Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Joan Aiken

I happened to spot Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in the library recently and since I'd never read it, yet had heard it mentioned quite often in children's literature circles, I borrowed it.

Bonnie Green lives in the lap of luxury in the manor house of Willoughby Chase in the northern English countryside. She has all the clothes, toys, and ponies that any child could want, and indulgent parents who encourage her to try things out. There is much love in the house, both from her parents and the dedicated household workers. When Bonnie's mother, Lady Sophia, becomes ill, her parents decide to take a sea voyage in the hope of restoring her health. With this in mind, Sir Willoughby asks his solicitor, Mr. Gripe, to find a governess to look after Bonnie in their absence. Mr Gripe recommends a fourth cousin once removed, a Miss Slighcarp, who arrives the night before her parents leave. To keep Bonnie company, Sir Willoughby has invited her orphaned cousin Sylvia to stay. Both of them will be taught by Miss Slighcarp, who will also run the estate. Sylvia has been living with Sir Willoughby's elderly sister, Aunt Jane, and they have barely been making ends meet; when Aunt Jane makes new clothes for Sylvia before she goes away, she uses their curtains.

Sylvia has to make a terrible journey to Willoughby Chase by train. It is very cold, and wolves attack the train; one of them breaks the window and gets into the compartment. Fortunately, a fellow passenger, Mr. Grimshaw, subdues and kills the wolf before it can do any damage. He loans Sylvia a travelling rug to help keep her warm, but later he is injured when a suitcase he is lifting down from the rack, hits him on the head. Bonnie insists that they take him to Willoughby Chase to see a doctor. Once Bonnie's parents leave, strange things start to happen; most of the servants are dismissed. Mr. Grimshaw and Miss Slighcarp are seen looking through Sir Willoughby's papers and burning some of them. When Miss Slighcarp starts wearing Lady Sophia's best gowns, Bonnie complains and is locked in a schoolroom cupboard with only bread and water to sustain her. Worse treatment soon follows, along with the news that Bonnie's parents are dead. The two girls soon find themselves fighting for survival in harsh circumstances.

This was an interesting book. How is it, though, that as often as this book has been mentioned, no one ever thought to mention it was the first in a series of THIRTEEN books ?! In case you didn't know that either and are wondering what the other twelve are, here's the full list of titles:

1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
2. Black Hearts in Battersea (1964)
3. Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966)
4. The Whispering Mountain (1968)
5. The Cuckoo Tree (1971)
6. Midnight Is a Place (1974)
7. The Stolen Lake (1981)
8. Dido and Pa (1986)
9. Is (1992) aka Is Underground
10. Cold Shoulder Road (1995)
11. Limbo Lodge (1999)
12. Midwinter Nightingale (2003)
13. The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005)

I have been told that the series is only a "loose series" since the main character doesn't appear until the second book (so how does that work ?), but that was scant reassurance.

8 comments:

Debbie G said...

I adore WWC, and Blackhearts in Battersea possibly even more. The link (I think they mean) in the series is Dido Twite, who is introduced in BB. I wouldn't worry, though, about trying to get through the whole series as (at least imho) not many of the others are up to the standard of the first two or three. I wasn't aware that Midnight is a Place was part of the series, unless the characters are loosely connected - that's the only other one I would _highly_ recommend reading. It's a lot darker than the others, even more Dickensian, but very very good.

Tasha said...

This was one of my favorite books as a child. I read it again and again, but I never made any progress into the rest of the series. I wonder how many people enjoyed this book so much that like me they were disappointed in the rest. That's why I tend to talk about it as a stand-alone title.

Michele said...

I thought the alternative history was interesting in WWC - and the characters were reasonably interesting, but I was disappointed with the ending of it - the fact that Bonnie's parents survived the shipwreck and turned up in the nick of time was rather lame, I felt.

I've just started BHiB so I'll see how I get on with the rest of the series...

Hallie said...

Neither Midnight is a Place nor The Whispering Mountain is part of the series, actually.

I read and loved the first few (all that were published then) in the series as a child, and then revisited and finished it with my daughters, and don't think Wolves is up to the standard of the others. Or at least most of the others - a few of the later books are weaker. But The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa are two of the very best, IMO. Some of the later ones are quite dark, but never excessively so, I think. Dido (the main character you'll have met in BHiB) isn't in a couple of the later books, but reappears in the last two. And the alternative history gets more wildly inventive as the books go on. Wonderful stuff.

Michele said...

Thanks for the information Hallie, however, both Midnight is a Place and The Whispering Mountain are listed as part of the "Wolves" series in more than one list at which I looked. Since I brought both of the home from the library at the weekend, I may as well read them anyway !

I enjoyed BHiB more than WoWC !

Hallie said...

That's very strange! I went back and checked all the books just now, and not all have a list of the James III/Wolves Chronicles series, but not one of those that do includes The Whispering Mountain or Midnight Is a Place in it. Nor does JA include either in her Author's Notes on the out-of-chronological order books. Possibly some publisher trying to hitch the non-series ones in to boost sales? Anyway, as long as you weren't put off by all the books you have to read to follow the series! Glad you liked BHiB more.

mwt said...

The stories in this series interleave with one another. Simon the Goose Boy from Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the main character in Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido Twite, who is a minor character in Black Hearts, is the main character in Nightbirds on Nantucket and subsequent books. I always thought the place to stop reading was The Cuckoo Tree. The Stolen Lake was written later and slipped into the narrative flow between Nightbirds and Cuckoo. None of the later books really rocked me. Midnight is a Place, however shares no characters with Wolves, unless they are very minor ones, or with the other books. It is probably included in a listing of the series because it is set in Blastburn, where Bonnie and Sylvia were incarcerated in the workhouse/school. Midnight is a retelling--more intense, and darker--of the Wolves story. Privileged children cast from their rightful home and making their way in the world. I loved it. Where Wolves is written for the younger reader, Midnight is for a more mature one.

Michele said...

Thanks for the info. mwt. And no, Hallie, I'm not put off - I'll just read them piecemeal, in and around the various other books that I want to read and review; I may not review all of the Aiken books here, but I will read them all !