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.
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.