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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)


My children certainly read this celebrated book when they were growing up. Amazon lists it as suitable for 9-11 year-old readers, so if they did, they would have read it to themselves rather than have me read it to them, which I guess would explain why, although the title is incredibly familiar to me, I had no recollection of the plot. Either that or, as too often happens, I'd completely forgotten having read it. Either way, I was reading it fresh, and I came to it with preconceptions which were rather surprisingly shattered. I was expecting a story about wolves but in actual fact the wolves are almost incidental (unless you interpret the main part of the novel in a rather sophisticated way).

What am I talking about, you may ask? Well, the book is set in an alternative nineteenth century - in 1832, to be exact - and, as we learn in the preface, King James III is on the throne and wolves have made their way to England through the Channel Tunnel. Horrendously aggressive, they have overrun the country and made night-time travel terrifyingly risky. They are highly intelligent, and have worked out that when a train shows down, it means people are about to emerge and they can then make their move. So, when shy orphan Sylvia arrives at the station near her new home at Willoughby Chase, she and the other passengers have to run for their lives. 

This is a very promising start, but that's the last we hear about the wolves. Instead we have the adventures of Sylvia and her feisty cousin Bonnie, whose parents have offered a home to the orphan girl following the deaths of her parents. Sir Willoughby and Lady Green are good people and doting parents, but unfortunately they're about to leave for a year-long journey with the intention of improving the health of delicate Lady Green. They depart believing that they have made a good provision for the girls during their absence, having employed a distant cousin, Miss Slighcarp, who will be their governess until they return. Sadly, they couldn't have been more wrong. Miss Slighcarp (the name might have tipped them off) is the archetypal wicked governess and subjects the little girls to all sort of horrible cruelties. She sacks all the nice faithful servants, just keeping a few who will do her evil work (and one who just pretends to be bad in order to stay on and watch out for the girls). She sells the furniture, takes away all the toys and locks Bonnie in a cupboard. Finally she sends them off to a horrible orphanage run by a Mrs Brisket, who subjects them to a miserable life of drudgery. Fortunately the girls have made a secret friend, young Simon, who lives in a cave and rears geese, which he sells in London every year. Simon manages to rescue them, but where can they go now?

This may all sound a bit clichéd to knowledgable adults, but it's easy to understand why the book has been so popular with generations of children since it first appear in 1962. It's an exciting story and I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a grandchild if I had one of the right age. And, though the wolves do disappear rather quickly, maybe their behaviour is reflected in the cruelty of the adults; and in any case their presence at the beginning creates an atmosphere of fear and terror that's mirrored by what the girls are going to be subjected to.  Whether that was in Aiken's mind or not doesn't really matter. I enjoyed reading it, and would not have done so without Simon and Kaggsy's 1962 Club. Looking forward to reading the reviews that come in there this week.


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