Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase 
by Joan Aiken

Published:  Yearling
Format: Paperback
Copyright: 1962
 Pages: 192 
Genre: Children's fiction
Source: own book

When you are sick, reading a book that you remember liking as a child seems like a good idea. I had recently been thinking about Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles, so this seemed as good a time as any to revisit the stories. I first read Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I was in elementary school, though this was many years after it was originally published.  I know I read the first book more than once and enjoyed it, so I was wondering what it would be like to read as an adult. I never realized that the series eventually stretched to 11 books and one prequel.

The Wolves Chronicles are set in an alternate history of the UK. According to the Note in the book "The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened – shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832. At this time, the Channel Tunnel from Dover to Calais having recently been completed, a great many wolves, driven by severe winters, had migrated through the tunnel from Europe and Russia to the British Isles."

The book starts with the introduction of Miss Slighcarp to Willoughby Chase. She arrives unexpectedly at the door a day earlier than expected, by means unknown. Miss Slighcarp, a distant cousin of some sort, is to act as governess and manage the estate because Sir Willoughby is departing eminently on a sea voyage to improve the health of his wife, Lady Green. Their daughter Bonnie is to stay behind with the new governess and her cousin Sylvia, who will be arriving on the train that day.  

Signs and portents are already in place that Miss Slighcarp is not a good person. One of her first actions is to hit Pattern, Bonnie's beloved maid, with a marble hairbrush for daring to unpack a little case that apparently contains papers. Bonnie looses her temper, throws the hairbrush out the window (which I just realized should have broken the window - it is the middle of winter so the window wouldn't have been open - but this is never even mentioned) and tosses a jug of warm water in the face of her new governess. Things have clearly not started out well.

Sylvia is an orphan who lives in a one room flat with her Aunt Jane in London. They are clearly very poor, but Aunt Jane has her pride and has never asked for help from her rich brother Sir Willoughby.  Her health is failing now, so she has asked her brother to take in Sylvia and he has agreed.  So near the start of the book Sylvia is packed onto a train for the long trip to Willoughby Chase.

Bonnie and Sylvia are set up as opposites - Bonnie is a dark-haired, adventurous girl with a quick temper and few manners, while Sylvia is a golden-haired, gentle spirit well trained in the arts of proper deportment and needlework.  They become fast friends.

You can already tell where this story is going ... Miss Slighcarp is not who she seems and as soon as Sir Willoughby and his wife leave, she shows her true colors. Bonnie and Sylvia have to find a way to save the estate, and themselves, as the villain's take control. There are secret passages and runs through the countryside.

The fun of this story when I was a child was that the girls had the adventure and they were not totally passive.  So many of the adventure stories that I remember reading as a child had girls like Wendy from Peter Pan, a basically passive party to the events that unfold around her.  Bonnie is never passive and seemingly passive Sylvia also has moments of great bravery.  There is a boy, Simon the goose-boy, who does help them, but they were working on escaping anyhow. Simon's assistance makes it much easier, but you just know that they would have figured something out somehow.

I see now as an adult that the story does not hold together quite as well as I remember. For one thing, as a child the erratic and bewildering behavior of adults can be accepted without question, but looking at this as an adult, Sir Willoughby needs to be beaten upside the head - seriously what parent on Earth would leave their only child in the hands of a person that they have never met, not to mention the running of their entire estate, departing for a journey of several months less than twelve hours after they show up in your house ?  Not to mention leaving his only sister to wither away in London without ever checking on her apparently.  What a total twit. I wanna smack him so hard!

I am still looking forward to reading the story with my daughter when she is old enough to see what she thinks.  I am also going to read the next couple of books in the series, since I never got a chance to as a child.

My adult rating is a three and a half, my child rating would have been a four or four and a half. This is definitely one of those books that works best at a particular age.

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