Willoughby tropes

Willoughby Chase by Pat Marriott (from the Puffin edition back cover 1968)

I’ve been recently reading (and reading about) a number of novels which increasingly, it seemed to me, to share memes, themes and tropes, though I’m also sure that the authors didn’t set out to consciously borrow from each other, if even they were aware of those shared concepts.

The first thing that had struck me was that they all featured a Yorkshire mansion, whether or not it was explicitly stated that the setting was in one or other of the Ridings that the county was traditionally divided into (North, East and West). But pretty soon it was evident that these novels shared more than setting in common, and I have been mentioning some of these in various posts in the last month or so.

Which are these novels? In chronological order they are — with links to my reviews or discussions — as follows:

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and the same author’s Midnight is a Place (1974).

As we will see, while not all novels include all the themes that the final novel in my list displays, many of the elements recur time and again. Some themes are familiar from legends and fairytales, of course, while others reflect the kind of events and situations that recur throughout history, such as disastrous fires. As today sees the start of the Twitter event #WilloughbyReads it may be a good time to examine the elements that link The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to these other classics.

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Misselthwaite magic

Enclosed garden, Charleston, East Sussex

Frances Hodgson Burnett:
The Secret Garden
Parragon 1993 (1911)

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic… ”
— Colin, in Chapter 23

Acknowledged as one of the best children’s classics of all time and frequently filmed (the latest due in 2020), The Secret Garden is not a book I would have immediately taken to as a child. In fact, it was originally serialised in 1909-10 for a US magazine aimed at adults, and it’s as an adult that I appreciate not just the happy-ever-after narrative but also the nature writing, the period and geographical setting and the characterisation, aspects that would have mostly gone over my head as a pre-teen.

Sometime in the early 1900s Mary Lomax — nine going on ten years old — finds herself not just unloved but suddenly orphaned in India, a place she has lived in since she was born. Spoilt, and unbearably haughty, she is slow to adapt to the cold English climate, particularly when she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, on the cusp of spring. The novel tells of her gradual warming — both figurative and literal — to Yorkshire and its people, and of her thawing from a cold Missie Sahib to a thoughtful, generous friend.

The catalyst for this change is of course the garden of the title. Prefigured early on in the novel when, still in India, she makes “heaps of earth and paths” for a pretend garden at the home of a clergyman and is taunted as Mistress Mary, quite contrary because she is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. When she discovers and then tends the hidden Yorkshire garden she learns not just to lose that tyranny and selfishness but also to appreciate and love the natural magic that permeates life itself, thus living up to the more positive aspects of her nickname.

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Put through the mill

Blastburn illustration: Simon Bartram 2014

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:

  1. Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
  2. Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
  3. 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!

And now, on with the show.

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A clever apparatus

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie:
And Then There Were None
HarperCollinsPublishers 2003 (1939)

“Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective novel. Positively thrilling.” — Tony Marston, not long before he becomes a victim.

Positively thrilling, maybe, but definitely chilling: quite possibly the Grande Dame’s most renowned whodunit, And Then There Were None is justly famous as a puzzler to end all puzzlers. Contrived? Yes. Gripping? Undoubtedly. Keeping you guessing till the end? In my case, absolutely, even though I knew the premise.

Eight decades on one can still appreciate the plot intricacies of how several unwitting people can be invited to an isolated rock and then be bumped off, one by one, according to the sequence determined by lyrics of a popular song. Their crime? To each be responsible for the deaths of one or more people and yet to have avoided justice for the part they played in cutting short those lives, whether from abandonment, reckless driving, wilful manslaughter, drunkenness or perjury.

As we discover, none are totally innocent; but do they deserve to die their gruesome deaths? As the tally rises towards its predicted end we have to admire the perverse dedication of whoever is responsible for judging, sentencing and executing this random set of individuals with such clinical efficiency — much as we of course condemn it.

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A disturbing dystopia

Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk with Chi-Rho symbol and alpha & omega
Romano-British lead font, Icklingham, Suffolk: Chi-Rho and Alpha & Omega (reversed) Brit Mus

P D James: The Children of Men
Faber and Faber 2010 (1992)

Baroness James is best known for her modern-day crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who also featured in a popular television series starring Roy Marsden. Somehow, however, I find myself gravitating towards her other genres, non-fiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), literary sequel (Death Comes to Pemberley) and this dystopia, The Children of Men. It could be that I’ve already got a few other crime novels to catch up on, or that I’m more than a little partial to speculative literature, but I am glad to have tackled this novel first, especially to dispel the compelling images of the film version, Children of Men, which although excellent in many ways departs significantly from its source material.

Some of the author’s persuasions also differ from mine — she is a peer of the realm, sitting on the Conservative benches, and a committed Anglican — so I was looking forward to seeing if her politics and beliefs affected my evaluation of her as a writer: she is the current President of the Society of Authors, no less.*

Indeed, politics and religion run like rivers through this novel.

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Not too long to readalong #WilloughbyReads

A reminder that in next to no time Ben Harris (@one_to_read) will be hosting a readalong of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on Twitter, using the hashtag #WilloughbyReads.

If you’ve never read it before but always wanted to, then now’s your chance to join in; and if like me you have already read it but fancy discussing it and seeing what thoughts others entertain about it, you’d be welcome too!

Ben plans that “days 1-11 will have a question about each chapter, an activity of a kind, and a question relating to JA’s writing ethos,” while “days 12-14 will be general”.

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House of Secrets

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Nina Bawden: The Secret Passage
Puffin Books 1979 (1963)

After an idyllic upbringing in Kenya three young children — John, Mary and Ben Mallory — suddenly lose their mother, only to be sent to a bleak seaside resort in England to stay with their ‘disagreeable’ Aunt Mabel, the landlady of a boarding house. To the trauma of losing one parent is added the mysterious disappearance of their father, a complete change of environment and the ministrations of a relative who is not only distant but seemingly resentful.

Bewildering as their new life is, there are further mysteries: how does Aunt Mabel survive when lodgers are few are far between and the two she does have appear not to pay rent? Why did their aunt have to move from a grander house next door, and are the rumours of a secret passage between the two buildings based on reality? And does one of the children truly see a face at the attic window next door or is it their imagination?

This, the earliest of Nina Bawden’s books for children, has an assured touch and a strong narrative, the action tipping over from one fraught incident into another until the final resolutions bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, even though it’s a close-run thing. This Puffin edition has a note that when republished in 1979 the opening chapters were shortened, but nothing essential appears to have been lost in the condensing.

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