Dido’s homecoming

‘The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.’ The image shows the Vulture, with a lorcha in tow, passing the Weiyuan Battery on Anunghoy Island in the Bocca Tigris, 9 April 1847 (image: public domain)

In recent posts we’ve been looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel The Cuckoo Tree (1971): the people involved, the geography of the narrative, and so on. We now come to a more tricky aspect of the story, the chronology, and we shall find that things are even less straightforward than ever.

But first, a recap of events so far.

When Joan published The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 it was as the final form of a novel she’d penned many years before, one she’d entitled Bonnie Green and which had had an interesting story of its own after its beginnings in September 1953. This first instalment in a long series (though she didn’t know it yet) is specifically set in winter 1832, not long after a notional James III comes to the throne. This gives us our starting point.

1832-3: The events in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, stretching from December to late Spring 1833.
1833: We meet Dido Twite for the first time in Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), which begins on a warm evening in late summer and ends in December with Dido lost at sea.
1834-5: After ten months at sea in a coma, Dido regains consciousness in October 1834, just in time for the start of the action in Night Birds on Nantucket (1966). I estimate that she’s physically on Nantucket Island in the summer of 1835, as July is the coldest month of the season with mists exactly as described in the novel.

Now here come the difficulties. Joan wrote what appeared to be a standalone novel in the same alternative history time frame: The Whispering Mountain (1968), which I estimate (though it’s disputed, and I may be in a minority over this) to take place around the time of Night Birds in Nantucket. She had also been preparing the next episode in the series, again featuring Dido Twite and to be called The Cuckoo Tree. The last we hear of Dido on Nantucket Island in summer 1835 is this:

When Dido went back next year to visit [her friend] Pen she found that Captain Casket had given up seafaring…

This implies that Dido returns to Nantucket in 1836. In the meantime she is next to be seen one cold November evening in a carriage-and-pair in Sussex, as described at the very start of The Cuckoo Tree (1971). Dido must therefore be back in England in 1835 in order to do the return visit to New England the following year, in 1836. QED.

But no, not so. In 1981 Joan published The Stolen Lake in which we find Dido gallivanting around South America, seemingly in the autumn of 1835. And then she is to be found in the South China Seas, as described in 1998’s Dangerous Games (Limbo Lodge in the UK, 1999). Joan had apparently decided she could slip in a round-the-world trip for our young heroine. This only works however if we take a pruning knife to her previously established timeline and graft in a new shoot.

So, to accommodate Dido’s voyage to South America and then the South Seas I estimated that Dido must have left port on the east coast of South America in or around October 1835, arriving on the fictional Spice Island of Aratu three months later — in the middle of the rainy season — in, say, late January or early February 1836. Dido has therefore missed her Sussex landing date of November 1835, which must now be postponed to November 1836.

What’s required now is a revised timetable for Dido to get from the East Indies to Britain, and that will depend on the route and a host of other imponderables.

First, Dido has to sail from the fictional Aratu, onboard the slow trading ship Siwara, back to Amboina (modern Ambon) where HMS Thrush has been docked for repairs, and where Captain Hughes is recovering from a head wound sustained during the so-called China Tea Wars. (This conflict must have been inspired by the First Opium War between China and Britain in the 1830s.) With her is Lord Herodsfoot, who’s due to report back to King James III in London detailing his expeditions overseas. Depending on how long that takes (the outward journey took five days) and allowing time for the Thrush to be completely overhauled, we may for looking at March or later for the steam-assisted sloop to be ready to return to Britain. Which route would it take?

There were two possibilities. The Thrush could travel back the way it came, east across the Pacific, round Cape Horn and up into the North Atlantic, here to encounter Hanoverians and receive a naval dispatch. We’re told that in the early 19th century sailing ships took between six and fourteen weeks to cross the Atlantic depending on adverse winds or bad weather; to this we need to further add the three months to reach the east coast of South America from the Pacific and the few more weeks to sail north across the equator.

Being assisted by steam-power would help the naval vessel, but we must also allow for stops to take on fuel, food and other supplies. There might even be time for Dido to make that visit to Nantucket en route. However, the usual time of year for 19th-century traders travelling via Cape Horn was September to March, not these summer months.

Alternatively it’s possible that the Thrush headed west. For early 19th-century tea clippers the customary route from Chinese tea ports like Fouchow (modern Fuzhou) to London was through the China Sea and into the Indian Ocean, passing Mauritius before rounding the Cape of Good Hope, then into the Atlantic, usually passing to the west of the Azores before turning east into the English Channel — a distance of between 14 and 16,000 nautical miles. May to September was the usual season for this second route, even though May was often the start of the southwest monsoon, meaning light winds as well as head winds were often encountered at the start. (In the Great Tea Race of 1866 three clippers using this route and setting sail in May reached Britain in under 100 days.)

Assuming an average speed of 8 to 10 knots (a knot is one nautical mile per hour or 1.15 land miles per hour) and allowing for probable delays the Thrush could have easily taken four months or even longer to get to Britain by the end of October. And still have had time to visit Nantucket.

Our revised chronology for 1836 then is this:
February: Dido is in the Spice Island of Aratu for part of this month before returning to Amboina/Ambon to join Captain Hughes on board the Thrush.
April: The Thrush is ready to sail and negotiates its way past Timor, Flores, Bali, Java and Sumatra.
May to October: The Thrush heads westwards, occasionally picking up supplies at ports along the way and rounding the southern tip of Africa. Heading north across the equator it passes to the west of the Azores in mid-Atlantic, picking up the Gulf Stream (and possibly that urgent dispatch) on its way towards the south coast of England. On the last day of October at the Dolphin Inn in Chichester Dido hires a carriage for herself, the ailing Captain Hughes and the secret dispatch for the First Lord of the Admiralty.

[By the way, despite The Cuckoo Tree beginning with phrase “A wild westerly gale was blowing over the South Downs one November evening” this cannot be the case: the next day, when the Captain asks what date it is, Dido answers that it’s the first of November, All Saints Day. So, the travellers must have arrived at Halloween, when Dido very appropriately meets two veritable witches.]


Next post in this series we shall examine the timeline leading up to the crowning of the new king Richard IV in St Paul’s Cathedral and Dido’s return to Sussex

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11 thoughts on “Dido’s homecoming

    1. Thank you kindly, Lynden, yes I am a bit (understatement, perhaps) obsessed with this series, only because nobody else seems to have published the kind the detailed analysis I wanted to engage in, and the mysteries — because there are mysteries to be puzzled out — just lobbied me to be solved! 🙂

        1. It’s a very small department at the moment, primarily owing to its being located in an off-campus broom cupboard of the University of Battersea. We’re hoping to upgrade to a stockroom soon…

  1. Breathtaking as ever…the detail you supply about the possible shipping routes, tides and seasons adds so much richness. Your elegant solution to the November Eve (as in Christmas Eve?) return to England, allowing Dido to meet the hallow e’en witches is masterly!

    My favourite Aiken conundrum is still the family tree of the House of Battersea which gives the death date of the 5th Duke as 1840, when we are only in 1836 and as this will trip her up in Dido & Pa (also 1836?) I await your solution with even more bated breath!

    1. Thank you for your praise, Lizza, I hope I’m doing justice to Joan’s legacy!

      November Eve: there are cultures that start the day not as the sun rises but at its setting — I fancy that may be behind our “fortnight” and the earlier “se’night”, for two weeks and one week respectively. So “one November evening” could well, under this system, mean October 31st in this instance, and Dido does indeed later refer to Tante Sannie and Daisy Lubbage as two old witches.

      I’m still working on that 1840 conundrum. I suspect it will involve some sleight of hand or possibly — Joan’s frequent fallback in the Chronicles — a prophecy of some sort which we haven’t yet discovered. But I think I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, and the same with the son of the Prince of Wales in Is!

  2. Wonderful post. I love reading/reading about literary puzzles and possible solutions. What fun to really immerse yourself into that world. I’ve only read the first two of the Wolves books and reading your posts, am getting more excited about reading more of them and embarking on adventures with Dido–and delving into these puzzles too!

    1. Do take the plunge, the water’s lovely! Dido herself is such an individual, so alive (and clearly an alter ego for the author herself) and intrepid and honest that one can help wanting to know more about her and her times, and in such a way I wouldn’t normally obsess — much — about literary paracosms. And there’s so much incidental detail, not to forget those conundrums!

  3. Pingback: Of conspirators and kings – Calmgrove

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