Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.
As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.
Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.
The Tower of London
Eleventh-century stronghold begun by William the Conqueror where political prisoners were customarily held.
Here Magnus Rudh is detained for thirteen years for nefarious deeds, supposedly treated for his lycanthropy. On his release several individuals at the Tower meet with grisly ends. Many prisoners were interned in the Beauchamp Tower, part of the defensive wall on the west side, where they covered huge sections of wall with their graffiti carved into the stone. Magnus however has a cell in the 13th-century Wakefield Tower by Traitors Gate, its walls covered in tapestries hiding any possible graffiti there.
Dido Twite, sailing up the Thames after half a year abroad, is taken ashore on the Essex coast to be brought up to date on news by the Archbishop of Winchester and Wessex. She is then kidnapped or scrobbled for a twelve-hour journey across southern England.
Where does Dido visit the Archbishop? Can we identify Dr Whitgift’s retreat? Dido’s journey upriver by sailing ship takes her through shallows and sandbanks, then by boat to a deserted stretch of marshy riverbank, then by curricle through meadows with occasional scrubby coppice-wood, thorn, alder and willow, crossing wooden bridges over tidal creeks to a dank little hideaway. There are two possible locations to consider: Tilbury and Canvey Island.
Tilbury could have been where Dido went ashore from the Philomela, which was being pulled upriver by tugs: Tilbury used to be served by a ferry from Gravesend at a point where the Thames narrowed to around half a mile across. Robert Morden’s county map shows this area as marshy in the 18th century. As Dido travels by curricle for an hour I’m guessing she’s travelling east rather than west, away from London. This is likely to take her across several tidal creeks towards Canvey Island, then more isolated and less accessible than Tilbury.
Canvey Island is, admittedly, further to travel to the Wetlands than Tilbury, but we have learned that distance and time in the Wolves Chronicles are open to interpretation: a twelve hour journey by closed carriage takes her to the Wetlands.
An ecclesiastical establishment on the coast facing treacherous sea currents.
There are two aspects to Otherland Priory, the physical geography and mythical associations. Otherland Mount rises out of a strip of land cut off in times of flood or at spring tides and separated from the mainland by a long narrow freshwater pool called Middle Mere (not to be confused with the Meare near Glastonbury on the Somerset Levels). It is accessible through a maze of swamp and quicksand created by the changing course of streams giving the Wetlands their name: a viaduct, 250 feet high, was planned by Angus the Silent to provide a railway link from the highest point on the mainland nearest Marshport to Otherland Mount, but remained incomplete when it got to Wanmeeting Wood on the landward side of Middle Mere. The Mount itself is protected on the seaward side by a shingle bank forty feet high and 20 miles long called Querck Bank, running from the Mount to Wan Hope Point. At the base of the mount is a barn, the Priory being reached by climbing 300 steps.
Joan Aiken has reconfigured our perception of the geography in Dido’s world by conflating several areas of England. First is an area she knew well near her childhood home of Rye in East Sussex, Romney Marsh and Dungeness. Dungeness is the headland of an extensive area of medieval shingle beach — one of the largest shingle expanses in the world — sheltering the marsh, which was created from the fourth to the eighth century. Behind the beach lie several flooded gravel pits.
Secondly, Querck (‘quirk’?) Bank takes its physical nature from Chesil Beach in Dorset, a shingle bank forty feet high stretching 18 miles from Portland in the south past the 11th-century Abbotsbury Abbey and the ruins of St Catherine’s Chapel to West Bay to the northwest. Behind it is Fleet Lagoon — famously featured in J Meade Falkner’s 1898 novel Moonfleet — running parallel with the beach for eight miles. Between two and five metres deep, and 65 to 900 metres wide, it is a close match for Middle Mere.
A third model is of course from Cornwall: St Michael’s Mount, a smaller counterpoint to Mont-Saint-Michel in France but equally distinctive. Though accessible by a causeway at low tide it is regularly cut off from the mainland. A priory existed on the summit of the island until the Reformation, though the Mount was seen as strategically important through the Middle Ages, even being held by Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne, in 1497.
A fourth possible inspiration is Burrow Mump, near the Isle of Athelney, associated with King Alfred the Great. The Mump, a slight eminence, has the ruins of the medieval church of St Michael, and on nearby rising ground Alfred’s military base is marked by a Victorian stone monument.
Finally, yet another likely source of inspiration is Glastonbury, on the so-called Isle of Avalon in the midst of the Somerset levels. Another mount, the Tor, is topped by a church dedicated to St Michael, though now in ruins, and the renowned Abbey lies at its feet. And it is with the mention of Avalon that we approach myth and legend.
Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza tells us that the portrait of the ailing Richard IV (who was reportedly suffering, like the king’s father, from ‘suppurating quinsy’, or peritonsillar abscess) was in part a reflection on the painter Julius Goldstein, Joan’s second husband, whom she’d married in 1976 and who’d died in 2001. In fact, this novel’s dedication reads For Julius.
But the first of the legends that the novel parallels is that of Alfred the Great who, following setbacks from invading Vikings in 890, hunkered down in the Somerset wetlands at Athelney (the ‘noble isle’) near Burrow Mump, where he regrouped before sallying forth to defeat his foes. This is echoed by King Dick hiding out at Darkwater Farm to escape his enemies and an invasion by Burgundians.
The second legend referenced concerns the dying Arthur. After defeat at Camlann the mortally wounded king is ferried out to Avalon, the fairy apple isle in the west, the Celtic Otherworld. In Midwinter Nightingale the king however isn’t quite in the state Arthur is in (as described by Tennyson):
then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him, […]
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
Still, if King Richard sheltering at Darkwater Farm is like Alfred holed up in Athelney in the marshlands between the Polden Hills and the Quantocks, his transfer via sedan chair to Middle Mere seems to parallel Arthur’s difficult journey (following the return of Excalibur to one lake) to yet another expanse of water: “And on a sudden, lo! the level lake, | And the long glories of the winter moon.”
Where is this ocean? I can only assume we must envision it as the Bristol Channel viewed from Brean Sands, a seven-mile beach stretching from Brean Down near Weston-Super-Mare down to Burnham-on-Sea (the latter place even gets a name check in Midwinter Nightingale). Here it is that Richard ends his days, as when Arthur murmurs “Place me in the barge,” the conveyance which is to take him to the real Otherland. Where Richard hopes to hear nightingales “fluting, sizzling, twittering, jug-jugging, singing their heads off”, Arthur has his swansong:
[T]he barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
With swarthy webs.
I find it quite moving that — as with Is (also known as Is Underground), with Dido’s sister to the fore — the author chooses to end her story with a moment of pure emotion: in this case Dido’s sense of loss over somebody she’d developed a fondness for. The realisation that there is a gap in your life left by someone who’ll never return can be devastating, even as it catches you unawares.
In conclusion, Joan Aiken names Otherland Priory quite deliberately. Not only is it, almost literally, another land, cut off from the Wetlands by the Middle Mere and a place of sanctuary, but its name also evokes the Celtic Otherworld where the dead go, and where Tennyson’s Arthur takes his final journey:
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst — if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) —
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea…
More on Midwinter Nightingale to come: people, chronology, themes