Forget Harry Potter
Adults Should Read Joan Aiken's Wolves
Jan 9, 2013
14 Min read time
Fifty years ago, Joan Aiken’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase first appeared in print. As is often the case with novels (though more rarely, I’d guess, with novels for children), its beginnings lay long before publication.
In her little tract The Way to Write for Children (1982), Aiken explains that a book can begin in a writer’s mind not with a plot or a situation or a character but with a voice. She “once sat down and began a book with the lines, ‘It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills.’” In those fourteen words, she firmly fixed a “mood and atmosphere” that carried her through three chapters before she was deflected by other duties. When she took up the book again seven years later, she “had not the slightest difficulty in going on from where [she] had left off.”
It’s an experience that many writers will recognize, and it is less the discovery of a voice they can speak in than the hearing of a voice speaking to them, whose dictation they can take. It’s not easy for readers to hear that voice distinctly in the first words of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, even if Aiken could; but we certainly can hear it as the book continues:
Snow lay piled on the dark road across 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.
Is it the Middle Ages? No; the next paragraph begins with a snow-covered great house, Willoughby Chase, “an inviting home—a warm and welcoming stronghold. . . . the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window.” Behind one window a child looks out, impatient for the arrival of her cousin Sylvia; by the fire her kindly maid is “folding and goffering the frills of twenty lace petticoats.”
Whatever it might mean to goffer a petticoat’s frills, we are aware that we are listening to a tale told by a voice that says such things without needing to explain—within a night of cold and threat, a refuge of warmth and richness, which we suppose will be invaded before long. On the next page, a ferocious new governess named Miss Slighcarp has arrived—“Where, pray, is your curtsy? . . . Lessons in deportment, I see, will need priority in our timetable”—and we know what world we’re in. And yet those wolves qualify and transfigure it.
Why do some books written for children draw adult readers while others don’t? Which ones deserve the attention of adults? I’ve tried to read (as I entertained the possibility of writing one) a large number of children’s books and am usually stopped by the simplifications of language, life, and fictional possibility that “YA” writers are required, or feel compelled, to adhere to. I grew almost instantly bored with the Harry Potter series, but Louis Sachar’s Holes, beloved by young readers, is masterful—a grownup could love it for the grand chutzpah of its plot machinery and be as moved as young readers are by its hero’s dilemmas and bravery.
Many YA authors have half an eye on adults who may be reading these aloud, as I first read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and are generous with double meanings to delight the knowing—think Lemony Snicket. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase can be mistaken for a parody Victorian—country houses with secret passages, orphans, evil governesses, railroad-train compartments—but it is a rarer thing than that. It’s never coy or arch (which Aiken said books for children should never be), but it is heard differently by an adult reader, who greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door, even as the young reader wants to know only what happens next. Aiken’s swift exactness in her chosen mode and period, and her honesty in fulfilling her contract with young readers, are continually tickling. My kids wondered why the dreadful dangers seemed to cheer me so.
• • •
Long before Aiken wrote the book, or even those opening sentences, the conditions for writing it had been laid in her mind or soul or tongue—wherever such influences are laid down. She was born in 1924 in Rye, the one on the British coast, near the house Henry James had lived in not long before. She was the youngest child of the American poet Conrad Aiken, who divorced her mother when Joan was four. Her mother and stepfather took her and her siblings, John and Jane, to live in a remote Sussex village without electricity or running water.
She was homeschooled, lonely, and in a house full of books. She read. “Reading aloud was a great family habit,” she wrote in a brief autobiographical piece. “We all read to each other.” They’d take books along on picnics to read aloud.
Throughout Wolves we feel Joan Aiken’s smile, and it makes us smile.
What Aiken read—and read again and again, apparently, given her encyclopedic knowledge and easy deployment of their miscellany of objects, plot devices, concerns, manners, and turns of phrase—were English novels of a slightly sensational cast. That is, Conan Doyle and Dickens and Wilkie Collins and the Gothics rather than, say, George Eliot or Thomas Hardy or Mrs. Gaskell, though she certainly read them too. Obsessive reading, though, is not enough to make a writer, cannot in itself predict who will turn from reader to doer. Aiken had from the start written stories and been praised for them, but when Wolves asked to be written, there came that feeling that even many people who write for a living never have: that you have reentered a realm where you always felt at home, but now as one among its true citizens. You are able to write that land into being, which is the only thing more deeply gratifying than reading it into being.
Aiken seems to have written Wolves for the child she once was. It turns on the fates of not one but two orphans, Bonnie and Sylvia. Sylvia’s been raised by her aunt, one of those ancient impoverished ladies of genteel birth, at once noble and foolish, who sacrifices every comfort to keep up appearances. Unable to care for her ward in her Park Lane garret, she sends Sylvia off to her relatives in Willoughby Chase, where Bonnie’s loving and generous parents have innocently left her to the tender mercies (it is a world where mercies are tender) of the awful Miss Slighcarp. Bonnie soon discovers that her parents have been lost at sea, giving Miss Slighcarp free rein with house and children until, with the help of Simon the goose-boy, Bonnie and Sylvia expose her villainies, after which Bonnie’s parents return alive. (It’s also a world where characters lost at sea tend to turn up again.) The ending is happy:
Light after light in the windows of the great house was extinguished, until at length it stood dark and silent. And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf hunts and wine drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase illustrates what happens when an ambitious artist does work that echoes or replicates in some vivid way the work of that art’s defining figures in an earlier, usually a recent, age, but does so by removing from that earlier work the seriousness, the sincerity, that made it what it was. What’s apprehended in the new work, then, is not a large vision of the existing world, of human life and fate, but rather the artist’s own hand and eye, the delight in and command of the vocabularies and gestures by which mastery is imposed—you might say the artist’s smile. Such work can approach parody, but it isn’t parody. It has to be insincere at bottom, but that insincerity is, I think, not a vice but a virtue. By continually reminding us of what it is not—its famous and earnest predecessors—it makes something new.
That’s the effect of Wolves on an adult reader, and perhaps on well-read children too. All the urgency, danger, terror, and uncertainty, all the clinker-built solidity of costume, travel, social position, and money that filled the great Victorian thrillers are intensified in Wolves to rapid, instantly grasped gesture, like the Japanese artist’s brushstroke that makes a crane’s foot or a pine branch. Vladimir Nabokov said that certain true art “provokes—not laughter and not tears—but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude.” Throughout Wolves we feel Joan Aiken’s smile, and it makes us smile.
• • •
With the success of Wolves, Aiken naturally set out on a course of sequels—because publishers wanted them and because she wrote for a living. But those circumstances don’t seem to account for her bringing out a Wolves book every three or four years for the next four decades, the last one appearing in 2005. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t think up other things—she wrote seventeen novels for adults; her supernatural stories fill thirteen volumes with titles such as A Foot in the Grave and A Touch of Chill; there are historicals and picture books and other YAs. But her delight in the Wolves world never ceased, which both permitted and required continual inventiveness in large and small things, cast in a long-ago lingo she partly invented and partly acquired: “In no time the whole party was sitting down to crimped fish, pickled cockles, venison, and whortleberry pies, and a huge platter of spiced parkin.”
That’s the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, which begins the expansion of the Wolves world into the politics of an alternative British history, in which the Hanover dynasty, the Georges, never displaced the Stuarts, who are represented on the throne by the beloved King James III. “My Bonnie lies over the North Sea,” sing the cheated and scheming Hanoverians, “My Bonnie lies over in Hanover, My Bonnie lies over the North Sea, Oh, why won’t they bring that young man over?”
Disconnected in plot from Wolves, Black Hearts is a London story, Simon’s story; the former goose-boy will turn out to be the lost son of the Duke of Battersea. (His half-brother is Lord Bakerloo, an inside joke for Londoners.) Simon is good through and through—like Oliver Twist, he somehow speaks like his betters as though by instinct—and his newfound sister, Sophie, is even nicer, but they remain limited as characters, whereas the neglected Cockney child Dido Twite, whom Simon is the first to treat kindly and who will love him ever after, is Aiken’s great creation. “Oh, it’s dibs to dumplings she will, if she gets summat for nix,” Dido says about her slatternly mother, and whenever she opens her mouth something as rich comes out. “I never in all my born days smelt such a smell, never! It’s enough to make a bad egg bust out crying and go home to mother.” Dido will grow from an understandably self-serving and greedy child to a wise, resourceful, and heroic being, traveling from London to Massachusetts on a whaler (Nightbirds on Nantucket), to a Romano-Celtic kingdom in Brazil (The Stolen Lake), and around the world, finally saving the nice Stuart monarchy from evil Hanoverians. She’s only reached teenhood by the end, but, like Tintin, she’s lived lifetimes. And her world’s grown older.
A writer of imagination and ambition, even if she embarks on a writing career with the idea of telling popular stories of a certain kind, will as the career and the life go on (and the books too) want her work to express more, to contain more—of herself, the world, her knowledge of it; a sense of things that extends beyond the possibilities of effective language and well-made plots. Sometimes a writer’s constant readers feel that this greater reach, often expressed in a disconcerting sense of sadness or irreducible ambivalence, spoils the work. (An example would be the last of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.)
Reviewers and readers of the Wolves series often say that there’s a falling off in the later books, and this I think is what’s meant: the drastic simplicity and perfect form of the first book is continuously modified in the later ones as the plots and people multiply; the resolutions can’t resolve as completely, and the characters become less easily defined, more—well, more grown up. The later books are increasingly ferocious: there’s no violent death in the first, but by the last, Dido’s Pa, a feckless sinner and a musical genius, has been killed by wolves, and an archbishop is dismembered by a werewolf (in Dido and Pa, my favorite). The characters speak an increasingly arcane dialect that may or may not be authentically antique, even as the descriptive language turns more modern and less euphuistic. The Wolves world, without ceasing to be made for children, becomes less a child’s world.
I feel the darkening, but not the falling off. What Aiken constantly achieves throughout the series, as the false history and its long tail of events and foreshadowings grows longer, is what might be called the metonymy of fantasy—the approximation of a real, full world through the piling up of unreal details: magic birds, copper crowns, gold coins, musical instruments, kinds of fabric and sewing methods, naval tools and terminologies, and impossible character names, all of them standing in their multiplicity for the crowded, ever-multiplying actualities we face in our grapple with life in time.
In the last pages of the penultimate book of the series, Midwinter Nightingale, the little Stuart king with his absurd Scots lingo, whose life and crown and legacy all the good characters have been struggling to preserve for many volumes against an array of black hearts (who have grown darker and less cartoonish with every book), is near death. Simon—who began so long ago as almost a nature sprite, living in a cave—must accept the crown himself, with great reluctance, in a country fraught with threat. Dido, the feral child he befriended, the only one, he tells her, he could ever imagine as his queen (though she can’t), watches the crown placed on his head:
Simon stood up. Then they all heard, quite distinctly, a loud blast of dazzling song outside the window. Birds, fluting, sizzling, twittering, jug-jugging, singing their heads off.
‘Nightingales,’ whispered the king contentedly. ‘It must be Saint Lucy’s Day.’
Then he died.
Simon has moved for good into a realm of politics and power. The last sentence of the book, and what seems to be the last sentence of this finally full-grown series, follows: “And Dido, crying her heart out on the floor at the end of the bed, made no reply.”
Aiken could certainly have left it there. True stories, if they end at all, end midway, and not always in hope—even those that begin in amazements and magic. T. H. White’s Arthur stories end in the old king’s tent on the night before the battle in which he, once a boy full of promise and goodness, will be defeated and pass on. Don Quixote, worn out by defeat and humiliation, takes to his bed; when his friends beg for more wild stories, he tells them not to look for birds this year in last year’s nests: “I was mad then, but I am sane now.”
But Joan’s daughter Lizza Aiken, creator of a deep Web site about her mother’s work, tells me that she never intended the series to end there. Twenty years before, in The Way To Write for Children, Joan Aiken wrote that children “are not ready for tragic endings, and certainly not for gloomy or ambiguous ones”—and she couldn’t leave her own greatest work in that tragicomic state.
A last short novel, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, resolves matters differently and ends the long journey with a hoot. It’s as insincere as can be, hilarious from start to finish, a farcical caper like the knockabout jigs full of jokes and contemporary allusions that came after an Elizabethan tragedy at the Globe. The solid Steam Age of the series and its handmade Dickensian language tatter like the edges of a dream, one of those where just before you wake some urgent and fearsome matter dissolves into silly irrelevance and daylight. “Social worker,” “Plan B,” “IQ,” and the A684 highway appear; everyone not speaking thick Scots speaks more or less 21st century—even Dido Twite. It’s one of those surrenders that’s a triumph, like the instant surrender of the invading Wendish army.
In an important sense this epilogue is unneeded and doesn’t matter at all to the remarkable series that Joan Aiken built over so many years. In another it is like the warmest and cheeriest of farewells. It almost seems intended for readers who began long ago in the snow of Willoughby Chase as children the ages of Bonnie and Sylvia, and now are truly grown up and reading with a grownup’s double vision, readers from whom nothing about the wondrous artifice of invented worlds needs to be concealed. Aiken died in 2004, just before the book appeared in print.
January 09, 2013
14 Min read time