Blastburn themes

Norton Conyers Hall, 1899 © North Yorkshire Country Record Office

Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) is a curious uchronia or alternate history: though not officially part of the sequence that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it shares many of the features that distinguish the Wolves Chronicles, including themes, period and places.

In 1971 Joan published The Cuckoo Tree which seemed to end a run of novels that had characters in common, namely Simon, Dido Twite and Owen Hughes. In 1974 Midnight went back to Blastburn, where ten chronicle years before (in 1832) Bonnie and Sylvia had been treated so badly at a charity school; fans of Charlotte Brontë will have recognised that the Brisket school will have shared qualities with Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

In this post I want to identify the themes that it shares with other chronicles in the sequence, plus a couple of other features that I feel merit attention. As always with these discussions there will a high risk of spoilers so do read the novel first or skip this post if that troubles you.

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A brief guide to Blastburn

Bramshill House, Hampshire, from an early photograph: how Midnight Court might have looked

I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).

By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.

Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and later in Is (1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.

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Dido and patterns

Over the past few weeks I’ve been exploring aspects of Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa, focusing on chronology, places and people.

To complete most of the picture this post will look at the novel’s tropes and themes, motifs and memes (there are subtle differences between all these, I know, but I’m choosing to bundle them all up together) to see what the stand-out ideas are and how they might relate to what has gone on before in previous Wolves Chronicles.

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Wapping stories

Detail from Mogg’s Strangers Guide to London and Westminster (1834) http://www.mapco.net/mogg/mogg23.htm

We’ve now arrived at the next point in our explorations of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, an alternate history fantasy set during the 1830s in a parallel London. A review of the novel appeared here and a discussion of the convoluted chronology was posted here. I’d now like to introduce you to the geography of the locations the author puts into Dido and Pa and how they compare and contrast with what existed in our London then and how it is now.

The East End of London was a rapidly developing area of London between the late 18th and early 19th century. The Ratcliffe Highway (named from red cliffs above the Thames) overlooked the Wapping marshes on the north bank of the river. Here new docks were carved out in a series of basins, with new warehouses to house the goods brought upriver to the capital. The area also attracted shady characters and gained an unsavoury reputation: the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 (examined by P D James, co-author of The Maul and the Pear Tree) were, in terms of notoriety, just the tip of the iceberg.

It is here that Joan Aiken chose to set most of the action of Dido and Pa.

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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 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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Big Magic and a Quarkbeast

Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) from Edward Topsell’s The History of Serpents (1608)

Jasper Fforde: The Last Dragonslayer
Hodder & Stoughton 2010

‘Mr Digby? My name is Jennifer Strange of Kazam, acting manager for Mr Zambini. We spoke on the phone.’
He looked me up and down.
‘You seem a bit young to be running an agency.’
‘Indentured servitude,’ I answered brightly, trying to sidestep the contempt that most free citizens had for people like me.

Jennifer is barely sixteen, a foundling destined to play a pivotal part in the history of a corner of England that is nearly Wales. Sensitives all over the Kingdom of Hereford and beyond are getting premonitions that the demise of the last ever dragon Maltcassion is imminent, and citizens and mega-corporations alike (Consolidated Useful Stuff in particular) are planning to stake claims in the deceased dragon’s land. As it turns out Jennifer is predisposed to take the side of the dragon, which is rather awkward: she is the one chosen to succeed the official dragon-slayer when all she wants to be is a dragon-sayer.¹

As much as any genre but possibly more so, comic fantasy is a troublesome literature. Humour being what it is — highly personal but liable to be hit-and-miss — not every exponent of comic fantasy is going to tickle the funny-bone of each and every reader. Even fans of the genre can get very picky as to what works and what doesn’t in the latest offering from their favourite author. The Last Dragonslayer is principally aimed at a young adult comic fantasy readership, so does it meet the criteria and merit high approval?

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Tegleaze

The Dolphin & Anchor, Chichester (credit: J D Wetherspoons)

Those who’ve been following my vademecum as I explore Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree will realise that, unlike some of the other Wolves Chronicles, the author has based many of her fictional places on ones still existing in our world. For example, the Dolphin Inn in Chichester, where Dido hired a carriage for the wounded Captain Hughes and herself, is an 18th-century coaching inn just north of and opposite the cathedral, and now a Wetherspoons pub known as The Dolphin & Anchor. It’s from here that landlord Ben Noakes lent two of his horses and where ‘Bosky’ Dick proved the least reliable carriage driver to take the pair overnight to London.

In this illustrated post we’re going to follow the hapless passengers through a small part of West Sussex; later we’ll be plotting Dido’s journey through Petworth and on towards London.

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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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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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What the mountain whispered

I posted a review of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain with a promise of further discussion based on copious notes I did a few years back, and with this post I’m starting to fulfil that promise. Expect a kaleidoscope of background info on this winner of the 1969 Guardian Award!

The first thing I want to draw attention to in this instalment of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence is the author’s use of themes, some of which link with other novels in the chronicles — with such a device Joan provides threads across the series which help to loosely bind them into a pleasing alternative history of the early 19th century.

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Forest peoples

Map of the Moluccas by N Sanson (1683)

There’s too much blame mysterious about this island.
— Dido’s observation in chapter 6

This is another post in the series giving the background to one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge. This instalment focuses on the islanders of Aratu, the island that Dido finds so full of mysteries. I can’t help being reminded of some of the issues that are raised in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book, issues about land exploitation and deforestation and the effects they have on local populations and ways of life. In Limbo Lodge we sense there may be some rapprochement between communities towards the end, a rapprochement that sadly doesn’t seem to be common in our own world.

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A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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Dido and the Brontës

Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880
State Library of Queensland, negative number 65320 (credit: http://www.globaleducation.edu.au/case-studies/australian-pacific-islanders.html)

Are you wondering what’s happened to Dido Twite, the engaging young heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles? Yes? Then read on. No? Still, do keep reading, because if you’re a fan of the Brontës you may find the following note of interest!

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