The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
by Joan Aiken
Here is the first in the loosely-named Wolves Chronicles, now containing at least eight books written over a period of nearly forty years. In it, a very accomplished and prolific author (Aiken has written over a hundred books for children and adults) begins what is probably her most popular series-vaguely gothic, vaguely Dickensian adventures set in the days of the Industrial Revolution, when railroads were beginning to eclipse the horse-drawn coach, and where wolves prowled the English countryside during the winter.
In fact, the wolves make the setting quite unusual. Driven by starvation from the northern lands, they make brazen sorties into human-populated areas and are a real menace to train drivers, coachmen, and anyone found out of doors unarmed. Other than being a striking part of the scenery, the wolves arent really so crucial to this story.
No, indeed, the really horrid predator in this story is a woman named Letitia Slighcarp-only the first of many characters with rib-tickling names-who becomes the governess and estate manager at the country manor of her very distant cousin, Sir Willoughby Green, when the latter takes his sickly wife abroad for her health. Left in Miss Slighcarps bony, grasping hands are two adorable young heroines: delicate, gentle Sylvia, and her brave, impetuous cousin Bonnie.
Almost the instant Sir Willoughbys chaise drives out of the front gate, Miss Slighcarp drops the charade of being a governess and benign steward of the Green household. She fires the servants, starts selling everything that isnt nailed down, cruelly mistreats the girls, and ransacks Sir Willoughbys papers. When tragedy strikes, Miss Slighcarp gloatingly sends Bonnie and Sylvia to a nasty charity school and prepares to claim Willoughby Chase for her own.
At this point the girls are practically without hope, and enduring conditions that only a truly depraved person would subject innocent children to (in other words, a just-slightly-worse-than-average 19th century British boarding school). At this point it looks as though they could perish there, deprived of everything that so recently filled their lives with cheer. A clever escape, the help of a goose-boy named Simon, and an accidental meeting in a London tenement give them one, wafer-thin chance of upsetting Miss Slighcarps nefarious plans.
But what, after all, can two girls who have run away from an orphanage do with no one to speak for them? Where can they go for help? Youll enjoy finding this out. Its the classic tale of good children being done out of their health, wealth, and happiness by wicked adults-told with wit, compassion, and a lightness of style suited for being read by or read to the very young. If you agree with the books conclusion that this has been a superb adventure, you will probably be interested in knowing that the next story in the series is called Black Hearts in Battersea.
Recommended Age: 8+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.