Following a review of Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road — the first of a series of discussion posts about this entry in the Wolves Chronicles — but before concluding with an examination of the very last chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, I want to do an overview of the series.
Long term followers of my posts will be well aware of my obsession with the Wolves Chronicles, for far too long an underrated sequence which, I think, deserves as much love and attention as, say, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Unless you’ve sampled these often complex yet diverting novels for yourself it may be hard to work up enthusiasm for them, and I can understand why my in-depth explorations of people, places, timelines and themes in the dozen or so titles attracts little comment or interest when I’ve posted about them. (It’s me, not you!)
But if you were to at least try the first three or five titles you might start to understand why they are special and, perhaps, hopefully, may even be persuaded to try some more. In which case this post is an attempt to provide the bare bones of where to start and where to go on next.
First, why specifically the Wolves Chronicles? The first in the sequence is the justly famous The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) which the author had begun, aged 29 on her birthday in 1953, as Bonnie Green. This was succeeded, every two or so years, by another title set in her alternative history in which Hanoverians never ruled Albion.* Each title presented a young protagonist or two, many linked with a previous instalment: Bonnie and Sylvia Green‘s story introduced the wild goose boy Simon; Simon made friends with Dido Twite; Owen Hughes was to meet up with Dido after her overseas adventures; Dido discovered she had a sister she never knew called Is; and so on.
The series began in 1832 after the fictional Stuart monarch James III had succeeded to the throne. Simon’s adventures in London took place in the following year, and his new young friend Dido Twite, at first lost at sea, turned up ten months later on board a whaler. Around the same year (as I surmise) young Owen Hughes was dealing with the wicked Lord Malyn in mid Wales; he later meets up with Dido Twite in 1835 as she races to save Richard IV, King James’s successor, from certain death, after returning from her voyages. And she gets to meet up with her friend Simon, whom she hasn’t seen since she was lost at sea in December 1833.
All is going swimmingly (or so is seems) and the Chronicles have come to a temporary pause. We have met wolves in the first two titles, but there are human wolves galore too, preying on our young protagonists — Letitia Slighcarp, Dido Twite’s conspirator father Abednego, the Marquess of Malyn, Colonel FitzPickwick, and a few other villains — who are every bit as dangerous as any lupine pack. But things are about to go a little awry, as you may have noticed with the alternative years I’ve offered for the fourth and fifth titles in the sequence.
Three years after The Cuckoo Tree Joan Aiken clearly wanted to revisit the satanic mills of Blastburn, a town she had invented for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Here she placed the standalone novel of Midnight is a Place (1974) which she set in 1842, with two new protagonists, Lucas Bell (a nod to the Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms, perhaps) and Anne-Marie Murgatroyd. At the end of this novel a disastrous flood is presaged, a flood which could be linked to that in a later chronicle and which might complicate an already complicated timeline.
How had this timeline been made complex? Seven years later Joan had decided that there would be time for Dido to have an extra adventure after she’d left Nantucket en route back home. The Stolen Lake (1981) had the indefatigable Dido travelling to the mountains of South America, here to encounter unexpected Arthurian characters and motifs. Travelling from Nantucket Island in the North Atlantic across the equator, even in a naval ship refitted with steam engines, crossing the continent and returning, and then on eventually to London for events in The Cuckoo Tree, was going to account for more months than she’d really allowed for in 1835, when Night Birds in Nantucket must have ended. Unless, of course, Dido was able to travel using wormholes in the space-time continuum …
After another long gap — six years this time — Joan took up Dido’s story again in Dido and Pa (1987), deepening the young girl’s conflicted relationship with her talented but wayward father, all set immediately after The Cuckoo Tree (which had appeared sixteen years before).
When Joan again returned to the series, in 1992 and 1995, it was to focus on Dido’s younger sister Is, first in the novel with the shortest title yet, Is (also known as Is Underground) and then in Cold Shoulder Road. Where do these fit into the timeline?
There is a clue in where Is’s adventure takes place, that northern town of Blastburn. As the novel ends with an inundation, which may be the same one prophesied in Midnight is a Place, the action can’t be happening before December 1842, when the flood hits. But Is seems to spend several weeks labouring down Blastburn’s mines before emerging early in the new year before the tsunami arrives, so these may be different floods or different towns in different fictional worlds. After Is travels back down south she comes across evidence of the tsunami’s ravages in Cold Shoulder Road.
Not content with inserting a South American adventure for Dido between Nantucket and London Joan now gave her more perils in the Banda Sea, west of New Guinea, in Limbo Lodge which (as its alternative title Dangerous Games suggests) was to involve Dido with board games, Brontë juvenilia, a variation on a theme from Hamlet and various other motifs. This extension to her South American adventure would have significantly lengthened her voyage back home, further pushing the notional chronology to its breaking point.
One solution might be to have the South American and/or Indonesian adventures not after she’d left Nantucket but in the intervening years between Dido and Pa and the Blastburn flood (a gap of about half a dozen years). Some internal details — Dido’s apparent ages, for example, and crucially the coronation of a new king — seem to count against that, unfortunately, but others may just work (Dido is said to have been in the Banda Seas about two or three years before the events in Midwinter Nightingale, which follows not too long after Is Underground).
As a visual guide to this convoluted chronology, these twisted timelines, here is a diagram which tries to plot the sequence as closely as I can, including some of the options I’ve alluded to; this fix has to assume that our narrator is unreliable — not deliberately, of course! — and that we are being misdirected. I’ve shown the ‘wormholes’ involving The Stolen Lake and Limbo Lodge.
There’s an added complication in Cold Shoulder Road in that one character gets a telepathic message saying that Dido, who’s on ‘Whale Island’ (this must be Nantucket Island), is presently to leave for home; as this story happens in ‘late spring’ of the year it’s set in (1843?) and it appears to take Dido roughly six months to travel across the Atlantic, then the events in Midwinter Nightingale must be dated to December of that year, an option I’ve previously considered.
Lest I’ve made the series’ internal chronology sound too problematical I must add that almost all the instalments work quite well as standalone novels because Joan gives as much context to preceding events as is necessary to enjoy them out of sequence. It’s only because I worry away at details, from a total admiration for what she has a achieved, that I have gone on at length to argue consistency for the saga.
* Joan Aiken was fairly careful to distance her imaginary world from ours in particular ways: she included some towns and cities and features from ours, along with many not existing in reality; she included some historical geographic polities (like Bernicia, or Wales) with others bearing a close or more vague relationship to our regions (Humberland for Northumberland, the Wet Country instead of the West Country). She doesn’t to my knowledge refer to England ever, but once, in Midnight is a Place, the term Albion appears — though never in the Wolves Chronicles.
We’re not done yet as we still have the final chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, to consider — but that’s for another time. In the meantime you may enjoy this jewel of a classic Puffin Club film: it stars the author herself in an atmospheric exploration of the first five novels which had been written up till then, the early 70s.