Is Overground

Another post for die-hard fans of Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles.

Also for readers who love words and the names authors give their characters.

And for those wondering how far down a rabbit hole a curious blogger is prepared to go.

This post is the first of two discussing the people of Joan Aiken’s fantasy Is, a kind of prosopography* or Who’s Who of the individuals we meet, plus a bit of speculation about what inspired their creation.

Even if you don’t intend to read the novel you may still find the personages curious enough to wonder a bit about them, as I did.

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Exploring Humberland

Euston Station, Doric arch 1839

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.

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Put through the mill

Blastburn illustration: Simon Bartram 2014

We continue our explorations (note: with *spoilers*) of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) by listing those people mentioned as living in Blastburn, the town in the northeast of Albion that features in this alternate history fiction, set in 1842.

Though truly no justification is needed as to why I go into such detail, here is a brief summary, a kind of apologia, of my reasons:

  1. Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
  2. Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
  3. Education, education, education — discovering the hows and whys, the whos and whats, and the whens and wheres of the plot and characters encourages one to range widely outside the confines of a book’s narrative, revealing gaps in this reader’s (and perhaps others’?) knowledge and understanding. No bad thing, in my book.

In fact all about Exploring the world of ideas through books!

And now, on with the show.

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Joan Aiken’s Blastburn

Kingston Upon Hull as Blastburn, in Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (credit here)

Another post in my series exploring the ins and outs of Joan Aiken’s paracosm Midnight is a Place (1974) set in an alternate Britain she calls Albion.

This time I’m taking a closer look at the fictional industrial town of Blastburn, making an assumption that it’s in the region of Kingston upon Hull in East Yorkshire, maybe even contiguous if not actually occupying the same equivalent space.

In fact, I’m going further by basing Blastburn on Hull’s Old Town, the core of the medieval settlement bounded by the river Hull to the east and the Humber estuary to the south.

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Courting danger

Brontë birthplace, Market Street, Thornton

In this post, one of a series about Joan Aiken’s uchronia Midnight is a Place, we shall be meeting the people associated with Midnight Court, the mansion just outside Blastburn, an industrial town in the northeast of Albion.

In this mini-prosopography there will be the inevitable *spoilers* but also much revelatory biographical and other material, for those who are fans of the author and her Wolves Chronicles.

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Grim up north

19th-century Grimsby (image credit: Grimsby Telegraph)

Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place
Hodder Children’s Books 2014 (1974)

‘Nowt said breaks no head.’ — Davey Scatcherd

A dark tale of unspoken secrets and kind words, sharp practices and generosity, bravery and steadfastness, all set in a grim manufacturing town may not sound ideal fare for young readers, and yet Joan Aiken to my mind has carried it off. While there is no “Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills” there is hope and optimism amongst the tragedy and a determination that creativity can counteract the bleaker side of human contradictions.

Orphan Lucas Bell is under the guardianship of Sir Randolph Grimsby, privately educated by a a taciturn tutor at the forbidding Midnight Court, hard by the town of Blastburn. As Lucas turns thirteen he is joined by another orphan, Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who, lately come from Calais, speaks only French.

But relationships between these four individuals is somewhat strained as suspicions sour the atmosphere, already fouled by the smoke and grime from nearby Blastburn. Something has to give and for Lucas and others they find it is a case of out of the frying pan, only to find themselves, almost literally, in the fire.

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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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Mapping Willoughby Chase

Nostell Priory, Morris's Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons
Nostell Priory, Morris’s Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons

I’m sure I’m not the only person to wonder about the placenames scattered throughout the Dido Twite series and particularly in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Some places certainly have correspondences in our world, viz. London, or the Canary Islands. But others appear on no modern A to Z or guidebook to Britain. So, if it hasn’t already been done it’s certainly high time to begin compiling a gazetteer to Dido’s World, which naturally I shall be adding to as we make our royal progress through the sequence (courtesy, of course, of James III).

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