The latest in a series of posts about Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Cuckoo Tree
In previous posts we’ve looked at Dido Twite‘s friends, acquaintances and enemies in Sussex and London; we’ve seen where she travelled and precisely when and where her adventures began and where they have now ended up.
Before we wrap up our discussions on the timeline of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree it may be pertinent to ask what may have inspired her to invent a storyline that would culminate in an attempt on a royal life at a coronation.
Let’s have a look at some key dates in this uchronia or other reality as well as some in our own times to see if we can spot some possibilities. I promise it’s more intriguing than you might imagine, even if you’re a newcomer here and you’ve no idea what I’m talking about!
1952. George VI dies and is succeeded by Princess Elizabeth, yet to be crowned.
1953. Joan Aiken begins Bonnie Green (the novel that is to become The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962) in the year that Elizabeth is crowned Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Westminster Abbey.
1832. The Scottish-born James III becomes King of Great Britain in the alternative history that obtains in the Wolves Chronicles.
1833. James III survives a plot to assassinate him at Battersea Castle around Christmas.
1969. In July Prince Charles is invested by the Queen as Prince of Wales, at Caernarfon Castle in North West Wales, despite a nationalist campaign against the investiture and an attempted bombing. Joan had recently (1968) had published The Whispering Mountain, a novel in this same series which had featured a Scottish Prince of Wales hunting in … Wales. She is now working on The Cuckoo Tree, which is eventually published in 1971.
1836. James III, after several false alarms, dies, to be succeeded by the Prince of Wales, who is due to be crowned King Richard IV in November. Hanoverian plotters try to assassinate the King at his coronation.
You will have noticed, as I did, some suggestive correspondences. The author starts writing about a new reign at around the time that Elizabeth II comes to the throne; she starts writing about the start of the next reign around the time of the investiture of the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. Neither Prince of Wales is actually Welsh: in our world Prince Charles’ lack of Welshness prompts nationalist protest and a planned bomb outrage that goes wrong; in Dido’s world the royal family’s lack of German blood makes both the old and the new Scottish-born kings the targets of Hanoverian agitators.
Far-fetched? Possibly. Coincidence? Maybe. Suggestive? Certainly, to my way of thinking.
But why set her stories in the 1830s? Well, Joan Aiken was a great fan of Jane Austen, and was to write sequels to four of Austen’s novels. She was also well aware of Jane’s antipathy to the Prince Regent (the future George IV) despite her having been persuaded to dedicate a novel to him. George eventually dies in 1830, a dozen years after Austen’s death, and is succeeded by his brother as William IV. William then dies in 1837 (a year after the death of the Chronicles’ James III) and is followed by Victoria, only 18 at the time.
Joan was also partial to the writings of the Brontë siblings, as was to be demonstrated by her borrowing from the Brontë juvenilia, when the fictional territory of Angria appears in Limbo Lodge (1999). In the mid-1830s, for example, Charlotte was still in her teens while writing stories centred on Angria, though she was on the cusp of transitioning to more realistic narratives not set in a paracosm or imaginary world.
Thus it is that we are now in November 1836 with Dido fresh from adventures with Angrians in the Spice Islands, landing in Sussex, with mere days to go before the Prince of Wales is crowned as King Richard IV.
Saturday, 31st October. Halloween. A little after 6.00pm Dido and Captain Hughes’ carriage crashes. Dido visits Tegleaze Manor for help and the two stay the night at Dogkennel Cottages.
Sunday, 1st November. All Hallows or All Saints Day. Dido explores the Downs east and north of the cottages and visits the Cuckoo Tree.
Monday, 2nd November. Dido and Tobit spy on Colonel FitzPickwick at Tegleaze.
Tuesday, 3rd November. Dido’s second visit to the Tree.
Wednesday, 4th November. No excursions by Dido.
Thursday, 5th November. No excursions again.
Friday, 6th November. Petworth Fair. Tobit is arrested, Captain Hughes bewitched and the Tegleaze Luck-piece stolen.
Saturday, 7th November. Captain Hughes is moved to the Fighting Cocks Inn in Petworth and Dido spots her Pa.
Sunday, 8th November. Tobit is tried, then saved from a slow death in a well. Tobit and Cris board the smugglers’ barge to travel to London. Dido is scrobbled after an unsatisfactory meeting with her father.
Monday, 9th November. Dido escapes and, travelling by elephant-and-howdah, starts following the Wey & Arun canal in pursuit of the barge Gentlemen’s Relish.
Tuesday, 10th November. Dido catches up with the barge at Wandsworth, and her party arrive at St Paul’s Cathedral at dusk in time to stymie the dastardly Hanoverian plan.
Wednesday, 11th November. The coronation takes place at 6.00am and Dido, Tobit, Cris and Owen on the howdah follow Stane Street all the way back to Stopham, and then on by carriage towards Tegleaze. Finally, at the Cuckoo Tree, Simon at last catches up with Dido.
Now, another fine children’s writer, Diana Wynne Jones, wrote a fantasy in 1982 entitled Witch Week in which the action took place between Halloween and Bonfire Night, an annual celebration on or around November 5th; this evening of fireworks marks the occasion when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up James I at the State Opening of Parliament in 1605, part of the infamous Gunpowder Plot.
This period at the beginning of November retains an echo of old pagan feasts (such as Samhain) which presaged the arrival of winter and which was partly christianised by adopting 1st November as All Saints and the day after as All Souls. But the season’s ancient association with ancestral spirits survives on the last day of October, attracting the attention of beings supernatural: ghosts, ghouls and witches.
Is it any wonder that Diana Wynne Jones focused on this eerie period for her fantasy inveighing against prejudice and the historic persecution of witches? And that Joan Aiken had a similar notion a decade or so earlier, setting a tale of evil witchcraft and regicidal plots during (and a little after) this very same Witch Week.
There is just one more post planned as part of my in-depth analysis of The Cuckoo Tree, and that will be examining the themes, memes and tropes that the novel touches on. In due course we shall be looking at Dido and Pa, the action of which begins immediately after The Cuckoo Tree