Monday, 7 August 2017

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Book Review for Primary Teachers.

The classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was originally published in 1962. It tells of the adventures of cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia. Syliva travels to Willoughby Chase to live with Bonnie whilst Bonnie's parents travel abroad. However, things soon begin to go wrong. Sylvia meets a sinister stranger on the train and the governess, who has been employed to teach the children has other plans which don't include the girls. Bonnie and Sylvia discover a secret passage which runs through the heart of the house and use it to spy on their oppressor. However, things go from bad to worse and they are soon sent away to school which is little more than a workhouse for orphans. Bonnie is a determined character and nothing, not even the wolves, is going to stop her escaping and getting to London. 

It is a classic adventure story with elements of the gothic, which includes a forger, a wicked governess, orphans, a poor aunt who is too proud to ask for help, wolves (animal and human) and a ship wreck. It will appeal to readers aged 9+ and with a lexile level of 1020L and an ATOS book level of 6.5 makes it a good challenging read for years 5 and 6.

The story is set in an alternate history. As the note at the beginning of the book states: 

'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 been recently completed, a great many wolves, driven by severe winters, had migrated through the tunnel from Europe and Russia to the British Isles.'

There are numerous references throughout the novel which place the events securely in a Georgian/Victorian era. The clothes worn by the children, the etiquette of the time, the transport system can all be researched. Children who are already familiar with these time periods will be able to use their 'prior knowledge' to aid their comprehension of the text whilst others might need to carry out some research. 

Children may be surprised to read about the idea of a Channel tunnel as early as 1832 and dismiss this as fiction. However, ideas for a channel tunnel emerged as early as 1802 and an early attempt to build one was made during the late 19th century. 

The story is written in a style which evokes the best of children's literature. The characters and descriptions are at times a little stereotypical; similar to Dickens in that they highlight all that is lacking in society. Pupils could easily compare passages with extracts from Dickens' Oliver Twist and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Aiken also follows tradition in the way she names her wicked characters: Miss Slighcarp, Mrs Brisket. Pupils could investigate how authors, classic and modern, name similar characters.

There are opportunities to develop children's knowledge of the craft of writing. e.g. how to use alliteration to mimic the sound of the wolves. 'she heard again that lonely, heart-shaking cry of the wolves and wondered whether to waken Mr Grimshaw and tell him.'

The vocabulary will prove challenging for many in years 5 and 6 with specific architectural language, references to clothing from the Georgian/Victorian period as well as vocabulary that most children don't use on an everyday basis such as commodious, impetuosity, deportment and indignation. 

The main themes of the novel are friendship and family and good v evil. The themes are developed, on the whole, through the actions of each of the characters and their relationships. Children could explore the emotions of the characters and their motives through techniques such as hot-seating, conscience alley and diary writing. The characters of Bonnie and Sylvia are very different and complement each other. Sylvia is very timid at the beginning of the book but becomes more confident towards the end. Bonnie is reckless at the beginning but her actions become more considered.  Simon is a good-hearted, independent boy who has numerous practical skills and discovers a talent for painting. At the end of the novel, he goes off to London to study at one of the art schools. Pupils could write about Simon's subsequent adventures in the style of Joan Aiken. After composing their own stories they might like to read Black Hearts in Battersea, Aiken's sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase which does just that.

In 1989 the book was turned into a film starring Stephanie Beacham, Mel Smith, Richard O'Brien and Jane Horrocks. 

The Vintage Classics edition of the novel includes a brief biography of Joan Aiken, historical information about travelling around Britain during the 1830s, summaries of each of the characters, facts about wolves, a glossary of vocabulary, a quiz and some activity ideas.

Publisher: Vintage Classics
Original Publication Date: 1962
ISBN: 978-0-099-57287-9


1 comment:

  1. Hello,I'm Joan Aiken's daughter and curator of her books. Thanks for this,very detailed and good on the background, and hopefully it will encourage readers to discover the whole 'Wolves Chronicles' series, and the further adventures of much loved heroine Dido Twite.
    Very accessible website for Joan Aiken with Biographical Timeline,full details of all her books and even a little Puffin film of her introducing the 'Wolves' series is at