“An adult reader […] greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door.”
— John Crowley, ‘Forget Harry Potter, Adults Should Read Joan Aiken’s Wolves‘, Boston Review
In this post, part of a series looking at details of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (one of the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite) we shall be looking at some of the personages met in the novel’s pages.
Many are only given the briefest of mentions, so don’t be too alarmed at what seems a rather lengthy cast list (though for reasons of brevity it’s split between a couple of posts). Along with details of individual characters and functions, a few entries will call for some discussion of the meaning or joke implied in names.
Many readers will of course by now be familiar with the customary advice: beware of spoilers.
Simon Bakerloo, Sixth Duke of Battersea, is travelling incognito from London on the Wetlands Express, engaged on a diplomatic mission to his cousin the dying King Richard IV. If Simon was born in 1818 he must now be well into his mid-twenties. Simon first appeared in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (set in 1832) in which he appeared as a goose boy who periodically would take his geese to market. In this novel he will rescue some ill-treated sheep bound for Marshport who thereafter follow him, like Bo-Peep, wherever her goes.
He has an owl called Thunderbolt and a piebald horse called Magpie, the natures or names of which recall the Chronicles’ frequent mention of birds: here an owl and a magpie will join the nightingales of the title and the brief appearance of a sailing ship called the Philomela. (The Greek word philomela, linked with the nightingale, is discussed below.) On the train journey he also has unpleasant encounters with un untrustworthy horsebox attendant, suspicious customs officials at Windwillow, and the engine driver and his mate, and a young girl called Jorinda.
His surname is a joke, of course: Bakerloo is a named coined, like Peterloo, from the Netherlands battle of Waterloo, Bakerloo only coming into being when the Underground line was inaugurated in 1906, serving both Baker Street and Waterloo Station.
Jorinda is the natural daughter of Zoe Coldacre (who died in childbirth) and Baron Magnus Rudh, the sister of Lothar and granddaughter of Sir Thomas Coldacre. She is now 17 or 18.
She has a foreign-looking cat called Malkin, “a general name for a cat” in earlier centuries. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue also tells us that it’s the name for an oven cleaner made from rags at the end of a stick, also for a scarecrow and “likewise an awkward woman”.
Jorinda’s name is taken from the Grimms’ fairytale Jorinde und Joringel (Tale 69) in which two sweethearts are enchanted by a wicked witch living in a castle in a wood. Jorinda is transformed into a nightingale and caged with countless other young women, while Joringel is ensorcilled to be turned into stone if ever he approaches the castle to rescue her. It’s not until, tending some sheep, he has a dream about a blood-red flower with a pearl within that, finding it, he is able to free Jorinda — just as the witch tries to escape from her castle with his loved one magically transformed into a nightingale in a cage.
Joan Aiken has inventively taken the motifs of nightingale, sheep, witch and sweethearts to help animate her own Jorinda character and her role in the novel’s narrative.
Mara is Jorinda’s stern maid and former nurse, who chaperones Jorinda as she travels before the end of the autumn term from the girl’s school in Bath to the Wetlands, and who provides a hamper of food for her charge. In Hebrew Mara means ‘bitter’, but in English mara is the demon that gives rise to sleep paralysis, the nightmare.
The Tower of London
Baron Magnus Rudh, owner of Fogrum Hall in the Wetlands, with a mansion in London called Armorica House, comes from an old Midsylvanian family with a history of lycanthropy: as a true werewolf he can attain great age but can only be injured or killed by contact with silver. He also claims descent from Vortigern Aelfred, King of the West Saxons. In the early 1820s he marries the 15-year-old Adelaide, daughter of Commander Haakon Hardrada, princess of the central German state of Thuringia, but also has an affair with Zoe Coldacre, daughter of Sir Thomas Coldacre of Edge Place, Wan Hope Heights. By Princess Adelaide he has Lothar or Lot, and he fathers Jorinda on poor Zoe Coldacre.
Thirteen years before the present (possibly late in 1832) when Lot was nearly six, he was taken to the Tower of London for his ‘mixture of sickness and wickednesses’ which had resulted in him killing several people in wolf guise. Though supposedly treated with pills by Dr Blisland to rid him of his condition, the Baron has cunningly secreted his medication over the years of confinement and so retains his shape-shifting capacity.
As he leaves the Tower when his sentence ends, killing his physician and his jailer, he however comes into contact with sacks of silver coins which visitors have been paying to view the ‘wild beast’, and which not only incapacitate him but will prove to bring about his ultimate demise.
Several clues reinforce his lycanthropic history. ‘Magnus’ may have been influenced by the author’s possible familiarity with Magnus Eisengrim in Canadian writer Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, a character who had taken his surname from the wolf Eisengrim in medieval German fables, as had the villain in Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa. ‘Rudh’ meanwhile is a Cornish word meaning the colour red (the unfortunate Dr Blisland also has a Cornish origin, as it’s the name of a village near Bodmin). The Baron’s London mansion is called after the Roman name for Brittany — in Breton ar mor means ‘by the sea’ — and it’s from Armorica that medieval author Marie de France took a werewolf legend and retold it in the form we now know as Bisclavret.
A further possible influence is the Galician general Magnus Maximus, known in Welsh legend as Macsen Wledig, who whilst in Britain proclaimed himself Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in the late fourth century. With a name meaning “Great, the Greatest” he may have been another literary inspiration for the Baron’s political ambitions, to add to his links with Brittany and lycanthropy. (That there were some early Norwegian kings called Magnus in the 11th and 12th centuries may also be relevant, as I hope to discuss later.)
Magnus’ Midsylvanian ancestry however merely indicates a family history of forest dwelling — as is appropriate for wolves — Midsylvania meaning ‘land amidst forests’; it’s to be distinguished from Transylvania (‘land beyond the forests’) which is of course the demesne of Romanian vampires.
Dido Twite is the heroine of this, the seventh of the Wolves Chronicles she has so far appeared in (there are twelve or possibly thirteen titles in toto). When we first see her she is travelling up the Thames estuary in the Philomela (not the Thrush commanded by Captain Hughes with which we’ve been familiar with for so long). It’s on this vessel then that Dido — whose surname echoes a bird and whose ancestors came from Brittany — sails back to her homeland after six months visiting Nate Pardon and Dutiful Penitence, the friends she’d first met on Nantucket Island in 1834. Now in her late teens or early twenties, her arrival in London is interrupted by an urgent summons that takes her to the marshes of Essex, from where she is taken willy-nilly to the Wetlands.
David ‘Podge’ Greenaway meets Dido off the Philomela to conduct her to Dr Whitgift. She’d first met him and his brother Wally in Dido and Pa when she’d helped stop Eisengrim’s plot to replace Richard IV at his coronation with a double. He has now married Sophie, Simon’s twin sister, and they have a young boy.
Dr Whitgift, Archbishop of Winchester and Wessex had summoned Dido to his retreat in the marshes of Essex to discover if she knew of the whereabouts of her old friend Simon. After Dido is scrobbled he is unfortunately killed by unknown assailants. He may be related to the John Whitgift who, in the late Tudor period, was Archbishop of Canterbury.
More on other characters from Midwinter Nightingale are to feature in future posts, along with discussions on timelines and themes