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 is not 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 is 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: