Keys to mystery

Joan Aiken: The Song of Mat and Ben
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

Ned Thorne has had a dream similar to one his Aunt Lal has had, of two cherubic-faced boys in old-fashioned clothes entering the bookshop run by his Uncle Adam. Returning — not without mishap — to the Cornish town of St Boan, young Ned has to combat with blizzards, bullies and human bugbears, the ghostly appearances of those twins being just the prelude. The key that helped him solve a mystery in the first story, In Thunder’s Pocket, may prove to have a crucial part to play in The Song of Mat and Ben.

As well as the supernatural, the second novelette in the St Boan Mystery trilogy focuses on an artistic endeavour, much as the first dealt with sculpture and the third will feature poetry. This time it’s music, as the title makes clear: the song is a ballad about the siblings, Matthew and Benjamin Pernel, whose demises a century before has caused ripples of resentment down the years. The questions the reader will inevitably ask are, Does Ned manage to solve the mystery? and How are things resolved? As usual, Joan Aiken doesn’t disappoint in bringing things to unexpected but satisfying conclusions.

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Cornish dream

Replica vitreous enamel sign

Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?

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Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

1807 aquatint by Robert Dodd of a Brig-Sloop (British Museum)

An addendum — sorry! — to discussion of The Cuckoo Tree

Dido Twite has been sailing with HMS Thrush for a goodly period of time. At least, so we may gather from a close reading of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, particularly Night Birds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge (also known as Dangerous Games) and The Cuckoo Tree.

It’s very likely that, after 18 months on board a whaler — during which time she has sailed from the North Sea, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north to the Arctic Circle, and then back around the tip of South America into the North Atlantic — she has subsequently circumnavigated the globe for another fifteen months on board the Thrush.

What do we know about this naval vessel, from actual history and from fiction?

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Themes and variations

Joan Aiken at the Cuckoo Tree, West Sussex

We come now to my final post analysing aspects of Joan Aiken’s 1971 instalment in the Wolves Chronicles.

Here I want to examine themes in The Cuckoo Tree that not only distinguish it from other titles in the series but also show it sharing memes and tropes common across the Chronicles.

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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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Dido and the Elephant & Castle

Sussex from an old map, showing roads, railways and canals

In Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree we saw Dido Twite in the West Sussex town of Petworth coming to terms with plaguy coves and being aided by kind well-wishers. Dido now has to find a way to circumvent more shenanigans to ensure that the urgent naval dispatch she has been guarding for Captain Hughes gets to London before the coronation of the new King Richard IV.

This post follows Dido’s course by road and her smuggler friends the Wineberry Men’s journey by canal from Sussex to St Paul’s Cathedral, and back again.

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