The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken

From fairy tales to Edward Gorey, we here at Wordcandy have long enjoyed stories about bad things happening to good children. British author Joan Aiken has been a steady contributor to this fine literary subgenre, from the 1962 publication of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to the recent (posthumous) publication of the last book in her Wolves Chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

The books in Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are downright bizarre, without any of the tongue-in-cheek cutesiness that can make the similar-but-inferior Series of Unfortunate Events books so tiresome. The Wolves books are full of brave, intelligent, good-hearted children enduring trials and tribulations so ostentatiously awful that they would have had Charles Dickens rolling his eyes. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a riches-to-rags story about two little girls in the 19th century (cousins Bonnie and Sylvia Green) who are left at the mercy of their evil governess, Miss Slighcarp, after Bonnie’s wealthy parents are lost at sea. The cousins struggle to survive their guardian’s dastardly plot to turn their home into an abusive boarding school-slash-workhouse. Their escape and eventual revenge is tremendously satisfying, and the novel can easily be enjoyed as a standalone story.

But if you have a hankering for more faux-Victorian adventures full of dungeons and dark secrets and people getting devoured by man-eating pike, Aiken’s next book, Black Hearts in Battersea, moves the series in a different direction while retaining much of the gloomy charm of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Black Hearts in Battersea is the story of Simon, an orphaned goose boy who was an important character in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and introduces readers to a fearless, level-headed Cockney girl named Dido Twite. Abandoning the classic plot structure of Willoughby Chase, Aiken plunges readers into a complicated alternate reality where the Hanoverians never replaced the Stuarts on the English throne, and are therefore constantly lurking about, trying to off the ailing James III. Over the course of the final ten books in the series, Simon and Dido (and eventually Dido’s sister) charge all over the world, battling Hanoverian plots and discovering dark secrets in their own backgrounds… all the while losing assorted companions to werewolves, high windows, and the aforementioned man-eating pike.

As the series progressed, Aiken’s stories grew increasingly strange--and remember, they started strange, with pink whales and enormous cannons capable of firing across the Atlantic and escapes in hot-air balloons. By the end of the series, you might get the feeling that things had gotten seriously out of hand, plot-wise, and her character development is practically non-existent. Frankly, I’d be stunned to learn that any of the later Wolves stories had garnered Aiken new readers--she doesn’t waste a sentence on background, so if you weren’t already familiar with her characters, I can’t see how anyone could figure out what the hell was going on.

Aiken turned the final book in the series, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, in to her publisher only days before her death, and the fact that she knew this was going to be her last Wolves book was evident. The novel is full of abruptly tied-up loose ends. We get quick updates on past characters, all the major conflicts are resolved, and the two leads are finally free to marry each other (which we can only assume they’re pleased about, since the romance in the story is limited to one paragraph and a single “dear”). A novel as graceless as The Witch of Clatteringshaws might not be the ending this strange, fantastic series deserved, but at least nobody’s left hanging, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


13 Feb, 2005 08:53 AM @ version 0

These books (at least the first three) are a must for any Edward Gorey fan. He and Aiken were clearly kindred spirits.

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