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.
For many years now, as many of you know, I have on this blog been exploring one ofJoan Aiken‘s alternative worlds with its alternative history, set mainly in a paracosmic Britain of the 1830s and 1840s. This ‘Wolfish Villains’ post is a fairly rare overview, looking at a set of character types whose anticipated defeats provide the impetus for much of the action.
Should young readers be presented with really hair-raising villains? I believe so. They love to be scared, and are more robust than adults…
—Joan Aiken: ‘The Way to Write for Children’ (1982)
This post for Witch Week examines some of the villains the late Joan Aiken created for the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a sequence which — thanks to Lizza Aiken — we now know as the Wolves Chronicles.
Almost every one of the novels that comprise this alternative history — eleven, twelve, or thirteen of them, depending on which ones are regarded as belonging to this alternative world — has at least one villain as the main antagonist pitted against the principal protagonist (who is invariably a child or young adult).
Like fairytales or classical comedies, the Chronicles fit the pattern of the protagonist overcoming all vicissitudes, usually defeating the villain, followed by a happy ending of sorts. Aiken’s antagonists, on the other hand, are frequently archetypal bad ‘uns — pantomime villains, almost, twirling their metaphorical moustaches — yet that doesn’t stop them being chillingly portrayed as not just sociopaths but psychopaths.
Joan Aiken would have been 95 today. Born on 4th September 1924 in the historic Jeake’s House in Rye, East Sussex, she produced a distinguished body of literary work of extraordinary quality as well as quality. Regular readers will know that I am a major fanboy of hers, as a glance at the tag Joan Aiken on this blog will confirm.
There’s more to her fiction than The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fine and deservedly famous as it is, and though I’ve barely read a fraction of her published work I’m constantly amazed by her range, from novels to non-fiction, short stories to book sequences, fairytale retellings to Austen homages, and much more besides.
Find out even more on the truly marvellous Joan Aiken website and on the equally delightful blog run by her daughter, the nonpareilleLizza Aiken, here. My photos of the downstairs rooms of Jeake’s House, where Joan lived until 1929 when her parents divorced and is now a superior B&B, are in this post.
Chapter 1. Bonnie Green awaits her first cousin Sylvia in snowbound Willoughby Chase; but first meets Miss Letitia Slighcarp, her fourth cousin (once removed) and new governess. Chapter 2. In which Silvia Green leaves her Aunt Jane in London, only to be tempted by confections in a railway carriage and waylaid by wolves. Chapter 3. Annabelle is startled — the curious case of the portmanteau — a dreamless slumber. Chapter 4. The precarious incident of the wolves in the twilight — the archer boy in Willoughby Park. Chaper 5. Sylvia and Bonnie dishonourably spy on Slighcarp, who thereby shows her true colours, and on Grimshaw who, remarkably, has recovered his composure. Chapter 6. Weeks pass, winter deepens; a note goes awry after unwelcome news and waifs are sent away. Chapter 7. Herein girls become ciphers, silence is not golden, and the hand of Friendshipp provides no succour. Chapter 8. Bold Bonnie is locked in a cupboard and Sylvia, ill, locked in the coal cellar, but geese, cakes, cheese and eggs assuage more than hunger. Chapter 9. In which a ladder to freedom is taken but our doughty trio must beware snakes in the grass. Chapter 10. A doctor today keeps Jane’s illness at bay; Grimshaw goes for a gander, gets caught unawares and thrown down the stairs. Chapter 11. Wherein a school of scandal is interrupted by the return of the natives, the fourth cousin is finally removed, and sundry lives are rounded with a sleep.
Can any true lover of literature fail to be thrilled by this synopsis and thus resist the urge to read this for the first, or even a further, time?
A review of the Puffin edition has previously been posted here, but a further perusal (in a different edition) for the Twitter readalong #WilloughbyReads encouraged me to supply the missing chapter headings
For more on this wonderful novel see this post, ‘A Wonderful Year for Wolves‘ by Lizza Aiken, on her mother’s “small masterpiece”, its influences and its reception.
With this review I’ve officially completed my Goodreads goal of reading (and reviewing) 52 books for 2019 … and we’re barely two-thirds of the way through the year. Dare I up my target to 78?!
OK, this my final (?) post on the most non-canonical of the Wolves Chronicles, Midnight is a Place (1974) following a series of discussions.
I’ve already discoursed on the characters, the geography, the timeline and themes, and it may seem that I’ve covered everything essential in relation to the novel.
But in truth, apart from the review, these discussions have really only addressed the questions Who, Where, When and What — still missing are some answers to the How and the Why. Here will be the place to consider these in my customary cursory manner.
“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.
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:
Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
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!