Is Overground

Another post for die-hard fans of Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles.

Also for readers who love words and the names authors give their characters.

And for those wondering how far down a rabbit hole a curious blogger is prepared to go.

This post is the first of two discussing the people of Joan Aiken’s fantasy Is, a kind of prosopography* or Who’s Who of the individuals we meet, plus a bit of speculation about what inspired their creation.

Even if you don’t intend to read the novel you may still find the personages curious enough to wonder a bit about them, as I did.


Countryside south of Greenwich. Near the highest point on Blackheath Edge is Blackheath Wood — perhaps the same as Greenwich Park’s Wilderness in our world, now home to herds of red and fallow deer. The area south of the Thames — Deptford, Blackheath, Lee, Lewisham, Eltham — was well known to author Edith Nesbit who resided here for many years and was highly regarded by Joan Aiken.

Is Twite. Protagonist who may or may not give her name to the novel. Lives in converted wooden barn in Blackheath Wood, where she has been living with her older sister Penny since the end of the events in Dido and Pa. Dido, unaware Is may be her half-sister, had guessed then that she may be nine or ten years old — born anywhere between 1825 and 1827 — though only the size of a six year old, very possibly due to malnutrition and neglect.
At least four years and three seasons have passed since the end of that novel (concluding early spring of either 1836 or 1837) meaning that Is must now be in her early or mid teens.
Dido, by the way, has been away seeing friends in Nantucket.

Penelope Twite. In Black Hearts in Battersea, set in 1833, Penny was around sixteen; then known by Dido as ‘Penny-lope’ she’s now “aged about thirty” and tall, lean and pale. As we discovered from Dido and Pa, Pen left Rose Alley in 1833 to elope with a buttonhook salesman, who then promptly left her; when she lost her baby she was reduced to making and selling soft toys in a hut in the woods somewhere in Blackheath, when she was known as ‘Mrs Curd’.
• She and Is seem to do more than tolerate each other; and in Blackheath they were joined for two years by Dutch actor Henk van Doon, who has now been back on the Continent for another two years or more, looking for his lost family. Penny’s predilection for making up stories echoes E Nesbit’s.

Hosiah Twite. We discover Hosiah is the brother of Abednego (also known as Desmond) and therefore the girls’ uncle. Together with his wife Ruth back in Folkestone, along with Chief Elder Amos Furze, he is a leading figure in the Silent Sect, but has regularly come up to London to look for his runaway son Arun (spelt the same as the Sussex river). Unfortunately Hosiah’s fate is the same as his brother’s, to be attacked by wolves; he is rescued by Penny and Is but his wounds prove fatal.
His Hebrew name, chosen because Hosea was a biblical prophet, means ‘he who saves’, but unfortunately this doesn’t prove the case in actual fact.

Dr Spiddle. Serves the area including Blackheath from his base in Lewisham but arrives too late to save Hosiah.
The Spiddle name ultimately derives from Hospital via Spittal — an area of London was known as Spitalfields, where the medieval hospital of St Mary Spital used to stand — and denotes somebody associated with eitherlodging or looking after others.

Figgin. The cat which Is brought with her from Bart’s Buildings in Wapping (as recounted in Dido and Pa) and which she has to leave behind when she travels to Blastburn.
Possibly the name was inspired by Nibbins, the former witch’s cat in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, who then deigns to associate with the young protagonist Kay. Figgins was the name of a merchant in Charlotte Brontë’s Angrian tales, and also a cake from Lancashire known as a Chorley cake, similar to an Eccles cake, which Charlotte may have borrowed for the name of her character.

Isle of Dogs 1747


One of the dockland areas of London, east of St Paul’s, adjacent to the Isle of Dogs and north of the Thames, developed in the late 18th century and right through the 19th. Deptford and Greenwich lie to the south.

Sam Greenaway. The blind patriarch of the Greenaway family in Shadwell, owner of Sampan Storage.
Like Tiresias and other legendary blind seers Sam has a sixth sense about people’s fortunes; Joan Aiken may have borrowed the surname from Kate Greenaway, the famous Victorian artist and writer, whose name is associated with the annual medal given for “distinguished illustration in a book for children”.

Wally Greenaway. Sam’s son, a ‘big, cheerful, cross-eyed boy’ who last appeared in Dido and Pa in which he befriended Dido. Has a brother, David (‘Podge’) who doesn’t feature in this instalment but whose name will be linked to Sophie, Simon’s sister.

Baron Renfrew. The Greenaways’ Scottish visitor is actually King Richard IV in disguise. His son, Davie Stuart, is missing.
‘Baron Renfrew’ is the title assumed by the heir to the throne, used by recent Princes of Wales when travelling ‘in a private capacity’ or when paying visits incognito.

Playland Express, by Pat Marriott

Playland Express

The train, which has been secretly transporting around half of London’s population of children to Blastburn, leaves from what is now Euston Station.

Ginge. The tom cat belonging to the unnamed but ill-fated red-haired engine driver. Is saves the cat and earns the gratitude of Ginge’s owner, but to his cost.

Mary-Ann, Abel, Rod, Tess and Ciss are just some of the 202 children, not including Is, who join the Express to the Hotel Joyous Gard; Is will meet some of these later in the Holdernesse mines.


The northern town where most of the action takes place and loosely based, I believe, on Kingston-upon-Hull

Where characters dwell, 2 Wasteland Cottages

Wasteland Cottages

Many so-called wayside or wasteland cottages were built on manorial ‘waste’ ground (such as commons or roadside verges) often without permission when rural populations rose and rural poverty increased in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Tŷ unnos or Overnight House represents related squatter traditions in Wales and the Mendips. The author may have known of the wasteland cottage called Poplar House near Washington in West Sussex

Fr Lancelot. Priest at St Bridget’s Church, where Is seeks shelter.
Fr Lancelot’s name is one of many allusions to Arthurian legend in the novel, from Wasteland Cottages and Hotel Joyous Gard to the search for an Elixir of Life similar to the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot became a monk after his affair with Guinevere resulted in civil war and the death of Arthur. This novel’s Fr Lancelot, living in Wasteland Cottages, is also the antithesis of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown who designed many landscape gardens in Britain before his death in 1783; Wasteland Cottages will soon be reduced to rubble, unfortunately.

Dr James Braid, the ‘father of hypnotism’

Dr Chester Lemman. Blastburn’s visiting physician, friend to Is’s great aunt and great grandfather, whom Is helps on his rounds. He is a champion of a form of mesmerism practised by Dr James Braid of Manchester who in 1842 published Neurypnology or The Rationale of Nervous Sleep Considered In Relation With Animal Magnetism, naming the phenomenon ‘hypnotism’ after the Greek god of sleep and dreaming, Hypnos.
Along with Fr Lancelot and Is’s newfound relatives, Dr Lemman lives in a four storey terraced building, 2 Wasteland Cottages. As well as the Arthurian association Wasteland Cottages is indeed located in a desolate part of Blastburn amidst demolished structures and abandoned residences.

Aunt Ishie. Isabetta Twite is Is’s great-aunt, the niece of ‘Grandpa’ Twite, named after her mother Isabetta from Brittany (where the whole family may have originated if Twite indeed derives from the river Thouet, flowing through Parthenay and Saumur to the Loire). We must guess her to be around eighty years old. She travels around the outskirts of Blastburn looking for herbs for healing, though she is feared as a witch by some, including her disreputable nephew Roy. Like her great-niece, Ishie develops a form of telepathy Is calls ‘the touch’.

Grandpa Twite. Around 102 years old, he attributes his longevity to drinking saloop, though his grandson Roy thinks he has a magic elixir. He speaks quite literally in riddles and prints posters for Roy as well as seditious material. Unfortunately he develops a Jekyl and Hyde character when in his cups, meaning people who cross his path need to be very wary.
If the story takes place around 1842-3 (as I have estimated elsewhere) then Grandpa will have been born in 1740, the year Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was first performed — in front of the then Prince of Wales.

Montrose. The third cat to feature in the novel, but the least fortunate.

The second part of this Who’s Who will mostly focus on those who dwell underground in what’s variously described as New Blastburn or Holdernesse

• Joan Aiken. Is. Red Fox, 1993 (1992)
• Charlotte Brontë. Juvenilia 1829-1835. Selected, newly transcribed and edited, with an introduction and notes, by Juliet Barker. Penguin Books, 1996: 206-211

* Merriam-Webster defines prosopography as “a study that identifies and relates a group of persons or characters within a particular historical or literary context”. As this Wolves Chronicle is simultaneously alternative history and children’s literature this term is doubly apt

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