Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.
This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.
Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?
In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.
Yet another in my detailed and lengthy examinations of Midwinter Nightingale — please don’t yawn; and pay attention at the back! — in which I complete the prosopography or Who’s Who of the people we met in the novel. Among other matters we shall touch on alternative history, on Shakespeare, and on legends.
Following a review we’ve also so far looked at the alternative geography in this novel and some major themes; still to come are further themes and motifs that the author Joan Aiken plays with and an attempt to make sense of the complicated timeline that has led the reader from around 1832 in this alternative world to some unspecified (and maybe unspecifiable) year in the early-to-mid-1840s.
Then it’ll be on to the remaining two novels in the Wolves Chronicles, a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and will end with The Witch of Clatteringshaws. If you want to find out what further fun and wit the author had with names and personages in this instalment, read on. If not, move along please, nothing to see here.
Joan Aiken, born 4th September 1924 in Rye, East Sussex; died 4th January 2004 in Petworth, West Sussex
‘The most immediate manifestation of Aiken’s inventiveness is to be seen in her plots.
These are wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability, involving the skilled manipulation of a large cast of colourful characters and held together by a style which is a blend of the humorous, the satirical, the parodic and the melodramatic.
Chance, luck and coincidence are accorded significant roles in these narratives in a manner frequently reminiscent of Dickens or Hardy, though neither of these has quite the Aiken degree of recklessness.
There is a further Victorian influence in her fondness for exploiting the surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical.’
— from ‘The Twite Stuff’, a 1999 piece in praise of Joan Aiken’s writing by the late Robert Dunbar in The Irish Times
This post will be looking at some of the themes in Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale — a title in the series known collectively as the Wolves Chronicles — which we have been exploring in a review and in related discussions. We start with the avian motif that has characterised so many of the instalments.
“I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”
So says Helen Burns in Chapter 6 of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Jane has been admitted to Lowood School and has just seen Helen, three years her senior, severely chastised by Miss Scatcherd, a woman whom Jane sees as cruel and vindictive for picking on Helen.
Helen however sees herself as entirely in the wrong, listing what she counts as her own faults. In a later elaboration she describes how she daydreams, allowing her concentration to stray from the teacher’s words.
“Now, [my thoughts] continually rove away; when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; — then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be awakened; and having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”
“Yet how well you replied this afternoon,” replies Jane, with some wonder. “It was mere chance,” returns Helen, “the subject on which we had been reading had interested me.”
This time the subject was a king who reigned nearly two centuries before Brontë lived:
“This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown.”
For a thirteen-year-old Helen is quite perspicacious. “If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending!”
I have quoted all this because a lot of what Helen Burns says reminds me of myself both as a school student and latterly as an adult. I daydreamed during lessons and even lectures: a word, phrase or image would set my thoughts wandering freely down byways until brought back with a shock to the mainstream. Unless the subject interested me deeply and I could engage with what was being said — until the next moment when another idea caught my attention, distracting me from the main argument.
Like Helen — whom Jane witnessed being punished by having “sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with [a] bunch of twigs” which she herself had to fetch from a small inner room — I was beaten for inattention or, more frequently, not doing my homework, in the days when corporal punishment was permitted. I had the strap (several strips of leather sewn together) administered by Irish Christian Brothers or masters on the palms of my hand, up to six strokes in all on one occasion.* When I was twelve, going on thirteen I held the class record for straps in one year: thirty strokes, which I notched up on my wooden ruler.
Did it cure my inattention or laziness? No, it did not. Did Helen Burns learn to mend her ways? Hard to tell, given what was to come. But it made a great impression on young Jane, who had a natural rumbustiousness coupled with a towering moral indignation. Much of Jane’s appeal to readers must come from those sterling qualities, traits she shares with many a later young protagonist (such as Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite).
* Possibly false memory syndrome, now I think about it. I remember being strapped more than once on on each palm, but whether in all four or six strokes were given I can no longer swear to it. The practice of six strokes was not unusual.
Another waffly post, I’m afraid, but at least it’s mercifully short.
I’ve been diverting myself with a quick dip into Terry Pratchett (in a manner of speaking) in anticipation of March Magics; this last, hosted annually by Kristen of We Be Reading, is a respectful celebration of the work of Pratchett and of Diana Wynne Jones who both died during this month in, respectively, 2015 (March 12th) and 2011 (March 26th).
Now I didn’t mean to, but I found myself picking up the third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith, even though I’d intended to leave it till next month. It must have been due to the promised snowful in Britain — unlike North America’s recent dreadful polar vortex and a less deadly dump in much of Britain, the white stuff forecast for my part of Wales turned out however to be a bit of a damp squib.
The final (?) post in my exploration of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa.
As a classically-trained musician I have been, as you might expect, intrigued by author Joan Aiken’s rhymes and allusions to tunes and other music in her fiction, particularly her short stories (one collection is called A Harp of Fishbones and a novella even has the title The Song of Mat and Ben). I’m often tempted to set the lyrics that are quoted to music of my own.
In Dido and Pa we have a plethora of song titles and compositions mentioned, all the work of Desmond Twite, Dido’s father: he first appeared in Black Hearts in Battersea as hoboy- or oboe-player Abednego, and when he wasn’t trying to teach Dido the instrument he turns out to also be a prolific composer.
Some of these tunes have been mentioned in earlier instalments of the Wolves Chronicles, others appear here for the first time. What follows is a list of those I have noted in Dido and Pa, with short discussions after.
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.
Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’
We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.
The illustrations above depict Claire Sennegon in 1837 and, in a self-portrait,Christen Købke in 1832, both of whom I imagine Sophie and twin brother Simon might have resembled in the mid-1830s when Dido Twite finally reconnected with them in London. Simon of course was a talented artist while Sophie was equally adept at taking proactive roles.
In this post we will start looking at the characters who feature in Joan Aiken’s alternate history Wolves Chronicle Dido and Pa, some of whom (as we will discover) belong to an informal group known as the Birthday League. They’ll be introduced according to principal places in the novel, and as there is much background information the post comes in two parts: this is . . . part one.
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.
Joan Aiken: Dido and Pa Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1987)
No sooner was Dido Twite back in London for the coronation of Richard IV (in The Cuckoo Tree) then she found herself back in rural West Sussex, and all this after long eventful years crisscrossing the globe. And now, no sooner has she met up with Simon — the boy who had taken care of her when she was a Cockney guttersnipe — then she is snabbled by no less a personage than her musical yet nefarious father … back to London! What plans does he have for her, and for what purposes?
On the banks of the Thames, in London’s East End, Dido is forced to associate with a rum lot of naffy coves, from the cigar-smoking slattern Mrs Bloodvessel via havy-cavy types with fungoid names to the slumguzzling nob the Margrave of Eisengrim, truly the most vulpine villain Dido has yet to meet. And then there are the fresh waves of wolves coming through the tunnel under the English Channel, overrunning Kent and nearing London with every day…
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?
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 Treeit 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!
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.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.