For my first Sunday best of the new academic year, I’ve chosen an old favourite, celebrated last week with a Google Doodle marking its author’s 91st birthday. Joan Aiken’s writing has always set off soft trails of fireworks in my brain, from A Necklace of Raindrops to Go Saddle the Sea (and her Austen sequels aren’t half bad, either.) But my favourite of her books remains 1962’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – the perfect book for the first crisp nip in the air and the beginnings of autumnal frost.
There are few series that pull off alternate history so elegantly, and with so little cumbersome explanation, as Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles do. Set in an England reigned over by the fictional James III, and connected to Europe by a forerunner of the Chunnel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows two cousins, shy Sylvia and ebullient Bonnie, through landscapes of enticing richness, and grief, penury and cold. Full of fear, hilarity and shadowy horror, it foregrounds its protagonists’ courage and self-reliance in the tradition of the very best children’s fiction.
When Sylvia leaves London and her elderly Aunt Jane to live with her cousin Bonnie Green, she’s dazzled by the riches of Willoughby Chase, and by Bonnie’s eager welcome. But this idyllic time isn’t to last. Bonnie’s parents set sail for warmer climes, leaving the forbidding Miss Slighcarp, the girls’ governess, in charge of the household; then the dreadful news arrives that their ship has gone down. Under Miss Slighcarp’s reign, the servants are sacked, Bonnie’s wealth of toys and clothes is sold off, and the girls are treated with consummate, thin-lipped cruelty. When they try to send their local doctor a clandestine plea for help, they are sent to industrial Blastburn to slave in an orphanage-cum-laundry run by Mrs Brisket, Miss Slighcarp’s co-conspirator. As Sylvia grows sickly, weakened by the poor diet and heavy work, Bonnie and Simon, the self-sufficient wild boy who lives secretly in the grounds of the Chase, must devise a daring plan to escape…
The first word to occur to me when I think of this book is ‘atmosphere’. In her astonishingly assured second novel, Aiken evokes a glorious range of scenes and sensations, from the crisp delight of powdery snow and the addictive terror of pursuit by wolves, both animal and human, to Blakeian industrial furnaces or the blissful warmth of a live goose-feather bed. Tastes, too, are distinct, memorable and enticing: the ‘savoury lumps’ of cheese Mrs Brisket uses to reward tale-bearers, the tiny cakes of chestnut flour Simon bakes to his own recipe – even a raw egg straight from the hen, disgusting but nourishing. Most memorable of all, though, are the characters at the centre of the story. Bonnie’s blunt, straightforward bravery, and timid Sylvia’s hard-fought determination to live up to her bold cousin, make for a trail-blazing pair of heroines - and it’s just as well, as only girls of such fine mettle could contend with a woman as satisfyingly, scarily wicked as Letitia Slighcarp. A true classic, which leaves a lifelong impress on the reader’s mind – and a fitting introduction to the wonderful Wolves chronicles which follow.