New Cumbria (1)

A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire
A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire

It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).

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Miss Pittikin Pattikin and others

Capriccio with a British man-o-war(c) Essex County Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Thomas Serres (1759–1825) Capriccio with a British man-o-war (© Essex County Council; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Another post looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) with its wonderful amalgam of history, alternate history, legend and whimsy. This one will look at the persons mentioned in the novel, saying who they are, what they do and, in some cases, why they may have been given the names they have; discussion follows below.

As I’ve found, Joan’s whimsical-looking names aren’t always what they appear, and there’s often a logical reason for why they’re applied to a particular character.

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Time and tide

Blenkinsop's rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)
Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake comes this, the first of a series of posts looking at various aspects of Dido Twite’s adventures in South America. Here we will look at the chronology of the tale, touching on one or two other aspects to clarify the undoubted differences between Dido’s world and ours. Please look away now if you don’t want to know plot details …

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Culture clash

Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur (credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg)
Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur. Credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)

It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.

New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.

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The story so far …

puffin-club-movie
Joan Aiken introduces the Wolves Chronicles in this Puffin Club movie

Before embarking on Dido Twite’s voyage to South America and discovering what she did there, I thought I might share with you this archive Puffin Club film from around 1970 or 1971. It’s about the origins of the Wolves Chronicles, as shared with members of the Puffin Club.

In it Joan Aiken, then in her forties, introduces those young readers to the first few books in the saga — The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Night Birds in Nantucket and the then imminent The Cuckoo Tree, published in 1971. We see her on the Sussex Downs, in her house in Petworth (a young Lizza Aiken, her daughter and co-author of the Arabel and Mortimer tales, puts in an appearance) and the tree that gave its name to the book she was then working on.

To accompany her account there are reconstructions and readings from the books, all very much redolent of the period in which the film was made, illustrated by the talented Pat Marriot. My thanks to Lizza Aiken for drawing attention to this exquisite and atmospheric short, available at http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/funstuff_movie.html (or just click on the image above). For new readers and seasoned Dido fans alike this will be a real treat.

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As well as the official Joan Aiken website — a gorgeously interactive and attractive resource — there is a wonderfully entertaining and informative blog written by Lizza Aiken at http://joanaiken.wordpress.com which I urge you to visit and, hopefully, follow.

The Puffin Club was dreamt up by Kaye Webb, the long-established editor of Puffin Books; it lasted from 1967 to 1989 before, sadly, being disbanded. For more on the Puffin Club go to http://puffinclubarchive.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://puffinclub.co.uk/

Dido goes south

South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note

Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.

I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*

The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”

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Conflict and magic

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Joan Aiken The Kingdom and the Cave
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1960)

This, the earliest of Joan Aiken’s published novels, written during the Second World War — when she was only seventeen –naturally has themes which reflect her times. War features of course, with ruthless tyrants, invading armies, aerial bombardment and a plucky state bumbling along. But also, from her teenage point of view, a certain optimism is evident, a sense that the young saw things more clearly than an older generation who were either wicked or well-meaning, duplicitous or incompetent.

If this all sounds very heavy stuff for a novel for the young it’s as well to know that this is a modern fairytale and not an allegorical history of a conflict. Thus, here we have a young prince, magic helpers in the form of talking animals, a device for making wishes come true, a prophecy, a quest and a journey to the underworld, just as in many fairytales. Michael is the young prince struggling with the Latin vocabulary set by his tutor, when he discovers that Mickle his cat is not only able to talk but has urgent news concerning the danger his country faces. It remains to Michael and his animal friends to find a way to defend Astalon.

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