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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Dark and dreary

Mist in the Black Mountains

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Every age must feel, at some time, that sense that the days are not only dark and dreary but that they will stretch on for ever. So it must seem in much of the world as 2017 draws to a close, seasonal warmth and cheer notwithstanding. Longfellow in ‘The Rainy Day’ tried to lighten the sad heart by telling us that the sun still shines behind the clouds but it’s hard to summon any optimism in these days of depressing rolling news and indignant instant media.

Emily Brontë’s ‘To Imagination’ has pre-echoes of some of our own despair — “so hopeless is the world without” with its “guile, and hate, and doubt, and cold suspicion” — but holds within it seeds to lighten the heart a little more than the promise of future sunnier weather: seeds of friendship and imagination:

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