Is Overground

Another post for die-hard fans of Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles.

Also for readers who love words and the names authors give their characters.

And for those wondering how far down a rabbit hole a curious blogger is prepared to go.

This post is the first of two discussing the people of Joan Aiken’s fantasy Is, a kind of prosopography* or Who’s Who of the individuals we meet, plus a bit of speculation about what inspired their creation.

Even if you don’t intend to read the novel you may still find the personages curious enough to wonder a bit about them, as I did.

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Exploring Humberland

Euston Station, Doric arch 1839

Joan Aiken‘s alternative world created for her Wolves Chronicles bears a great similarity to ours but with a number of significant tweaks to make it feel unfamiliar, even disconcerting.

With a plot that ranges from Blackheath — south of Greenwich — north to London and then on to the northeast coast (to what Aiken calls Humberland) this latest chronicle from this world is not just different because it’s set in the 19th century but because there’s no Queen Victoria on the throne.

I’d like to guide you as we follow in the footsteps of Is Twite, the uchronian heroine of the novel Is — named, of course, after Miss Twite or possibly from the new name of Blastburn, a location based loosely on Kingston-upon-Hull.

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A Brief History of Twite

Google doodle for 4th September 2015

I began my explorations of the world of Joan Aiken‘s Wolves Chronicles nearly four years ago with a review of the very first book in the series, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962).

Since then I have travelled to various parts of the globe — or, rather, this particular paracosm — as featured in the chronicles, and followed the fortunes of a few of the young people involved.

It’s now time for me to embark again on my voyages with the instalment called Is (also published as Is Underground) and to attempt to recalibrate the chronology of this unique uchronia. As an introduction to the impending review I’d like, for innocent readers of this blog, to summarise where we’ve got to — and how we got here.

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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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Dido in danger

HMS Pomone (c 1820) naval frigate built 1805 at Frindsbury; colour lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John (public domain image)

Joan Aiken: Limbo Lodge
(Dangerous Games in the US)
Red Fox 2004 (1999)

On the back cover of my edition of Limbo Lodge is a quote from Philip Pullman:

What I relish in particular is the swiftness of the telling, the vigour with which brilliant moments of perception seem to be improvised in the sheer delight of the onward rush of the story. Joan Aiken is a marvel.

This adulatory comment (said to be from The Guardian) is cited everywhere online but I can’t discover if it’s actually part of his review for this particular book. It’s certainly true of Limbo Lodge, as for all of the Wolves Chronicles, but for me what stands out most is how much rich detail Aiken includes, and how many corridors leading off from the main narrative avenue just beg to be explored. For example, board games are everywhere, a metaphor for the moves that Dido Twite and her companions have to constantly make if they are not to lose their lives. Twists of fate, as illustrated by the Tarot, can also determine outcomes. There are stern critiques of misogyny, racism and colonialism, not unexpectedly, but also parallels with Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest, whether consciously introduced or not is hard to decide. And — given that Arthurian themes pervaded The Stolen Lake, the title that chronologically precedes Limbo Lodge — there are faint echoes here too of the Once and Future King in Aiken’s tale, of the medieval sin of accidie and of restoration.

But Pullman’s description of swift storytelling and the spontaneous vigour shown in brilliant moments of perception is spot on, strengths which lead one to first rush down that corridor, leaving the side passages to explore in a later rereading.

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A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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New Cumbria (1)

A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire
A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire

It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).

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Culture clash

Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur (credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg)
Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur. Credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)

It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.

New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.

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Dido goes south

South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note

Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.

I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*

The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”

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