Grim up north

19th-century Grimsby (image credit: Grimsby Telegraph)

Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place
Hodder Children’s Books 2014 (1974)

‘Nowt said breaks no head.’ — Davey Scatcherd

A dark tale of unspoken secrets and kind words, sharp practices and generosity, bravery and steadfastness, all set in a grim manufacturing town may not sound ideal fare for young readers, and yet Joan Aiken to my mind has carried it off. While there is no “Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills” there is hope and optimism amongst the tragedy and a determination that creativity can counteract the bleaker side of human contradictions.

Orphan Lucas Bell is under the guardianship of Sir Randolph Grimsby, privately educated by a a taciturn tutor at the forbidding Midnight Court, hard by the town of Blastburn. As Lucas turns thirteen he is joined by another orphan, Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who, lately come from Calais, speaks only French.

But relationships between these four individuals is somewhat strained as suspicions sour the atmosphere, already fouled by the smoke and grime from nearby Blastburn. Something has to give and for Lucas and others they find it is a case of out of the frying pan, only to find themselves, almost literally, in the fire.

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A wolfish vampire in Wapping

 

The illustrations above depict Claire Sennegon in 1837 and, in a self-portrait, Christen Købke in 1832, both of whom I imagine Sophie and twin brother Simon might have resembled in the mid-1830s when Dido Twite finally reconnected with them in London. Simon of course was a talented artist while Sophie was equally adept at taking proactive roles.

In this post we will start looking at the characters who feature in Joan Aiken’s alternate history Wolves Chronicle Dido and Pa, some of whom (as we will discover) belong to an informal group known as the Birthday League. They’ll be introduced according to principal places in the novel, and as there is much background information the post comes in two parts: this is . . . part one.

Note: the usual spoiler alert applies!

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Of conspirators and kings

Rose Alley, Southwark, London around 1910, site of Dido’s old home

The latest in a series of posts about Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Cuckoo Tree

In previous posts we’ve looked at Dido Twite‘s friends, acquaintances and enemies in Sussex and London; we’ve seen where she travelled and precisely when and where her adventures began and where they have now ended up.

Before we wrap up our discussions on the timeline of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree it may be pertinent to ask what may have inspired her to invent a storyline that would culminate in an attempt on a royal life at a coronation.

Let’s have a look at some key dates in this uchronia or other reality as well as some in our own times to see if we can spot some possibilities. I promise it’s more intriguing than you might imagine, even if you’re a newcomer here and you’ve no idea what I’m talking about!

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Dido’s homecoming

‘The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.’ The image shows the Vulture, with a lorcha in tow, passing the Weiyuan Battery on Anunghoy Island in the Bocca Tigris, 9 April 1847 (image: public domain)

In recent posts we’ve been looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel The Cuckoo Tree (1971): the people involved, the geography of the narrative, and so on. We now come to a more tricky aspect of the story, the chronology, and we shall find that things are even less straightforward than ever.

But first, a recap of events so far.

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Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust,
Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

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Lively and inventive

cambriae_typus.jpg
Cambriae Typus: map of Wales by Humphrey Llwyd 1527-1568 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken
The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)

Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).

Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.

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Who’s who on Aratu

The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.  A steam-powered frigate similar to the ThrushHMS Vulture is here seen passing Weiyuan Battery, Anunghoy Island near Canton (Guangzhou) April 1847 (image: Royal Museum Greenwich)

In Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge we meet with a number of individuals who haven’t appeared elsewhere in the Wolves Chronicles. Joan (see, we’re all on first-name terms!) is adept at making these individuals distinctive so that we don’t get too confused as to who’s who on the island of Aratu. Linking it all together is of course Dido Twite, whom we first encountered as an 9-year-old London urchin in Black Hearts in Battersea but who now dresses as a young sailor lad after more than two years at sea.

Here follows a prosopography of the main named characters in the novel, a sort of index raisonné in which I try to account for Joan’s choices for her dramatis personae. Remember, look away now if you don’t want massive plot spoilers revealed!

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