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.
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…
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.
Rather than offering readers multiple links to reviews and discussions in this post I invite you to scroll through the tag Wolves Chronicles.
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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.
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 …
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?
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
For many years now, as many of you know, I have on this blog been exploring one ofJoan Aiken‘s alternative worlds with its alternative history, set mainly in a paracosmic Britain of the 1830s and 1840s. This ‘Wolfish Villains’ post is a fairly rare overview, looking at a set of character types whose anticipated defeats provide the impetus for much of the action.
Should young readers be presented with really hair-raising villains? I believe so. They love to be scared, and are more robust than adults…
—Joan Aiken: ‘The Way to Write for Children’ (1982)
This post for Witch Week examines some of the villains the late Joan Aiken created for the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a sequence which — thanks to Lizza Aiken — we now know as the Wolves Chronicles.
Almost every one of the novels that comprise this alternative history — eleven, twelve, or thirteen of them, depending on which ones are regarded as belonging to this alternative world — has at least one villain as the main antagonist pitted against the principal protagonist (who is invariably a child or young adult).
Like fairytales or classical comedies, the Chronicles fit the pattern of the protagonist overcoming all vicissitudes, usually defeating the villain, followed by a happy ending of sorts. Aiken’s antagonists, on the other hand, are frequently archetypal bad ‘uns — pantomime villains, almost, twirling their metaphorical moustaches — yet that doesn’t stop them being chillingly portrayed as not just sociopaths but psychopaths.
Joan Aiken would have been 95 today. Born on 4th September 1924 in the historic Jeake’s House in Rye, East Sussex, she produced a distinguished body of literary work of extraordinary quality as well as quality. Regular readers will know that I am a major fanboy of hers, as a glance at the tag Joan Aiken on this blog will confirm.
There’s more to her fiction than The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fine and deservedly famous as it is, and though I’ve barely read a fraction of her published work I’m constantly amazed by her range, from novels to non-fiction, short stories to book sequences, fairytale retellings to Austen homages, and much more besides.
Find out even more on the truly marvellous Joan Aiken website and on the equally delightful blog run by her daughter, the nonpareilleLizza Aiken, here. My photos of the downstairs rooms of Jeake’s House, where Joan lived until 1929 when her parents divorced and is now a superior B&B, are in this post.
Chapter 1. Bonnie Green awaits her first cousin Sylvia in snowbound Willoughby Chase; but first meets Miss Letitia Slighcarp, her fourth cousin (once removed) and new governess. Chapter 2. In which Silvia Green leaves her Aunt Jane in London, only to be tempted by confections in a railway carriage and waylaid by wolves. Chapter 3. Annabelle is startled — the curious case of the portmanteau — a dreamless slumber. Chapter 4. The precarious incident of the wolves in the twilight — the archer boy in Willoughby Park. Chaper 5. Sylvia and Bonnie dishonourably spy on Slighcarp, who thereby shows her true colours, and on Grimshaw who, remarkably, has recovered his composure. Chapter 6. Weeks pass, winter deepens; a note goes awry after unwelcome news and waifs are sent away. Chapter 7. Herein girls become ciphers, silence is not golden, and the hand of Friendshipp provides no succour. Chapter 8. Bold Bonnie is locked in a cupboard and Sylvia, ill, locked in the coal cellar, but geese, cakes, cheese and eggs assuage more than hunger. Chapter 9. In which a ladder to freedom is taken but our doughty trio must beware snakes in the grass. Chapter 10. A doctor today keeps Jane’s illness at bay; Grimshaw goes for a gander, gets caught unawares and thrown down the stairs. Chapter 11. Wherein a school of scandal is interrupted by the return of the natives, the fourth cousin is finally removed, and sundry lives are rounded with a sleep.
Can any true lover of literature fail to be thrilled by this synopsis and thus resist the urge to read this for the first, or even a further, time?
A review of the Puffin edition has previously been posted here, but a further perusal (in a different edition) for the Twitter readalong #WilloughbyReads encouraged me to supply the missing chapter headings
For more on this wonderful novel see this post, ‘A Wonderful Year for Wolves‘ by Lizza Aiken, on her mother’s “small masterpiece”, its influences and its reception.
With this review I’ve officially completed my Goodreads goal of reading (and reviewing) 52 books for 2019 … and we’re barely two-thirds of the way through the year. Dare I up my target to 78?!
OK, this my final (?) post on the most non-canonical of the Wolves Chronicles, Midnight is a Place (1974) following a series of discussions.
I’ve already discoursed on the characters, the geography, the timeline and themes, and it may seem that I’ve covered everything essential in relation to the novel.
But in truth, apart from the review, these discussions have really only addressed the questions Who, Where, When and What — still missing are some answers to the How and the Why. Here will be the place to consider these in my customary cursory manner.
“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.
The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.
And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.