As part of a series of posts examining aspects of Joan Aiken’s Dickensian alternate history Midnight is a Place (1974) I want now to come to the mansion that is suggested in the title, Midnight Court, the stately pile formerly owned by the Murgatroyd family and now, as the result of a wager, in the grubby hands of Sir Randolph Grimsby.
The author gives us several details of its appearance and history in the text which I shall be attempting to fill out with speculation and suppositions. Even if you haven’t read, or don’t intend to read, the novel, don’t despair—there may still be material here that could entrammel your natural curiosity!
She gives us several clues in the opening pages. There’s a park encircled by a high stone wall surrounding Midnight Court, with blackened and half dead horse chestnut trees standing ‘like chess-pieces from a half-finished game dotted over the sooty grass’. An octagonal lodge guards massive iron gates far across the park.
By daylight, we’re told, Midnight Court is “a big, light-grey mass, built of Grimshead Moor stone, which neither storm nor rain could darken,” but it is delapidated, with many tiles slipped and windows with broken or missing panes.
Lucas Bell, on the cusp of his teen years, has a shabby schoolroom in the Court’s east wing; the few remaining servants have quarters in the west wing near the kitchens at the back of the house. Next door to the schoolroom is the disused butler’s pantry. Stone passages lead to the main hall, “a bare, looted-looking apartment,” its walls devoid of paintings, a gaping hole in the ceiling from which a chandelier once hung. Above the fireplace sits a carved stone coat of arms, and long marble stairs lead to an upper floor.
The great house of over “half a hundred rooms” is, we’re told, half empty, with thirty rooms closed, and very dilapidated and in want of repair. On the first floor along a corridor (perhaps a long gallery) is a study belonging to Lucas’ guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby; and closer to the east wing are more bedchambers, most of them unoccupied except one called the Oak Chamber. This contains
a fourposter bed with thick dark hangings, an iron-bound chest, a carved oak grandfather-clock, a high chair, a large old clothes-press; the walls were covered by aged worn tapestries […] the embroidered scenes depicted Hannibal crossing the Alps or the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
Perhaps the subtext of this disputed theme is that Lucas has either invaded or is about to escape from the Court.
Back stairs (all great houses had these, mainly for servants to pass unobserved by the family and their guests) lead up to a higher floor where, still in the east wing, Lucas sleeps. At the head of these stairs hangs a portrait of a boy from the mid-17th century with “dark hair and laughing eyes,” a falcon on his wrist. Lucas pictures this long gone Cavalier lad as an idealised companion, an imaginary friend whom he calls Greg.
From here, in the opposite direction from his room, Lucas is able to approach his tutor Mr Oakapple’s room by passing along “a complicated series of landings, galleries, and corridors”.
Outside to the rear is the stable yard with a stable wing “between the east and west wings of the E-shaped house”. This tells us that the house is likely to have been built or remodelled in Tudor times in the Palladian style, when symmetry and E- and H-shaped floor plans became largely de rigueur. Imagine Midnight Court then as a capital E lying on its long axis, the three horizontals pointing north.
A couple of Tudor-period residences to the north and east of Hull suggest how we could view Midnight Court, should we choose to. First off is Burton Agnes Hall, a symmetrical mansion with brickwork façades. This presents an impression of a stylish and imposing structure as might suit Midnight Court. However, it sports a square floor plan, with four similar façades, all of which runs counter to the E-shaped plan of the Court.
The other residence is Burton Constable Hall which, despite an orientation 90° adrift from Midnight Court’s, is quite close to our imagined plan for the former Murgatroyd House. Seat of the Lords of Holderness and with a history stretching back a millennium and more, Burton Constable had a substantial estate surrounding it, a lake, a deer park and associated buildings.
We are told a few other facts about Midnight Court from which we can deduce further details. There is an ice house in the “corner nearest the town”, very probably in the southeast of the grounds. A narrow aperture in the estate wall allows access from this direction, large hidden by the copse that has grown up inside and outside. On the opposite side, towards the west, is the lake from which blocks of ice used to be cut in winter to store in the ice house.
Off towards the southwest corner is the octagonal lodge and gateway, from which a drive curves up to the house, continuing around the southeast corner up the east façade, thence to the stable yard on the north side. In the other direction the road from the lodge leads south downhill, eventually curving east to approach Blastburn from the west along Strand Gate.
We also learn a bit about the region around Midnight Court and Blastburn. Grimside is a “great black hill” to the north of the town. Further afield is Grydale Moor and Grydale Water, with Scroop Moss and Kilnpit Crags at some unspecified distance. (We don’t hear about Holdernesse Hill, just north of the town, until Is Underground, also set in Blastburn; perhaps this is an alternative name for Grimside.)
The wager that Sir Randolph and Denzil Murgatroyd undertake involves a horse race, the former going from Bellemont Priory to Midnight Court via Canby Moorside, the latter via Mucky-under-Edge hard by Muckle Sump. (Bellemont Priory may be modelled on Beverley Minster, North of Hull, or on some other former monastic site such as Meaux Abbey.) Part of the wager involved a piece of Clutterby Pie, the speciality of Clutter-by-le-Scroop, adjacent to Scroop Moss.
That leaves High Wick, a farm whose tenants, the Artingstalls, are regular in their rent payments to the Court, and Sutton Grimsdale whose former rector, Reverend Oakapple, was father of Lucas’ tutor Julian.
Some of these place names have every appearance of being genuine because they have counterparts in our world, but others display Aiken’s love of wit and mild exaggeration.
Further details of Dramatis Personae, chronology and other matters are planned for future posts