Courting danger

Brontë birthplace, Market Street, Thornton

In this post, one of a series about Joan Aiken’s uchronia Midnight is a Place, we shall be meeting the people associated with Midnight Court, the mansion just outside Blastburn, an industrial town in the northeast of Albion.

In this mini-prosopography there will be the inevitable *spoilers* but also much revelatory biographical and other material, for those who are fans of the author and her Wolves Chronicles.

Midnight Court
A mansion to the west of Blastburn, previously owned by the Murgatroyd family before passing to Sir Randolph Grimsby. North Lees Hall, Hathersage, a probable inspiration for Charlotte Brontë’s Thornfield Hall, could also stand in for Midnight Court (image credit © David Bevis)

Lucas Bell. Born on the 31st October 1829, his story opens on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, viz 30th October 1842. An orphan, his parents Edwin Lucas and Mary Bell had died in 1841 of smallpox in India, and by the terms of their will he’d been sent to be the ward of Edwin’s business partner Sir Randolph Grimsby. The latter had once sought the hand of Mary Bell (née Dunnithorne). Lucas harbours ambitions to be a writer but with a grumpy guardian and a depleted household, his main concern is how lonely he is.

Bearing in mind the author’s likely debts to details in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we may fruitfully consider the Bell surname. The Brontë sisters chose pseudonyms for their first forays in being published, based on their individual initials: Acton Bell, Currer Bell and Ellis Bell. Favoured theories as to why this surname was chosen range from a distant family surname to ‘belle’, French for beautiful. I think it is likely that Aiken in turn chose this surname in honour of the pseudonymous author of Jane Eyre.

Whence Lucas? I don’t know, but by a curious coincidence the de Luca family now own Emily’s, tea rooms at The Brontë Birthplace on Market Street in Thornton, Bradford, where the four youngest siblings were born. Alternatively Aiken may have had Lizzie Bennett’s friend Charlotte Lucas, from Pride and Prejudice, in the back of her mind.

Anna-Marie Eulalie Murgatroyd. Francophone daughter of the late Denzil Murgatroyd and granddaughter of Sir Quincy and Lady Eulalie Murgatroyd. Eight years old when this novel opens she will have been born late in 1813 or during 1814. Though she resents being at Midnight Court she’s quick to learn English and to push boundaries. She has a doll called Fifine, but misses her cat Sidi, who was drowned on the voyage over.

Anna-Marie has a mixed English and French heritage, brought up in Calais at the house of Madame Granchot and in Dieppe, part of the time with Mme Hortense of the Auberge du Cheval Blanc (the White Horse Inn); ‘Hortense’ is the name of an extremely practical and no-nonsense Fleming in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.

Anna-Marie has a Yorkshire surname, derived from the Calder valley placename Margaret’s Royd (‘royd’ meaning a farm or clearing) near Halifax. In addition Anna-Maria Murgatroyd at Midnight Court feels like a nod towards the nine years old French-speaking Adèle Varens at Thornfield Hall in Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre, while Eulalie is a Belgian pupil in her early novel The Professor; Murgatroyd is also the surname of a badly-treated mill-worker in Shirley.

Julian Oakapple. Son of Reverend Oakapple, late rector of Sutton Grimsdale (died 1832), and Mrs Oakapple (died 1840). Employed as Lucas’ tutor, Julian is estimated by his pupil to be around 35 (and thus born around 1807). Missing two fingers from his left hand after defending Denzil Murgatroyd from attackers on Shoreham beach in Kent in 1822, he regrets no longer being able to play the violin. Distant with Lucas at first, he tries to honour his friendship with Denzil by surreptitiously bringing Anna-Marie to Midnight Court.

It’s likely that Aiken chose the name Oakapple for a number of reasons. First, the ‘apple’ of the oak is the gall, a structure that surrounds and protects developing wasp larvae until by a process of metamorphosis they become adult wasps — an apt image for the role of a tutor. Second, the tannin in the gall when mixed with other material was for thousands of years used to make ink, again another suitable simile for the tutor’s role, as we’re reminded when Lucas accidentally spills some ink on his book. And third, Oakapple may be a closet reference to the author, ‘aiken’ being Scots for ‘oaken‘.

Sir Randolph Grimsby. Owner, now in his sixties, of Murgatroyd’s Carpet, Rug and Matting Manufactory in Blastburn. Also the owner of Midnight Court from 1822, won from the Murgatroyd family after cheating in a horse race with Denzil,* which resulted in the sudden death of Denzil’s father Sir Quincy and the disappearance of Denzil, feared drowned off Kent. Lame and relying on a pair of walking sticks, he sits like a sinister spider in the middle of the mansion while staff, unpaid, gradually disappear. Irascible, vindictive and disappointed in love, he continues to drink and gamble away his income, finally perishing in a fire that devastates the Court.

While ‘Grimsby’ suggests the nearby Lincolnshire port, Joan Aiken may have had the associations of the word ‘grim’ in the back of her mind in choosing this name. In addition, there is a very suggestive character in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which a Mr Grimsby appears as an inveterate gambler, thoroughly unpleasant to boot, who expires after a drunken fight.

The most suggestive parallel to Sir Randolph’s first name I can think of comes from a Scottish ballad first transcribed by Sir Walter Scott: ‘Lord Randall’. In it young Lord Randall (the name is a variant of Randolph) is ‘sick at heart’ after hunting, for two reasons. He is lovesick after being rejected by his lover; but also he believes he is slowly dying because she has poisoned him. This parallels Sir Randolph’s disappointment at Mary Dunnithorne rejecting him in favour of Lucas’ father, and goes some way to explaining why Randolph’s mind was so poisoned that he was willing not only to ruin the Murgatroyd family but also to ‘exile’ his business partner Edwin and his new wife Mary Bell to India, never suspecting that he would later have to bring up their surviving son.

Mary Bell’s maiden name of Dunnithorne also has a story attached to it. Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations, appears to have been based on an Australian woman, Eliza Emily Donnithorne. Her bridegroom-to-be never turned up for the wedding breakfast, which was left slowly mouldering; she was reported to have been found still in her bridal clothes when she died in 1886, long after the novel was published. However, you will recall that Miss Haversham died scant weeks after her wedding dress caught fire; we can’t help recollecting Sir Randolph’s eventual fate.

Tom Grenville. Denzil Murgatroyd’s friend, killed on Shoreham beach by Sir Randolph’s thugs.

Eleanora Featherstonehuff. Denzil’s ex-fiancée. This is possibly a joke on the part of the author: the surname, usually written as Featherstonehaugh, is customarily pronounced as Fanshawe, the element ‘haugh’ sounding as ‘hawe’.

Sir Quincy Murgatroyd. Died 1822. Founder of the largest textile mill, around which the town of Blastburn grew. Died suddenly after his son Denzil told him he had gambled his heritage and lost. He has an unnamed sister.

Eulalia Murgatroyd, née Boismarchère. Widow of Sir Quincy, mother to Denzil and grandmother of Anna-Marie. After Sir Quincy’s sudden death she quietly moved into the icehouse in the grounds of the Court, from where she ministered to the sick and poor of the town and, as Madame Minette or Minetti, went out to give music lessons. (Minette or Minetti may have been Lady Murgatroyd’s mother’s maiden name, related to minou, a familiar name for a cat or kitten in French.) She is also reputed to be a witch (so Lucas believes when he first spots her in the distance at Halloween); it may be significant that her disgraced son tries to sail to France in a vessel called Sea Witch.

Augustus, Lord Holdernesse. Gus is Eulalia Murgatroyd’s cousin, perhaps by virtue of his father marrying Eulalia’s aunt. Owner of the British Rug, Mat, and Carpet Manufacturing Corporation. The name Holdernesse is taken from the North Sea peninsula to the east of Kingston-upon-Hull and Beverley.

Mrs Gourd. Housekeeper. Her name comes from the fleshy fruit.
Pinhorn. Head housemaid.
Fanny. Maid.
Abby. Chamber maid.
Amos Garridge. Head groom.
Pickens. Under gardener. Madge Pickens. His wife.
Mr and Mrs Gribbert. Lodge keepers. The name Gribbert is Dutch.

Mr Flitch. Former butler. ‘Flitch’ means a side of unsliced bacon.
Bob. Former groom.
Gabriel Towzer. Former butler, now a drunk with a secret to hide. He has sisters in Blastburn and Keighley. Towzer was a popular name for a dog. Gabriel recalls the ghostly pack of Gabriel hounds that in folklore accompanied the Wild Hunt chasing after lost souls.

Mr and Mrs Artingstall. Tenant farmers in High Wick, paying regular rent to Midnight Court.

Redgauntlet. Sir Randolph’s wolfhound, later adopted by Lady Murgatroyd. This novel being an outlier in the Wolves Chronicles this wolfhound is as close as we’re likely to get to the marauding pack animals of this alternate world. The name Redgauntlet was inspired by the Sir Walter Scott novel, of course, an author much admired by the Brontë siblings (and presumably by Aiken).

Noddy. The old cob who pulls the cart that Mr Oakapple, Lucas and Anna-Marie periodically travel in to and from Blastburn.


The second part of this Who’s Who will feature people from Blastburn.

Pauline Clooney. The mystery of the Brontë’s pseudonyms. https://wp.me/p6hGBf-7w. Accessed 24.06.2019

Glenda Leeming. Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës. Elm Tree Books. 1974

* Denzil and Sir Randolph were both members of the Devil’s Roustabouts, modelled on the famous Hellfire Clubs of the 18th century.

2 thoughts on “Courting danger

  1. I tried to bring Midnight is a Place into a discussion about Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novels last night and no one wanted to know. Why are people so blind to the merits of Children’s Literature? (Don’t worry, that is a rhetorical question!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what you mean: it’s a false idea of ‘progression’ as ‘progress’ in literature, a distorted Darwinian sense that kids lit bears the same relationship to adult lit as amoebas to primates. And yet the same concerns infuse both: relationships, the meaning of life, resolution after conflict, weathering physical and emotional storms, personal achievements. And, of course, social justice which, I would argue, is what most of the Chronicles (and Midnight) have as a major strand running through them.

      And in a world gone mad we need constant reminders, in literature as elsewhere, that social justice should be paramount in the face of selfish monolithic institutions, political and corporate — or we all risk annihilation.

      Liked by 2 people

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