[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.