OK, this my final (?) post on the most non-canonical of the Wolves Chronicles, Midnight is a Place (1974) following a series of discussions.
I’ve already discoursed on the characters, the geography, the timeline and themes, and it may seem that I’ve covered everything essential in relation to the novel.
But in truth, apart from the review, these discussions have really only addressed the questions Who, Where, When and What — still missing are some answers to the How and the Why. Here will be the place to consider these in my customary cursory manner.
With Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (her daughter, Lizza, may have coined this collective term, perhaps influenced by the Chronicles of Narnia) the author increasingly added more fantastical elements as the series progressed: magic, supernatural happenings, anachronisms, exotic details and wild coincidences. But between The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 and The Cuckoo Tree (1971) the three intervening novels — Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Night Birds in Nantucket (1966) and The Whispering Mountain (1968) — hadn’t quite reached the phantasmagorical level they were later to rise to.
But they were increasingly becoming less realistic — with pre-steampunk anticipatory Jules Verne touches, such as balloons — featuring friendly whales of a pinkish hue, troglodyte miners and Caribbean witches. I wonder if at this point she felt a desire to return to a more socially realistic novel, by including details similar to the workhouse masquerading as a poor school which we read about in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase?
In Midnight is a Place the author tackles child labour again, this time in a carpet factory reminiscent of, for example, the real-world Crossley Carpet factory in Dean Clough, Halifax — which was being rapidly developed in the 1840s. Child labour was a theme that Joan Aiken returns to time and again, exhibiting a Blakean or Dickensian sensibility that happens to suit the period setting.
The novel also touches on contemporary labour movements, as when David Scatcherd’s urging of a strike to protest the lowering of wages echoes the formation of working people’s associations (like that of the West Riding Fancy Cloth Weaving Union in 1842). The Chartist movement was still going strong, having been encouraged by political developments like the Great Reform Act of 1832, and all that must have fed into the background that Aiken subtly alludes to in her narrative.
In some ways the this novel feels like a rerun of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962). Why do I say this? Well, consider these parallels.
Both novels are set in what can only be Yorkshire: Wolves is in or by the Wolds, the chalky ridge that straddles East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and is fifty miles to the sea — which can only be the North Sea, surely, rather than the only other alternative, the Irish Sea. Midnight, meanwhile, includes characters with typical Yorkshire names such as Scatcherd, Murgatroyd, Braithwaite and Tetley. It also features the town of Blastburn which first appeared in Wolves.
Both novels also feature stately homes (as, admittedly, do Black Hearts in Battersea and The Cuckoo Tree), namely Willoughby Chase and Midnight Court. Both houses have one child in residence and another who comes to stay; both include someone to teach the children, a governess in one, a tutor in the other; both houses fall into varying degrees of rack and ruin after many servants are dismissed; and both children are reduced to doing demeaning and dangerous menial work, either in a laundry, mill or sewer.
However, unlike Wolves, Midnight doesn’t have a totally happy-ever-after ending: Midnight Court is not restored after being destroyed and the servants are not redeployed; and the children do not return to the lap of luxury but to work, though perhaps to rather improved conditions.
Midnight thus turns out a bleaker, grimmer, grimier story than Wolves. There are, on the plus side, no pack animals terrorising the countryside in this wintry landscape — though, in truth, the beasts to be wary of turn out all to be in human form.
Despite no wolves, no mention of James III, no continuing characters from previous instalments and no discernible fantastic elements, are we justified in considering Midnight as one of the Chronicles? There is Blastburn, to be sure, but is that enough?
There is good reason to do so, I believe. And that comes from the date that occurs at the very start of the novel: 1842. This is ten years after the start of the Chronicles with Wolves, plenty of time to account for the action of — as it eventually turns out — six instalments.
It also leads conveniently into the action of Is Underground (1992), definitely part of the series, which takes us back to the town of Blastburn before it undergoes permanent changes. This novel is where we will next pick up the thread of the saga, with our gaze fixed on one of Dido Twite’s sisters…
There have been ten previous posts on or about this novel, including a review, general discussions and musings on related themes and novels, all using the tag Midnight is a Place