Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964)
Joan Aiken, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966)
Joan Aiken, The Whispering Mountain (1968)
Joan Aiken, The Cuckoo Tree (1971)
I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to do a reread of Joan Aiken’s twelve “Wolves Chronicles” (and a first read of the later volumes, which I never got around to) — probably it was one of Calmgrove‘s wonderfully detailed and informative reviews. At any rate, once I started I realized that twelve books is a large chunk to take in all at once, so I decided to split up the series. Upon a closer look, I noticed that the first five books were published in quick succession, within a single decade from 1962 to 1971, after which there would be a ten-year gap before the next installment. I decided to read these five first, in publication order rather than according to internal chronology (some of the later books fill in gaps in the earlier story).
One of my very first reviews on this blog was of the first volume, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ll just add that the 2012 e-book edition I picked up for this re-read includes an enlightening new introduction by Joan’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, as well as the original illustrations by Pat Marriott, which are splendid. Marriott had a longtime partnership with Aiken that unfortunately has been ignored in later editions of the books, and this is the first time I’ve seen her pictures in context. I also love the original cover illustrations, shown above on the first UK editions from Jonathan Cape. I covet these now.
Wolves was a sort of warm-up, with Aiken getting into a style and era in her first published novel. It’s the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, which introduces the “Hanoverian” motif that becomes a distinguishing feature of the series. The idea is that the Stuarts have remained on the British throne — the current king is James III — while the Georgian line has been reduced to the status of pretenders and usurpers. They are always hatching up dastardly plots, each more ridiculous than the last, to be foiled by the loyal subjects of the king. In this volume the main character is the worthy young orphan Simon (a supporting cast member from Wolves), who comes to London to attend art school and finds himself in a nest of Hanoverians. Confronted by a dizzying succession of disguises, missing heirs, abductions, thefts and assassinations, he must use his calm good sense to navigate through it all. I find that in this book Aiken’s ability to balance the sinister and the absurd really shines through. Quite chilling scenes of danger and mystery are leavened with large doses of humor, as when the queen’s oversized tapestry proves to be an important life-saving device — several times, no less. Although the whole thing is definitely over the top, the silliness has a ballast of seriousness underneath.
Most important in this regard is Simon’s befriending of the lonely, neglected child Dido Twite, who defies her family to help him. Simon finds a home and a family at the end of the book, but Dido is seemingly lost at sea, a rather melancholy conclusion. Happily, in Nightbirds on Nantucket, we learn that Dido has been saved by a passing whaler. She wants to return home as soon as possible, but is enlisted to first help the captain’s timid daughter, whom he is delivering to an aunt on Nantucket. Complications necessarily ensue, with more Hanoverian plots, imposters, cruel caregivers, and unusually-pigmented marine mammals. The silliness threatens to get a bit out of hand here, but it’s nice to see Dido come into her own and become a stronger and more self-determining character.
This is where most versions of the sequence move on to another book about Dido, but the next one actually published was The Whispering Mountain. Somewhat tangential to the series, without a Hanoverian plot or a Twite in sight, I find that it fits quite nicely here. It introduces two characters who become important in the next book — the Prince of Wales, and (off-stage) Captain Hughes, whose son, Owen Hughes, is unhappily languishing in Wales with his gruff grandfather while the Captain’s whereabouts are unknown. (From the previous book we know that his ship, the Thrush, was lately in Nantucket.) Owen becomes embroiled in a plot to steal a marvelous golden harp that his grandfather has in his museum. Wicked Lord Malyn wants it to add to his collection of golden objects, and will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile, under the mountain there are secrets to be found, and a people to be rescued. In this book Aiken gets to show off her verbal dexterity, with the Prince speaking with a broad Scottish accent, Owen’s friends melodious Welsh, the villainous thugs a thieves’ cant of their own, and the exotic Seljuk of Rum a pastiche of Orientalisms. It would be interesting to analyze the book to see how much of it is actually standard English — and how little it really matters. The word-music takes on a life and energy of its own, and carries us along as surely as the tones of the magical harp. This wonderful and lesser-known book should take its rightful place in Aiken’s most popular series.
Moving on to the next volume, The Cuckoo Tree, we re-join Dido, who is trying to help the injured Captain Hughes to deliver an important dispatch to London before the Prince is crowned as King Richard IV. Sidelined by a carriage accident, she ends up in a remote hamlet full of smugglers, witches, and double-dealing Hanoverians. This book contains the most sinister villains so far, two truly evil witches who cannot fail to give you a shiver. But Dido, resourceful and persistent as ever, finds new friends in unexpected places, and endears herself to the reader as well. Though she’s only been the main character in two books so far, it’s here that she becomes the center of the series.
It’s not possible for me to fully convey the atmosphere of these books in my poor summaries, which can only indicate a few of the incidents and themes that Aiken works so playfully into her vivacious stories. Representatives of sober reality they are not, but if you like a literary confection with a nineteenth century flavor, they are great fun. I enjoyed my five-book foray into Wolves territory, and am looking forward to the next installment. And I’m picking up some of Aiken’s adult novels to read in honor of Austen in August — stay tuned!