Friday, July 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #187: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I don't want to say that you should never read famous children's books for the first time as an adult -- the world is vast, and none of us have enough time to read everything at the exact right time. But you should be aware that it won't be the experience that people who read it at the right age had.

It may be a good-enough experience; it may be an excellent experience. But you are not as young or innocent as the reader of that book is assumed to be, and that will make a difference.

I first read Joan Aiken's 1962 novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in June of 2018, fifty-six years after it was published and roughly fifty years after the point when I could have first read it. And so one of the things that struck me the most was that this must have been an influence on "Lemony Snicket's" Series of Unfortunate Events books -- I suppose they could both be riffing on the same 19th century originals, but they seem more similar than that.

If I'd managed to read Wolves in the 1970s, of course, I would have been thinking entirely of the book itself.

Wolves is the first of a series, but it wasn't when it was written. As the new introduction by Aiken's daughter explains, this book alone took around a decade to write -- Aiken started it and then almost immediately had to put it aside for years due to pressures of a sick and then dying husband and the need to make a living. It became the first of a series later, after it was successful. Many series begin like this, when a success inspires a writer to see what else she might be able to do with that particular world. But Wolves stands by itself, as a world that is not entirely explained and is not entirely fixed in time.

It is England, but not the England of the 1950s and 1960s when it was written. Large bands of feral wolves roam the countryside, particularly in the very bleak winters, and Britons have only fairly primitive firearms -- muskets and fowling pieces -- to defend themselves. It also seems to be a traditional world: nothing like The Great War (let alone WWII) has happened to shake up the social structure.

So it's entirely normal for Sir Willoughby, lord of the ancestral home of the title, to set out on a long sea journey to repair the health of his sick wife, and equally as normal for him to leave behind his young and only child, Bonnie Green, in the care of a distant cousin-cum-governess, Miss Slighcarp, who he meets only briefly before departing. And it's basically as normal for Sylvia Green, another cousin and an impoverished girl about Bonnie's age, to be brought to the house at exactly the same time to also be put into Miss Slighcarp's care.

Well, maybe that's all pretty darn melodramatic, come to think of it, and reminiscent of a Gothic novel from the early 1800s. That is all deliberate, of course.

No governess in such ominous circumstances will ever turn out to be good, and so it is with Miss Slighcarp. She has fiendish plots, and torments the two girls horribly for a short time, until she actually sends them off to an even more horribly Dickensian school-slash-workhouse in the closest oppressive industrial town.

This is a short book, so all of these things happen quickly -- and thoroughly. Luckily, it's traditional in more than one way, so Miss Slighcarp's comeuppance is inevitable and won't be delayed much in a book only 181 pages long.

Wolves is evocative in the way of short classic books for children: it states things, and lets the readers fill in descriptions in their own heads. As I said up top, this is a trick that works much better on ten-year-olds than fortysomethings, so I found it amusing but the world a little undescribed and mysterious.

I don't know if I'll read the later books in the series: I understand the second one, Black Hearts in Battersea, follows a secondary character from this book, and the books after that follow a secondary character in that book. And apparently the world becomes more specific, and specifically alternate, in time.

I guess I was hoping for more wolves. This book has two kinds: the metaphorical ones, embodied by Miss Slighcarp, and the actual physical ones, who are a looming danger several times but never more than that. I may have been hoping for the wolves that come out of the walls. They don't appear here...and, of course, it is not all over at the end of Wolves.

1 comment:

Lizza said...

Many more wolves to follow, both human and beastly, and develop an alternate world that offers comparison with the desperate developments of the late twentieth century too...more at

Post a Comment