Last train to Willoughby

© C A Lovegrove

“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”

— Anne Brontë, ‘Agnes Grey’, Chapter XV

Yesterday (9th August) was Book Lovers Day, a day (they say) for encouraging people “to pick up a book (or two) and spend the day reading.” So it was for me: Joan Aiken‘s 20th-century Gothic romance The Silence of Herondale (1964) — which I’ve been steaming through — involves a young woman reluctantly travelling up by train in winter to an isolated mansion in Yorkshire, all full of Brontë-type brooding. Enjoyable though it is in its own right (and I’ll be reviewing it in due course) I can’t help but be reminded of another female taking a similar journey: Silvia Green in the same author’s children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which had in fact been published just two years before.

Although one novel is set in the 1960s and the other in the 1830s they have several themes in common; but for this post I want to change onto a parallel track. I’m presently about to embark on the final instalment of Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, the name her daughter Lizza Aiken has given to the saga of a dozen or so related novels which had began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Witch of Clatteringshaws was the final book that Joan completed before her death in 2004, a novella that represented the terminus for a sequence of tales stretching over a decade of alternative history, a chronology in which the Hanoverian dynasty never ruled Albion and the Stuart line still sat on the throne.

And, running like a railway line through many of these tales is the theme of travel — by carriage or by Shank’s pony, by ship or, indeed, by train. So, before opening the page on a narrative set largely in Scotland (from where, possibly, Joan Aiken’s ancestors hailed) I’d like to consider the mode of travel which features strongly not only in many of the Wolves Chronicles but also in The Silence of Herondale.

Continue reading “Last train to Willoughby”

#WitchWeek2019 Day 3: Wolfish villains

For many years now, as many of you know, I have on this blog been exploring one of Joan 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.

Continue reading “#WitchWeek2019 Day 3: Wolfish villains”

Vulpine villains

Cover illustration by Pat Marriott for the Puffin edition

Joan Aiken:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Red Fox 2004 (1962)

Though following the grand 19th-century novel tradition The Wolves of Willoughby Chase just lacks suitably teasing chapter headings, whether prosaic, witty, verbose or obscure.

I have taken it upon myself to remedy their absence in Joan Aiken’s mash-up of Dickens, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and a folktale from Jean de Bosschere’s Christmas Tales from Flanders.

<!–more–>

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?!

Willoughby Chase is a place

The fictional town of Blastburn features in these two novels

“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.

Continue reading “Willoughby Chase is a place”

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.

Continue reading “Willoughby tropes”

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”.

Continue reading “Not too long to readalong #WilloughbyReads”

Heroes and villains

Sketches_by_Boz_-_The_Streets,_Morning
The Streets, Morning, illustration by George Cruikshank for Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (1839): Public Domain

In this post I shall be discussing the personages we meet with in Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea. If you have no idea what I’m talking about you’ll find my review here. If you do know what I’m talking about but haven’t read the book yet you may want to look away now do avoid massive spoilers. If you’ve read the novel already then it’s mostly safe to continue your journey — except there’ll be hints about what may be coming up further in the Wolves Chronicles. So tread carefully …

Continue reading “Heroes and villains”

The naming of names

Regency couple planning trip
Emil Brack ‘Planning the Grand Tour’ (Wikipedia Commons) — a vision of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green before their trip to the Canaries?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is set in the early 1830s, the period between the novels of Jane Austen and those of Dickens and the Brontës. The names of her principal and supporting characters haven’t yet reached the baroque proportions that they were later to, but already we have inklings of character-full epithets amongst the more genteel Austenesque names like Willoughby (from Sense and Sensibility) and Green (from Emma). What are we to make of Mrs Shubunkin, its Japanese origin lurking behind a name straight from the pages of a Dickens’ novel? Or Mr Grimshaw, surely grim by nature as well as by name? Mrs Brisket who takes her name from a cut of meat? And of course Letitia Slighcarp, who is both sly and apt to carp at her poor charges?

The avid reader can have fun with the remaining names, with their lively mix of Biblical forenames, funny-sounding old English terms and inappropriate or incongruous sobriquets. A few of the personages reappear in the sequels — most touchingly in the last title of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws — but for the moment we may rejoice in the feeling that here is created a whole world of individuals identified by name, many with significant parts to play and identifiable characters to match.

Continue reading “The naming of names”

Mapping Willoughby Chase

Nostell Priory, Morris's Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons
Nostell Priory, Morris’s Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons

I’m sure I’m not the only person to wonder about the placenames scattered throughout the Dido Twite series and particularly in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Some places certainly have correspondences in our world, viz. London, or the Canary Islands. But others appear on no modern A to Z or guidebook to Britain. So, if it hasn’t already been done it’s certainly high time to begin compiling a gazetteer to Dido’s World, which naturally I shall be adding to as we make our royal progress through the sequence (courtesy, of course, of James III).

Continue reading “Mapping Willoughby Chase”

Dido Twite’s World

winter sleepwalker
Winter landscape

Here I was promising a companion piece or two to my review of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and yet I’ve gone and entitled this post “Dido Twite’s World” when Dido doesn’t even appear in the first title of the sequence! What’s going on?!

Well, there’s no real agreement what to call this series of loosely-related books. They’re often called The Wolves Chronicles, but wolves don’t always appear — in fact I can at this moment only recall two or three of the books making reference to them. Occasionally, inspired by the introduction to Wolves, reference is made to ‘the James III sequence’, perhaps in the same way that we often refer to our own 19th-century as ‘Victorian’ even though that monarch ruled only for a little over sixty years of it, and despite it sometimes being applied to countries outside the British Empire.

Now I shall be calling this sequence the Dido Twite series as much as I talk about the Wolves Chronicles, simply because Dido appears in at least eight out of the twelve novels officially in the canon — thirteen if you include Midnight is a Place, but that’s another discussion! There’s another reason for me to think of it in this way: because, you see, I have a theory that Dido became a sort of alter ego for the author. Joan Aiken was born in 1924 and, I surmise from a bit of teasing out of details, Dido Twite was born a hundred years before, in 1824. But I anticipate myself, Continue reading “Dido Twite’s World”

A fine modern classic

Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian Wolf: Mas3cf (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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?

Continue reading “A fine modern classic”