At one’s convenience

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The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores throughout at their cost.

There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

Lizza Aiken, ‘Joan Aiken’s Farewell’ on

My own review of the last ever title in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, is now followed by the customary series of discussion posts, on people and places, timelines and themes.

Today, the day after the midwinter solstice, I will start a dramatis personae of the characters who appear and as usual it will be a prosopography, a study of an individual’s role, personality, and relationships; and — this title being of course a fiction — it will include speculation about their names and/or origins.

I start with the title character, the Witch herself, who appears virtually at the start in the Prologue when we read of her writing a letter to her cousin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, from a Ladies Convenience overlooking a Scottish loch. (Immediately you will have spotted that this is no ordinary alternative historical fiction, but uses seemingly anachronistic effects to confound expectations.) I’ll also be looking at a couple of the other protagonists in this post.

As ever there’s a big red warning triangle for SPOILERS.

She might have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, though she moved with the balance and easy stride of a much younger person. Her hair, done in a knot at the back of her neck, was black and smooth. Her long, thin face had regular features and would have been handsome, but there was something a little forbidding about it. She looks, thought Dido, as if she could have a mighty nasty temper if she was crossed. She’d stick a spike in you as soon as look at you. Her eyes were seaweed coloured. She wore a red dress.

Chapter Four

Malise. The District Witch and health visitor of Clatteringshaws; she also goes under the alias of Aldith Ironside, a rail inspector of internal communications and maintenance. Cousin to Father Sam Firebrace and to Rodney Firebrace. Friend to the Monster of Loch Grieve. Inhabits a former Ladies Convenience in a coach park on the south side of the loch. She is in disgrace having failed to hear an uttered prophecy when she was distracted by a street song, and so is keen to put things right.

What can we say about Malise? Being a witch you might think her name is related to the word ‘malice’, but really there isn’t a malicious bone in her body. Does her name rhyme with Alice? I think not, though it’s true that she goes down a hole — not after a white rabbit but after the so-called Monster of Loch Grieve (about which more later). Nor do I believe her name is related to malaise, though it’s true she is often ill at ease. There is a Scottish male name Malise (though online sites state it’s gender neutral) from the Gaelic Maol Iosa meaning ‘servant of Jesus’; it was often borne by the Earls of Strathearn and survives as the surname Mellis (Dunkling 1978: 96) and in the family name Maclise. This last religious derivation seems to render it an unlikely name for a witch to bear.

However, I rather suspect our witch’s name may be pronounced in the French way as Mal-eez-uh. Seemingly a pet form of Marie-Louise, an Austrian archduchess was given this name at birth in 1791; christened Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia, she was Napoleon’s second wife and thus Empress of the French between 1810 and 1814, dying in 1847 around the time this novel is set. Am I wrong in hearing Malise as ‘my Lizza’, this being the name of Joan Aiken’s daughter (born 1953) who continues to maintain her mother’s legacy?

Malise’s assumed name when talking to Dido and Piers, Aldith Ironside, is also interesting. Aldith, from Ealdgyth, later Edith, was an Anglo-Saxon name famously borne by two English queens. Ealdgyth may have been the name of the wife of Edmund Ironside, king for just one year, 1016; a widow, she married Edmund after being removed from retirement in Malmesbury Abbey. (Our ‘Aldith’ was also removed from an institution, this time a theological college.) Another more famous Ealdgyth was the daughter of the Earl of Mercia who married the Welsh ruler Gruffydd ap Llewelyn and then King Harold Godwinson — who of course died at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

Finally, I mustn’t skip over the name Melissa, which when spoken sounds similar to the three-syllable Malise. This derives from Greek μέλισσα (mélissa), ‘bee’, the root of which is μέλι (méli), ‘honey’. A swarm of bees appears later in the novella which, as we shall see, is not without a royal significance.

I think, like Malise, many of us (as Lizza says) wish that we had the words to save the world.

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Dido Twite. The chief protagonist of eight of the Wolves Chronicles, we’ve followed Dido from her first appearance in Black Hearts in Battersea (1963) as a Cockney waif who’s befriended by the teenage Simon when he comes to London to train as an artist. She has travelled around the world, survived many adventures over a handful of years, and returns home to be reunited with her friend, who was ennobled and now a reluctant monarch after events in Midwinter Nightingale (2004). She must now by my reckoning be around twenty, but resists marriage to Simon because she would hate to be queen. So with her friend Piers ‘Woodlouse’ Crackenthorpe she goes on a diplomatic mission to Scotland to investigate the likelihood that the true heir to the crown has survived incognito the battle of Folloddon, fought near the village of Clatteringshaws.

Dido has been the most consistent character in the Chronicles as far as appearances are concerned, and is the one we’ve invested most in. We’ve also invested in her half-sister Is — who featured in two of the Chronicles — but we last heard a passing mention of her in Midwinter Nightingale and she doesn’t reappear here, nor does Dido’s older sister Penny. Most of Dido’s other relatives either died in Battersea or, in the case of Dido’s Pa, succumbed to wolves. She, thank goodness, hasn’t “died o’ fright” despite all that’s been thrown at her!

Simon Battersea. First appearing as a goose boy in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Simon was revealed as the lost heir to the duchy of Battersea in the immediate sequel. Much taken with Dido whom he looked after when, aged nine, she became ill and then lost, presumed drowned at sea, his proposal ten or a dozen years later that she become his queen has been rejected because it would require living in the dark, chilly residence of St James’s Palace in London. Now, at the end of the story when he is no longer lumbered with the Crown, will Dido change her mind? If she is around 20 he will be in his mid-20s, so their relationship is very salubrious.

St James’s Palace and environs from Hughson’s Walks through London (1817). The Queen’s Palace is now known as Buckingham Palace (credit:

Simon, who appeared in the first of the Chronicles, retains his links with the Willoughby family, especially Bonnie and Sylvia Green whom Dido visits with her friend Woodlouse in this, the last of the Chronicles, thus bringing the series full circle to its beginnings after forty years.

To be continued

* Joan Aiken. 2005. The Witch of Clatteringshaws. Red Fox 2006.
* Leslie Alan Dunkling. 1978. Scottish Christian Names: an A-Z of First Names. Johnston and Bacon.

8 thoughts on “At one’s convenience

  1. Thank you for that quote – I put my heart into it, as did Joan Aiken with her last book.

    Your investigations help to show quite how much thought, work, literary history and allusion did go into her writing, and give an idea of what conversation with her was like – a plum pudding of delights and hidden treasures!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could tell that from your wording, Lizza, and a wonderful tribute it is too. We are so fortunate to be able to get a sense of her plum pudding conversations from her fiction, many (like the Chronicles) set at or around midwinter when we need much cheer during the gloom.


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