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.
So far we readers have travelled from London (a city like ours but in an alternative Britain we’ll call Albion) to the island’s northeast coast, and then to the Bering Straits and to Nantucket Island, on to the mountainous interior of South America, the Spice Islands and so back to London.
In terms of an alternative history we began with the accession to the throne of James III in 1832 and continued to the aftermath of the coronation of his heir Richard IV in either 1835 or 1836.The uncertainty over the last date arises from discrepancies when the author went back and inserted adventures into the Chronicles’ timeline — in the Andes and in the Moluccas — for our main protagonist, Dido Twite. The timeline for the nine titles, if we stick to the implicit chronology rather than the order of publication, is as follows:
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962),
- Black Hearts in Battersea (1964),
- Night Birds in Nantucket (1966),
- The Stolen Lake (1981),
- * The Whispering Mountain (1968),
- Limbo Lodge, or Dangerous Games (1999),
- The Cuckoo Tree (1971),
- Dido and Pa (1987),
- * Midnight is a Place (1977).
It’s debatable but I’ve placed the titles marked with an asterisk where I think they belong in the sequence.
The last named book, Midnight is a Place, gives us a date — 1842 — and a place, Blastburn, both of which have a bearing on Is / Is Underground: the former novel gives us a terminus post quem date for the momentous events in the latter!
The remaining titles are:
- Is, or Is Underground (1992),
- Midwinter Nightingale (2003),
- Cold Shoulder Road (1995),
- The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2004).
The first of these four remaining novels reintroduces us to Is, Dido’s younger sister whom we last saw in Dido and Pa, and we’ll meet her again in Cold Shoulder Road. The other two titles take us back to Dido and her friends.
In these last four Chronicles we’ll find more distortions to the timeline and to the geography that we thought we knew, and I’ll be taking you through those discrepancies as they arise. We’ll find dates slipping, confused politics, global disasters and creeping anachronisms; as usual there’ll be knavish tricks confounded, social injustices overturned and history rewritten.
Why should we give any of these novels our attention? Here are some good reasons.
There is much more to the Wolves Chronicles than mere world building. Aiken peoples them with sympathetic characters we can cheer for because they are brave, have a strong moral sense and display empathy. She also addresses social issues such as exploitation, child slavery and inequality, and challenges the reader to consider them. But she also infuses her stories with humour and wit and poetry and puns, plots a good narrative, and throws the reader straight into the action.
And of course she has fun with history, fairytales, legends and literature. Having been mostly home-schooled — and a voracious reader anyway — she tantalises the perspicacious reader with borrowed themes and motifs. So far we’ve had reminders of Jane Eyre and Moby Dick, The Box of Delights and The Lost World, King Solomon’s Mines, The Coral Island and Russell Thorndike’s smuggler romances about Doctor Syn; as well as echoes of the Brontë siblings’ imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal, we sense the strong influence of Dickens and Jules Verne; and we note that she purloins motifs from legends about King Arthur, werewolves, vampires and sunken lands like Lyonesse and Ys.
So we come now to Dido’s sisters Penny and Is, alone in the house in the wild woods where they fashion dolls, surrounded by the howlings of a wolf pack — first distant, now close at hand; and there comes the faint but frantic hammering at the barred door by someone desperate to come in …
Joan’s daughter Lizza recounts her mother’s fascination with a Flemish story called Balten and the Wolf — which included this illustration by Jean de Bosschère — that was to directly influence her ‘pastiche’ of 19th-century tales The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. (Jake Hayes in his Tygertale blog also alludes to this.) I fancy this powerful image also went towards furnishing the conclusion of Dido and Pa and then the opening scenes of Is.