A little while ago I was visiting a school. As a children’s author and poet this is one of the things I do regularly in order (a) to keep in touch with young people and (b) to pay the rent. In this instance I was at my partner’s alma mater, a small boarding school in Oxford called Wychwood.
While I was there I told all the teachers I met of the exciting fact I had recently discovered, which was that their school had been an early pre-war home to the then pupil, and future writer, Joan Aiken. Some teachers knew this, and some were surprised to learn it, but the reaction common to all was that Wychwood had always encouraged individuality and personality in the girls (my partner’s a stand-up comedian and podcaster, so it worked there). It certainly seems to have been the case for Aiken, that most various of authors.
Joan Aiken was the daughter of the American poet laureate Conrad Aiken and the Canadian writer Jessie MacDonald, and two of her siblings also wrote books, so writing clearly ran in the family. From her pen came a raft of books, including a handful of Jane Austen sequels, period romances, supernatural short stories and most things in between. What I want to write about here though is her sequence of eleven novels for children that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 – page-turning adventure stories, set in a mostly historical past, with a sprinkling of the paranormal and a bucketful of brilliant characters.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins, conventionally enough, in 1832, with a girl called Bonnie Green meeting her grotesque and bony new governess, Miss Slighcarp, who informs her that her parents have died in a shipwreck and that she is now an orphan. So far, so standard. However, the 1832 of the book is not the 1832 of our history. We are told, in a brief preface, that King James III has recently ascended the throne and a harsh winter on the Continent has driven wolves north, through the Channel T
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