As a child, almost all of my writing and reading was enormously influenced by Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase saga, which I first came across when the movie was put on at a sleepover party I attended. I did not shut up about this movie for a long time, as evidenced by the fact that, the following Christmas, I received no less than three copies of the book from different family members and friends whom I had subjected to my extensive thoughts on the matter. (This is also the sign of an excellent film adaptation, which will never appear on any lists of adaptations I hate.)
The first book of the series, which gives the saga its name (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) follows cousins Bonnie and Sylvia as they are dispatched to, and attempt to escape from, an orphanage in the terrible town of Blastburn. They have been sent there by their evil governess, the excellently named Miss Slighcarp, a maniacal distant cousin intent on replacing them as heir to the Willoughby estate. The pair, with the help of Simon the gooseboy, embark on an brilliant adventure in order to get home.
Simon, arguably one of the most charming characters in literature, is an artist as well as goose and beekeeper (the perfect man) who lives in the caves of the Willoughby Estate and is the subject of the sequel, Black Hearts in Battersea, which sees him move to London with the intention of studying painting only to become embroiled in preventing a treasonous plot. While there, he befriends precocious urchin Dido Twite, the subject of a number of the following ten novels.
Image Via Goodreads
Aiken’s vast imagination and incredible characterization gives you the feeling of running your hands through a treasure chest of gold coins as you read (or have read to you, as I initially did (thanks Dad)) her incredible books. Aiken was marvelously prolific, publishing more than one hundred books in her seventy nine years.
Miss Slighcarp. A sly old carp. / Via Mubi
I often wonder what my writing would be like had I never read those books, or if, without them, I would have felt the enormous urge to write that I do now and have since discovering them. Even her titles held this wild wonder for me, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to the ‘Felix’ trilogy, Go Saddle the Sea, Bridle the Wind, and The Teeth of the Gale. I remember sitting in class, just repeating those titles over and over in my head (little weirdo) feeling an overwhelming rush to make something as big and as sprawling as them.
I wanted to emulate Aiken’s unreachable, emerald worlds of vast oceans, simmering cities and gutsy orphans, beautiful backgrounds to dastardly schemes. I had piles of copybooks half-filled with notes for sagas that inevitably turned into The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I had a main character who, it would turn out, was just Simon, but I had for some reason named him Lyle. My attempts at Aiken-like titles often went awry, such as my unwritten trilogy Go Set Fire to Him (I know.)
I spent years in an almost constant state of being overwhelmed by Joan Aiken, and the world of The Wolves, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over her. Nor do I want to.