Grim up north

19th-century Grimsby (image credit: Grimsby Telegraph)

Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place
Hodder Children’s Books 2014 (1974)

‘Nowt said breaks no head.’ — Davey Scatcherd

A dark tale of unspoken secrets and kind words, sharp practices and generosity, bravery and steadfastness, all set in a grim manufacturing town may not sound ideal fare for young readers, and yet Joan Aiken to my mind has carried it off. While there is no “Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills” there is hope and optimism amongst the tragedy and a determination that creativity can counteract the bleaker side of human contradictions.

Orphan Lucas Bell is under the guardianship of Sir Randolph Grimsby, privately educated by a a taciturn tutor at the forbidding Midnight Court, hard by the town of Blastburn. As Lucas turns thirteen he is joined by another orphan, Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who, lately come from Calais, speaks only French.

But relationships between these four individuals is somewhat strained as suspicions sour the atmosphere, already fouled by the smoke and grime from nearby Blastburn. Something has to give and for Lucas and others they find it is a case of out of the frying pan, only to find themselves, almost literally, in the fire.

Midnight is a Place is a fierce re-imagining of an England (here called Albion) at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when the destitute from the countryside migrated to the urban centres where they hoped to find some kind of paid work in factories, mills and other workplaces. Here is an amalgam of the Vendale of the opening of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies with the Lancashire of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, the curious and suggestive names from Dickens’ fiction with the feminist sensibilities of the Brontë sisters. In fact this novel is set in 1842, the year in which Charlotte and Emily Brontë set off to work in Brussels, just as Anna-Marie Murgatroyd is making the reverse journey from the Continent to a thinly disguised Yorkshire.

In Lucas and Anna-Marie we have two distinctive protagonists, one creative and self-effacing, the other feisty and practical — it’s as though they represent twin aspects of the author herself. The journey from middleclass respectability to a hand-to-mouth penury working in sewers, in a textile mill, making cigars anew from discarded butts and so on is both heartbreaking and yet heartwarming, especially when friends are found in the most unlikely of places and in the direst of circumstances.

I must add that, unlike many of the Wolves Chronicles where villains get their just desserts and the good win through in the end, Midnight is a Place introduces death, often violent, as a necessary adjunct to life, and the hoped-for happy ending is edged with funereal black. If the Chronicles are magical realism, albeit with a social conscience, this novel — probably set in the same alternate world as the Chronicles — is more social realism, even if the fortuitous coincidences and unexpected revelations are more usual in lighter fiction.

Despite Midnight Court being a bleak house, as a Joan Aiken novel this still fulfils the promise of great expectations. Humour and music, wisdom and humanity suffuse the narrative; and, strangely, for a standalone title, there is to be an unsought-for sequel of sorts anticipated in a scripture-like prophecy made by a rascal in the closing pages.

This is the 5th read in my 20 Books of Summer, number one on my list here.

Follow-up posts on this novel, looking at the people, places, themes, history and geography presented here will appear in due course, as they have for titles already reviewed in the sequence known as the Wolves Chronicles.

13 thoughts on “Grim up north

  1. I love ‘a prophecy made by a rascal’ echoing ‘a tale told by an idiot’? which as you say, does in fact come true nearly twenty years later in Joan Aiken’s writing life. I wonder if she had been brooding about it all along? You will have some interesting historical dating to do then, as it is all tied to an eruption of Mount Hekla…

    Interesting that many Aiken readers cite ‘Midnight’ as their absolute favourite, it offers the power of hope, and the example of courage and creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too can see why Midnight might be a favourite, for the reasons you state but also because it is an intricate tale, one where we see events first from Lucas’ point of view and then Anna-Marie’s.

      And, yes, Hekla! I worked out that our Hekla and the Chronicles’ Hekla didn’t erupt in the same year, but my workings were from a few years ago so I may well be revising that. 🙂

      I think Gudgeon’s prophecy may well have lodged in her mind (or that in fact she lodged it there!) — I shall argue in a future post that this is another example of the Escape from the Four Elements theme… What a wealth of invention she had command of!


  2. I wonder if i may have read this as a child. I remember reading about two unlucky children in a textile mill and based on its placement in the library, which I do think I remember although I have forgotten most other things about the book, the author name should start on one of the first letters in the alphabet… If it was the same book I remember it being very exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sure that as an adult different things will strike you now, if you were to read it again! It’s only five years since I first read it and new ideas and angles still appeared unexpectedly every other page. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I finally got my hands on another copy and it is definitely the book I read as a child. I only got it today and I have already devoured it. Thanks for putting me on the path of finding it, it was a pleasure to reread!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m trying to remember how I first experienced this Industrial Revolution world from a child’s perspective….The Baker Street Irregulars, maybe? But I remember learning about kids on looms working for hours and hours and just thinking…that can’t be, that should never be, and having nightmares.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How awful to have nightmares from learning these details, but I agree the working conditions, the horrific injuries, the mortality rate, the cheapness of life were aspects of the beginnings the Industrial Revolution, including the awful reality of child labour, that it’s hard to find acceptable. The fact that it continues in many parts of the world today, providing us with so much we take for granted, is the most horrific thing in my opinion. As for kids novels dealing with the Industrial Revolution, this is not a literary area I’m familiar with, I’m afraid, Jean.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh that’s okay. I can’t remember if this is something I found on my own, or assigned by a teacher, or if it was that Holmes Irregular book. I think it’s important, though. I was telling my daughter about it, and she just couldn’t wrap her head around kids working in factories aaaaall day.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. William Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794) got across a bit of the pathos of children born at this time into a “dangerous world” of factories, Mills and poverty:

          Infant Sorrow

          “My mother groand! my father wept.
          Into the dangerous world I leapt,
          Helpless, naked, piping loud;
          Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

          Struggling in my father’s hands,
          Striving against my swaddling bands;
          Bound and weary, I thought best
          To sulk upon my mother’s breast.”

          Liked by 1 person

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