“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

The novel opens with a prologue in which a man has been arrested and taken to the Tower of London, leaving an extremely unusual ménage behind him. Then we jump to the ‘present’ (the early 1840s) with Simon Bakerloo, the Duke of Battersea — whom we first met as a goose boy in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — travelling on the Wetlands Express towards something like the Somerset Levels in our own world. Along the way he encounters an annoyingly chatty young woman called Jorinda, but he is on a secret mission to see the ailing King Richard IV and is keen to escape her attentions.

Another shift of scene and viewpoint sees the reappearance of our young friend Dido Twite upon her return in the Thames estuary after visiting friends in America; but now she is cursorily summoned to a curious meeting with an Archbishop, followed by her being unceremoniously scrobbled. Thus is the scenario set for the lifelines of several individuals to crisscross in this world’s West Country, amidst a background of historical precedents being reenacted before some lifelines are summarily snipped.

Every page is a thesaurus of technical terms, foods, personages and fairytale motifs, a cornucopia of seething, popping and fizzing ideas, an info dump of characters and references from a few of the preceding novels in the sequence. A newcomer to the Chronicles would be advised to avoid starting here, while a fan or a completist may instead relish several familiar names, situations and outcomes being reprised; but both the innocent and experienced reader would be baffled by quite how and why it all relates or is relevant.

So my suggestion is, first, to enjoy the ride without worrying too much about logic, characterisation or motivation. However, on a second or third reading I would advise a notebook and pen to keep some sort of track of the strands in this intricate thread and to enjoy Joan’s dazzling display involving Donne and Chaucer, a Duchess and a Duke, foreign invasion and transcendental meditation, shape-shifting and the gift of foresight.

As is my wont, there will be follow-up posts looking at people, places, themes, timelines and so on

6 thoughts on ““Hyr piteous tale”

    1. Thanks for reminding me of the part Julius would have played in this story, Lizza — I know you’ve posted a few pieces about him on your blog (like this one: https://wp.me/p3dxSy-Rp) but I didn’t suspect how much of a part he might have played in this novel. It does give it an added poignancy.


  1. This book sounds something like a cautionary tale for writers. I can’t help but be intrigued by your analysis and request the book from my library, but considering how far along the book is in the series, I hope I can still make a good study of it. There’s something to be said for applying what’s familiar, but your description…hmm. It reminds me of a casserole recipe where one pulls out whatever is in the cupboards and dumping it in a slow cooker for several hours. I love me a good casserole, but those cupboard-dumps rarely turn out delicious. Edible, sure, but not delicious.


    1. I’m reminded of the lost urban traveller who, seeking directions to a particular destination, accosts a rustic: after some rumination the rustic offers the advice, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”

      So, yes, my advice would be, Don’t start from here. But if you don’t mind being simultaneously baffled while being led on a wild but exciting goose chase then do leap straight into the action! Joan was to die in 2004, early in the New Year, so tried to include all the ideas that were still fizzing in her brain in her rush to wrap up the series. The concluding volume (The Witch of Clatteringshaws, more a novella) is even more fantastical, so I wouldn’t start there either!

      Liked by 1 person

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