“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”— Anne Brontë, ‘Agnes Grey’, Chapter XV
Yesterday (9th August) was Book Lovers Day, a day (they say) for encouraging people “to pick up a book (or two) and spend the day reading.” So it was for me: Joan Aiken‘s 20th-century Gothic romance The Silence of Herondale (1964) — which I’ve been steaming through — involves a young woman reluctantly travelling up by train in winter to an isolated mansion in Yorkshire, all full of Brontë-type brooding. Enjoyable though it is in its own right (and I’ll be reviewing it in due course) I can’t help but be reminded of another female taking a similar journey: Silvia Green in the same author’s children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which had in fact been published just two years before.
Although one novel is set in the 1960s and the other in the 1830s they have several themes in common; but for this post I want to change onto a parallel track. I’m presently about to embark on the final instalment of Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, the name her daughter Lizza Aiken has given to the saga of a dozen or so related novels which had began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Witch of Clatteringshaws was the final book that Joan completed before her death in 2004, a novella that represented the terminus for a sequence of tales stretching over a decade of alternative history, a chronology in which the Hanoverian dynasty never ruled Albion and the Stuart line still sat on the throne.
And, running like a railway line through many of these tales is the theme of travel — by carriage or by Shank’s pony, by ship or, indeed, by train. So, before opening the page on a narrative set largely in Scotland (from where, possibly, Joan Aiken’s ancestors hailed) I’d like to consider the mode of travel which features strongly not only in many of the Wolves Chronicles but also in The Silence of Herondale.
In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) orphan Silvia Green has to travel by train from London to Willoughby Chase House, somewhere in the North. Despite it being 1832, in this alternative world (and alternative geography) the development of the railways is a little further advanced than in our world. And there are wolves, of course, which have invaded the island from the Continent via the recently built Channel Tunnel.
Later in the novel Silvia, her cousin Bonnie, their friend Simon and a gaggle of geese travel back to London by donkey cart, passing through Herondale, perhaps the very same Yorkshire vale which will reappear in The Silence of Herondale. The final sequence of events has the trio travelling back up by train to Willoughby before the novel’s denouement.
Black Hearts in Battersea and Night Birds on Nantucket are set, respectively, in London and in North America, with no rail travel to speak of. The next time we come across a train is in South America, as detailed in The Stolen Lake. This is a rack and pinion railway which takes our globetrotting heroine Dido Twite up into the high Andes following a boat trip upriver on a tidal bore. After an excursus to a Pacific island she returns to Albion for The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa, neither of which involve railway journeys.
However, around 1842 we begin to follow Dido’s half-sister in her travels. In Is or Is Underground the eponymous Is travels from London to Humberland on the Playland Express, leaving from Euston on a direct line to Blastburn, looking to find the king’s son and her cousin Arun.
What none of the children on the express realise is that they are being lured to work in coal mines, where a steam train will be swapped for coal trucks that they’ll have to haul around themselves. This aspect of the narrative is unfortunately not fiction because children and women were often engaged to work in narrow coal seams in place of adult males, a practice which had still not been discontinued in the 1840s.
In Is’s next adventure, Cold Shoulder Road, she’s back down south in Kent where her cousin Arun will actually travel by train down to France through the Channel tunnel (though he does have to walk back through the tunnel). At around the same time, in Midwinter Nightingale, Dido’s friend Simon is travelling on the Wetlands Express to this world’s equivalent of the Somerset Levels. All this travelling appears to take place in the first half of the 1840s when the railway system in this alternative world is well established, even as the country appears to be breaking up into different polities.
When we eventually get into the pages of The Witch of Clatteringshaws we will find we’re not done with train journeys: as well as Euston station we’ll discover, for example, that another London terminus for journeys to North Albion is King’s Wrath station (a skit of course on London’s King’s Cross). So, of the dozen instalments of the Wolves Chronicles we find that at least half feature railways of one type or another. But before we climb aboard for the last ever chronicle there will be 1960s Herondale to explore.