It’s funny how the mind plays tricks. I can still remember borrowing this from the library when I was a child but I was convinced that it was a much bigger book. This suggests I tackled it at a transition time from early readers and short read-alones and considered its 192 pages to be particularly massive. I don’t recall if I actually got through it on this occasion (I suspect not) but I’m sure I’ve read it since and found myself picking up a copy recently.
I met Joan Aiken because back in my teaching days in London I taught her grand-children. She is one of the most important children’s writers of the twentieth century and this is her best known book.
The first third of this, the opening novel in a sequence which includes “Black Hearts In Battersea” and “Night Birds In Nantucket” is outstanding. Aiken has created an England which feels both familiar and strange. The reason for this strangeness is dealt with in her author’s note before the story has begun, which sets it into the alternative history category. In 1832 King James III ascended the throne, the Dover-Calais Channel Tunnel has been opened and Britain has become over-run by wolves who made it through the tunnel to escape hard European winters.
The scene is set for a chilling winter opening. Sir Willoughby Green is embarking on a long sea journey for the sake of his wife’s health leaving daughter Bonnie with a recently discovered distant relative who arrives at the grand old house of Willoughby Chase to be the governess. Also due at the house is Bonnie’s cousin, Sylvia, an orphan who is leaving her frail impoverished aunt to begin a new life at the Chase. After the tension of the impending departures is set up beautifully we are treated to Sylvia’s journey by train where the wolves menace and threaten in a snow-filled chilling piece of writing as good as anything to be found in children’s fiction. It would have certainly scared the living daylights out of me had I got to this part in the original library book (more reason to think I abandoned it as it would certainly have stuck in my mind).
The Puffin cover I remember
Once Sylvia gets to Willoughby Chase the cruel plans of the governess begin to dominate. She’s a wicked woman indeed but lacks some of the roundness to make her a classic children’s villain (although I know that Stephanie Beacham’s portrayal in the 1989 film version gave many nightmares). As the action moves away from the house, the novel’s depth and its darkness, the snow and wolves melt away somewhat and it becomes a more standard escape story. It remains good throughout but doesn’t quite sustain the promise of that first third.
The alternative history side (apart from the wolves) is underplayed here but I think it becomes more prominent in the other books in the sequence. I think I might be starting to get a bit picky here, it seems like I’m expecting “Game Of Thrones” in a 1960’s children’s book. It is, however, a lasting classic which possesses plenty of what makes a children’s book great and it is one that should continue to bring joy to generations.
I read a Red Fox paperback edition of “The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase” which was first published in 1962.