The illustrations above depict Claire Sennegon in 1837 and, in a self-portrait, Christen Købke in 1832, both of whom I imagine Sophie and twin brother Simon might have resembled in the mid-1830s when Dido Twite finally reconnected with them in London. Simon of course was a talented artist while Sophie was equally adept at taking proactive roles.
In this post we will start looking at the characters who feature in Joan Aiken’s alternate history Wolves Chronicle Dido and Pa, some of whom (as we will discover) belong to an informal group known as the Birthday League. They’ll be introduced according to principal places in the novel, and as there is much background information the post comes in two parts: this is . . . part one.
Note: the usual spoiler alert applies!
Petworth, West Sussex
Dido Twite. In Dido and Pa we discover that our heroine (11 or 12, depending on a number of factors discussed in a previous post) was born on March 1st, St David’s Day, 1824. Already, after years at sea, she has had a wealth of adventures and experiences that enable her to use her wits to the advantage of friends and her compassion to right wrongs. In Dido and Pa she also shows herself adaptable by swapping from a midshipman’s uniform to page boy dress for a soirée, then a disguise as a charity boy. She’s abducted by her father on the orders of the rascally Margrave because she has had personal contact with the new king, Richard IV. That knowledge puts her in a cleft stick: on the one hand she can coach the King’s double to speak in Richard’s Scottish voice and using his turns of phrase; on the other her life is on the line once her tutoring is over.
Abednego Twite. Dido’s Pa, whom she had already re-encountered in The Cuckoo Tree, goes under various aliases: Desmond, even Denzil (as the redoubtable Lily Bloodvessel knows him), and his new preferred moniker, Boris von Bredalbane, composer and the Master of the Margrave’s Music. (Breadalbane, “upper Alba”, is a region in the Highlands, meaning that Abednego’s new alias combines Russian, German and Scottish elements, though Joan Aiken may have been influenced by the River Brede which flows past her birthplace of Rye in East Sussex.) His lack of concern for his newly refound daughter Dido, combined with his disdain for Is — probably Dido’s half-sister — makes him a distinctly unsympathetic figure despite his undoubted musical talents.
Simon. The sixth Duke of Battersea, heir to William the fifth Duke, owns “most of Wessex”, East Humbria, Loose Chippings Castle in Yorkshire and Bakerloo House in Chelsea. Simon, Dido’s oldest friend (as we saw in Night Birds in Nantucket) had finally caught up with Dido after a gap of two or three years in The Cuckoo Tree only to lose her again. He is now either 18 or approaching that age, as it has now been established that he and his sister Sophie were born on April 10th, 1818.
• As the post ‘Wrinkles in timelines’ implies, either Dido has fallen through a temporal wormhole when she travels across the Pacific Ocean to visit the Spice Islands in Limbo Lodge / Dangerous Games, or the chronology is irretrievably a year out (it being 1835 when the logic of fictional events tells us it should be 1836).
Matthew Mogg. Simon Battersea’s aged groom, who has driven Simon down to Petworth and Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze, and now will return him to Chelsea.
Cinnamon Court, Wapping, London
Lord Forecastle; the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Percy Tipstaff; and the Dean of St Paul’s (whom we met only recently, in The Cuckoo Tree) are sailing downriver past Cinnamon Court in a wherry around one o’clock in the afternoon when it is sunk and they are drowned, all as expected (and as arranged) by the Margrave Wolfgang von Eisengrim.
Wolfgang von Eisengrim. Son of Prince Rupert of Hanover and a dairymaid, Eisengrim is the 60-year-old Margrave of Nordmarck, landgraf of Bad Wald, Baron Blitzenburg, Plenipotentiary in Ordinary from the Court of Hanover, first cousin to Prince George of Hanover, with estates in Eastphalia and Saxony. His ruthlessness is evident when we hear he has planned the deaths of those closest to the newly-crowned king Richard IV. Like the Biblical Saul (or the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk) his ill-disposition can only be cured by listening to music, in his case the compositions and playing of his court musician Boris von Bredalbane, alias Abednego Twite. As Congreve wrote, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.”
• There is another set of suggestive names and themes in the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, also involving an autocrat, music and somebody called Abednego: in The Book of Daniel Nebuchadnezzar the king is being addressed:
Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every man that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship the golden image: and whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that he should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace […]
When they refuse “Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” and he has the three men thrown into the super-heated furnace; surprisingly they are unharmed. Now, Apocrypha additions to chapter 3 of The Book of Daniel include ‘The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Holy Children’: as we are told Abednego’s original name was Azariah, it’s tempting to think that the prayer Abednego/Azariah sings before and the hymn of praise that he and his companions sing after their delivery from the flames, along with the instrumental music for the king’s idol, all provided suggestive details for Aiken’s concept of Abednego Twite and the Margrave.
• Now we come to the name of Eisengrim. This is derived from one of the earliest medieval tales of Reynard the Fox in which Ysengrimus or Isengrim the Wolf is continually defeated by Reynard. While the name is Germanic (from isen ‘iron’ + grim ‘fierce’) the English pronunciation might suggest a false etymology from ‘ice’ (Reynard in one episode tricks Isengrim into fishing with his tail through a hole in the ice, with the inevitable consequence). Perhaps not coincidentally the Margrave’s residence is set beside the frozen Thames, on which his henchmen — sailing an ice-yacht — attempt to catch and despatch Dido and her friend (though not before the henchmen fall victim to their own machinations, through a hole in the ice). You will of course already have noticed that the Margrave already has a vulpine forename, Wolfgang, the most famous bearer of this name of course being the musical prodigy Mozart.
Where did Aiken draw the name for her wolfish villain from? The medieval tales, of course, may have been her primary source. She may also have known of Tolkien’s hobbits of that name in The Lord of the Rings, or possibly she took her cue from The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies, especially the third volume of which — World of Wonders (1975) — featured Magnus Eisengrim as the alias of magician Paul Dempster. Joan was later to use Magnus as the name of the villain in the Wolves chronicle Midwinter Nightingale (2003), which I find suggestive.
Was Eisengrim a werewolf? It’s tempting to think so. Although only sixty (around the age Aiken was when writing Dido and Pa) Eisengrim’s bloodthirstiness seems to be slaked only by the death of victims, some of whom were consigned to the cellars to expire from drowning or rats. In the Margrave’s final hours his personal physician tries various procedures to relieve him, including enemas, bleeding and leeches, even considering lithotomy (kidney stone removal), dririmancy (diagnosis from watching blood dripping) and phlebotomy (making an incision in a vein) but nothing avails. At the point of death Eisengrim “let out a wail — a long, terrible, howling, keening, lamenting ululation — such as one of the wolves themselves might have given, robbed of its prey.” His expiration is truly horrendous:
Before their aghast eyes the Margrave began to shrink, to shrivel and dwindle; the lips pulled back from the teeth, the jaw fell open, the eyes glazed and filmed […] [From] the appearance, the chill, and the dreadful dank odour of the body, anyone just arriving in the room would conclude that the person lying there had been dead for several days, if not weeks.
Maybe this Wolfgang is not just a werewolf but also a kind of vampire, sustained purely by Abednego’s music when he runs out of victims.
Mijnheer Henk van Doon is a Dutch actor from Leyden or Leiden, whose wife and daughter have died from cholera. With plastic surgery done to his nose he is the spitting image of King Richard IV. The Margrave’s plan is to substitute him for the king and then have Richard assassinated.
Dr Willibald Finster is the Margrave’s physician. His character can be drawn from his surname which in German is variously translated as sinister, grim (like his master), dark, gloomy, ominous or shady.
Lady Maria, resplendent in a diamond coronet and amber satin gown, is the only guest at Eisengrim’s sumptuous (but ultimately disastrous) musical soirée to be named, but she is one of very many.
Prince George of Hanover is a key figure though he doesn’t appear in person. First cousin to the Margrave he is reported ill with ‘octagonal fever’ and dies during the course of the narrative, causing the Margrave to adapt his plans for ousting the Stuart monarchs.
• There was a Prince George of Hanover around this period in our world. When Ernest Duke of Cumberland, upon the death of William IV, became King of Hanover in 1837 his son thus became Prince George. Joan Aiken seems to have freely adapted our history for her own purposes here.
Boletus is the Margrave’s steward who, along with Morel, the Margrave’s coach driver, travels by ice yacht while attempting to drown Dido as she crosses the frozen Thames. The night porter at Cinnamon Court is Mr Chantrel: it won’t have escaped your notice that all three of these servants have names that are fungus-related.
Alf (birthday: July 4th) is a red-headed page at Cinnamon Court, son of a surveyor for the Thames Tunnel. Unfortunately he is drowned by order of the Margrave for helping Dido, Sophie and lollpoops escape from Cinnamon Court, the Thames proving to be, alas, not such a sacred river for this Alf.
Another related post will detail the remaining characters appearing in this novel