An unashamed return to a very old classic today. Joan Aiken is another author of my childhood who is proving entirely pleasurable to revisit and 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' may be her finest book. As I write that I immediately think of about 10 more of her books that I love and start my own internal argument. Hmm, yes, let's not rank them but merely observe that she was both a terrific writer for children and terrifically versatile; able to 'do' nail-chewing drama, snot-inducing funny, domestic magic and Eastern European folklore with equal ease. Don't miss her short story collections- especially if you come across any of the out of print ones. If you find a copy of 'All but a Few' send it to me...
I read 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' to Bill over Christmas. It's the first in a sequence of books she wrote set in a mythical period of English history: 'Shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James 3rd in 1832. At this time, the Channel tunnel from Dover to Calais having been recently completed, a great many wolves, driven by severe winters, had migrated through the tunnel from Europe and Russia to the British Isles'. To some extent it stands apart from the rest of the sequence though as the story is the most complete in itself.
I love the idea of wolfish peril from the Chunnel; rather more romantic than a Sangatte full of desperate asylum seekers, but presumably equally infuriating to a mythical 1832 Daily Mail.
The story concerns privileged rich girl Bonnie who lives in the splendour of remote Willoughby Chase surrounded by loving servants and much indulged by her kindly parents. Her mother however is sick and must be taken on a round the world recuperative voyage by her father, and so impoverished orphan cousin Sylvia is brought to the house to be a playmate, and distant relative Miss Slighcarp engaged as Guardian and governess to take charge of both. There is a fantastic set piece early in the book detailing Sylvia's epic 24 hour train journey to reach Willoughby, sharing her compartment with the shadowy Mr Grimshaw. The train is held up and they are set upon by wolves.
'Sylvia screamed. Another instant, and a wolf precipitated itself through the aperture thus formed. It turned snarling on the sleeping stranger, who started awake with an oath, and very adroitly flung his cloak over the animal. He then seized one of the the shattered pieces of glass lying on the floor and stabbed the imprisoned beast through the cloak. It fell dead.
"Tush" said Sylvia's companion, breathing heavily and passing his hand over his face, "Unexpected- most."'
You can see from this extract that the language Aiken uses is rooted in the time period and is not always easy. Once I started reading it aloud I worried that it might be a too complicated choice and Bill seemed to be losing interest early- but a wolf leaping through a window and being stabbed through the heart is a pretty good wake up and from that point the story really accelerates in pace and he was hooked.
Miss Slighcarp and Mr Grimshaw turn out to be Proper Bad 'Uns. Once Bonnie and Sylvia are left in their care they proceed to sack all the servants and sell off all the household goods whilst keeping the girls prisoner. Worse still, news comes that the ship with Bonnie's parents in has sunk with no survivors and the girls are now completely in Miss Slighcarp's power. An ill planned escape goes wrong and the girls are taken to be drudges in Mrs. Brisket's School for Orphans. The miseries they endure there are recognisable to an adult reader familiar with Dickens or |Jane Eyre but for Bill were eye popping stuff. At the end of a particularly wretched chapter he was pleading with me to read on: 'I just need to know they'll be all right mum. I need to know.' Ah. Proper suffering. That's what I look to induce in my children through the written word. Great.
Relief does come in the final third of the book with their rescue by Bonnie's goose-farming, wolf savvy friend Simon who becomes the hero of the rest of the books in the sequence. The girls travel by foot to London, secure support and return to Willoughby with reinforcements for the final denouement and confrontation. As Miss Slighcarp is denounced, Bonnie's parents return miraculously recovered (I thought I could reveal that because you might have guessed.) and all is restored.
''"But Aunt Sophy," said Sylvia,"your tale must be so much more adventurous than ours! Were you not shipwrecked?"
"Yes, indeed we were!" said Lady Green laughing,"and your uncle and I spent six very tedious days drifting in a rowing-boat, our only fare being a monotonous choice of grapes and oranges , of which there happened to be a large crate in the dinghy, fortunately for us. We were then picked up by a small and most unsanitary fishing-boat, manned by a set of fellows as picturesque as they were unwashed, who none of them spoke a word of English...On this boat we received nothing to eat but sardines in olive oil. I am surprised these shocks and privitations did not carry me off, but Sir Willoughby maintains they were the saving of me"'
I am very happy for Bill to read as much 'Cows in Action' and 'Beast Quest' to himself as he likes but I like to save the really good stuff to read to him myself and this is really good stuff.
'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' Joan Aiken, pub. Random House isbn 978-0-099-45663-6