Rather than offering readers multiple links to reviews and discussions in this post I invite you to scroll through the tag Wolves Chronicles.
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Before a prosopography or Who’s Who in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Is (1992) appears here I’d like to discuss the convoluted chronology that makes dating the novel difficult, if not near nigh impossible.
The twisted timelines by which one attempts to reach this chimerical dating all end in a veritable Gordian knot. I can’t promise to either untie that knot or emulate Alexander the Great’s resolution of the conundrum.
But I can try.
The introduction which precedes Chapter 1 tells us that ‘The action of this story begins a few years after the end of my book DIDO AND PA.’ Unfortunately that doesn’t tell us a lot. The action in Dido and Pa (1987) ended either at the beginning of 1836 or more likely 1837.* ‘A few years after’ might imply sometime around 1840 or soon after.
Nor are matters improved by a quote at the start of Chapter 1 (Oh where and oh where . . . ? might be better changed to ‘Oh when and oh when?’) by the lyrical opening sentence:
On a clear evening in November, nearly a hundred years ago, frost lay like thick white fur over the ancient thorn trees on the crest of Blackheath Edge, some miles south of London town.
What we can categorically say is Is isn’t set as late as 1892, a century before the novel was published. This is Joan revealing a sly aspect to her storytelling with a bit of misdirection.
Can we estimate the date from the age of the participants? We know that Black Hearts in Battersea (1964) is set in late 1833. From this we learn that Penny is around 16, meaning that she was born in 1817. In Is we learn she’s “a lean, pale person, aged about thirty, with straw-coloured hair tied in a tight knot, and a sour expression.” This implies Is takes place in or around 1847.
There is another consideration. Towards the climax of the novel Hekla erupts and causes a tsunami which ultimately floods New Blastburn and its mines. This explosive event really happened in our world: Iceland’s most active volcano continually erupted between September 1845 and April 1846 (though there was no resulting tidal wave).
Still the complications multiply. In Dido and Pa we first met Is Twite, who was then described as an undernourished and neglected 9 or 10 years old looking the size of a child of six, but now we’re told she spent the first nine years of her life in London before moving into Penny’s cabin on Blackheath Edge in November 1835 or 1836.* That would mean she was born in 1826 or 1827.
When Is visits acquaintances in London she’s described as ‘young Is’ and a ‘liddle ‘un’. Like her other sister Dido she is small for her age, but what is her actual age now? Well, we can estimate that. The Dutch actor Henk van Doon stayed with Penny and Is for two years before returning to Leyden or Leiden, and we’re told he’s been gone for another two years. That rather settles matters: the date is at least four years after Is moves in with Penny, which will make it either November 1839 or 1840.* Little Is will therefore be 13, give or take a year or so.
We will later have a few further chances to try and fix the action: Midwinter Nightingale (2003) runs concurrently with Is, and Cold Shoulder Road (1995) follows immediately after. But we will then unfortunately encounter more time inconsistencies.
And then there’s the fly in the ointment: Midnight is a Place (1974) is also set in a town called Blastburn, with an infirmary, satanic mills and a local lord called Holdernesse. Is this the same Blastburn, even though it’s not officially part of the Chronicles? It seems to be identical: and yet there is no underground town under a Holdernesse Hill, no mention of Gold Kingy, and children are working in carpet factories and elsewhere, free to wander around. Moreover, we’re specifically told the story begins in autumn 1842.
But there is a prophecy, given in a rant by a madman at the end of that novel, that a flood is coming to affect Blastburn. And that appears to be at the start of 1843, roughly the time of year when the tsunami drowns New Blastburn.
So, we have a series of possible years for the start this novel, remembering the action continues into the beginning of the following year. These are 1839/1840 — 1842 — 1845 — 1847 — 1892. Which is the likeliest date? 1892 is too late; in 1847 Is would be around 20 years old, much too old to be called ‘young’, and the same applies to 1845; which leaves us with 1839 or 1840, or 1842. My preference would once have been for 1840 but 1842 is within the bounds of possibility: Is would be 15, and 25 would be nearer Penny’s notional age of thirty.
And Dido, born on the first day of March 1824, whom we’ve avidly followed since we first met her in 1833, would now be eighteen.
* The indecision about all the dates asterisked arises because Joan Aiken originally estimated that the events in The Cuckoo Tree (1971) — followed by Dido and Pa (1987) — mostly took place in 1835; the reason being that, according to Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Dido’s friend Simon and his twin sister’s 18th birthday, due in 1836, hadn’t yet taken place.
But she hadn’t allowed the time taken for Dido to travel to adventures in the Andes (The Stolen Lake, 1981) and the Spice Islands (Limbo Lodge 1999) before returning to London for Richard IV’s November coronation, in 1836 at the earliest.
These kinds of discrepancies bedevil any firm chronology, so much so that I am tempted to propose a novel theory to explain the existence and proliferation of so many anomalies.
It’ll be a Whovian timey-wimey thing…
The Twite universe encompasses a paracosm or alternative world, in which history diverged from our own at the point where the Hanoverian dynasty didn’t actually succeed to the throne. Whether this happened in 1688, at the death of James II (James VII of Scotland) or at the death of his daughter Anne in 1714 isn’t clear. The first inkling we have in the Wolves Chronicles that we aren’t in the Georgian period is when James III becomes king in 1832.
Now here’s where my TWITE theory (Time Wobbles In This Era) comes in. With the possibility of a dynastic disruption to the timeline in our world the alternative world of the Chronicles wobbled into being. But that set up further disturbances, not just to history, technology and so on but also to geography: the terrain of Britain, South America and the Spice Islands, for example, all somehow morphed without inhabitants becoming aware of it.
Psychic changes are happening as well: prophecies and intimations, extrasensory perceptions and synchronicities are all increasingly in evidence following the mundane events of the first Wolves Chronicle.
There’s more: ongoing chronological ripples not only upset dating during the early nineteenth century but spread back in time: Britons migrated to South America in Arthurian times, for instance, and as we approach the events in the final Chronicles we will find that those perturbations will result in the wholesale reconfiguring of the past history of northern Europe.
And that’s why any firm dating of events in this novel is proving impossible to fix: history is not only being made but also remade before our very eyes.