Blastburn themes

Norton Conyers Hall, 1899 © North Yorkshire Country Record Office

Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) is a curious uchronia or alternate history: though not officially part of the sequence that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it shares many of the features that distinguish the Wolves Chronicles, including themes, period and places.

In 1971 Joan published The Cuckoo Tree which seemed to end a run of novels that had characters in common, namely Simon, Dido Twite and Owen Hughes. In 1974 Midnight went back to Blastburn, where ten chronicle years before (in 1832) Bonnie and Sylvia had been treated so badly at a charity school; fans of Charlotte Brontë will have recognised that the Brisket school will have shared qualities with Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

In this post I want to identify the themes that it shares with other chronicles in the sequence, plus a couple of other features that I feel merit attention. As always with these discussions there will a high risk of spoilers so do read the novel first or skip this post if that troubles you.

Resourceful child

The Chronicles, like many examples in children’s fiction, are predicated on the theme of the Resourceful Child, and Midnight is a Place is no exception to this template. Often the child is an orphan, or has somehow ‘lost’ one or both parents, and is called upon to make difficult decisions, maybe even make mistakes, all in the cause of gaining maturity and growing morally. If the child is somehow the Chosen One, one about whom a prophecy is made or is heir to some inheritance or title, so much the better, according to the template.

In this novel we have not just one Resourceful Child but two, Lucas and Anna-Marie, both — aged 13 and 9, respectively — orphans, both having to cope with changed circumstances and finding it within themselves to rise to the challenges thrown at them.

Kindness overcomes all

Related to the young protagonists in each instalment is the virtue that characterises practically all of them: kindness or generosity of spirit. Lucas reluctantly tries to support Anna-Marie who at first rebuffs him, both support others, and so on. It’s that chain of unstinting support that leads to positive outcomes, contrasting with the pervasive selfishness and vindictiveness that otherwise tends to prevail in Blastburn. Sometimes, as we find here, such generosity can lead to the ultimate sacrifice.

Drowning / shipwreck

The Chronicles are full of people, good and bad, drowning or at risk of drowning: usually it’s at sea (often due to shipwreck) but occasionally it’s from a river in flood, a whirlpool, a tsunami, and once, memorably, from falling off a long range cannon balanced over a sea cliff.

In Midnight Denzil Murgatroyd, son of Sir Quincy and Lady Eulalie Murgatroyd, is feared drowned in the English Channel when the Sea Witch founders but survives. Later, Lucas nearly drowns after being attacked by hogs in Blastburn’s sewers and might have died of hyperthermia if he hadn’t been found. And Bob Bludward, the textile mill’s resident extortioner, at the end finds himself literally on thin ice just as Blastburn’s early spring thaw is setting in.

Underground

Almost every Chronicle features a stint below ground — under the Channel or the Thames, in cellars or mines, below castles or mountains. Midnight is no exception: Lucas spends an inordinate amount of time in Blastburn’s stinking sewers, menaced by rats and marauding herds of hogs.

One could also regard the ice house in the grounds of Midnight Court as ‘under ground’ seeing as its disguised as a hilly tump with turf growing over it.

Child labour

A distressing but common theme is that of child labour, even slave labour, whether paid or not; it’s often related to kidnapping (what John Masefield, followed by Joan Aiken, often referred to as scrobbling).

In the Chronicles we find children and adults working in dangerous conditions such as mines (in the Andes, under Welsh mountains, even — in a later novel — under the North Sea), on plantations and, as here, in mills and factories.

Mistaken identity

Whether under an assumed name or even a different gender characters frequently appear as something they’re not. To avoid prejudice both Lucas and Anna-Marie introduce themselves as someone different; their tutor Julian Oakapple doesn’t reveal his connection with the heir of Midnight Court; Sir Randolph Grimsby has different individuals masquerading as himself; and the ‘witch’ in the ice house is revealed as Lady Murgatroyd, sometimes passing herself off as music teacher Miss Minetti.

Downfall

Villains in the Wolves Chronicles generally come to a sticky end with, quite literally, a downfall (or ‘bad falling off’) as they rapidly descend from a high place. That can be off a cliff, a viaduct, down a well, into a chasm, even off the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

In Midnight is a Place the ‘falling off’ for one villain is less spectacular, falling through breaking ice into the freezing waters of a wintry lake.

Escape from the Four Elements

The medieval ‘elements’ were earth, air, fire and water, and it’s rare that protagonists and their friends don’t escape from all four or at least three of them.

In this novel we witness escape from fire at Midnight Court, and from water and earth for Lucas in the sewers. Escape from air is more problematical, but I’m going for a symbolic solution: if we see danger as coming from above (‘the air’) then avoiding being crushed to death by the descending steam press in the carpet factory may be a suitable stand-in.

Language

Joan Aiken is generally keen to introduce languages which aren’t Standard English or Received Pronunciation into her instalments: so far we have had Welsh, Scots English, Cockney, American English, aspects of Portuguese, Spanish and Latin, even thieves’ cant or slang.

Here she successfully introduces, to my ear, a Yorkshire way of speaking with judiciously chosen turns of phrase, idioms and words.

Prophecies

Scarcely a Chronicle passes without there being some kind of prophecy or prediction waiting to be fulfilled, whether given by a blind seer, a local rhyme or tradition, a fortune teller or a palm reader. In this novel it emerges as one of the pseudo-Biblical ravings of the tosh collector Gudgeon:

The end thereof shall come in with flood; but neither can the floods drown love.

This quote looks forward, whether unconsciously or not, to Is Underground, which may or may not follow chronologically on the heels of this book.

Music

Joan Aiken was a great lover of music, both instrumental and sung, and it comes through in the ditties and rhymes expressed by characters or peppering the text, and also in the numerous explicit references to composers and compositions. Dido’s Pa, for example, played the oboe (‘hoboy’ or hautbois), and at least a couple of the Chronicles quote from nursery songs and rhymes.

Midnight makes great play of a tuning fork reputedly owned by no less a personage than Handel, passed down to the Murgatroyd family via Hector Boismarchère. Julian Oakapple was a violinist until injury apparently put an end to that, while Lady Murgatroyd teaches music and singing in the Blastburn area. The novel ends with a musical soirée in the now lively but amiable confines of the Court’s ice house.

Emily Brontë, View of Houses and Ruined Castle by a River (n.d.)

Midnight Court

The novel opens at, and ends in the grounds of, Midnight Court just outside Blastburn, so I want to end by saying a few words about it as a leitmotif in these pages.

The author may have borrowed the name of this fictional mansion from Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche, written in 1780 but not appearing in English until 1904 as The Midnight Court. Composed by Brian Merriman, a schoolmaster from County Clare, it describes the adventures of a poet who, after setting off one summer’s morning, is lured by a hag to a court ruled by a fairy queen called Aoibheal. (Is this pronounced as ‘Evil’?) However, Aiken’s Midnight Court is no fairy dwelling — there’s precious little magic as such in the novel — but she may well be suggesting that the mysterious house is somewhere in which unusual things happen.

More apposite to this novel are two other literary gems, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. In both of these, you will remember, there is a malign presence, and of course both also burn down. Du Maurier’s Manderley may possibly be referenced by Midnight Court’s name and its curving approach, while Brontë’s Thornfield Hall is, as with Aiken’s mansion, set in Yorkshire (possibly based on Norton Conyers, where there was a story that a mad woman in the attic tried to burn the house down).

There are more echoes, particularly with Jane Eyre. There is a young girl from overseas in both cases, Adèle Varens as opposed to Anna-Marie Murgatroyd; also, a teacher for the youngsters, Julian the tutor for Lucas, Jane the governess for Adèle; meanwhile, Randolph Grimsby and Julian Oakapple will both embody aspects of Edward Fairfax Rochester in that the first owns the mansion while the second will be terribly burnt by the fire that consumes it. (A post on names will expand on this and also on character names Aiken will borrow from the Brontë novel.)


These are the major themes this novel shares with other works in the Chronicles — there may be others but maybe they’ll be visited in later posts. Norton Conyers, depicted in the illustration at the head of this discussion, may be another way of imagining Midnight Court, just as it may have plausibly been a model for Jane Eyre

6 thoughts on “Blastburn themes

  1. Your closing comment had echoes of Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”, which he ends with “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard/There may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.” (youtube here:

    )

    As for “generosity of spirit” — this, I believe, is what’s missing in much of the world today (re your later post on the Tipping Point).

    By the way, what’s the date in the lower left corner of the Emily Brontë sketch?

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    1. The date in pen says 1832, but this appears to have been added by Charlotte’s friend Elen Nussey in the mistaken belief it was Charlotte’s sketch copied from a print at Roe Head school, but Emily’s name appears faintly done in pencil down the right hand side. This link suggests Emily copied it from her sister’s copy:
      https://www.princeton.edu/~graphicarts/2012/09/santa_maura_or_santa_maria.html

      Which castle at Haddington isn’t clear, not Hailes (square towers) or Bothwell in the Scottish town of Haddington (sadly demolished in the 1950s).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely analysis! I particularly dig that the protagonists not only have to escape a mortal threat (villains) but an elemental threat, too. This adds an extra layer of conflict since the elements don’t carry the taint of human nature. The elements don’t change. They are constant. And in their unemotional state they can be just as dangerous if not moreso than a human villain.

    (Gosh, I hope that makes sense. I’ve got a dumb cold and only kid medicine around to treat it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes absolute sense, Jean. In the Chronicles the elements are impersonal, the only conspiracy coming from the baddies who engineer situations where our protagonists are put in danger from the elements. But yes, earth, water, fire and air can then seem to have a personal vendetta against our innocents.

      ‘Summer cold’ — there’s something wrong about that combination of words, isn’t there! Hope your child remedies help to combat your ailment.

      Liked by 1 person

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