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.
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
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.
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.