It is great news that “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” which is currently celebrating its 50th birthday with three new editions and a new audio read by Joan’s daughter Lizza, has been chosen for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge – the theme is “Creepy Houses” and the great house of Willoughby Chase is certainly a contender!
The first page of Joan Aiken’s most well known children’s novel, with its memorable opening line, “It was dusk, winter dusk…” has a picture of Willoughby Chase that appears only in the American first edition – the editors thought readers would want to see the great house straight away, with “its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow” which “each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.”
Joan Aiken’s inspiration came from the melodramatic Victorian novels she had read as a child and longed to re-create for new readers. She wrote:
“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!”
But all joy departs from the house, along with Sir Willoughby and Lady Green, and the arrival of the sinister Miss Slighcarp…
Our two heroines, locked in the nursery by the evil governess waste no time seeking out the secret passage:
“The mantel was large, and beautifully carved from some foreign stone with a grey, satiny surface. It extended for several feet on either side of the fireplace to form two wide panels on which were carved deer with elaborately branching antlers. The children ran to these and began fingering the antlers and trying to move them. Suddenly Sylvia gave an exclamation – as she pushed the deer’s head to one side the whole panel slid away into the wall, leaving a dark aperture like a low, narrow doorway.
‘You’ve found it!’ breathed Bonnie. ‘Oh, what fun this is! Let us go in at once and see where it leads.’
The passage was exceedingly narrow, and presently led them down a flight of steep steps. It was not pitch dark; a tiny hole let in a glimmer of daylight, and, placing her eye to these holes, Bonnie was able to discover their whereabouts.
‘Now we are behind the Great Hall, I can see the coats of arms. This is the silver-gilt ante-room. Nowwe are looking into the armoury, those are gun-barrels. Imagine this passage having been here all this time and my never knowing of it! Oh, how I wish
Papa and Mamma were at home! What famous times we should have, jumping out and surprising them! And we should discover a whole lot of secrets by overhearing people’s private conversations.’
‘Would that be honourable?’ Sylvia doubtfully whispered.
‘Perhaps not with Papa and Mamma, but it would be quite another matter with Miss Slighcarp. I mean to listen to her all I can!’
They soon had an opportunity to do so, for the next peep-hole looked into the library, and when Bonnie put her eye to it she saw the governess in close consultation with Mr Grimshaw. They were at the far end of the large room, and at first out of earshot,
but they soon moved nearer to the unseen watchers.
‘Poke up the fire, Josiah,’ said Miss Slighcarp, who was studying a large parchment. ‘This must be burnt at once, now that we have succeeded in finding it.’
The children heard Mr Grimshaw stirring up the logs, and realized that they must be standing beside the fireplace and that their spyhole was probably concealed in the chimneypiece. It was possible that there was another opening panel, similar to that in
the schoolroom, but they were careful not to try pressing any projections, having no wish to be brought suddenly face to face with their enemies.
‘Take the bellows and blow it into a blaze,’ Miss Slighcarp said. She was reading the document carefully.’ What a good thing Sir Willoughby was careless enough to leave his will at home instead of keeping it with Mr Gripe. It has saved us a deal of trouble.’
Read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to discover how our two indomitable heroines deal with these fiendish villains…!
Taking up the Summer Reading Challenge is also a great way of supporting your local library!