Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Mammoth 1990 (1985)
Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.
The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.
‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)
Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.
Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.
I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton. Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)
Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.
The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.
The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.
If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.
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.
In Dido and Pamuch time is spent in the East End of London, in the docklands area of Wapping. But the narrative ranges more widely than this, and this post looks at the bigger picture. The role of Dido Twite’s father (Abednego/Desmond/Denzil/Boris) in this novel is huge, though his peregrinations in the capital — as we shall see — aren’t as extensive as some of the other characters.
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.
Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)
Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.
On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)
My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).
In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.
My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)
“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920
Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.
One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.
P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811
Faber & Faber 2010
I deliberately began reading The Maul and the PearTree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.
Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.
Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.
There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.
Imagine the scene: it is Christmas Eve, the date for the traditional Mince-pie Ceremony at Battersea Castle. An unfamiliar London custom? It’s not surprising as this is 1833 in the alternate history of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, also known as the James III sequence. James III is the Stuart monarch and he has travelled by sled from Hampton Court to be at the ceremony. On the frozen Thames.
If that seems unlikely, consider this: for two centuries we had a Little Ice Age when rivers regularly froze over. So deep and long lasting were these conditions that Frost Fairs were held on the Thames, when it was even possible to light bonfires on the ice without repercussions. The last great frost fair occurred during the winter of 1813 to 1814. A famous print shows people and tents on the ice: to the left is Three Cranes Wharf near Blackfriars in the City, and in the distance we see a bridge with around twenty stone piers; this must be Old London Bridge (Southwark Bridge wasn’t built till 1819) which had had its old houses and shops demolished in the mid 18th century.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Black Hearts in Battersea begins one “fine warm evening in late summer” with Simon leading his donkey over Southwark Bridge in London. Joan Aiken isn’t more specific than this so I’m guessing this might be at the tail-end of August. Alternatively it may be that late September is the period she means. Why? Here’s my thinking.
Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea is, as well as a rip-roaring adventure story with vivid characters, a novel rich in sense of place, both real and imagined. In particular London features strongly (as it does in a couple of other Wolves Chronicles) so, with the help of Greenwood’s Map of London from an Actual Survey made in the Years 1825, 1825 and 1826, I shall be exploring Dido Twite’s London as it was in this alternate history in 1833, with other places to be detailed in another post. As well-known supermarket might say, I do the research so you don’t have to … Continue reading “Dido Twite’s London”→
Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.
To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.
Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010
Tame by modern tastes:
When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.
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.