Friends and fiends

The sunken tilting yard, Tegleaze Manor, in the moonlight (Pat Marriott)

Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (reviewed here) has a few dozen fairly distinctive characters, though some readers may find it hard to keep a track of them all. This post aims to provide a Who’s Who of individuals mentioned in the novel. As is the custom, the usual proviso about spoilers applies.

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Someone of her own

A Carriage and Pair, with Coachman (1774) by Paul Sandby (Yale Center for British Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Joan Aiken: The Cuckoo Tree
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1971)

Our young heroine, Dido Twite, has finally returned to England after years away in “furrin parts overseas” but instead of a calm steady progress from the south coast to London, her place of birth, we find her hurtling in a death-defying dash — in the dark — on a mission of the greatest urgency. When the carriage-and-pair she and her fellow passenger, Captain Owen Hughes, are travelling in is stranded in the middle of nowhere after an accident, she is precipitated into an adventure involving conspiracies, inheritances, smuggling, witchery and, of course, danger.

Naturally this is almost everything that one expects to find in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, but we also hope we’ll encounter friendship, loyalty, bravery, honesty and resourcefulness, especially when we know that Dido is involved. She’ll need all those virtues in this further instalment of the alternate history series in which the Hanoverian monarchs are the pretenders to the British throne rather than the Stuarts.

In addition, for Aiken fans there’s the draw of knowing that much of this story is set in a corner of the world Joan knew very well — part of the South Downs now in West Sussex, on the road running northeast from Chichester towards the historic town of Petworth. Not only can we feel the genuine sense of place that comes with a novel set in real locations but also the emotional connections the author may have had for here — albeit with frequent dark shadows obscuring our view.

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“A small slipshod girl”

Screen grab from http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

I’m about to begin (again) The Cuckoo Tree, another of the titles in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles also known as the James III sequence or, as I like to think of it, the Dido Twite series, after the character who takes a lead role in all but four of the novels. This particular instalment is one that will have been particularly close to the author’s heart, being set in and around the area where Joan and her family lived a good part of their lives, namely the South Downs in West Sussex.

So I was particularly pleased to read “Who was Dido Twite?”, a recent post on the ever delightful Joan Aiken blog in which we are introduced to a number of part-inspirations for the character of the irrepressible Dido: one real-life human for definite, a literary predecessor and of course the late author herself.

What I especially liked about this post was that two of the people mentioned (one now an Australian granny, the other an American writer called Jackie Hedeman) are still living, and that Joan’s daughter Lizza was recently able to make connections with both.

The unnamed Australian woman made a significant contribution to Dido’s character when the Aiken family moved to Petworth in Sussex (where some of the action in The Cuckoo Tree was to take place); Jackie Hedeman was to gently pester the author as to the literary influence, but to no avail — until she recently spotted a clue on the official Joan Aiken website, an experience which she then described online in an entrancing post.

If you haven’t encountered Dido Twite before — and longtime followers of this blog will hardly been able to avoid her — then you should take the opportunity. I hope to persuade any ditherers in a future review (with its associated posts) of The Cuckoo Tree.

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Final whispers from the mountain

The Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, with the sun setting in the west, from an old print

With this post I hope to complete my explorations of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain before finally returning to Dido Twite’s continuing adventures. If you’re new to Joan Aiken’s worlds this is one of the instalments in a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chases and which have now reached the sixth episode. If you’re new to this particular novel then here are my previous discussion posts:

1. A review.
2. Prominent themes in this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles.
3. The inhabitants of the part of Wales covered in this novel.
4. Visitors to this part of Wales.
5. The Arthurian influences in The Whispering Mountain.
6. The distinct geography of this part of Wales and how it differs from the topography of Wales in our world.

Now we come, finally, to the chronology of The Whispering Mountain. How does it fit in with the overall timeline of the Wolves Chronicles and how long does the story take to unfold? I’ve already alluded to these conundrums:

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“This dismal place”

A part of Wales in the time of James III (map by Pat Marriott for The Whispering Mountain)

‘Hey, you — you there, you boy!’ The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours — I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again!’
— Chapter I, The Whispering Mountain

With these words the wickedest man in Joan Aiken’s alternate history novel The Whispering Mountain dismisses the Welsh town of Pennygaff and, by extension, this part of Wales. In this instalment of my dissection of this Wolves Chronicle I’d like to compare and contrast the author’s vision of the Principality in James III’s time with Mid Wales as it actually is in our world. Maps and images will feature in order to give the interested reader a sense of this part of the world, and may help in judging whether it is, indeed, as dismal as the Marquess of Malyn suggests.

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Joan Aiken and King Arthur

Sugar Loaf (Y Fâl / Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) at an elevation of nearly 600 metres in the Black Mountains

Joan Aiken’s award-winning novel The Whispering Mountain is chockfull of Arthurian allusions, some of which I’ve adverted to in previous posts. Here is where I bring these and other relevant themes together to point out how thoroughly this book is soaked in what used to be called the Matter of Britain. The usual caveat applies in this as in all my other discussions of the James III sequence: spoilers, minor and major, are more than likely.

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Malign presences and others

The entrance to Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire

When the Whispering Mountain shall scream aloud
And the castle of Malyn ride on a cloud […]
Then Fig-hat Ben shall wear a shroud …

A further post on the personages in Joan Aiken’s 1968 fantasy The Whispering Mountain, this time focusing on incomers, visitors and others.

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