Midnight at midwinter

A grim-looking Grimsby, in the 19th century

We come now to the penultimate post in a series of discussions of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974). We know to the year and the day when the novel opens — 30th October 1842 — which is explicitly noted in the first few pages by one of the protagonists. This gives us both a starting point for the action and also a hint as to the kind of themes and concepts the author may be including as the story develops.

Over ten chapters I calculate that the plot takes us from the last days of October to the last day of the year. And, if I am correct to assume that Midnight is a Place can be retrospectively included in the series of novels that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) then this 1842 date will prove crucial in determining the chronology of the Wolves Chronicles after the end of Dido and Pa (1987).

Part of 1842 calendar, from timeanddate.com

30th October is obviously the day before Halloween. In the first chapter a number of events take place: Lucas, after expressing his loneliness, discovers that he is to be joined by young Anna-Marie Murgatroyd (who speaks only French) and is sent to visit Midnight Mill for the first time. According to timeanddate.com October 30th 1842 was a Sunday.

Monday October 31st opens Chapter Two. This is Lucas’ birthday, when he turns thirteen, and also Halloween. It’s rather suggestive, this combination of the unlucky number 13 and this night preceding All Hallows Day, and therefore tempting to think that the author did this intentionally (if somewhat surreptitiously) to prepare us for any unfortunate events to come. In addition, this day sees Lucas’ second visit to the mill, when the so far disagreeable Anna-Marie accompanies him, and spots the estate’s icehouse looking like a little hillock with a thorn tree on top and an opening in the side. When she asks if someone lives in the ‘cave’

‘A witch–‘ Lucas was beginning, but Mr Oakapple interrupted him with a frown.
‘What nonsense. Don’t let me hear you frighten the child with such tales.’

Lucas had however seen ‘the figure of an old woman dressed in grey slipping into the cave’ once or twice, in twilight and at a distance. What could she possibly be, he thinks, but a witch?

At the mill an attempted strike led by Davey Scatcherd takes place but is put down. It starts to snow.

In reality, the winter 1842-3 was reportedly “remarkably mild” — as was the following December 1843-4 — with Central England Temperature values respectively 7.2 and 7.4°C, around 45°F. This was between 2 and 3°C above the mean for the two and a half centuries of weather statistics kept right up to the present. Even in Yorkshire there was no snow in November 1842. In this alternative history however Dickensian winters are de rigueur, allowing that regular influx of hardy, cold-loving Siberian wolves, though none appear in this instalment.

* * * * *

Now, a little digression. It is curious that Joan Aiken frequently begins her Wolves Chronicles (and not just these stories) in autumn, with a hint of snowy winter weather, and Midnight is a Place is no exception. Here is a synopsis of how it has been so far:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins during the winter of 1832-3 (I estimate it to be early December)
Black Hearts in Battersea ends at Christmastide 1833
Night Birds in Nantucket begins in October 1834, north of the Arctic circle

Then there is a hiatus, with two later titles — The Stolen Lake (late summer 1835?) and Limbo Lodge (autumn 1835 or early 1836?) — inserted in the chronology, thereby adding unforeseen complications to the timeline

The Whispering Mountain begins late autumn, probably late October or early November, perhaps in 1834
The Cuckoo Tree starts either at the beginning of November 1835 (because Simon and Sophie are not yet eighteen, which they would be in 1836) or else November 1836 (to allow Dido to complete her round the world journey)
Dido and Pa begins late November, immediately after the action of The Cuckoo Tree, with the Thames eventually freezing over as the action takes us into January of the next year
Midnight is a Place then begins, a few years later, at the end of October 1842

So we can see that, of the nine titles so far, six of them begin in late autumn. In addition, of the six set in Britain — perhaps Albion is a better name — only one (Black Hearts in Battersea) doesn’t begin in autumn, though it does actually end at midwinter. Without spoiling future reading too much, the two back-to-back titles featuring Dido Twite’s sister Is (Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road) begin respectively in November one year and late spring the next. Finally, the last two volumes in the Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale and The Witch of Clatteringshaws, are also back-to-back, one ending in mid-December and the other continuing into early spring with late flurries of snow.

Why this insistence on the coldest, darkest time of the year? Is it not because these stories, at heart, are dark, to match the season, a reflection of what John Ruskin meant when he coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’?

* * * * *

Tuesday November 1st, All Saints or All Hallows Day, follows next. “Nothing out-of-the-way” happens for the next fourteen days. The evening before Sir Randolph has been served an Order of Distraint from the Blastburn Tax & Revenue Department of His Majesty’s Customs & Excise, due on Monday 21st November if Sir Randolph doesn’t pay twenty years of tax arrears before then. Circumstances dictate that this will never come to pass.

In the intervening fortnight Lucas will pay five visits to the mill, and see more things he will find disturbing. But, calculating backwards from later details, I think that the conflagration at Midnight Court must be Saturday 12th November. (Ideally it would be Bonfire Night, 5th November, but I don’t think even Joan Aiken would have make such an obviously symbolic gesture.) Homeless now, Lucas and Anna-Marie take the injured Julian Oakapple to the Infirmary and look for lodgings. On the Sunday Lucas agrees to work as tosh-boy to Tom Gudgeon and starts work on Monday 14th November down Blastburn’s sewers. He gets his week’s wages on Saturday 19th November.

Two pay days later takes us to Saturday 3rd December when Lucas, in the author’s nod to Red Riding Hood, buys Anna-Marie a red coat. On this day too Julian starts his recovery, and it becomes known that the icehouse in Midnight Park is inhabited. On Monday 5th December Anna-Marie starts work at the mill.

Early on in the week beginning, I guess, Monday 19th December Lucas is rescued by Anna-Marie and her grandmother from the sewers near the river bank. Hobday, Lucas’ employer, visits the recuperating Lucas and reluctantly gives him the commission owed, this being “towards the end of the week,” probably Thursday 22nd December.

“Ten days went by” (probably rounding up, a slight exaggeration in a tight timeframe) and the inhabitants of the icehouse notice the invalids getting better. We’ve now arrived at Friday 30th December: snow has not fallen for three days, and Anna-Marie on her way to work also notes the wind is a little less icy. The next day, 31st December, is a Saturday, when Lucas notes “a lot of the shifts stop at noon.”

This day, the last of 1842, is the day things come to a climax, when a life is saved, another is lost and a third comes to an end by a kind of poetic justice. While it is not quite a happy-ever-after ending we await the dawning of a new day and a new year with more hope than the last two months have allowed.

I plan one more summative post on this novel before moving on to Is (Is Underground in North America) for the next investigation into the Wolves Chronicles. If you don’t know what the fuss is about these here posts may enlighten you…

8 thoughts on “Midnight at midwinter

  1. Interesting, I had not observed that about the setting of these novels (and Aiken’s in general). For me the time going into winter is when we like to tell ourselves stories about the struggle against evil forces, strengthening the inner core — which is what these books are about. It just makes sense.

    Brilliant narrative timing by Aiken, and all the better for not being overtly stated — of course Lucas’s thirteenth birthday should be Halloween, and the action should culminate on the last day of the year. But I never make the effort to work out such chronologies, so these details pass me by; I rely on you to bring them out, Chris!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lory! One thing that comes out loud and clear in the #WilloughbyReads conversation on Twitter is that after the bleak midwinter the thaw sets in, growth becomes manifest and wrongs may be righted. Midnight to me is a kind of rerun of TWOWC but, by ending before spring comes, it’s suggested that renewal might well be around the corner but is never explicitly described as happening. Altogether it’s much darker and, in a way, angrier novel.

      I should add that I’ve had to cut corners to make my chronological theories fit, and there’s no direct evidence for any of my hints of number or dating significances. But it would be nice to think there’s some substance there!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Your last paragraph of the comment is one of the reasons why you are so much fun to read, I love your spirit and passion for fantasy in books, and how deep in detail you read, the theories and compare/contrast. What a blast I have whenever I read your posts!


    1. Yes, there’s no wand waving at the end to make everything as perfect as it was before, many things destroyed remain destroyed and fortunes aren’t miraculously restored. But there is some respite, and there is hope…

      Liked by 1 person

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