the alternate history that already is the James III sequence! But that’s not too satisfactory so I shall have to get my head around those particular problems.

      SF writer Philip Jose Farmer took a wonderful view of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, pretending they preserved real history told as fictional non-fiction (in his 1972 Tarzan Alive!). In his ‘biography’ of the apeman he ironed out discrepancies by saying that Burroughs was keeping faith with the real Tarzan by concealing or deliberately faking certain details; he includes a chronology and even concocts fabulous family trees linking Tarzan with all kinds of real and fictional individuals (Sherlock Holmes for example!). All this is told in wonderfully serious prose, annotated and referenced, a real tour de force to please all self-confessed nerds! I would like to think I could do this for Dido Twite and her friends — someday, maybe!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jbulloug

        I completely understand and share in your nerdiness! While I’ve long been a fan of Joan Aiken’s many poignant short stories, I never discovered The Wolves of Willoughby Chase until very recently when my children and I were looking for our next book to read at night. And, of course, once I realized it was only the first in a series of 12 (or 13, as I prefer to consider it) volumes, AND that it contained a charming alternate reality, I was hooked and fascinated. I’m a sucker for these intricate, interconnected worlds and after we finished reading the Chronicles, I was determined to try to piece all of the stories together.

        I believe it was a comment you posted on Lizza Aiken’s blog about whether the Blastburn of Midnight was the same as that of Willoughby and Is that cemented it for me. I had to try to join Midnight‘s unambiguous 1842 time with the Duke of Battersea’s earlier death in 1840, and with Dido’s mention of “Queen Victoria” in The Stolen Lake (of course Victoria never was Queen of England in Dido’s world, but I decided in any case that it established that book as occurring no earlier than 1837). All while placing Simon’s birth as close to 1818 as possible. There may still be some light leaking between the puzzle pieces I put together but I think the big picture is becoming visible. Here’s a link to my initial effort:

        Click to access wolvestimeline.pdf

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, John, this looks very detailed, with many correspondences and links — I can see I’m going to have to spend time on it! I’ve got an old school exercise book here virtually full of notes and maps and diagrams and family trees, most of it in small handwriting which I’m hoping to cross-reference when I go through the series.

          I think we’ll agree on many of the details. Simon (and of course Sophie) will have been born on April 12th 1818 — in London in 1833, according to Blackhearts, Simon is described as looking “about 15”, which is about right, and Dido “8 or 9”. In Nightbirds Dido is described in October 1834 as “9 or 10” and later “around 11”. There is some doubt therefore about her exact age but I lean towards her being born on March 1st 1824.

          It’s the contradictions that impede certainty: Victoria, certainly, and the Duke of Battersea’s death date, obviously. I’ll have to work at that — it could take some time! I’d be happy to share notes as I go along, of course.


        2. As a postscript I see I have a note from my recent reading of Wolves that in Chapter 6 (at the end of 1832 or early 1833) the Greens’ Dr Morne is called to a fire in Blastburn, where several are reported injured. Could this be at Midnight Court, perhaps, in Midnight is a Place? This would set the action in 1832-3 rather than 1842, thus solving several conundrums at once! One could assume that Joan just miswrote one digit …


          1. jbulloug

            Yes, that would definitely change the dynamic if Midnight could be dated to 1832 instead of 1842! While I may have “stretched” some of the dates (1840 for Duke Battersea’s death, 1818…1819 for Simon’s birth, and 1842 for Midnight) I tried to keep within a year or so of the published dates, and at least a year or two for Blastburn to transform from the city in Midnight to the literal hellhole it became by the time of Is Underground. I often wondered about that fire in Blastburn from Wolves of Willoughby Chase, since it seemed more than a passing reference (maybe to help establish it as a dangerous industrial inferno). Anyhow it’s clear that this type of detective work is fun for many readers of the Wolves Chronicles! I’d love to continue any discussions about this.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Good to revisit some of these discussions as you say, and to link up the various pages where they take place, many thanks. Aiken scholars please note!

    Someday, on the to do list is that definitive Timeline of the Chronicles will appear, but I have a feeling you are going to be the author, your methods are so very thorough, and mine rather inventively Aiken?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lizza! With my revisit of this and, soon, The Cuckoo Tree I continue to favour The Whispering Mountain less as a prequel set — say — in the 1820s and more as set during Dido’s convoluted circumnavigation of the world 1833-5. There are problems of course, but I hope to account for them as I go along.

      For example, Wales here seems to be stuck in the late 18th century, in terms of fashion, communication and so on. In my limited experience our 21st-century Cymru has always been relatively conservative- minded, which is both its charm and its failing. But more of all this anon! My current concern is whether Dido’s world were still using the Julian or the Gregorian calendar … 🙂

      But where would be be without Aiken inventiveness? So much the poorer!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, this is fascinating – as are the comments back and forth underneath! Again you’re tempting me in with your chatter of Dido and her expansive world and I do love Aiken’s names inspired and influence by real names and places – a subject you’ve touched on before. There’s such joy to be had there. Great review Chris

    Liked by 1 person

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