“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.
The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.
And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.
One of the tasks was to imagine the stately pile that is Willoughby Chase, but you may like to know where in the paracosm or alternative world Joan Aiken had conjured up I thought it was situated. To fit in with clues in the text of the novel — 50 miles to the sea, for one — I discounted Willerby Manor (now an hotel) just to the west of Hull in East Yorkshire and Willerby Wold in North Yorkshire (where a Neolithic long barrow once stood, now mostly levelled). Instead I sited it further west, at Thorpe Willoughby in North Yorkshire. There is no mansion here, but this is fiction after all.
My map shows Willoughby Park with the river flowing through which, the action being set in winter, Bonnie and Silvia skate down, are chased by wolves and take refuge with goose boy Simon in a cave in the woods. (This could conceivably be a stone-lined passage tomb in a long barrow.)
Blastburn, as I’ve suggested in the case of Midnight is a Place, could be conveniently overlaid on Kingston upon Hull. When the young fugitives cross over the river they head towards Great Whinside — which I assume could be Wold Top by Normanby Le Wold in Lincolnshire, the highest point in that county. Rivermouth is where Sir Willoughby and Lady Green embark on the Thessaly, and I’ve accordingly placed this port where Grimsby is sited.
We were also invited to do our own impression of Willoughby Chase based on indications in the text. I went for a frontage partly inspired by Elizabethan houses like Hardwick Hall but with a curving stone staircase leading up to the entrance, brickwork in a herringbone pattern and other descriptions from the novel.
At another point we were asked to come up with a plan of the house: tricky, as Joan Aiken gives us lots of information but it’s not always possible to marry it all up. In particular the secret passage from the schoolroom down steep stairs, past an anteroom to the Great Hall, library and down to the dairy all had to be factored in.
Willoughby readers were also invited to do portraits of some of the main characters. I only managed to get round to the creepy character Mr Grimshaw — he of the wolfish grin — who pumps poor young innocent Silvia in the train carriage for details of the set-up at Willoughby Chase while trying to tempt the starving orphan with cakes and other tidbits.
I never got round to food-related tasks or dioramas but I did complete a boardgame challenge. In this race game, appropriately called Willoughby Chase, at least two players (maybe Bonnie and Silvia) take alternate turns rolling one die to move their counters around a maze-like course, following any instructions given. They also try to ‘collect’ characters (there are at least a dozen mentioned) counting each new one once and once only.
The ‘props’ in the photo reference the passage of time up to Easter 1833 (the date is determined by the moon), the geese — two are called Goosey and Gandy — which Simon walks from Blastburn to London, and the round the world voyage that Sir Willoughby and Lady Green never completed.
The last two weeks has been extremely enjoyable, having virtual conversations with Aiken fans — both established and new — all enthralled by the storytelling of this, the first of the Wolves Chronicles. Ably marshalled by Ben readers too many to mention created, shared and applauded with wit, knowledge and enthusiasm. I’m extremely grateful to Ben Harris who invited me join in and to Lizza Aiken who suggested me to him in the first place.
I leave you with two of Pat Marriott‘s original illustrations featuring wolves, the first of the creature who leaps into the train carriage to attack Silvia and Mr Grimshaw, and the second taken from the cover of the early Puffin edition of a pack menacing Silvia and Bonnie in Willoughby Chase Park early one evening.
Don’t groan: I have one more post — a wrap-up of my discussions of Midnight is a Place — yet to come, plus a second review (of sorts) of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
This extra review will feature some of the ‘new’ chapter headings I wrote for #WilloughbyReads, since the author neglected to provide any for the eleven divisions of the novel