St Lucy’s Day

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.

This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.

Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?

In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Midwinter’s Day

During John Donne‘s lifetime (1572–1631) the solstice was actually around the 11th December according to contemporary calendars, so already time was ‘wobbling’. This was due to inaccuracies in the Julian calendar which had held sway since its reorganisation by Julius Caesar a millennium and a half before. Here is the first stanza of the poet’s Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, written as a meditation either on his wife or on their daughter Lucy, who had both predeceased him.

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

As those who’ve followed my discussions and review of Midwinter Nightingale will know, King Richard IV is dying in this alternative history, so Donne’s poetic musings form an apt commentary on his imminent passing. However, the king is determined to survive until St Lucy’s Day when those midwinter nightingales are said (by poet Gregory Pollard, supposedly by way of Chaucer) to be singing:

“And bye the Middel Mere,
Oft ye may heare
Midwinter Nightingale
to human eares
tell out Hyr Piteous Tale.”

What we must assume is that, unlike our world’s Britain, Dido’s native country hadn’t yet adopted the Gregorian calendar which much of the rest of the world already had, and were still using the out-of-synch Julian calendar which marked midwinter on St Lucy’s Day. In our own history English-speaking countries had only moved to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, meaning then that eleven days had to be removed from the old calendar, with the result that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September. By the mid 19th century the two calendars were 12 days adrift, and now the gap is 13 days: thus St Lucy’s Day, as celebrated in Dido’s alternative history, would be 13 + 12 = 25th December — which would have been Christmas Day in the new calendar!

(We’ve already come across St Lucy’s feast day in the Wolves Chronicles when, in The Whispering Mountain, two London thieves — Bilk and Prigman — have been given till “St Lucie’s Day” to recapture and hand over a golden harp to wicked Lord Malyn; the fact that much of the action takes place in October merely complicates matters!)

Here is a tentative December timetable for the action of Midwinter Nightingale (dates given in Julian/Gregorian style).

9th/21st. Simon, newly returned from Bremen, meets Jorinda on the Wetlands Express. Over four days at Darkwater Farm he sketches the king for a portrait; during three of these days there’s continuous rain turning to snow, which is when Simon leaves the Farm with the king for Overland Priory.

11th/23rd. Dido returns from Nantucket, the Archbishop is murdered and Dido scrobbled before she’s taken on a twelve-hour journey to Fogrum Hall.

12th/24th. Dido escapes from Fogrum Hall and meets Jorinda (who she estimates is 17 or 18, roughly the same age as her).

13th/25th. Jorinda, Dido, Fr Sam, Simon and the King meet up by the viaduct at Middle Mere close to Overland Priory. It is noon when Lot, Titania and the Duchess of Burgundy catch up before meeting their belated downfall. In the late afternoon, as it gets dark, Sir Thomas arrives to pay off the invading Burgundians. At the Priory Simon is appointed Richard’s successor and, just as the king dies, midwinter nightingales start singing.

TWITE theory

We’ve already been examining the problems that have arisen since The Wolves of Willoughby Chase established a starting year of 1832. By the time we got to Is (or Is Underground) the timelines got very twisted indeed. By a process of elimination — somewhat arbitrary, I must admit — I settled on a probable date of early 1843 (though it could be late 1842) for the culmination of that chronicle, with a tsunami engulfing New Blastburn somewhere in the Holderness area of the island. As that flood is mentioned in Midwinter Nightingale, when it’s estimated to have been a recent event, we’re either in December 1842 or December 1843; but neither date appears to me to be final as there are too many conflicting chronological details.

If the Decembers of 1842 and 1843 remain likely contenders then Dido, born (as we’ve established, on 1st March 1824) will be either 18 or 19, and therefore perfectly eligible in age to marry the future king Simon (born 1818). But she thinks that she’s too common to be queen, despite the fact that her rascally musician father had composed a song anticipating just such a possibility:

Oh, how I’d like to be queen, Pa,
And ride in a kerridge to Kew,
Wearing a gold crinoline, Pa,
And sucking an orange or two

Oh how I’d like to be queen, Pa,
Watching my troops at review
Sucking a ripe tangerine, Pa,
And sporting a sparkler or two

Because the Wolves Chronicles aren’t just alternative history but also fantasy we’ve been noticing magical and supernatural happenings becoming more and more to the fore. We’ve previously noted Dido’s sister Is’s latent telepathic abilities develop, for example, and Lady Titania’s prophetic talents in this novel along with two werewolves manifesting; and Dido herself is observed in the closing chapters to have latent psychic abilities too.

Can we postulate that the increased interaction of magic with events has affected chronology in this world, creating temporal wormholes through which the action slips, reappearing often earlier or later than the calendar deems it should?

Let’s conclude with the final lines of Donne’s poem, a fitting epitaph on the final solemn moments of Midwinter Nightingale.

Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.

7 thoughts on “St Lucy’s Day

  1. In Swedish tradition the Lucia night (in the Julian calender) was a dangerous night when the animals could speak and supranatural things might occur. In modern time the 13th of December, or St Lucia day, has turned into a light celebration with choirs dressed in white and carrying candles singing traditional Lucia and Christmas songs. When I was still in a choir this was one of the highlights of the choir year.

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    1. I was alert to see if Joan Aiken would reflect any of these Scandinavian traditions in her novel, Johanna, but apart from singing nightingales — maybe she was subtly referencing the opera singer Jenny Lind, known in Britain as the Swedish Nightingale — there was nothing obvious; her main motifs were the (genuine) John Donne poem and the (fictional) Geoffrey Chaucer verse.

      But I do like the Swedish St Lucia customs: the only traditions related to light we retain are the Advent candles, the candles on the Christmas tree (a German import, of course) and the Yule log — and we know where the word Yule comes from!

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    2. In fact, the more I think about it, Johanna, the more I think that the Jenny Lind connection may be stronger in the story, even if unconscious.

      The singer (whose first name was really Johanna!) came to prominence in 1838 singing Agathe in Der Freischütz; you may have picked up the wolf references in Aiken’s story, and though there are no silver bullets, silver does play a part in the demise of the principal werewolf.

      Also, as well as being known as the Swedish Nightingale, the soprano had Hans Christian Andersen as her greatest admirer: his famous fairytale ‘The Nightingale’ was supposedly inspired by her, with the Emperor of China saved from his deathbed by hearing the singing of the said bird; this seems to me to be a reversed reflection of King Richard on his deathbed.

      I also see that Lind was buried near where her final years were spent, in the Great Malvern Hills, not that far from where I now live and near where John Masefield’s two great children’s fantasies are modelled on. So many threads! 🙂

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  2. grahamstrachan

    The more I see your posts, the more I’m in admiration at the volume (no pun intended) of work that you read. I love words, and literature in general. However, I have to confess that, whilst my writing speed is quite good, I cannot say the same for my reading. In fact, if a book contains 500 pages, I’m convinced that I have to read a minimum of 600…..re-reading is a curse that I am saddled with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being retired, Graham, and staying as isolated as possible during the current crisis means I have plenty of time to read, contemplate and consider books. Goodreads tells me I’ve read and near enough reviewed seventy books already this year, but that’s peanuts compared to some I follow.

      But I too am a slow reader: I like to pause and reflect on what I’m reading; I often take copious notes and seek out references and parallels; and often the process of writing a review takes almost as much time as reading the darn book! So I fall back on the excuse of being an idle retiree, unable to pursue my usual occupations of music-making and travelling to visit friends and family; what else am I supposed to do but read? 😁

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      1. grahamstrachan

        I am not, as yet, retired. At 64 years of age, I’m not too far off though. I say that only referencing my age and my anticipated receipt of pension at age 67. The reality though is, financially, I think my form of retirement will be by pushing up daisies. I am also, like yourself, one who enjoys researching and note-taking. I love to pad out story lines and details by looking into where the ideas came from and their connection to all things real or imaginary. I live in Spain now (the last thirteen years) and I teach (English and art) but, at the same time, my wife and I have begun a business dealing with the home improvement and styling market. Obviously, the current circumstances have affected our schedules and therefore, in some ways we have more time available. The uncertainty of the future though, isn’t always conducive to structured thought processes.

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        1. I understand how those financial and societal anxieties will affect creativity and clear thinking. If I was a religious man I’d be praying that divine intervention would ameliorate things; as it is we can only lobby our politicians, vote decent ones in when we’re able to, and do what little good we can whenever we can.

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