Murgatroyd’s mansion

East front of Burton Constable Hall, E Yorks, in the 19th century

As part of a series of posts examining aspects of Joan Aiken’s Dickensian alternate history Midnight is a Place (1974) I want now to come to the mansion that is suggested in the title, Midnight Court, the stately pile formerly owned by the Murgatroyd family and now, as the result of a wager, in the grubby hands of Sir Randolph Grimsby.

The author gives us several details of its appearance and history in the text which I shall be attempting to fill out with speculation and suppositions. Even if you haven’t read, or don’t intend to read, the novel, don’t despair—there may still be material here that could entrammel your natural curiosity!

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Tipping point

The day after midsummer’s day
Every day seems to bring new evidence of the parlous state that we and the planet are in. Microplastics in the food we eat, in the air we breathe. The sudden death of coral reefs. Glaciers melting. Species extinctions. Climate extremes. Sabre-rattling by malevolent despots. Politicians proving to be the new Neros fiddling even as Rome burns, while mobs are bribed by bread and circuses.

As the hours of daylight start to shorten (for northerners at least) have we passed the tipping point in more ways than one?

My reading this year has, in some ways, paralleled these doomsday scenarios …

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Blastburn themes

Norton Conyers Hall, 1899 © North Yorkshire Country Record Office

Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) is a curious uchronia or alternate history: though not officially part of the sequence that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it shares many of the features that distinguish the Wolves Chronicles, including themes, period and places.

In 1971 Joan published The Cuckoo Tree which seemed to end a run of novels that had characters in common, namely Simon, Dido Twite and Owen Hughes. In 1974 Midnight went back to Blastburn, where ten chronicle years before (in 1832) Bonnie and Sylvia had been treated so badly at a charity school; fans of Charlotte Brontë will have recognised that the Brisket school will have shared qualities with Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

In this post I want to identify the themes that it shares with other chronicles in the sequence, plus a couple of other features that I feel merit attention. As always with these discussions there will a high risk of spoilers so do read the novel first or skip this post if that troubles you.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

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Summer sizzlers

Courtesy of blogger Cathy Brown of 746Books.com I’m planning to join in the meme of Twenty Books of Summer. All this requires is for me to draw up a list of books to read between the start of June and early September, but with the option of changing titles, the number of books read or, indeed, the period of reading: my kind of challenge in fact, infinitely malleable!

Here now is my chance to tackle and reduce my list of Classics Club titles, to read the Roddy Doyle novel I won in Cathy’s Begorrathon this year, and to finish The Deptford Trilogy for Lory’s Robertson Davies Reading Week.

The theory is that, having completed over thirty titles in the first four months of this year I can at least manage twenty in this coming three-month period, but that would require judicious choices: books that aren’t too long, for example.

So herewith is my initial pick of twenty titles to complete by summer’s end.

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