The mood is melancholy

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Joan Aiken: Bone and Dream
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2002

The final novelette in Joan Aiken’s St Boan trilogy (sometimes called the St Ives trilogy) again features Ned Thorne, his Aunt Lal and Uncle Adam Carne during a spell in a Cornish seaside town. Summoned another time by his aunt to ‘sort out’ a little problem, he takes a bus instead of the train he took in In Thunder’s Pocket and notices a very clammed-up anxious girl on the same journey. It turns out she — Jonquil is her name — is taking over from her sister Fuchsia to be the new ‘muse’ for a rather overbearing poet called Sir Thomas Menhenitt, the Poet Laureate of Wessex. And Sir Thomas (his surname is genuinely Cornish) is as scary as his reputation suggests; Ned remembers his lines about encountering a thrush, which in fact perfectly sum up people’s reaction to him:

All I had wanted was to hear him sing,
My presence made him flinch and take to wing . . .

Sir Thomas lives in Dudeney Lodge, where Ned attempts at first in vain to find a lost poem. Outside the house is a monkey-puzzle tree, araucaria, which serves as an indication that things aren’t as they seem. (The name of Dudeney Lodge seems to be inspired, very appropriately, by Henry Dudeney from East Sussex, who was best known as a creator of mathematical puzzles.) Sir Thomas, indeed, turns out to be some kind of psychic vampire, sucking the joy, vitality and essence from his muses; and it is up to Ned with his trusty key, and with the help of his ghostly friend Eden, a bell and a mirror, to attempt to resolve the whole issue.

Does Ned find that lost poem? A large part of Bone and Dream is taken up with Sir Thomas composing and dictating a villanelle, during which he badgers and bullies Jonquil. That hectoring approach, along with the announcement of the death of a previous muse called Rose, seem to seal his fate before those missing lines are ever found. The key is in the repeating lines, ones which must finally end as rhyming couplets; they seems to suggest that Sir Thomas’ fate is to be incorporeal:

to me the history of my bone is dream
small wonder that I am is what I seem

Bone and Dream is a strange little wrapping up of an odd little trilogy. Themes are revisited but shade into darker shadows; everything is dreamlike. The pervading mood is melancholy, no doubt a reflection of Joan’s own life. In 2001 her husband Julius had died. A visit to St Ives then inspired her to write the St Boan trilogy. Bone and Dream was published a little less than two years before her own death in early 2004, and this sad trilogy feels like a premonition.

But there are still touches of life in this third piece — the flower names of Rose, Fuchsia and Jonquil, the thrush of the poem, the lilac grove in the garden — to remind us that life in all its glory is still with us.


The villanelle is a lovely poetic form to work at. Here are two I’ve previously attempted on the theme of Spring: Welcome Spring’s on its Way and an extended villanelle When Winter’s Snow at Last.

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8 thoughts on “The mood is melancholy

  1. You have caught the melancholy mood…yes it was one of her last. She wrote some vilanelles too, will post presently!

    “The wind is standing still and we are moving
    But this there’s little likelihood of proving…”

    1. I’d love to see those posted, thanks, Lizza.

      I’ve next to get my head around the inconsistent chronology of the transion from Tree to Dido and Pa, November the First mentioned in the former, and ten days later in the latter it’s late November! A bit of interpretative ‘explaining’ will be called for… 😁

    1. It has the virtue of being short, at any rate. 🙂 But I’d recommend any of her collections of stories for children, for definite, a wonderful basket of nostalgia, magic, words, music, dreams, vaguely remembered tales, lore, poetry, melancholy and delight. And characters that you implicitly love and trust — that’s important to remember.

  2. Just read Bone and Dream. I liked so many things about it, especially the lines of Sir Thomas’ poetry, but I felt this was like a sketch for a larger work. I would have liked it to be five times longer and more detailed. Maybe you could direct me to one of her iconic longer works?

    1. Depends what you yearn for. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a children’s classic, and quite rightly so, with its mix of Austen, Brontë, Dickens, alternate history, adventure etc. But she also wrote supernatural mysteries (for instance The Haunting of Lamb House), Austen sequels (eg Mansfield Revisited and Jane Fairfax), historical novels (Go Saddle the Sea and its sequels) — in fact, do explore the website JoanAiken.com and in particular this page: http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/books.html

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