Joan Aiken would have been 91 this year – sadly she wasn’t here to see this lovely tribute to her best loved book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and to her hugely influential writing career. However thanks to this unforgettable story she will always be remembered with love – her Wolves are still running…
For thousands of readers the Google Doodle created especially for her birth date, the 4th September, brought back that heart stopping moment on the snowy hills of Willoughby Chase:
“‘Can you run? Famous!’… Bonnie urged Sylvia on through the deepening wood.”
This year there has also been a very special new edition of Joan Aiken’s classic, which was originally hailed by Time magazine on its publication over fifty years ago as ‘One genuine small masterpiece.’
In this wonderful tribute, The Folio Society – for whom Joan Aiken had over the years written many articles, and introductions to reprints of classics from her own childhood such as E.Nesbit, or the Andrew Lang Fairy Books – have now brought out their own gorgeously gothic edition of her best known work. As well as its elegant cover, with heraldic ‘wolves rampant’ there are also dramatic internal illustrations by Bill Bragg, and a very moving introduction by fellow wolf fancier Katherine Rundell – whose own gripping adventure with wolves on the snowy Russian steppes – The Wolf Wilder – came out this autumn.
Katherine has written a fascinating piece about wolves in literature , her own influences, and how at heart perhaps ‘every little girl loves a wolf’! This was certainly the case for Joan Aiken whose fascination with them began at an early age, when her mother read her Jean de Bosschere’s Christmas Tales from Flanders, and a particularly scary story that she never forgot, and which certainly influenced her most famous novel. Joan Aiken wrote:
“I had decided to do a full length children’s book, a pastiche set in a kind of mad 19th century with a lot of wolves in it – I’d always loved wolves! One of my earliest memories at Rye” – where she was born in 1924 and lived until the age of five – “was of my mother reading a folk-tale called Balten and the Wolf about a forester who flings a pot of boiling soup over a wolf, which then determines to be revenged…!” She goes on: “This tale also had a profound effect on one of Freud’s early patients, known as The Wolf Man, who had a recurring dream about wolves climbing up a tree to reach him, as they do in the story, each stepping on the back of the one below… it did haunt me, but I just wrote the wolves out of my system into my book!”
The illustrations by Jean de Bosschere of more than life sized slavering wolves certainly were haunting:
Katherine Rundell had an equal passion for wolves in life and literature, and having discussed the folk and fairy tale background of wolves in her essay she writes:
“But perhaps the most glorious wolf-novel for children is Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a snow-clad, fur-warm story about escape and bravery. It is set in a mythic 1832 in which the river has frozen to the sea, and wolves have come over from France. In it, although there are wolves pursuing children across snow, the true predators are the adults. Aiken once said that the thing that frightened her most were “people who can’t be reasoned with”. That, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is where the horror is, in people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives such as kindness or attention or good jokes. Wolves, in Aiken, are unreason with teeth, and it is their human counterparts in the shape of Miss Slighcarp and her cronies that are more haunting.”
The real wolves in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles return later in the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ series and do finally exact a grim penance on one of her more colourful villains – the father of Dido Twite in Dido & Pa – but in this early book, the spirited heroine Bonnie is more than a match for the wild beasts as she and her timid cousin Sylvia prepare to make their dangerous return home through the woods in the company of her friend Simon – the scene beautifully caught here in Bill Bragg’s illustration:
In her introduction Katherine Rundell comments on some of the other memorable elements that make this such an enduring favourite:
“I think you can distil what a good children’s book needs to three main categories: love, and peril, and food, and Aiken writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled. The key-note relationship at the centre of the book is the friendship between Bonnie and Sylvia. It’s at once an exploration of what it is to be a child, and a hymn to the life-changing luck of having a friend for whom you would die. Their friendship sings. One of my favourite passages from the book comes just after the two meet, and are riding through the night together:
‘The dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’
That’s a very real kind of lovely; comfort and danger at once, snow and warmth, speed and someone with whom to sit shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Both Katherine Rundell’s introduction and Bill Bragg’s illustrations add their own appreciation of the range and power of Joan Aiken’s writing, whether in moments of love or peril. One of the most poignant scenes towards the end of the book (spoiler alert!) is the return of Bonnie’s father who was presumed drowned at sea, in a moment reminiscent of the heart wrenching scene of reunion between Bobbie and her long lost father at the end of E.Nesbit’s The Railway Children.
Although Joan Aiken was not here to see this wonderful new celebration of her work, and the fruit of her long and happy association with The Folio Society, I am so grateful that this handsome edition has now been published, and hope that fans and families who have loved this book for fifty years already can now have a copy that they will be able to treasure and pass on for a good fifty more.
Visit The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken to read more about the Wolves Chronicles