Geognostic

Map from Frank Ferneyhough’s ‘The History of Railways in Britain’ (Osprey Publishing 1975)

[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.

A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.

Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.

Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.

Southern Britain railways 1851 (map by Francis K Mason)

Early on in Midwinter Nightingale we find ourselves on a train heading west from London, a distant echo of the start of the Chronicles: in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) young Sylvia Green heads northwards from London in the autumn of 1832 on a railway network rather more advanced in her world than ours at that time. Now, however, it’s the Wetlands Express that’s providing the transport in this chronicle set around 1843.

Wetlands Express (1)

The Wetlands Express
‘Express’ is a bit of a misnomer as this railway service has frequent stops and delays, but it’s evidently based on Brunel’s Great Western Railway which opened in 1838, with London to Bristol linked up in 1841.

The Wetlands is a combination of England’s West Country and the Somerset Levels, the latter marshland associated with King Arthur’s Avalon and King Alfred’s Athelney. The Express therefore takes Simon Bakerloo, 6th Duke of Battersea travelling incognito from London towards the west via a set of named stations.

  • London King’s Cross. Simon departs from here. In reality this terminus wasn’t in existence till the 1850s and was the departure point for services heading north: it was Paddington which looked west. Boudicca or Boadicea is reputed to be buried under one of the King’s Cross platforms (near where Harry Potter sets off for Hogwarts). This is possibly where Sylvia set off from in 1832 to go to Willoughby Chase.
  • Frog Mere. The junction for the line from Bath, possibly the equivalent of Chippenham. Here Jorinda joins the Express after leaving her school well before the end of term; here some stock cars with sheep are attached to the train.
  • Windwillow. Customs post before the Wetlands. Here there is an attempt to accuse Simon of smuggling. Windlebury is a nearby market town.
  • Distance Edge Junction. Near the town of Great Distance, and the nearest station to Fogrum Hall. The train divides at this point, with some carriages heading to the Coombe Country (the Cotswolds?) and then on to the mountains and the sea, while a passenger coach and four freight cars continue south to Windfall Clumps and Marshport. ‘Edge’ perhaps suggests hills, possibly the eastern Mendips, here called Windfall Edge; this long rocky ridge divides the Combe Country to the north from the Wetlands to the south.
  • Clarion Wells. There is apparently neither a station here nor a halt nearby this town (which may be based on the Somerset cathedral town of Wells) but it’s accessible to Edge Place. To the north is Wan Hope Height, site of a dam; the modern equivalent may be Cheddar reservoir.
  • Windfall Clumps. Nearest station to the Devil’s Playground, an area of thickets, swamps and woods.
  • Marshport. Possibly equivalent to Bridgwater, on the edge of the Quantock Hills.

Simon actually disembarks from the train at Distance Edge Junction, after Jorinda’s departure, heading for his secret destination in the Devil’s Playground, mounted on his piebald horse with the flock of sheep following.

Cruchley’s Railway Map of England and Wales, 1840 (Science Museum): 1. Fogrum Hall, Gt Distance. 2. Edge Place, Clarion Wells. 3. Darkwater Farm, Devil’s Playground.

Fogrum Hall, Great Distance
Moated dwelling in a hilly forested area off the highway entered through gateposts surmounted by griffins, the nearest town being Great Distance.

Fogrum Hall, formerly occupied by Baron Magnus Rudh, his ex-wife Adelaide, and children Jorinda and Lothar, became a boarding school for 300 boys after the Baron was taken to the Tower of London. On his return most of the boys left, and the moat filled with alligators and tiger pike.

What does fogrum signify? In the late 18th century it meant an old-fashioned or overly conservative person or fogey (though fogrum and fogey mightn’t be etymological related). From Frances Burney’s Camilla (1796) comes this passage:

“What gentleman will you ever find that will bear with a learned wife? except some mere downright fogrum, that no young lady of fashion could endure.”

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has these definitions: Fogram is “a fusty old fellow” while Old Fogey is “a nick name for an invalid soldier: derived from the French word foug[u]eux, fierce or fiery.” If fougueux is a relevant etymology for the Hall then it’s highly appropriate, given Fogrum Hall’s eventual fiery fate.

Edge Place
A Saxon homestead owned by the Coldacre family, located on the southern slopes of Windfall Edge not far from Clarion Wells. Consists of an undercroft, a hall and living quarters above, all surmounted by a loft for servants and children.

Sir Thomas Coldacre is the Master of Edge Place; Lord Lugworthy at High Edge Castle to the northwest is a neighbour, and Lord Scarswood shares a boundary with the Coldacre estate. The land between Edge Place and Distance Junction (twenty miles distant) is liable to flood in winter, just as happens on the Somerset Levels.

Darkwater Farm
With a moat fed from a large tree-shrouded mere nearby, this ancient dwelling is accessed over a drawbridge and through an archway; the main courtyard has farm buildings set around in a square.

This is where Simon meets the dying King Richard IV and Lady Titania Plantagenet. The smoke-blackened timber-framed building, of dark-red brick and with twisted chimneys, dates from the 15th century, and lies downhill from the Chapel of St Arling. South lies Forest Wells, while the castle at High Edge seems to be a two-hour horseride to the north through wooded swamp and across the railway. Pook’s Piece is nearby, possibly a bit of land haunted by or associated with an elf.

Darkwater Farm may be imagined as situated at or near Athelney at the southwestern edge of the Somerset Levels. Here stayed Alfred the Great at a low ebb in his reign, harassed by Viking armies; near here, at Petherton, was lost the artefact known as Alfred’s Jewel.

Sketch map (not to scale) of part of Wetlands in ‘Midwinter Nightingale’

The Three Chapels
Three buildings dedicated to saints Ardust, Arfish and Arling lie somewhere north of Darkwater Farm.

The author’s sense of humour is in play here, as the names of the chapels are puns on the words stardust, starfish and starling, the latter yet another in Joan Aiken’s use of bird names in the Chronicles. They form a pyramid with St Ardust’s at the north apex and St Arling’s closest to the bridleway. If Darkwater Farm is equivalent to Athelney Island, perhaps St Arling’s is a match for the ruined St Michael’s church on Barrow Mump, with a replacement church at the foot of the eminence.


* Hapax legomenon is Greek for an obscure word or notion that was used just once and which we have to interpret in terms of context. Strictly speaking, however, geognosis isn’t such a word because although Eliot seems to have originated its use in English (probably from the German geognostisch) it’s easy enough to divine what it means from its roots, the Greek words for ‘earth, land’ and ‘knowledge’.

A few more place-names from this novel are discussed in another post; also to come are discussions of personages in this alternate landscape, issues surrounding chronology, themes and so on.

14 thoughts on “Geognostic

  1. It would be so easy to whizz through a children’s book without realising just how much work went into them. I suppose most of us do. Perhaps we should take more note of the ones that resonate with readers.

    This is fascinating, Chris. I read ‘The Wolves…’ just before lockdown, because it was in our library, and as predicted, I enjoyed it. Thanks for that pointer. Unfortunately, this one isn’t in our county library, so I’ve added it to my wish-list – I’ve now had to start a new page in the back of my diary!

    You realise, of course, that in saying the above, I’m aware of how much time and thought you’ve put into working this out, and putting it all together. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Your first paragraph touches on the philosophy of reading: how much and in what way should the reader be aware of how much work went into a book? Or indeed any creation, any creature? But as creators ourselves can we do otherwise? I keep returning to Joan Aiken’s How to Write for Children to see the care and the thought she puts into her craft.

      I’m glad you appreciated the analysis and speculation that went into this post, Cath, I certainly wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, and it’s a bonus if anyone does!

      Incidentally it’s not essential but I’d suggest reading the Chronicles in some sort of order to get the most out of them. Here are my posts (reviews and discussions) of the titles in order of the implied timeline: though not in order of publication (reading them in this order is certainly valid, though, as is at random) my observations of paracosm and uchronia might make more sense: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/wolves-chronicles/?orderby=date&order=ASC

      You have a wishlist in the back of your diary? You have a diary?! How retro! 😁

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yep, I’m even retro with technology!
        As to my diary, a pocket sized book, it doubles as a writer’s notebook. As an inveterate lister, it’s invaluable for ordering my life, and as an inveterate scribbler, it’s not so much a record of what I’ve done, as what I’ve seen or thought – though rarely on the correct date, as I scribble randomly in an effort to use every page efficiently.

        I’ve a terrible memory, unless for things read or written.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. It’s a condition I share, Cath. As a former teacher I would be absolutely bereft if I misplaced or forgot my diary-cum-register, but now I am living the life of Reilly I only occasionally use the calendar on my phone for reminders.

          However, I have notebooks on things literary dating back to my teens, pocket books and old school exercise books with quotes, summaries, key words etc, and that still continues. If I ever become famous or even infamous some archive is going to have a valuable resource for scholars to pore over for ever more! (And I too use up all the blank spaces in those notebooks, also randomly!)

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I love trawling through archives, though I’m always torn between the thought of leaving an archive, and one day having a cathartic bonfire – if only I can be sure that I definitely won’t ever find a use for some of those notes…

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I hate seeing films where a frustrated writer would use a wastepaper basket as a receptacle for multiple scrumpled-up attempts at the perfect letter / start of a novel, and ditto for kids who’d spend a whole lesson writing some classwork or piece of music on a computer only to proclaim it rubbish and delete it all. I’d always say keep all rough work because you may still have some gems in there that would be retrievable from the detritus. But would they listen?!

              Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a fascinating post Chris, the combination of railway journeys and maps is appealing to me, as are the names. Windfall Clumps conjures up so many images. I really do need to read more Aiken, I feel guilty that I have neglected her books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your ‘guilt’ in no way matches with mine over so many children’s books I’ve missed or neglected over the years, Anne! But certainly Aiken is one to discover for oneself, and delight in, and savour.

      I wonder if the name Windfall Clumps (which only gets passing mention in this novel) was partially inspired by Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, though it was formerly in Berkshire: they are prominent hilltops with associated archaeology and now apparently viewpoints popular with visitors. And railways! Must check if the line runs past these hills.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re right, Jane, heading up to Oxford from Didcot I see Appleford might be a station to alight from; the Clumps presumably are visible coming from Goring to Didcot.

      I also note the Cholsey and Wallingford Railway leads off from the main line in the general direction of the Clumps. Perhaps only Lizza Aiken can now confirm whether these Clumps inspired hers, though Windfall is clearly off in the West Country somewhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Here’s someone else who appreciates the time and effort that must go into the creation of these posts, Chris 😊 I particularly enjoyed this one, travelling west as it does, but also for the wider net you spread: pulling in many subjects and sources. I will get to the Wolves chronicles – one day. Meanwhile, your post today has highlighted for me that much as I relish knowing about the wider context of a book, I rarely appreciate stories with specific detail on place, or buildings etc. I apparently lack the capacity to absorb it. Too many facts perhaps? Maybe it stymies my imagination as I read? (more rhetorical questions!) What I most appreciate is writing which generates mood – the sense, the essence of a place over the specifics. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to have both – specifics and sense – that’s the icing on the cake! I hope at some point to get out a post on du Maurier’s House on the Strand. There are many reasons why I should like that book and yet I don’t. And the problem is the descriptions seem too dense and too factual. Anyway, I digress…. Thanks for this post – as interesting and thought-provoking as ever! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You raise many interesting points, Sandra, about what goes towards the essence of fiction. For me reading fiction is about going to its heart, the connections one makes with protagonists, or human values, moods, or — as you say — a sense of place and time which our imaginations allow us to inhabit. Aiken, along with a few of my other favourite authors, has engaging protagonists (Dido particularly, in this case) and always foregrounds their essential humanity. In addition she flits from humour to sadness, and drama to introspection in a way that I appreciate; and with her alternative world and alternative history, in some respects similar to but not the same as our own, she’s able to play with ideas in her imaginative cabinet of curiosities and add another level of enjoyment for the reader (like me) who has interests in the details she purloins and upcycles.

      So, to address your point, I haven’t read the du Maurier but I can see that over-description can laden a plot with too much baggage and impede both character development and action; and it can be argued that this might be the case here with Aiken’s narrative. I have seen reviews where readers have bewailed what they see as a pudding too full of plums; but I savour the plums because I am a history and geognostic nerd.

      While not every reader appreciates the fun Aiken has from upcycling details from her wide reading and globetrotting there’s no doubt that tmsuch fun is the magical ingredient that takes the Chronicles beyond being merely knowing pastiche of 19th-century novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Everything I know about Aiken’s books (mostly gained from you, Chris) suggests to me very strongly that I will like them. Absolutely agree about the importance of connecting with a piece of fiction, be that through characters, atmosphere, plot… If that connection is strong enough it will override a surplus of facts and other aspects besides 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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