The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
originally published 1962
Delacourte, 1st edition, 2000
Genre: Children’s classic, historical fiction, COVENS
Book Report: Wicked wolves and a grim governess threaten Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia when Bonnie’s parents leave for a sea voyage. Left in the care of the cruel Miss Slighcarp, the girls can hardly believe what is happening to their lovely, once happy home. The servants are dismissed, the furniture is sold, and, dressed in rags, Bonnie and Sylvia are sent to a prison-like school for orphans. It seems as if the endless hours of drudgery will never cease.
With the help of Simon the gooseboy and his flock, they escape. But where will they go? And how will they ever get Willoughby Chase free from the clutches of the evil Miss Slighcarp?
OH SHIT YEAH. I used to have a copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and I read it ALL THE TIME. (What the hell happened to that book?) I set so many stories in Aiken’s world, and even had a long-running series of dreams in which I was in a summer camp overrun by giant wolves a la TWoWC (there were tunnels from cabin to cabin, and sometimes we traveled by rooftop). I still want to doze off in a cart full of geese and play with a giant stuffed pony with crystal eyes. Who wouldn’t? So it’s obvious that I was delighted to read Laura Lippman’s treatment of TWoWC in Shelf Discovery and find that I was not alone in my love for spunky orphans.
It’s the nineteenth century, and England is overrun by wolves from Russia (they came through the Chunnel), but they are the least of Bonnie and Sylvia’s troubles, now that Sir Willoughby and Lady Green are off for warmer climes. The children’s distant relation Miss Slighcarp and her scurrilous accomplice Mr Grimshaw (the delightfully Dickensian names are one of TWoWC’s many charms) loot Willoughby Chase for all it is worth, pillaging its valuables and selling off what they can. (Miss Slighcarp even wears Lady Green’s clothes, though they are far from flattering to her figure.) Though some beloved servants, notable Bonnie’s maid Pattern and the footman James, stay behind to try to protect the children, they are hampered by their position as menials in quasi-Victorian England (you see, the Stewarts are still on the throne, but it’s otherwise the same–mostly). The children and their protectors are both disenfranchised by British law, and when Bonnie and Sylvia are shunted off to Mrs Brisket’s awful school of starvation and child labor violations–I mean Mrs Brisket’s charity school in Blastburn. There the girls are separated and starved, forced to subsist upon raw eggs to supplement the school’s poor fare, but Simon’s arrival saves them, and soon the trio (along with the geese and a donkey named Caroline) are traveling along through the English spring, primroses and all.
And when they reach London! Well, I won’t spoil it, but I must say, I want to live in a world where doctors prescribe champagne!
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase hurtles along at breakneck speed, trotting Bonnie and Sylvia along from one adventure to the next until everything is tidily resolved. The characters are charming–except when they’re chilling (and sometimes they’re both–I quite liked Mr Grimshaw in the beginning, and have always felt betrayed by him). Aiken deftly uses the natural world to mirror the novel’s events, stressing a connexion with the natural world along with her emphasis on friendship and family. She also balances her humor with the novel’s terrible happenings, using hyperbolic prose to create a comic melodrama. Utterly charming, even when wolves are devouring train conductors, it’s a masterpiece of children’s literature.
I can’t believe I’ve never read any of the other Wolves Chronicles. I kinda read this as a prelude to reading the further Wolves Chronicles, but also because I was reminded of it by reading Shelf Discovery. Since my list was all about expanding my horizons (and finding a long-lost novel), TWoWC is just a bonus book.
Read also: A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Amy’s Eyes by Richard Kennedy
Cover: Just stunning. A black, white, and red depiction of Bonnie and Sylvia with wolves lurking below, done in Edward Gorey’s inimitable style.
“This is the dolls’ house,” Bonnie said. “Grown-ups aren’t allowed inside, but you can come in, of course, Sylvia, whenever you like.”
The dolls’ house, large enough to get into, was a cottage with real thatch (and real canaries nesting in it). There was a balcony, stairs, two stories, a cooking stove that really worked, and a lot of genuine Queen Anne furniture, including a beautiful walnut chest full of Queen Anne clothes that fitted the children.
Sylvia was trying a blue velvet cloak against her, and Bonnie was saying, “Come and look at the other toys, you haven’t seen half yet …” when they were interrupted by a cough from the schoolroom and hurriedly bundled the clothes back into the closet.
21 February – 22 February