I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).
By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.
Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and later in Is (1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.
As I mentioned in a previous discussion here, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Blastburn is a place of “great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare,” has huge slag-heaps like “black pyramids” and dark cobbled streets where work goes on all night. On the road south is a “bridge over the wide river with its busy traffic of coal barges and wool wherries.”
It is here, on the furthest outskirts of the town, that we noted the Lowood-like Brisket Charity School where Miss Slighcarp takes Bonnie and Sylvia and from where they eventually escape at the end of 1832.
In Midnight is a Place we will find ourselves first in a grand mansion, the place of the title being Midnight Court, before moving to Blastburn. In Is we will explore more of Blastburn being near the sea as well as discovering it is built partially on Holdernesse Hill, under which an underground city called New Blastburn has been constructed.
Now, where did Joan Aiken have it in mind that Blastburn would be? You might initially think that with a name like that she might have thought of Blackburn as a model but, in fact, from many other clues we must dismiss a Lancashire location and plump for Yorkshire.
First there is the name Holdernesse. This is inspired by Holderness, a long peninsula east of Beverley and Kingston Upon Hull, bounded by the Humber estuary to the south and the North Sea to the east. Constantly eroded by wind and tide, the ‘ness’ ends in a spit composed of sand and shingle known as Spurn Head.
The Humber estuary, a confluence of the rivers Hull, Ouse and Trent, is what I surmise is called the River Wash here: ‘river wash’ of course means alluvial soil but also references the Wash, a large bay further south between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. As I’ll discuss later, the story of King John’s treasure being lost as his baggage train crossed the area partly parallels the fate of Gold Thingy in Is.
Now, is Kingston upon Hull a stand-in for Blastburn? I suspect not: it chiefly flourished as a port (whaling was dominant in the early part of the 19th century) rather than an industrial centre; and while its 12th-century predecessor Wyke on Hull was founded by Meaux Abbey as a port for exporting their wool, the textile factory which features in Midnight is a Place is too separated in time to have a direct connection with this medieval trade.
No, Blastburn in this novel is rather more likely to be a generic Yorkshire town of the period, a bit of West Yorkshire plonked in East Yorkshire: textile factories are more associated with Morley in Leeds, with Halifax and Bradford, for example. In addition, character names here are typically Yorkshire — Murgatroyd, Braithwaite, Gammel and Scatcherd, for example — and a chief antagonist in the novel, Sir Randolph Grimsby, bears a surname derived from the nearby Lincolnshire port on the south bank of the Humber.
This very brief guide to Blastburn is, then, a kind of amuse-bouche to a series of posts over the coming weeks in which, after a review of Midnight is a Place, I shall commence the usual process of exploration, investigating people and places, themes and geography and chronology.
And in case you hadn’t already twigged, this Aiken title is one of my 20 Books of Summer.