Joan Aiken: The Cuckoo Tree
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1971)
Our young heroine, Dido Twite, has finally returned to England after years away in “furrin parts overseas” but instead of a calm steady progress from the south coast to London, her place of birth, we find her hurtling in a death-defying dash — in the dark — on a mission of the greatest urgency. When the carriage-and-pair she and her fellow passenger, Captain Owen Hughes, are travelling in is stranded in the middle of nowhere after an accident, she is precipitated into an adventure involving conspiracies, inheritances, smuggling, witchery and, of course, danger.
Naturally this is almost everything that one expects to find in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, but we also hope we’ll encounter friendship, loyalty, bravery, honesty and resourcefulness, especially when we know that Dido is involved. She’ll need all those virtues in this further instalment of the alternate history series in which the Hanoverian monarchs are the pretenders to the British throne rather than the Stuarts.
In addition, for Aiken fans there’s the draw of knowing that much of this story is set in a corner of the world Joan knew very well — part of the South Downs now in West Sussex, on the road running northeast from Chichester towards the historic town of Petworth. Not only can we feel the genuine sense of place that comes with a novel set in real locations but also the emotional connections the author may have had for here — albeit with frequent dark shadows obscuring our view.
There are rather a lot of those dark shadows. What reason could anyone have for stopping urgent dispatches getting to London before the new king’s coronation? Why do the Gentlemen whom Dido meets after the accident conceal their identities? Who are the sinister old biddies associated with the mysterious Tegleaze Manor? Who exactly are the two strange youngsters connected with this patch of Sussex countryside? Why are Miles Mystery’s mannikins causing unease in Petworth, and why does Dido find the tunes played by a hidden oboist oddly familiar? And how is an elephant instrumental in helping thwart a dastardly plan to slide St Paul’s Cathedral and its congregation into the Thames?
To say much more would be to reveal too much of the ins and outs of this involving fantasy. The story has a forward momentum which is scarcely held up by the usual cast of several dozen characters with which Aiken peoples the chronicles. Lovers of literature will appreciate turns of phrase such as this, plucked at random, of a teenager’s “sad smile, like a wind-ripple over a field of long grass”; while those with a penchant for detail and references will also enjoy cryptic allusions to Russell Thorndyke’s Dr Syn novels, the image of the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers and the coincidence of title and publication date of Charles Dickens’ first novel, among many other examples.
At the heart of The Cuckoo Tree, as with many of Joan Aiken’s novels, lies love. Dido Twite has been aching to get back home after voyaging around the world for a number of years on wild goose chases, her principal concern being to reconnect with people who showed her care and affection. Will it be her father, or someone else in her depleted family? Or will it be the young man who nursed her through an illness and who kindly gave her rides on his donkey?
All of a sudden she felt lonely — almost choked with loneliness. Tobit’s got Cris, she thought, and Cap’n Hughes has his boy Owen, but who’ve I got? Such thoughts were not sensible, she knew . . . But all the hospitality in the world is not the same has having someone of your own.
Does she get someone of her own, or will she forever be the cuckoo in the nest? Perusal of The Cuckoo Tree will point the way.
Stills from the Puffin Club film made by Joan in the late sixties, showing a view of the South Downs (made a National Park in 2011) and the author standing by and sitting in the original Cuckoo Tree. A post on the Joan Aiken blog tells us more. A series of my follow-up posts in the next little while will give more background on the novel — its themes, geography, possible chronology and, of course, characters both admirable and disreputable.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book written by a female author