The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
The fair-haired orphaned Sylvia leaves her aged Aunt Jane to live with her cousin Bonnie at the country estate known as Willoughby Chase. On the overnight train journey, Sylvia is joined in her compartment by Josiah Grimshaw, a strange man who attempts to befriend her with chocolates and tea cakes. When they are awakened by a lurching stop, Sylvia looks out on the frozen landscape to see wolves streaming across the snow. They begin throwing themselves against the train window until the clasp gives, the glass shatters, and a wolf bounds into the compartment. Mr. Grimshaw dispatches it with a shard of broken glass and then heaves its carcass out the window.
This singular scene, with a tone unlike that of any other book in children’s literature, gives a taste of Joan Aiken’s disorienting imagination. The book is set in 19th century Britain but the improbable appearance of the sinister wolves reveals the backdrop to be pseudohistorical. Aiken places her stories in the past, but she has taken liberties with history. In a later book, we learn that the wolves have invaded England from the continent through a tunnel under the English Channel. Aiken’s world is just a hair off-kilter, which makes it much more unsettling than a world of overt magic.
When Sylvia reaches Willoughby Chase, she and Bonnie discover that Mr. Grimshaw is in league with the wicked Letitia Slighcarp, a distant relative in whose care the girls and the estate have been left during the absence of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. After sacking all the loyal retainers, Miss Slighcarp packs her charges off to an orphan work house in the bleak industrial town of Blastburn. They make their escape from the cruel Mrs. Brisket with the aid of Simon, the forest boy who lives in an underground cave on the estate with his geese. There is a wonderful scene in which the feverish Sylvia is tucked into a donkey cart with feather-filled mattress and quilts below and warm feathery geese on top. Lulled by the soft warmth, she immediately falls asleep.
Joan Aiken came from a literary household – her father was the Pulitzer Prize winning Conrad Aiken and her stepfather was Martin Armstrong. Home-schooled until the age of 12, she read voluminously as a child. The influence of Charles Dickens is obvious in her work (note the names of the evil characters), as is that of Victor Hugo. The wolves are borrowed from The Box of Delights, an unusual book by John Masefield that is little known in the U.S. The starkly opposing forces of good and evil, with the inevitable triumph of the former, provide the makings of a gothic morality play or a wild melodrama (there are shades of both). Aiken leavens the battle with a deadpan humor, sometimes with a morbid touch in the style of Edward Gorey (who provided the jacket illustrations for some editions). For those intrigued by Aiken’s distinctive tone and strange imagination, there are a dozen books in the Wolves series alone.