Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has become a classic which for more than fifty years has thrilled and delighted readers all over the world, but the book itself has a story almost as dramatic as the adventures of its two desperate orphan heroines – this was a book that nearly didn’t get written.
It all began one autumn day in 1953…when she gave herself a wonderful birthday present.
Having survived the dangers and difficulties of World War II, and after living for some time in an old Greenline bus, Joan Aiken was finally secure in her own house in the Kent countryside with her husband and two small children. One afternoon as she was out chopping wood for the fire, she thought:
“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever! I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”
She bought an old table, installed it in a corner of her bedroom, and on her twenty-ninth birthday – the date, Sept.4th, proudly inscribed at the top on the first page of an old exercise book – she began to write.
But just as in those stories she had relished as a child, disaster struck. She lost her husband and her home, and for nearly ten years the story she had so eagerly started to write had to be put aside. When she was finally able to take it out again, she said, reading that first page took her straight back into the world she had imagined years before, with its “winter dusk” where “snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”
Even after so long, the story poured out in an unstoppable flow: she stepped straight back into her own imagined historical age where train travellers carried muskets or fowling pieces to defend themselves from attacks by ravening wolves, where the rich dined on oyster patties in their furs and diamonds – but where a reversal of fortune could lead to ruin and starvation. Her own years of struggle and responsibility had immeasurably deepened her writing; no longer just a tongue in cheek parody of the melodramas she had once revelled in, the book now reflected her own experience of tragedy, poverty and grief. It was with mixed feelings of relief and hope that she was able to complete it and send it off.
But then she patiently waited a year before she dared enquire about its fate – only to discover that it had been lost, left on a windowsill and forgotten! And the first publisher who did look at it thought it was much too scary: “Could she take out the wolves?”
Of course she said no…
The next publisher loved it, and recognised its parodic style, but also its very real dramatic impact – the only problem was the title, so Bonnie Green became The Orphans of Willoughby Chase, and then the more memorably alliterative The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
The book was finally published, in England in 1962, illustrated by Pat Marriott, and then the following year in the USA where it appeared with its wonderful cover by Edward Gorey, now itself a classic image, and was duly hailed by Time magazine as:
“One Genuine Small Masterpiece”
In the hope that this story might inspire other
would-be writers, Joan Aiken’s daughter and her agents, A.M.Heath launched
the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize in 2019
The winner ‘Harklights’ by Tim Tilley is being published in 2021
Read about “Wolves” and all the following books in the series
On the Joan Aiken website
Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?
New editions of the book continue to appear –