A fine modern classic

Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian Wolf: Mas3cf (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Illustrated from drawings by Pat Marriott
Puffin Books 1968 (1962)

The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened — shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832 …

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fits into no one category. From the introductory note one might assume it belongs to the genre called Uchronia (“no time”) in which it becomes clear that at some stage in the past history diverged from its familiar course; in this case the Jacobite rebellion succeeded and the Stuarts continued to reign in Britain from the middle of the 18th century. It is also on the frontiers of Utopia (“no place”) in that the England described includes places and distances which only by a large stretch of the imagination co-exist in our own world: Willoughby Chase House and the town of Blastburn seem to be located somewhere around Humberside, and yet we’re told the walking distance from Blastburn to London is about four hundred miles (in reality from the Humber to the capital is only around 200 miles by modern roads).

On another level the novel is a Dickensian parody: orphans (real or assumed) have to cope with bitter winters, reversals of fortunes and conniving villains with quirky names only to — one hopes — overcome their plight with a mixture of natural cunning, kind helpers and a measure of good luck. But this is also a children’s book and, as such books usually confirm, events are seen almost entirely through the eyes of youngsters. It lingers somewhere on the continuum between fairytale and fantasy, albeit that there is no magic involved, but with a large pinch of Gothick thrown in for good measure, complete with secret passages and rambling suites of rooms.

And where do the wolves come in?

Well, literally through the Channel Tunnel, completed in 1820 and therefore a good century and a half before its time: they roam the countryside in packs terrorising communities and travellers, and are particularly active early morning and evenings. But they are also a metaphor for human wolves in sheep’s clothing, of which there will prove to be no end in the so-called Wolves Chronicles, not least in this first volume.

The story concerns cousins Sylvia and Bonnie Green, both pre-teens and therefore born around 1820. Sylvia leaves aged impecunious Aunt Jane to travel up by train to Willoughby Chase House. Her cousin Bonnie is due to be left in charge of Miss Letitia Slighcarp while Bonnie’s parents Sir Willoughby Green and Lady Sophia Green go abroad for health reasons.

But Miss Slighcarp may not be the distant relative she claims to be, and has designs on the Willoughby Chase estate. Once the parents are gone she shows her true colours, and when she thinks she’s in sole charge the two cousins are smartly packed off to the town of Blastburn; here they arrive at a poor school doubling as a workhouse, somewhat reminiscent of Lowood School in Jane Eyre; here too they are placed under the not so tender ministrations of Gertrude Brisket and her daughter Diana. Is all lost for Sylvia and Bonnie? Will loyal friends like Simon the goose-boy, James the footman and Pattern the maid prove to be of help? Will they ever get the law on their side? And what exactly has happened to Bonnie’s parents?

The impressions I retain of  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are of stark blacks and whites with smudgy shades of grey in between, all accentuated by Pat Marriott’s perfect line drawings: innocence versus evil, snow against the grime of Blastburn, the dark shapes of ravening wolves contrasting with the down and feathers of Simon’s geese. All this is established right from the start: “It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold …” Sylvia’s travelling clothes are all white except, significantly, for an “old green velvet shawl” adapted as a travelling-cloak. Fortunately at the very end we are rather less chilled, but a sombre mood remains in the background: “Light after light in the windows of the great house was extinguished, until at length it stood dark and silent …” Happily, the colour of spring verdure re-asserts itself with the final words “Sylvia and Bonnie Green.”

An emerging leitmotif in much of Aiken’s subsequent work for children makes its appearance here — the resourcefulness of its young protagonists against the machinations of adults who wish them ill. It’s not surprising that Wolves has shown itself a popular choice with younger readers: it has the right amount of jeopardy, a bit of safe distance is created by its being set in the 19th century, and expectations are high that, like a fairytale, all will come right in the end.

What’s interesting for adult readers of this fine modern classic is spotting how Aiken plays with many of the conventions of Victorian literature while, at the same time, showing a fine regard for historic details such as clothing. It is a regard where she is happy to play loose with real history when she pictures Sylvia travelling by train up to Willoughby Wolds — in our own world a railway from London via Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester wasn’t completed until 1838, the same year the Great Western Railway started to spread its tentacles west. But this is an alternate history after all!

I can’t — or rather won’t — pursue the many other aspects of this, the first of the Wolves Chronicles; that I shall be leaving to further posts. In the meantime, this re-read allows me to notch up the letter A in my Author alphabet and to signal a start to another of my 2016 goals, that of revisiting novel series that I’ve enjoyed. Finally, here is a trailer for the 1989 film adaptation:

19 thoughts on “A fine modern classic

  1. Wow. I remember our class reading this at school, and more recently seeing the film, but I was completely unaware of most of what you’ve said here. I really need to re-read…


  2. Lots of action in that trailer.
    The book seems like subversive propaganda. How to get the better of adults. (No matter if they are evil weevils.) I think I should keep the kids away from it lest it gives them ideas they haven’t already had for themselves.


  3. Interesting that this seems to be so well-known in England but not as far as I can tell here in Aus. A member of our family was given a copy by her headmistress when she was at school in England but as far as I know she never got round to reading it. Perhaps the wolves scared her off. Joan Aiken sounds like a highly original writer, and what a great genre “uchronia” is .


    1. I’m surprised Australia doesn’t seem to have taken it to its heart as much as the UK or even the US. As for wolves scaring potential readers off, don’t be all like vicarious thrills? If Harry Potter books can make werewolves like Remus Lupin cool and if fairytales like The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids are still told, then I would hope that this novel fits into the same category.

      Yes, Joan Aiken is a terrific writer — as I never tire of repeating! — and one can argue that most fiction, fantasy certainly is ‘uchronian’ is that they tell of events that mostly haven’t happened in our everyday world. If you liked this concept I’ll be exploring more of Aiken’s world of wolves and Stuart monarchs very soon!


  4. Good grief I’d forgotten – that trailer is completely over the top!!! I wouldn’t let my kids see the film until they were at least ten, Miss Slighcarp was quite scary enough in the book without being allowed as she is here to pursue the poor orphans wielding an axe…

    I like your thoughts on green and white – one of my favourite passages is the childrens’ healing journey southwards, a journey from Winter to Spring – with pink Primroses and blue Geraniums thrown in!


    1. Yes, Lizza, I’ve yet to see the film, whether broadcast on TV or (if it’s available) on DVD but OTT certainly describes it! The producers seem to have wanted to overdo the idea of Miss Slighcarp as some kind of witch, and have made the scenes of jeopardy even more scary than was warranted. I should have thought the psychological bullying that she inflicts on Bonnie and Sylvia could have been just as effective, if not more, than just resorting to the visual violence the trailer shows.

      Yes, I liked the passage from winter to spring too, with the increase in pastel colours after the horrors of Blastburn on that gentle unwinding journey southwards.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I still haven’t read this – shame on me! Though Midnight is a Place was one of my favourite books as a child. Aiken’s eye for historical detail is wonderful and you really have the feeling (as with Roald Dahl) that’s she’s totally on the side of children and their abilities. A true treasure as a children’s writer.
    Thanks for the great review, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Totally on the side of children’: I absolutely agree with you, Lynn. Glad you enjoyed my assessment!

      You remind me I should get round to a review of Midnight is a Place before too long — as Blastburn features in a few Wolves titles as well as in Midnight I shall try to slot it in at an appropriate point. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m returning to your series of reviews as I read at breakneck speed through the Chronicles. While reading this book, I, too, thought of Lowood, and of Oliver asking for more food. In fact, on this read-through of the series, I’m noticing food (and hunger) showing up with great frequency. Clearly eating well has time-less appeal to most readers.

    The alternating idylls and hell-scapes show Aiken at her best, with Simon like a forest sprite popping up to whisk the young heroines to safety time and again. And now that I’ve finished the next 2 books, I can see Bonnie as a precursor to clever Dido, whose relationship with Pen in Nightbirds mirrors that between Bonnie and Sylvia: the feisty girl shows her timid companion how to get the best of adults.


    1. Yes, food is certainly to the fore in the first three of the series — in Willoughby Chase, Blastburn, Southwark and Nantucket — as all make some play of food denied, rationed or lacking.

      Simon, the ‘forest sprite’, seemed to me to be a benevolent cross between Peter Pan and Ben Gunn; and I agree with your pointing out parallels between Bonnie and Dido. Something similar happened with Dido’s half-sister Is, if I remember right!

      Liked by 1 person

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