I can't help it, it's not that funny but I'd better just get this thought out of the way before I start because I hear the word Willoughby and am instantly reminded of a lovely Australian secretary, Joanie, who worked in the clinic with us years ago. She was utterly hilarious, completely anarchic and brought a real touch of something subversively bold and different to a little working medical community here in Devon. We were her very own whingeing poms and she let us know it but she lived in a road called Willowby Park which she had renamed Wallaby Park to remind her of home. I can't hear the word without remembering Joanie wherever she is now.
But back to The Wolves of Wallaby Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken and a book I most definitely remember reading as a child and I think as part of one of those library reading contests that were supposed to last through the entire six weeks of the summer holidays. I being eager-beaver little dovegreyreader had usually whistled through it in a couple and I must have been a complete and utter pain dashing back into the library on a daily basis to harangue a librarian into asking me the questions on my books, get my card stamped and dash off with the next lot. I used to take these things very seriously.
Orphaned Sylvia must leave her beloved but ailing and impoverished guardian Aunt Jane in London and go and live with her wealthy cousin, only child Bonnie, at Willougby Chase, it's all agreed. Bonnie's parents are off on a long trip abroad and Bonnie needs a companion, there will be servants and unaccustomed luxury and comfort for Sylvia, possets and pipkins of nourishing soup, lemon-mint baths, all-enveloping fur capes and a governess has been engaged for the duration.
I knew exactly where I was from the very first sentence of the book,
'It was dusk - winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Wallaby Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger'.
Because this is Joan Aiken's England in 1832, there is a channel tunnel from Dover to Calais (that seemed just as amazing as the wolves in the early 1960s when I read this) and a great many wolves have migrated from Russia to Europe through the tunnel and are now an everyday threat in the English countryside. Trains rush into stations at full pelt and screech to a halt to confuse the wolves waiting for a quick human snack when the passengers alight, wolves readily crash in through train windows and doubtless none of this would have astonished my childhood imagination quite as much as it did my adult one.
It's also perhaps a lesser known fact that really I wanted to be an ice skater not a nurse, and so I know for a fact I would have been completely impressed with Sir Willoughby who, lovely Papa that he was, in readiness for the fact that Bonnie will immediately want to take her friend skating on the frozen rivers, has ordered six pairs of white kid skating boots, all different sizes.
Six pairs, imagine that and at this point I'd probably have drifted off into my Sonja Henie - Noel Streatfeild - White Boots reverie because on many occasions I was Sonja of course, or failing that I'd settle for being Doreen Denny.
I was equally perturbed this time round when Sylvia's strange carriage companion on her long overnight journey alone to Willoughby Chase suddenly produces a shotgun and takes out rabbits from the train window for some target practice.To say nothing of the moment the wolf leapt in, is summarily dispatched (stabbed with glass from the broken window) and Sylvia and the strange man crawl along on the outside of the train carriage to the next compartment rather than sit paddling around in wolfish remains.
Heavens to betsy what's going on here, and we moan about Great Western. I certainly don't remember this book coming with any " Do not try this at home" caveats but it probably would now, nor was I disturbed by any of it.
No good can come from anyone called Miss Slighcarp, least of all if she's a governess and I remember loving all the subterfuge and especially the fact that these two girls, Bonnie and Sylvia hit it off right from the start. There was none of the usual social class division between the two of them as they pool resources to outwit the dastardly plan to strip Bonnie of her inheritance.
I've been dipping into Marcus Crouch's book The Nesbit Tradition : The Children's Novel 1945-1970 for my sins, just out of interest and to see what the received opinion is on some of these writers now being closely analysed, and I was quite surprised to read this written about about Joan Aiken in 1972,
'Gratitude for Joan Aiken's high spirits and the gusto of her story-telling may make the reader value her rather beyond her worth. These are precious qualities, but they are not enough. What Miss Aiken lacks most grievously is self-discipline. Her stories gallop recklessly in all directions at once with never a touch of rein from the author. Grand yarns, they are too casual, even perhaps too full of self-mockery to be taken entirely seriously."
Not by the nine-year old dovegreyreader they weren't, I loved this one and I have just loved it all over again.