A lady’s slipper

© C A Lovegrove

The Silence of Herondale
by Joan Aiken.
Introduction by Lizza Aiken.
Orion Books, 2019 (1964)

… a silent village, a wandering fugitive whom no one seemed anxious to discuss, a missing pistol, a face at a window, a damp patch in a dead man’s room—but now? The deliberately half-cut rope could not be easily dismissed.

‘The Silence of Herondale’

Deborah Lindsay is a young Canadian teacher, orphaned and now jobless in 1960s London. Following a burglary at her lodgings she accepts a position tutoring Careen Gilmartin, a precocious 13-year-old who has achieved fame as a playwright. Unfortunately the teenager has disappeared from her hotel room and could be heading for a number of places.

The girl’s aunt, Marion Morne, and her rather vulpine associate Willy Rienz suggest Deborah heads for Yorkshire where Careen’s grandfather is dying, and against her better judgement Deborah is bounced into taking a sleeper train to Leeds before heading for Herondale. Unbeknown to Deborah (but as we readers know with hindsight) the UK winter of 1962-3 was the coldest for more than 200 years, with blizzards and snowdrifts blanketing the British Isles from Christmas to March—and Christmas is just around the corner as Deborah’s train steams north.

And so the scene is set for Joan Aiken’s modern Gothic thriller, with its echoes of Brontë classics, nods to children’s classics, and touches of autobiography meshing with crime and thriller genres.

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Last train to Willoughby

© C A Lovegrove

“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”

— Anne Brontë, ‘Agnes Grey’, Chapter XV

Yesterday (9th August) was Book Lovers Day, a day (they say) for encouraging people “to pick up a book (or two) and spend the day reading.” So it was for me: Joan Aiken‘s 20th-century Gothic romance The Silence of Herondale (1964) — which I’ve been steaming through — involves a young woman reluctantly travelling up by train in winter to an isolated mansion in Yorkshire, all full of Brontë-type brooding. Enjoyable though it is in its own right (and I’ll be reviewing it in due course) I can’t help but be reminded of another female taking a similar journey: Silvia Green in the same author’s children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which had in fact been published just two years before.

Although one novel is set in the 1960s and the other in the 1830s they have several themes in common; but for this post I want to change onto a parallel track. I’m presently about to embark on the final instalment of Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, the name her daughter Lizza Aiken has given to the saga of a dozen or so related novels which had began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Witch of Clatteringshaws was the final book that Joan completed before her death in 2004, a novella that represented the terminus for a sequence of tales stretching over a decade of alternative history, a chronology in which the Hanoverian dynasty never ruled Albion and the Stuart line still sat on the throne.

And, running like a railway line through many of these tales is the theme of travel — by carriage or by Shank’s pony, by ship or, indeed, by train. So, before opening the page on a narrative set largely in Scotland (from where, possibly, Joan Aiken’s ancestors hailed) I’d like to consider the mode of travel which features strongly not only in many of the Wolves Chronicles but also in The Silence of Herondale.

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Home to roost

The area around Dover, from the 1816 Ordnance Survey.

A final post discussing Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road in the Wolves Chronicles, and the second part of a Who’s Who which was headed by Arun and Is Twite.

In this prosopography I list personages located principally in Dover, Calais, Womenswold and the fictional hamlet of Seagate.

As in the first part of the Who’s Who of Aiken’s saga — set in an alternative 19th century — I shall be looking at the principal facts about individuals before discussing possible origins or significances connected with their names. All is of course prefaced by the customary * SPOILER ALERT! *

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A flock of twites

Photo © C A Lovegrove

As is my practice after reviewing one of the instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles I explore four main areas: people, places, timelines and themes. Within these four categories answers are sought for the classic six questions — who? what? when? where? why? and how? — and applied to Cold Shoulder Road, one of the penultimate episodes in this alternative history saga set in the first half of the 19th century.

* Spoiler Alert *

Following posts on chronology, topography and themes, this post now begins exploring the personages in Cold Shoulder Road, many of whom (as the title suggests) aren’t particularly friendly to our principal protagonists, Is and Arun Twite. Unlike many previous instalments this novel includes fewer peculiar or even humorous names than before, but many nevertheless have likely or possible significances. And we get to discover yet more Twites, members perhaps of the extended family with a name recalling a rather undistinguished-looking finch.

As the blurb of the Red Fox edition has it, young Arun Twite

returns to his mother’s house on Cold Shoulder Road, only to find it deserted and flood-ravaged. […] With the help of his indomitable cousin, Is Twite, Arun sets off in search of Admiral Fishskin — their only key to discovering the real truth, whatever it may be.

Fellow author Nina Bawden wrote that Joan Aiken is such a spellbinder, and she wasn’t far wrong.

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Shouldering themes

The Great Storm of 1703 when hundreds of ships were wrecked off the Goodwin Sands

By internal chronology one of the penultimate instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Cold Shoulder Road (1995) nevertheless shares several of the thematic motifs of the preceding volumes, one of the features that helps to characterise the whole sequence. As is my practice I shall be listing and discussing these, with a certain big proviso …

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Secrets underground

Sketch map of Kent to illustrate Cold Shoulder Road locations

In a previous post, ‘Dark doings in Kent’, I discussed some of the sites in Kent, real and imaginary, which featured in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Cold Shoulder Road, one of her Wolves Chronicles. In this post, therefore, I want to mention the remaining locations, primarily down on the Kent coast but also near Calais, visited by our young protagonists Is and Arun Twite.

What exactly is the purpose of this kind of discussion and others like it? I suppose there are actually three purposes.

  1. Because I can. I worry away at details in each chronicle because it’s fun, and it helps me, if no one else, to inhabit the series as much as is possible.
  2. Because nobody else much will. Apart from a few correspondents (and thank goodness for them and their engagement!) most readers and reviewers are happy to ride the crest of the narrative, and occasionally puzzle about something obscure, before moving on.
  3. Because Joan Aiken’s worldbuilding deserves acknowledging. Though she’s often inconsistent there’s a glorious mix of imaginative terraforming and flexible timelining into which she places her colourful characters.

Without further ado I shall now plunge into the remaining, rather peculiar, geography of the novel.

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Dark doings in Kent

Kent, from a 1930s atlas

In this post, part of a series discussing Cold Shoulder Road in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, I want to focus on the county where most of the action takes place, namely Kent.

As we shall see, some of the places mentioned exist in our world while others do not, and some distances remain the same while others appear to be telescoped. But all these places, while principally the background to the action, are often imbued with a significance that almost makes them characters in their own right.

The discussion that follows is of course preceeded the usual warning notice. 🙂

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

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Wolfish Chronicles

Thomas Bewick, The Wolf

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road — the first of a series of discussion posts about this entry in the Wolves Chronicles — but before concluding with an examination of the very last chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, I want to do an overview of the series.

Long term followers of my posts will be well aware of my obsession with the Wolves Chronicles, for far too long an underrated sequence which, I think, deserves as much love and attention as, say, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unless you’ve sampled these often complex yet diverting novels for yourself it may be hard to work up enthusiasm for them, and I can understand why my in-depth explorations of people, places, timelines and themes in the dozen or so titles attracts little comment or interest when I’ve posted about them. (It’s me, not you!)

But if you were to at least try the first three or five titles you might start to understand why they are special and, perhaps, hopefully, may even be persuaded to try some more. In which case this post is an attempt to provide the bare bones of where to start and where to go on next.

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Mums and kids

Shingle beach overlooking the English Channel, Dungeness © C A Lovegrove

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)

Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …

The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.

Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.

Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.

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The mother of invention

The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)

What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.

In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.

And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.

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Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

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Midwinter Night’s Dream

Some scribbled notes on genealogies and chronologies for Midwinter Nightingale

Yet another in my detailed and lengthy examinations of Midwinter Nightingaleplease 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.

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Wetlands to the Edge

Nunney Castle, Somerset

This is a continuation of the Who’s Who in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale, in which we looked at personages met on the Wetlands Express and the Tower of London, and those associated with HMS Philomela in the Thames Estuary.

This time we shall examine those people we encounter, in person or by repute, at Fogrum Hall and Edge Place. (However, Darkwater Farm, the Three Chapels and Otherland Priory will have to wait till a final post). As usual we shall see what flights of fancy and ingenuity Joan Aiken incorporates in her characters’ names, behaviours and natures.

Of course this is part of the usual series of posts following a review that I treat each instalment in the Chronicles — the link will take you to these so that you may peruse them at your leisure. Or not.

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A nightingale sang

Print engraving of the Isle of Athelney in 1898

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.

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Werewolves and nightmares

Stockton and Darlington locomotive 1840

“An adult reader […] greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door.”
— John Crowley, ‘Forget Harry Potter, Adults Should Read Joan Aiken’s Wolves, Boston Review

In this post, part of a series looking at details of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (one of the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite) we shall be looking at some of the personages met in the novel’s pages.

Many are only given the briefest of mentions, so don’t be too alarmed at what seems a rather lengthy cast list (though for reasons of brevity it’s split between a couple of posts). Along with details of individual characters and functions, a few entries will call for some discussion of the meaning or joke implied in names.

Many readers will of course by now be familiar with the customary advice: beware of spoilers.

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