Wolves…the beginning

Wolves original

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”

Gorey small

Could you write  a Children’s Classic?

Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – Entry details here

Read about “Wolves” and all the following books at the Joan Aiken website

Read that first page as Joan Aiken originally wrote it – spot the changes..?

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New editions of the book continue to appear –

Look out for a new Puffin Book, and a Christmas Folio edition.

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Story ( and picture) Time!

Dogs pic

 

Joan Aiken enjoyed some very happy relationships with her illustrators, notably Pat Marriott, who illustrated her first story collections from 1953 onwards, and was responsible for the first ‘Wolves Chronicles’ covers and pictures, and so helped to create some of the best loved ( and scariest!) characters in the series. Pat became so familiar with Joan Aiken’s style that she developed a special gift for bringing those characters to life, and in this case it is their animal characters that come to mind.  Better known as a cat lover, Joan Aiken also produced some delightful canine characters, and this illustration particularly captures the sympathy with which she describes the happy doggy nature of a tribe of hitherto listless and unloved collies who finally find a master – and something useful to do!

In a story called ‘The Man who Pinched God’s Letter’  postman Fred, and orphaned Emma have fallen foul of local busybodies in the village of Incaster Magna – he has been exiled to Outcaster Parva ( a free gift of Joan’s inventive gift for names!) and she is about to be burned as a witch.  But in true fairy tale tradition, Fred’s kindness to those in need – in this case the bored dogs of Outcaster Parva who he has been taking for walks and training to fetch sticks – serves him in good stead.

The outraged citizens of Incaster are gathered round a huge bonfire where poor Emma is tied to a stake, when Fred, followed by the faithful collies of Outcaster arrives at the scene:

 

Dogs story

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In the course of her writing life, Joan Aiken wrote perhaps five hundred short stories, (one day I shall have to count…) for magazines, anthologies, and collections of her own for readers of all ages, and she always said that they came to her in a marvellous rush – from dreams, from overheard conversations, from long forgotten ideas which suddenly tied in with a new one, from travelling through villages with extraordinary names? But what is certain, is that they are among her most memorable work.  Who could forget those hundred-and forty-two eyes lighting up with joy – and the irresistible invitation to illustrate them?

 

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This story is from the collection The Faithless Lollybird