Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (reviewed here) has a few dozen fairly distinctive characters, though some readers may find it hard to keep a track of them all. This post aims to provide a Who’s Who of individuals mentioned in the novel. As is the custom, the usual proviso about spoilers applies.
A port on the south coast of England, east of Portsmouth;
opposite the Cathedral stands the 18th-century Dolphin Hotel
Dido Twite. Still dressed in her midshipman’s clobber from voyaging for nearly three years around the globe¹ on a whaler and then the naval sloop Thrush, Dido remains short for her age (twelve and a half in November 1836, if my calculations are correct) and as brown as a berry. She is accompanying Captain Hughes and has an urgent naval dispatch to be delivered to the First Lord of the Admiralty in London.
Captain Owen Hughes. In 1834 he took over the captaincy of HMS Thrush when it docked at Bermuda (according to The Stolen Lake, 1981) and sailed under orders first to South America and then the Spice Islands (Limbo Lodge / Dangerous Games 1999). According to The Whispering Mountain (1968) he has long been involved in the Chinese Wars; it appears from The Cuckoo Tree he has sustained a head injury there during a recent incident, perhaps when Dido was occupied on Aratu, the Island of Pearl Snakes. He has to recuperate at Dogkennel Cottages after a carriage accident sets his recovery back.
Ben Noakes. Landlord of the Dolphin Inn, Chichester; his horses, a grey and a bay, are borrowed to pull the carriage-and-pair that Dido and Captain Hughes use, intending to travel to London.
‘Bosky’ Dick. The drunken coachman who causes the accident that cuts short the carriage ride to London; it’s unclear if as a result of the accident he’s dead or unconscious, but either way he’s subsequently not found at the scene. Dido also refers to him as ‘half seas over’, defined in The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as ‘almost drunk’. ‘Bosky’ is perhaps a variant of ‘boosey’ (drunk), ‘boozy’ in Modern English.
Yan Gusset. Chief of the ten ‘Gentlemen’ who smuggle imported wine and other items (such as corkscrews, or ‘twistycorks’) which attract taxes, taking the goods by a secret canal to London where they are destined for noble clients. His brothers are Tan, Tethera (a redhead) and Methera who, along with other locals codenamed Pimp — this last rescued from Petworth jail — Sethera, Wineberry, Wagtail, Tarry-diddle and Den, are also known as the Wineberry Men. They’re named from a conflation of at least two sheep-counting systems, one from eastern and northern England and the other from the south coast:²
Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Dovera, Dick (Lake District, also Lincolnshire)
Um-erum-ship, der-erum-ship, cok-erum, shu-erum, sith-erum, sath-erum, Wineberry, Wagtail, Tarry-diddle, Den (Pyecombe, Sussex)
The Wineberry Men are always on the lookout for the Preventatives or Bush officers, as the government revenue officers are known. Gusset, the butler at Teglease Manor, is father to Yan, Tan, Tethera and Methera, and they have relatives in Petworth and elsewhere (see below). Coincidentally, Yan’s cousin Noah is a crew member on the Thrush, as recounted in The Stolen Lake.
I fancy Joan Aiken may also have been influenced by Russell Thorndyke’s Dr Syn novels about smuggling in 18th-century Kent, in which the heroic smugglers were led by a local clergyman in disguise. A Disney film based on the books entitled Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow starred Patrick McGoohan and was released in the UK in 1963.
The now dilapidated mansion of the Tegleaze family, around since the time of Charles I (1625-1649): notable 17th-century members of the family included the triplets Tobias, Christopher and Miles Aswell
Lady Catherine Tegleaze. Doyenne of the Tegleaze family, whose unnamed son and daughter-in-law perished in a storm on Tiburon Island in the West Indies. She is an overprotective and overbearing grandmother to Sir Tobit, forcing him to wear the cast-offs of his ancestors while the estate is impoverished by her gambling habits.
Sir Tobit: born on Tiburon Island on 8th November 1822, he is soon to turn 14 and thus come of age. Brought up as an only child he will eventually learn he has a surviving sibling, a realisation which somehow seems to knock all selfishness out of him. He is due to inherit a family heirloom called a Luck-piece, a miniature by Brueghel of the Tower of Babel, presently displayed in the nearby town of Petworth. However he is then framed for having stolen a goldfish prize from a hoopla stall at Petworth Fair, thus jeopardising both his freedom and his inheritance.
There are imperfect parallels here with the apocryphal Book of Tobit in which Tobit’s son Tobias catches a fish (not a goldfish!) which, with the angel Raphael’s help, he later uses to cure his father’s blindness. Tobias also travels with his dog, a detail which is picked up by Sir Tobit’s “huge furry white dog” called Lion, which had “a pointed nose, like a bear, and the tongue lolling from its jaws was blue.” The Verrocchio painting in London’s National Gallery shows a furry white dog too, but it’s little, and it’s impossible to tell the colour of its tongue (though there is a lot of blue in the painting).
Gusset. Doddery but well-meaning butler who, while he can never get Dido Twite’s name right, helps both her and Captain Hughes as much as he can. His unnamed wife died from poisoning, leaving him with four sons (including Yan). He has one brother called George (or Jarge) who lives in Petworth and another named Edward, father of Noah, the sailor Dido knows from the Thrush.
Wilfrid Tegleaze. Tobit’s aged cousin, possibly a first cousin once removed or, more likely, a first cousin twice removed, being either a nephew or a cousin of Lady Catherine.
Dr Subito. Lady Catherine’s Italian personal physician who attends the ailing Captain Hughes and charges a five shilling fee per visit; he has a penchant for using Italian musical terms. He and Cousin Wilfred are companionable friends.
Lady Rowena Palindrome. A neighbour who diligently avoids visiting Lady Catherine, and whom Dido is mistaken for when the youngster first comes seeking help at the Manor.
Sam Pelmett. Havey-cavey footman who later resigns to become a havey-cavey watchman at Petworth jail. Doubtless related to William Pelmett, a pharmacist in Petworth.
Amos Frill. Another footman, equally dubious. Pelmet and Frill’s surnames indicate their characters, the first designed to conceal a curtain’s workings, the second a fussy and functionally unnecessary decorative feature.
Jem Hoadley. A local messenger employed to carry letters to Petworth but reckoned by Gusset to be completely untrustworthy or ‘shravey’, from a dialect word meaning “a loose sub-soil, something between clay and sand” (A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect by W D Parish, 1875). Not only unreliable, then, but treacherous too. Hoadley is an ancient Sussex name, derived from the two Sussex villages of East and West Hoathly.
Colonel FitzPickwick. The Tegleaze bailiff. Defrauds Lady Catherine by claiming to place bets for her; secretly helps an American cousin of the family in his attempt to inherit the estate instead of Sir Tobit by framing the young heir for theft; and is a Hanoverian conspirator in a plot to murder the new king Richard IV and his supporters by sliding St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames during the coronation. Deservedly due a “bad falling off” or downfall in true Wolves Chronicles tradition.
His name is derived from Charles Dickens’ first literary success, The Pickwick Papers, published in serial form from 1836 and in book format in 1837. The eponymous Samuel Pickwick was partly inspired by Eleazer Pickwick (d 1837), an entrepreneur whose coaching business was based at the White Hart Inn, Bath, and who invested heavily in the Somerset Coal Canal. A different White Hart and a different canal appear in The Cuckoo Tree.
Tante Sannie. Sinister figure of short stature, from Tiburon Island, West Indies. (Tiburon is actually a peninsula in the southwest corner of Haiti, jutting out into the Caribbean towards Jamaica, suggesting a Haitian origin for Sannie. Tante is the French honorific title for ‘Auntie’ while Sannie is probably short for Susanna.) When Tobit’s parents died in a Haitian hurricane the youngster was brought to England by Tante Sannie to be with his paternal grandmother, Lady Catherine. She has a spider-like appearance, sidling in and out of places, and seems to be associated with a large and preternaturally intelligent rat.
Sannie transported aspects of Tiburon folk magic with her to Sussex, including the use of so-called joobie nuts which impart a hallucinogenic effect on those who taste them. She also can read palms: she correctly says, of Dido, “This girl strong girl — much temper, much wilful. Can be angry to push over a house. Can kindly love too.”
Still extant flint-built row on A285
Tom Firkin. Old shepherd on Farm Hill and Barlavington Down above Dogkennel Cottages. Blinded four decades ago in lightning storm on ‘Barlton’ Down and now relies on his shaggy sheepdog Toby; he proves friendly and hospitable to Dido and Captain Hughes. His surname derives from a unit of measurement for ale, beer and wine; his sheepdog’s name is not only related to Tobit and Tobias but is often borne by the little dogs in the traditional Punch and Judy seaside shows.
Mrs Daisy Lubbage. Healing woman, as likely to harm as to heal and so feared by locals. Slatternly in appearance and her housekeeping, she is in cahoots with Tante Sannie and hopes to come into enough money for them both to sail to Tiburon Island and live a life of luxury. She immediately takes against Dido, thinking her hoity-toity.
Cris. Of the same age as Tobit, Cris is kept in isolation by Mrs Lubbage in the loft of her cottage and treated cruelly, but manages to escape through the roof onto Burlavington Down and the shelter of the Cuckoo Tree. Cris appears to be psychic, conversing with what might otherwise be thought of as an invisible friend called Aswell.
We later discover Cris is actually Cristin, one of two surviving triplets, the other being Tobit. The existence of the mysterious Aswell seems to be inspired by the angel Raphael in the biblical Book of Tobit, Aswell’s name perhaps a form of Azrael, the Angel of Death in the traditionals of the three great monotheistic religions. Because Aswell didn’t survive infancy this tenuous identification with death might be apt, aided linguistically by the triplets being Tobit and Cris, plus another as well.
The second part of this prosopography will move to examine the inhabitants of Petworth and beyond, all the way to London and back to Tegleaze.
¹ Dido, in a coma, was picked up in the North Sea in December 1833, regained consciousness in October 1834 off Alaska, travelled to New England for the summer of 1835, then down to South America in that autumn, arriving in the Spice Islands in the closing months of 1835. She then has ten months to travel from the Pacific rim back to England for the tail end of October 1836, though whether the Thrush returns via Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope is never revealed.
² The online British Ancestry article gives a variant version of the Sussex Pyecombe tallying system:
onetherum, twotherum, quotherum, seterum, […] shatherum, wineberry, wigtail, tarrydiddle, den.
Other variants include this very similar sequence:
onetherum, twotherum, cockerum/cocktherum, quitherum, shitherum, shatherum, wineberry, wagtail, taradiddle, den.