Midwinter Night’s Dream

Some scribbled notes on genealogies and chronologies for Midwinter Nightingale

Yet another in my detailed and lengthy examinations of Midwinter Nightingaleplease don’t yawn; and pay attention at the back! — in which I complete the prosopography or Who’s Who of the people we met in the novel. Among other matters we shall touch on alternative history, on Shakespeare, and on legends.

Following a review we’ve also so far looked at the alternative geography in this novel and some major themes; still to come are further themes and motifs that the author Joan Aiken plays with and an attempt to make sense of the complicated timeline that has led the reader from around 1832 in this alternative world to some unspecified (and maybe unspecifiable) year in the early-to-mid-1840s.

Then it’ll be on to the remaining two novels in the Wolves Chronicles, a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and will end with The Witch of Clatteringshaws. If you want to find out what further fun and wit the author had with names and personages in this instalment, read on. If not, move along please, nothing to see here.

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Wetlands to the Edge

Nunney Castle, Somerset

This is a continuation of the Who’s Who in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale, in which we looked at personages met on the Wetlands Express and the Tower of London, and those associated with HMS Philomela in the Thames Estuary.

This time we shall examine those people we encounter, in person or by repute, at Fogrum Hall and Edge Place. (However, Darkwater Farm, the Three Chapels and Otherland Priory will have to wait till a final post). As usual we shall see what flights of fancy and ingenuity Joan Aiken incorporates in her characters’ names, behaviours and natures.

Of course this is part of the usual series of posts following a review that I treat each instalment in the Chronicles — the link will take you to these so that you may peruse them at your leisure. Or not.

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A nightingale sang

Print engraving of the Isle of Athelney in 1898

Joan Aiken, born 4th September 1924 in Rye, East Sussex; died 4th January 2004 in Petworth, West Sussex

‘The most immediate manifestation of Aiken’s inventiveness is to be seen in her plots.

These are wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability, involving the skilled manipulation of a large cast of colourful characters and held together by a style which is a blend of the humorous, the satirical, the parodic and the melodramatic.

Chance, luck and coincidence are accorded significant roles in these narratives in a manner frequently reminiscent of Dickens or Hardy, though neither of these has quite the Aiken degree of recklessness.

There is a further Victorian influence in her fondness for exploiting the surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical.’

— from ‘The Twite Stuff’, a 1999 piece in praise of Joan Aiken’s writing by the late Robert Dunbar in The Irish Times

This post will be looking at some of the themes in Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale a title in the series known collectively as the Wolves Chronicles — which we have been exploring in a review and in related discussions. We start with the avian motif that has characterised so many of the instalments.

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Werewolves and nightmares

Stockton and Darlington locomotive 1840

“An adult reader […] greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door.”
— John Crowley, ‘Forget Harry Potter, Adults Should Read Joan Aiken’s Wolves, Boston Review

In this post, part of a series looking at details of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (one of the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite) we shall be looking at some of the personages met in the novel’s pages.

Many are only given the briefest of mentions, so don’t be too alarmed at what seems a rather lengthy cast list (though for reasons of brevity it’s split between a couple of posts). Along with details of individual characters and functions, a few entries will call for some discussion of the meaning or joke implied in names.

Many readers will of course by now be familiar with the customary advice: beware of spoilers.

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Other lands

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, ‘St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’, engraved by J Stephenson (1836)

Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.

As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.

Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.

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Geognostic

Map from Frank Ferneyhough’s ‘The History of Railways in Britain’ (Osprey Publishing 1975)

[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.

A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.

Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.

Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.

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“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

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Playland

Title page to Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’

Dedicated Joan Aiken fans among you will know I have been exploring her novel called Is (1992) over several posts now; less enamoured readers will naturally have passed over them, and I don’t blame them. For what can be more tedious than discussion of a book one has neither hear of, let alone read, nor has has any intention of reading?

However, I have tried hard to show what a rich little volume this is, both for its own sake and for the fact that it has overtones of so many other motifs. Among these have been the Arthurian legends and Brontë juvenilia, child labour and Dickensian names, social customs and industrial conditions, rhyming riddles and nursery rhymes, folklore and fairytales, natural disasters and classics of children’s literature, among much else.

In this post I want to expand on a few final thoughts. If final they turn out to be…

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Holdernesse

Holderness and the Humber Estuary

Following a post about some of the characters in Joan Aiken‘s 1992 novel Is, also known as Is Underground, I want to examine the remaining characters, most of whom live in a town constructed in caverns below a hill.

But before launching into completing the Who’s Who of this Wolves Chronicle I want to add to comments I’ve already made about the town in earlier posts, so as to explore some of the literary influences that may have contributed to this fiction.

WARNING: spoilers follow

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Twisted timelines

Rather than offering readers multiple links to reviews and discussions in this post I invite you to scroll through the tag Wolves Chronicles.

* * * * *

Before a prosopography or Who’s Who in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Is (1992) appears here I’d like to discuss the convoluted chronology that makes dating the novel difficult, if not near nigh impossible.

The twisted timelines by which one attempts to reach this chimerical dating all end in a veritable Gordian knot. I can’t promise to either untie that knot or emulate Alexander the Great’s resolution of the conundrum.

But I can try.

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Book lover’s leap

You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.

Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…

I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …

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Riddle-me-ree

Illustration by Pat Marriott

My first is in Abion, never in Blastburn,
My second’s in twisting but never in return,
My whole is a lass who is brave, true and bold
In a tale of old times which Joan Aiken once told.


I come now to the second part of a pair of posts about themes in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles Is (also known as Is Underground).

Last time I drew out Arthurian motifs such as the quest for the Holy Grail and the sunken land of Lyonesse; this time I draw attention to themes in this novel common to others in the Chronicles as a whole, a feature which helps to give an identity to the series.

Do these repeated themes mean a sameness, and are they symptomatic of a paucity of ideas? I would of course dispute any such accusation; for if a critic were to censure classical composers for laziness in respect of movements entitled Theme and Variations we would label them an utter philistine, would we not?

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Quest for the Saloop

‘And did he — by any chance — let fall the cause — er, that’s to say, the regime, nostrum, jorum, physic, diet, whatever it is he does or takes — to which he attributes his great number of years?’ — Roy Twite to his niece, chapter 5

The so-called Matter of Britain — la matière de Bretagne — permeates Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves Chronicles. The term comes from the prologue of the Chanson des Saisnes (“song of the Saxons”) by Jean Bodel (d 1210) in which he distinguishes three thematic strands suitable for epics: the myths and legends of Rome; the stories arising from the heroic Carolingian period in France; and the Arthurian and Celtic romance tradition associated with Britain and Brittany.

The Arthurian strand has continued to thread through literature since it emerged in the pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain by the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Joan Aiken somehow couldn’t help but introduce Arthurian motifs into her fiction, whether Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur for younger readers or several times in the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

She’d previously included Welsh Arthurian motifs such as the Hunt of the Giant Boar in The Whispering Mountain and the Return of King Arthur in The Stolen Lake. In Is Underground (Is in the UK) one particular Arthurian legend comes to the fore — that of the Holy Grail, sometimes called the Sangreal — but, as we’ll see in due course, it isn’t the only recurring Chronicles theme that we will meet in these pages.

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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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Playland hell

Hekla 1851 (© British Library HMNTS)

Joan Aiken: Is
Red Fox 1993 (1992)

Young Is Twite promises a dying uncle that she will investigate what had happened to her cousin Arun after he had run away to London. In tracing his route to what he thought was Playland she instead finds a totalitarian regime in which the London children induced to escape to a land of plenty are instead forced to work in iron foundries, potteries or coal mines. Will these innocents manage to escape from their slavery before an impending natural disaster overtakes them?

Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, her saga of an alternative world and 19th-century history, became as dark as it got when she wrote Is (published as Is Underground in North America). She had always been fierce in her opposition to child labour, which she had already explored in previous Chronicles, but now she had researched working conditions in Yorkshire mines and her indignation will have blazed anew.

But Is isn’t all doom and gloom: the story is peppered with rhymes and riddles and peopled with quirky but sympathetic characters; this being essentially a fantasy, we are also entertained with the notion that individuals, and especially children, may have the ability to communicate without the need for speech.

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