Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

My love of reading does not distinguish me from the rest of my family. Generations of readers, a few volumes in family for a hundred years, nothing special, but nothing to be ashamed of. High brow, but also crime stories, thrillers… Grandma read French romances in original, Grandpa received boxes full of Chandler, Le Carre and Clancy paperbacks from his brother lucky enough to get to Canada after the War had ended. I’m the book-craziest one, but only by a few degrees.

Fantasy, though, that was something new. Older cousin gave me Hobbit when I was… about ten, I believe, but one of the most beloved books of my early childhood, book that sparked my interest in supernatural fiction, was A Room Full of Leaves, an anthology of short stories by Joan Aiken. Goodreads lists it as a Polish edition of A Small Pinch of Weather, but it’s not precise, Polish version lacks some stories from this collection while including some from A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories. It’s not strictly fantasy, but mysteries happening to regular people in a world otherwise exactly like ours. So, a tried and true technique older than rigid genre distinctions. I liked the melancholy of most of these stories, the impossible things happening to their young protagonists. I wasn’t able to catch their Englishness, mythical references. I need to revisit this world.

But Aiken’s most famous works were beyond my reach then, and I wasn’t even aware of their existence. The Wolves Chronicles, a long series of novels for younger readers, never translated into Polish. That’s a real problem. Picture books with a few lines written below illustrations, and comics designed for small kids – it doesn’t matter whether they’re in Polish in English, the younglings have to had them read to by someone else and I can translate on the fly. But books you’re supposed to read on your own among your first literary adventures… these, if not available in your native tongue, might miss their perfect moment.

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And it happened with me and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a highly pleasurable read, something that brought me some joy in between Black Company and bleak non-fictions on Polish stupid history. But it magic would be much stronger if I got it before my tenth birthday. It’s not a critique, the books was not written for not-so-young-adults, but I wish I could have read way earlier. Now it missed some of the magic A Room Full of Leaves still holds for me. Partly because this is not a mystery novel, but rather an alternate history one, depicting a fictional XIX century England plagued by hordes of wolves that got there through a tunnel under the Channel. I seem to recall reading that spiritual ancestors of Brexiters were really afraid of such things…

Anyway, it’s an archetypical story about kids left alone with wicked adults who are supposed to be taking care of them, but instead abuse and cheat them. There are hardships and despair, and strong spirit, humour, adventure, and also a happy ending, because, well, it is a children’s novel.

Our main protagonist, Bonnie, is a daring heiress to a nice but naive aristocrat presumed to be lost at sea, Sylvia – her poorer, but much more ladylike cousin, Simon – friend and a young runaway living in, and off, the forest. Together they will confront Miss Slighcarp, their wicked governess and a con-artist.

They will suffer, and prevail, finding strength in friendship and help from good people. It’s a short, well written story that makes you root for the heroines and smile with relief when the world order is restored.

Reading it now, I could not help but notice how conservative the book is, even taking into account its target audience. Nothing fundamentally challenges the order of the good old world already long gone in the 1960-ties. Not a trace of social critique so prevalent in Harry Potter (yet subtle enough not to spoil the fun, and to be completely missed by so many fanfic writers…). Good lords, dependable lawyers, caring and loyal servants prevail over wicked upstarts, con-artists trying to cheat their way up the social ladder. Then everything goes back to as it always had been, and should be, and the restored lord of the manor dispenses the rewards…

Is it fair to raise such questions here? I don’t mind Tolkien and many of his copycats, I enjoy classic myths from all around the world… but am slightly disappointed here. Maybe because it’s not fantasy, and written so long after, say, Dickens?

After all, it is a very nice story about a very pro-active little girl, and Aiken is master at using suggestive language to create great atmosphere. It is very trope-ish, but it’s also a love letter to the kind of Victorian novels written and read seriously a couple of generations earlier. Written these days, it would perhaps challenge the archetypes more, but it’s still highly readable.

I don’t think there is a point in my assigning a score here, but it has my recommendation. Although I prefer Aiken’s short stories 🙂

7 thoughts on “Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

  1. Really interesting response to this 1962 classic – – yes, it’s a tad conservative but considering Aiken began this in the 50s that’s unsurprising. What it does is play fast and furious with Victorian tropes such as are found not only in Dickens but also in novels by the Brontë sisters. Having embarked on a lengthy series of reviews and discussions of this and its sequels (in what are now known as the Wolves Chronicles) I would say that to enjoy this first one of the series properly, and to see beyond its pastiche and parody, one needs to read at least one or two of its sequels to appreciate her love of both the period and its peculiarities.

    And I agree about her magical short stories, of which luckily there are a number of collections both secondhand and newly republished!

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    • I’m sure I will read a few more of these books, but I wish I had access to them as a kid… I’m sure I’d liked them better.
      I’ve also read different XIX century literature at school, and only a few selected novels later, so I don’t have the full context.

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    • Now I’m halfway through “The Gift of Giving” collection and I’m experiencing the magic of Aiken’s writing again 🙂 Some of the stories I remember from my childhood, some are new, all are such precious little gems, imaginative, moving, beautiful!

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      • I glanced through this when it was published but like you recognised many of the titles from other collections of her stories I’ve already got. Sometime I may get round to it! 🙂

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