Final whispers from the mountain

The Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, with the sun setting in the west, from an old print

With this post I hope to complete my explorations of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain before finally returning to Dido Twite’s continuing adventures. If you’re new to Joan Aiken’s worlds this is one of the instalments in a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chases and which have now reached the sixth episode. If you’re new to this particular novel then here are my previous discussion posts:

1. A review.
2. Prominent themes in this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles.
3. The inhabitants of the part of Wales covered in this novel.
4. Visitors to this part of Wales.
5. The Arthurian influences in The Whispering Mountain.
6. The distinct geography of this part of Wales and how it differs from the topography of Wales in our world.

Now we come, finally, to the chronology of The Whispering Mountain. How does it fit in with the overall timeline of the Wolves Chronicles and how long does the story take to unfold? I’ve already alluded to these conundrums:

When does the action take place? Now that’s very unclear. It’s been suggested (by Joan’s daughter Lizza) that the date is 1825; John Bullough prefers 1831; but I favour 1834 or, at a push, 1835. I’ll examine some of the chronological difficulties in a separate post but it’s worth noting that the blizzard that takes place in The Whispering Mountain must be late October or possibly early November and that from 1834/35 to 1837/38 there was a “sequence of four notably severe winters” followed by cold springs, particularly in Scotland but I would argue also in Wales. Of course, the world of the Chronicles is not the same as ours!

John Bullough’s first thoughts were that The Whispering Mountain would slot in before The Cuckoo Tree. He didn’t notice “any discontinuity jumping from 1966’s Nightbirds, to 1981’s Stolen Lake, to 1999’s Dangerous Games, to 1968’s Whispering Mountain, and then to 1971’s Cuckoo Tree.” This was, and remains, my perception, though Lizza Aiken’s chronology disagrees as to where exactly The Whispering Mountain fits, seeing it as a prequel:

I found I had to put Whispering Mountain right at the beginning because the then Prince of Wales … has to be King with a fifteen year old heir by the time we get to Is [Underground] although this does make Owen older at the Cuckoo Tree coronation.

And this is where we come up against an insurmountable problem: in The Cuckoo Tree (1971) Owen Hughes is clearly described at the new king’s coronation as “a pleasant enough boy”, a fitting enough description of him in The Whispering Mountain as well. That other problem that Lizza mentions — the new king with a fifteen-year-old heir in the later novel (which I presently estimate to be set around 1841-2) — is an issue I’ll have to deal with when, eventually, I get to consider the adventures of Is, Dido’s step-sister.

Here’s the chronology so far as I see it, before we get to The Cuckoo Tree (1971) which occurs around the time of the Prince of Wales’ coronation as monarch, in November 1836. You’ll see that, apart from the two later inserts (The Stolen Lake and Limbo Lodge /Dangerous Games) the chronology of the Chronicles follows the order implied by the publication timeline, with titles appearing roughly every two years. This is consistent with what we expect, but why did Joan add in those other two titles?

It’s clear that, when we come to The Cuckoo Tree, her previous plan of Dido going straight from Nantucket to England, as implied in the closing paragraphs of Night Birds, was not going to work: having written The Whispering Mountain with its false alarms about the health of the king in autumn (it’s noted that “King James III had recovered from his toothache and found the key of his desk”) she wasn’t leaving much time for James to succumb to death or for Owen to get to London in time for a November coronation — a whole year had to elapse. How best to account for that year? Simple, set Dido off on new adventures in South America and the East Indies, and thus allow for poor Captain Hughes to be badly injured in the ongoing “Chinese wars” (presumably while Dido was in the Spice Islands).

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Winter 1832 to April 1833 James III crowned 1832 1962
Black Hearts in Battersea Summer 1833 to December 1833 Dido “8 or 9” (born March 1st 1824) 1964
Night Birds in Nantucket October 1834 to summer 1835 Dido “9 or 10” or even “around 11” 1966
The Stolen Lake Autumn 1835 Dido 11 Published 1981
Limbo Lodge (Dangerous Games) Autumn to winter 1835 Dido 11 Published 1998
The Whispering Mountain Autumn 1835 [Dido 11, Owen a “pleasant boy”] 1968

This then means that Dido and Captain Hughes can only arrive in Sussex days before the November coronation in London which must therefore occur in 1836. (Interestingly, Victoria in our world became Queen in June 1837, though she wasn’t actually crowned until a year later, in June 1838.) This also gives Owen Hughes time to somehow hear that his father has finally arrived back in England, and to travel from Wales to London in time for the climax of the adventure. He perhaps then won’t have seen Captain Hughes for two or three years, assuming we allow for his passage home from China to Wales (1833-4), and then at least one year if not two years in Wales during which the action of The Whispering Mountain takes place.

So, what about these events that occur in 1835? We know that it all starts on a “sharp autumn evening” with “little daylight” remaining and only “a thin yellow strip of light in the west”; then “down in the valley the town clock tolled six times.” The sun has not long set, so we can calculate that the action of The Whispering Mountain must commence sometime in early October — though I must admit that this is a bit earlier than I initially imagined — if we assume that the setting is truly the Black Mountains of our world.

Whatever our calculations, we know that all this must take place long before 13th December, for St Lucie’s Day is the date by which Bilk and Prigman want the ransom for the harp paid. Using the one day on which we have a fix — the Sunday when no shops were open in Wales — we can estimate the novel to start on Wednesday October 7th and end a week later on Tuesday 13th. Any later (a week in November, say) and we run into real problems with sunset times, which move backwards from around 5 to 4 o’clock of an evening.

Wednesday Owen kidnapped by Bilk and Prigman in Pennygaff Bilk and Prigman given till following Wednesday to get Harp of Teirtu to the Marquess
Thursday Day’s journey over mountains to Fig-hat Ben Day’s journey over mountains to Fig-hat Ben
Friday Owen rescued in Nant Agerddau Bilk and Prigman leave for Castle Malyn at noon
Saturday King’s messenger takes Owen back to Pennygaff, arriving at dusk The two ‘peddlers’ leave Castle Malyn at 5.00 pm for Nant Agerddau
Sunday (no shops open in Wales) Owen rescues Prince of Wales in Gaff gorge, then heads to Nant Agerddau. Blizzard starts.

Owen follows Bilk and Prigman down underground course of River Malyn to Castle

Bilk and Prigman assumed killed in Nant Agerddau landslide but escape, taking coracle down underground Malyn river to Castle
Monday After Owen rescues prisoners all return to Devil’s Leap at Nant Agerddau. Final denouement Bilk and Prigman return to Devil’s Leap, along with Marquess. Final denouement
Tuesday Owen and Arabis back at Pennygaff Museum

We’ve come now to the end of our examination of the background to events in this novel. All very nerdish, I’m sure you agree, but nevertheless helping to give some context to a reading of The Whispering Mountain. I’ve kindly spared you all my ruminations — I’m not as cruel as all that! — but you’ll see that Joan has had to work as hard to establish verisimilitude with her alternative world and history as any author might approach their realist novel, historic or otherwise, set in our own world. Whether you are or have been aware or not of these careful calculations is neither here nor there; the play’s the thing after all! But a well thought-out and crafted context helps us, the readers, to accept what the narrative reveals as possibly true, and if true then we can focus on the players and our relationship to them.

Abergavenny from the Uske Road (1830) by William Westall, produced for “Great Britain Illustrated”
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10 thoughts on “Final whispers from the mountain

  1. The chronology is really helpful. I was missing some books in the series, so I have been filling in the gaps. I just got Dangerous Games, Cold Shoulder Road, Midwinter Nightingale, and Is Underground. I still need to find a copy of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. Do you have a complete list of the order? I knew The Whispering Mountain was a related story, but I never thought how it fitted in the timeline. Once I have all the books, I’m planning on reading the series from start to finish. I’m going to add The Whispering Mountain in with that.

    1. I’m pleased you found this helpful, Erin, it’s what I’d’ve found useful when I was first starting on this series! The official complete list is on the Joan Aiken website at http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/wolves_chronicles.html but as I argue above I believe the events of TWM are most likely to occur somewhere between The Stolen Lake and Dangerous Games / Limbo Lodge and certainly before The Cuckoo Tree.

      Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road both feature Dido’s step-sister Is so you should definitely read those as a pair. Oh, and I’m inclined to include Midnight is a Place in the series even though it’s not officially part of it. Set in Blastburn around 1842 it probably just precedes the Is stories — but more on this anon!

  2. Well I’m impressed! You clearly know your Welsh weather, and this all looks totally convincing; I’m also fairly sure Joan would have taken these details into account, hours of daylight etc. simply from travelling and researching, and retaining very vivid memories of times and places.

    But there is so much more to the chronological complications, as we have argued with the assistance of M. Bullough on previous posts!
    https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/midnight-is-a-place-new-40th-

    As you know I would set this story in about 1825, for reasons of Royal lineage.

    When we get to the prologue of Midwinter Nightingale (perhaps 1826) we find a marriage being arranged between Lady Adelaide and the future King Richard (whose wife Edelgarde, here the Princess of Wales mentioned living at Windsor, has since drowned, leaving a baby prince Davie). Thirteen years later we discover that marriage must have been postponed, as Adelaide arrives from Thuringia nine years later in about 1835 for the wedding, and has died by the time the main action of M.W.N. takes place thirteen years later, in say, 1839. According to King Dick:

    “My ither wifie, the Lady Adelaide, who was killt by a jack-o’-lantern falling on her.”

    Although in other accounts I believe the death was attributed to measles?

    However I leave all this in your capable hands, and await further dispatches with bated breath!

    1. It’s hard not to live in Wales and not have a sense of the weather here, so you’re spot on there, Lizza! I love how Joan absorbed so much from both research and first-hand experience to create credible locations and cultures of her own.

      I’m really looking forward to clarifying in my own mind the complex genealogy that Joan develops over the course of the series, and which my memory and my notes suggest gets more, shall we say, exuberant as we hurtle towards The Witch of Clatteringshaws. I know my notes have lots of question marks and dotted lines especially where family trees are concerned, so I’m anticipating much furrowed brow when I take your strictures and John Burrough’s into account with Joan’s text!

      1. Of course our great ( and possibly final!) work could be the History of the Kings of England according to Joan…from Brutus of Troye onwards? Checking out the Prince of Wales’ wives I came across all sorts of interesting ancestral detours through the Plantaganets, West Saxons and many others!

        1. Ooh, I’d like that! I’ve got a couple of pages of notes with names and queried dates that definitely need the sort of clarification that comes with rereading and input from someone in the know! The last three or so Chronicles, but especially Cuckoo and Witch, are choc a block with throwaway titbits and royal tittle tattle that do need close scrutiny…

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