Published 50 years ago this month and now available in a new anniversary edition, Joan Aiken’s “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” may well be the most quietly influential children’s fantasy novel of its time.
Although she’d been writing articles and stories for nearly two decades, it was Aiken’s first novel, and she incorporated into its plot every element she could think of from her favorite childhood reading. Here are abused orphans and a Dickensian workhouse; ravenous wolves (human as well as animal) worthy of John Masefield’s “The Box of Delights”; an omnicompetent gooseboy who recalls both Peter Pan and Dickon from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden”; an idyllic village, where the geraniums are blue, that could be part of Tolkien’s Lothlorien. There’s also a sprawling country house with a secret passage, an evil governess, loyal servants, forged documents, a shipwreck, and what Lemony Snicket would call “a series of unfortunate events.” Not least, the book ends with the promise of more to come as Simon the gooseboy heads to London.
That promise was abundantly fulfilled, as every properly brought-up child and grownup knows. For in the sequel, “Black Hearts in Battersea,” Simon encounters the unstoppable, irrepressible, unforgettable street urchin Dido Twite. In that second installment of the Wolves Chronicles, Aiken makes clear that the action takes place in an alternate 1830s, with a Stuart king, James III, on the throne of England and Hanoverians conspiring to seize power. Dido’s Pa is, in fact, a principal agent of these terrorists, who, in various books, aim to blow up Parliament, slide St. Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames and eventually plant their own man on the throne.
Gusto, in language, plotting and general outrageousness, characterizes all these wonderful novels. Lugubrious Captain Casket hunts a legendary pink whale (and has a rebellious daughter named Dutiful Penitence). South America was settled by ancient Britons, so Latin is still spoken in New Cumbria. Queen Ginevra sacrifices virgins to remain young for a thousand years. There are lost races in the South Pacific and a mysterious cult known as the Silent Sect. Dido’s sister Is — short for Isolde — even possesses telepathic powers. Aiken’s invention never flags, and while the early books are generally comic, albeit with serious undertones, the later novels often grow very dark indeed. I am sure that “Is Underground” must have been a partial inspiration for Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass.”
Influence can be hard to judge, but I would also argue that the Dido Twite novels are the fons et origo of the popular fantasy subgenre known as steampunk. Here, after all, is an alternate Victorian England, where a channel tunnel has allowed wolves to cross over from Europe, where a giant cannon in North America can barrage London, where one aristocrat collects games from around the world and another is actually a werewolf, and where the very air is full of skulduggery and foreboding and hot-air balloons.
All this plenty, however, begins right here, on the opening page of “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”: “It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”
Three events at the great house of Willoughby Chase set the action in motion. Young Bonnie’s parents, Sir Willoughby and his beautiful, seemingly tubercular wife, are about to depart for a long sea voyage in the hopes of restoring Lady Green’s health. At the same time, they have agreed to take in Bonnie’s orphaned cousin Sylvia, who can no longer be cared for by the frail and impoverished Aunt Jane. To conduct both girls’ education and to oversee the estate, Sir Willoughby has, through the agency of his attorney, Abednego Gripe, sought out a distant relation named Miss Slighcarp.
As Sylvia travels alone by steam-powered train from London to Willoughby Chase, she encounters a mysterious gentleman named Josiah Grimshaw. En route, the train is harried by wolves, while Grimshaw explains that this isn’t unusual:
“ ‘Wolves!’ Sylvia stared at him in terror.
“ ‘They don’t often get into the train, though,’ he added reassuringly. ‘Two years ago they managed to climb into the guard’s van and eat a pig, and once they got the engine driver — another had to be sent in a relief engine — but they don’t often eat a passenger, I promise you.’ ”
At Willoughby Chase, the cousins instantly bond. While Bonnie is hot-tempered, impetuous and rather a tomboy, Sylvia is proper, ladylike and immensely clever. Not that two little girls can avail against Miss Slighcarp. When it comes to being wicked, this scrawny governess could give lessons to Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch (in “The Witches”) or even Viola Swamp (the world’s most dreaded substitute teacher, as every third-grader knows — see Harry Allard and James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson Is Missing!”). Once the Willoughbys set sail, Miss Slighcarp dismisses the good servants, sells all Bonnie’s toys, and eventually sends the girls to a workhouse in the dark, satanic mill town of Blastburn. It is run by the cruel Mrs. Brisket:
“ ‘We have no names here,’ she said sternly. ‘You,’ to Sylvia, ‘will be number ninety-eight, you number ninety-nine.’ ”
Will Miss Slighcarp triumph? That all will end happily is never a given with Aiken, who regularly kills off characters, even beloved ones. The wicked, moreover, are often only temporarily defeated. Miss Slighcarp will return.
Joan Aiken, who died in 2004 at age 79, wrote many books, including a superb ghostly novel for adults, “The Haunting of Lamb House,” and scores of “tales of romance, fantasy and suspense.” A good sampling of these can be found in “The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories,” published last year by Small Beer Press, which also brought out “The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories” (2008), wonderful tall tales about “unusual and interesting things” — generally magical — that happen to one family on Mondays, although not always on Mondays.
This 50th-anniversary edition of “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” is specially prefaced with a brief but lovely memoir by Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken, who also reads a new audio version of the novel for Listening Library. The latter would be ideal for a long family car trip.
That said, Joan Aiken contended that if you weren’t prepared to read to your children for an hour a day, you really shouldn’t have any children. I first enjoyed many of Aiken’s books at bedtime with my kids, who are now grown, and yet I still return to them occasionally, just for my own selfish pleasure. Try “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” and you’ll see why.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
The WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE
By Joan Aiken
Yearling. 192 pp. Paperback, $6.99