Malafrena, by Ursula K Le Guin.
Panther Books, 1981 (1979)
He would look unseeing out over Malafrena, with a heaviness in him. It was as if a spell was laid upon him here, which he could not break, though he might escape from it; a charm that grew strongest in certain hours, certain conversations.
The spell that binds young Itale Sorde to the family estate in Val Malafrena holds the same charm for this reader: but the French revolutionary motto, Vivre libre, ou mourir (“Live free, or die”), offers sentiments which tug him away from his mountain home. His progressive idealistic impulses draw him to Krasnoy, the capital of Orsinia, leading him to a sequence of events which impact not only on himself but on family, friends and acquaintances.
This restless, roving novel developed from the author’s early forays into writing fiction, fired up by her reading of Russian literature; it has proved to divide opinion, from those who expect something either more radical or in her later more speculative style, to those who relish her way with language and her ability to create a believable alternative reality and credible individuals.
Myself, I fall into the second category and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the reasons.
“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit […]. The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”
— Tolkien to the novelist Naomi Mitchison (1954)
These days, when most people have a satnav app on their smartphone, a sense of how places relate to each other may be declining in many individual consciousnesses even as sales of road atlases and street maps continue to drop: less than ten years ago The Times reported that in the UK “the days of the dog-eared road atlas in the glove compartment are numbered: 2014 is expected to be the first year in which the majority of drivers use sat navs.”
This may not necessarily mean that we are losing an ability to navigate, however, merely that driving to somewhere new may be divorced from everyday reality when we’re using a device like a satnav or an app, because we’re able to allow a machine to dictate where we go while we concentrate on something else.
Generally, however, when we become familiar with layout and directions we can rely on what’s called a cognitive map.
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.
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.
Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.
As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.
Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.
[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.
A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.
Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.
Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.
Joan Aiken: Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)
The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.
As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.
If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.
My first is in Abion, never in Blastburn, My second’s in twisting but never in return, My whole is a lass who is brave, true and bold In a tale of old times which Joan Aiken once told.
I come now to the second part of a pair of posts about themes in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles Is (also known as Is Underground).
Last time I drew out Arthurian motifs such as the quest for the Holy Grail and the sunken land of Lyonesse; this time I draw attention to themes in this novel common to others in the Chronicles as a whole, a feature which helps to give an identity to the series.
Do these repeated themes mean a sameness, and are they symptomatic of a paucity of ideas? I would of course dispute any such accusation; for if a critic were to censure classical composers for laziness in respect of movements entitled Theme and Variations we would label them an utter philistine, would we not?
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.
Young Is Twite promises a dying uncle that she will investigate what had happened to her cousin Arun after he had run away to London. In tracing his route to what he thought was Playland she instead finds a totalitarian regime in which the London children induced to escape to a land of plenty are instead forced to work in iron foundries, potteries or coal mines. Will these innocents manage to escape from their slavery before an impending natural disaster overtakes them?
Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, her saga of an alternative world and 19th-century history, became as dark as it got when she wrote Is (published as Is Underground in North America). She had always been fierce in her opposition to child labour, which she had already explored in previous Chronicles, but now she had researched working conditions in Yorkshire mines and her indignation will have blazed anew.
But Is isn’t all doom and gloom: the story is peppered with rhymes and riddles and peopled with quirky but sympathetic characters; this being essentially a fantasy, we are also entertained with the notion that individuals, and especially children, may have the ability to communicate without the need for speech.
I began my explorations of the world of Joan Aiken‘s Wolves Chronicles nearly four years ago with a review of the very first book in the series, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962).
Since then I have travelled to various parts of the globe — or, rather, this particular paracosm — as featured in the chronicles, and followed the fortunes of a few of the young people involved.
It’s now time for me to embark again on my voyages with the instalment called Is (also published as Is Underground) and to attempt to recalibrate the chronology of this unique uchronia. As an introduction to the impending review I’d like, for innocent readers of this blog, to summarise where we’ve got to — and how we got here.
Chapter 1. Bonnie Green awaits her first cousin Sylvia in snowbound Willoughby Chase; but first meets Miss Letitia Slighcarp, her fourth cousin (once removed) and new governess. Chapter 2. In which Silvia Green leaves her Aunt Jane in London, only to be tempted by confections in a railway carriage and waylaid by wolves. Chapter 3. Annabelle is startled — the curious case of the portmanteau — a dreamless slumber. Chapter 4. The precarious incident of the wolves in the twilight — the archer boy in Willoughby Park. Chaper 5. Sylvia and Bonnie dishonourably spy on Slighcarp, who thereby shows her true colours, and on Grimshaw who, remarkably, has recovered his composure. Chapter 6. Weeks pass, winter deepens; a note goes awry after unwelcome news and waifs are sent away. Chapter 7. Herein girls become ciphers, silence is not golden, and the hand of Friendshipp provides no succour. Chapter 8. Bold Bonnie is locked in a cupboard and Sylvia, ill, locked in the coal cellar, but geese, cakes, cheese and eggs assuage more than hunger. Chapter 9. In which a ladder to freedom is taken but our doughty trio must beware snakes in the grass. Chapter 10. A doctor today keeps Jane’s illness at bay; Grimshaw goes for a gander, gets caught unawares and thrown down the stairs. Chapter 11. Wherein a school of scandal is interrupted by the return of the natives, the fourth cousin is finally removed, and sundry lives are rounded with a sleep.
Can any true lover of literature fail to be thrilled by this synopsis and thus resist the urge to read this for the first, or even a further, time?
A review of the Puffin edition has previously been posted here, but a further perusal (in a different edition) for the Twitter readalong #WilloughbyReads encouraged me to supply the missing chapter headings
For more on this wonderful novel see this post, ‘A Wonderful Year for Wolves‘ by Lizza Aiken, on her mother’s “small masterpiece”, its influences and its reception.
With this review I’ve officially completed my Goodreads goal of reading (and reviewing) 52 books for 2019 … and we’re barely two-thirds of the way through the year. Dare I up my target to 78?!
OK, this my final (?) post on the most non-canonical of the Wolves Chronicles, Midnight is a Place (1974) following a series of discussions.
I’ve already discoursed on the characters, the geography, the timeline and themes, and it may seem that I’ve covered everything essential in relation to the novel.
But in truth, apart from the review, these discussions have really only addressed the questions Who, Where, When and What — still missing are some answers to the How and the Why. Here will be the place to consider these in my customary cursory manner.
We come now to the penultimate post in a series of discussions of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974). We know to the year and the day when the novel opens — 30th October 1842 — which is explicitly noted in the first few pages by one of the protagonists. This gives us both a starting point for the action and also a hint as to the kind of themes and concepts the author may be including as the story develops.
Over ten chapters I calculate that the plot takes us from the last days of October to the last day of the year. And, if I am correct to assume that Midnight is a Place can be retrospectively included in the series of novels that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) then this 1842 date will prove crucial in determining the chronology of the Wolves Chronicles after the end of Dido and Pa (1987).
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:
Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
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!
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.