Looking back at the creation of her popular children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken said her intention in writing it had been to share all the happy times she had spent as a child within the pages of her favourite books.
With her acute memory, and what some have called ‘her magpie mind’ she deliberately included all sorts of references to delicious, poignant, terrifying and otherwise hugely satisfying moments from the classics she had herself enjoyed, and to which she returned again and again. Where would you find the most delicious picnic, the most alarming train journey, the most heart stopping family reunion, the most vivid dream come true?
“I loved Dickens and the Brontes, so my book would be set in their grim nineteenth-century England – but it would be even grimmer. There would be a sinister school, where the pupils suffered atrocious tyrannies – worse than Lowood, worse than Dotheboys Hall. The key to the whole book, I realised, would be exaggeration – everything larger than life-size – and it would be funny.
Bonnie, my heroine, would be quite impossibly brave, truthful, and high-spirited, while her cousin Sylvia would be equally frail, delicate, and timid. Their nursery would be a hundred feet long. They would not have just one lace trimmed silk petticoat, but twenty. The cushions of the window seats would be so well-sprung that when Bonnie bounced on them she would almost hit the ceiling. My Duke wouldn’t just have a coach and six; he would have the first train of the nineteenth century run straight to the door of his castle.
Ideas for the book bubbled up inside me. There would be all kinds of hair-raising adventures – wolves, shipwrecks, murders; the villains would be ferociously villainous, the good people positive angels. In fact I thought of so many things to put in the story that several of them had to be left out and used in later sequels.”
So here’s a Quick Quiz for the followers of this Summer’s online #WilloughbyReads and anyone who recognises moments like these from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase!
* Who was preyed upon in a train carriage by mysterious men, and warned about wolves?
*Who studied a cookbook and tried desperately to make beef broth, and was later rewarded with one of the most idyllic and heavenly rural walking holidays?
*Who had many more than a dozen silk petticoats, had to deal with a hideous instructress at a ‘Select Seminary’ and dreamed that she was no longer freezing but sleeping under a warm feather quilt and woke to find her dream had come true?
*Where would you find two schools where the pupils’ hardships were even more terrible than those of Bonnie and Sylvia – and where the author’s sisters even died at a similar establishment…
*Where can you find (actually in two of her books!) the most heart-stopping and unexpected reunion with a long lost relative?
*Who after a heartbreaking parting from a dying Mama, is left in the care of an Aunt more terrifying than Miss Slighcarp, cries more than Sylvia, is teased and tortured by a companion more beastly than Diana Brisket, but at least enjoys an even better breakfast than the one cooked by Mr Wilderness?
*And who survives all manner of slights and privations, keeps her spirits up until the end, astonishingly wins the love of, and forgives the unkindest character in the whole book, and finally finds a true friend who loves the natural world as much as she does…
Answers in the Illustration above!
P.S. for ‘alternative’ history buffs, Joan Aiken added a note about her own ‘chosen’ period:
“Best of all, it occurred to me that the story should be laid, not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but under a different line of kings – supposing Bonnie Prince Charlie had become King of England and his descendants had kept the throne, then all the Georges, who should have come next would be lurking over in Hanover, plotting to dislodge them. This would leave me free to invent whatever I liked in my own bit of history.”
This of course led her to invent some lovely song parodies – here’s part of a children’s game:
‘Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water
He don’t rule over this land though he oughter
Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over in Hanover
Oh, why won’t some well wisher bring that young man over?’
Finally: Huge thanks to Ben Harris who instigated it and wrote all the quizzical questions
Louise Birchall who drew the delightful Willoughby
and all who have contributed to this splendid Summer Readalong!
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At the heart of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, just when we need it most after all the hair-raising dangers and disasters that have befallen our long suffering heroes, comes a golden idyll celebrating all the delights of childhood. Now we are given happiness and holidays, friends, freedom and lovely food, cooking and reading, painting and swimming, sleeping under the stars and travelling with animal friends along a country road towards a hopeful solution to all the earlier troubles.
The golden description begins with warmth, simple comfort, and peace:
“When Bonnie woke she lay wondering for a moment where she was. There was no clanging bell, no complaining voices, and instead of shivering under her one thin blanket she was deliciously comfortable and warm.
A cool breeze blew over her face, the cart jolted, and then she remembered what had been happening and said softly, ‘Simon?’
His voice came from somewhere in front.
‘Stop the cart a moment, I want to get out.’
‘Not worth it,’ he said. ‘We’re nearly there.’
Bonnie wriggled to a sitting position and looked about her. The sky was still mostly dark, but daylight was slowly growing in the east. Thin fronds of green and lemon-yellow were beginning to uncurl among masses of inky cloud. When Bonnie looked back she could see that they had come over a great ridge of hills, whose tops were still lost in the blackness of the sky to the north. Ahead of them was a little dale, and loops of the white road were visible leading down to it over rolling folds of moor. A tremendous hush lay over the whole countryside. Even the birds were not awake yet.
‘That’s where we’ll have our breakfast.’ Simon pointed ahead. ‘That’s Herondale. We’re way off the main road now. No one’s likely to come looking for us here.’
He began to whistle a soft tune as he walked, and Bonnie, curling up even more snugly, watched in great contentment as the lemon-yellow sky changed to orange and then to red, and presently the sun burst up in a blaze of gold.
‘What is it?’
‘There’s no snow here.’
‘Often it’s like that,’ he said nodding. ‘We’ve left snow t’other side of Whinside. Down in Herondale it’ll be warm.’
Presently they came to the last steep descent into the valley, and Simon then allowed Bonnie to get out of the cart while he adjusted the drag on the wheels to stop it running downhill too fast. All this time Sylvia slept. She stirred a little as they reached the foot of the hill and walked through a fringe of Rowan trees into a tiny village consisting of three or four cottages round a green, with a couple of outlying farms.”
Soon they reach safety and shelter with Mr Wilderness the old blacksmith in the village. Sylvia, her sore throat soothed with some cherry bark syrup is settled to sleep in the sun in a nest of hay, ‘amid the comfortable creaking of the geese and the baaing chorus of the sheep.’
Simon and Bonnie have one of the best breakfasts imaginable, beginning with bowls of porridge served with ‘brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream from Mr Wilderness’s two red cows who stand ‘sociably outside the kitchen door.’
As their healing journey continues at goose-pace, they show their strength and resilience and all that they have learned from their recent troubles:
“At night they usually camped near a farm, sleeping in or under the cart in their warm goosefeather quilts. If it rained, farmers offered them shelter in barn or haymow. Often a kindly farmer’s wife invited them in for a plate of stew and sped them on their way with a baking of pasties and apple dumplings. In return, Sylvia did exquisite darning, Bonnie helped with housework, and Simon, who could turn his hand to anything, ploughed, or milked, or sawed wood, or mended broken tools.
Pattern had smuggled one or two books and Bonnie’s paintbox from the attic out to the cart with the food and clothes, and these were a great resource on rainy evenings in the hay. They read aloud to each other, and Simon, who had never bothered about reading before, learned how, and even pronounced it quite a handy accomplishment. He also took a keen pleasure in making use of Bonnie’s box of colours, and sometimes could hardly be torn away from some view of a crag or waterfall that he was busy sketching. The girls would wander slowly on with Caroline, the cart, and the geese, until Simon, finished at last, caught them up at a run with the colour-box under his arm and the painting held out at arm’s length to dry”
Joan Aiken understands the need to balance danger and delight; after the increasingly desperate series of events we and our heroes have passed through and survived, we all need a holiday, and a chance to recover our spirits and learn what we are really made of, to remember the best things in life, and how we can create them for ourselves.
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Pat Marriott captures the peace and optimism of the idyllic journey in her drawing above, we just have to add in the glorious colours of Joan Aiken’s golden dawn
Read how this story mirrors the trials and disappointments
‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’ Joan Aiken wrote.
Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.
Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici – who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…
One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles, her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.
It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:
Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.
Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:
By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:
In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:
Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’
“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”
Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…
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Want to discover a few more?
and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here
Torquemada – dedicatee of ‘Wolves’
In a previous post, Wolves…the beginning I described the nearly ten year gap between the happy day, on her birthday in 1953 when Joan Aiken started writing the book that was to become her best known work, and some say masterpiece, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and its final publication.
Those ten years were a period of great sadness and change, but they ended, as in her book with a return home, and the restoration of a family; the dedication the book bears – ‘To John, Elizabeth and Torquemada’ is a tribute to that family, and will always bring back memories for me, as the last person left in this story.
For the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book in America I wrote an introduction, telling some of the story as it had begun in 1953:
As my mother—recently established with a home, a husband, and two small children—was chopping wood for the fireplace and remembering all the pleasure she had gained from reading during her own childhood, she had a wonderful idea. Home-schooled until the age of twelve in the isolated village where she grew up, she had spent most of her days with friends drawn from the worlds of the great dramatic storytellers of the nineteenth century. Now, she decided, she could write a book herself, with the most delightful ingredients (and some of the scariest!) from all the classic stories of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, or from an even earlier age – Carlo Collodi’s original and terrifying Pinocchio which she read at the age of two, or Charles Reade’s lurid tale of The Cloister and The Hearth which her mother had read aloud to her, along with all the many others she had enjoyed by herself, and whose characters became her imaginary friends; she wrote so that she could share this tremendous pleasure with the next generation.
But as so often happened in the stories my mother read, disaster struck—and the first few chapters of the book she had so eagerly started writing had to be put aside. My father fell ill and lost his job, and so my parents were obliged to sell our home. Less than two years later, my father died. This was not the moment to delve into a world of make-believe misfortunes—for now my mother had to surmount a series of very real obstacles and take care of herself and two young children until she could find a new home (and of course a cat, of whom more later!) Her troubles and responsibilities during these years deepened her writing immeasurably, taking it beyond the mere tongue-in-cheek parody she had first imagined. She had certainly revelled in the melodramas she had read as a child, but now that she had experienced tragedy and poverty herself, she could write about them with real authority.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was the story my mother started and had to put aside when my brother and I—aged five and three, and still stricken by the death of our father—were sent away to school while she found work to support us – an episode echoed in the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, but not quite as desperate as theirs! Her book remained an inspiration in the back of her mind until nearly ten years after she had first written those opening chapters, after years of working on story magazines and scraping together a tiny deposit for a wreck of an old pub in Sussex called White Hart House, and where we were at last under our own roof once again. While my brother and I were happily running around banging nails into the walls so we could hang up our clothes, she was finally able to get out that old writing book. As if no time had passed, she sat down to finish her story. And as she entertained us with the adventures of Bonnie and Sylvia and Simon, she must have felt a good deal of relief knowing that she could also bring them through their troubles to a happy ending.
And do you remember about the cat? You may have seen that this book is dedicated to John and Elizabeth—my brother and me—and Torquemada. The last member of our company, Torquemada was a large, gentle black and white cat who lived on a friend’s houseboat, minding his own business and fishing for his dinner, until two ferocious Abyssinians moved into his territory and drove him into hiding. Terrified, hungry, and miserable, he crouched in a ship’s funnel until my mother offered to rescue him and brought him to live with us. She gave him his marvellous name to restore his courage, and he sat in the open window of the kitchen by her typewriter, guarding the house from strangers while she worked. She was a gifted artist, and left this lovely portrait of him too. As she read the three of us each newly typed chapter, and the story neared its end, I remember how I especially loved the orphans’ gentle healing journey through the green hills and valleys of England. We were like those orphans of the storm, and she had brought us safely home.
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‘Wolves’ was to be the first of twelve Wolves Chronicles set in Joan Aiken’s own invented world, where the good Stuart Kings still reigned, and where she could travel to her heart’s content in the company of the heroes and villains of all the books she had ever loved, imagined, and kept company with as a child.
For a couple of weeks in August this year you can join in a readalong of ‘Wolves’ on Twitter at the hashtag #WilloughbyReads and add your own inspiration!
This picture of Joan Aiken at home comes from a film made about her and the writing of the first few of the ‘Wolves’ books which were published by Puffin Books.