The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Review


Joan Aiken  China.png

Red Fox (2004 – originally published 1962), 192 pages

Charity Shop – €1

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I borrowed it from my primary school library at some stage in the mid-1980s.  I couldn’t really remember the plot but did remember the eerie atmosphere created by thought of bloodthirsty wolves roaming across the British (or indeed Irish) countryside.  I saw a copy of the book in a charity shop and couldn’t resist re-reading it.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is based on a fantastic alternate history where a channel tunnel has allowed wolves to cross into Britain.  As with many children’s books you are required to suspend disbelief.  Bonnie’s parents leave her with a complete stranger and leave on a long voyage.  Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia’s friend Simon lives alone in a cave with his geese on Sir Willoughby and Lady Green’s (Bonnie’s parents) land.  Being a children’s story the bad guys get their comeuppance and everything is happily resolved (although the wolves there in the background even if they have moved north for the summer).

Reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase critically there is plenty of interest for those looking to read the book from a gendered, Marxist, or political point of view.  The relationships between the sexes are fascinating.  The women in the book, especially Bonnie and the evil Ms Slighcarp, are strong characters who are seen to be more intelligent than most of those around them.  However Bonnie and Sylvia always defer to Simon’s superior knowledge of the outdoors and Sir Willoughby is the dominant person on the Willoughby Estate (until he foolishly leaves it in the hands of complete strangers).  The class relationships are also interesting.  Sir Willoughby is portrayed as a benign form of landed gentry.  Impoverished Simon (he literally lives in a cave on the estate with his geese) is presented as happily independent despite having packs of wolves roaming around his home.  The working class servants on the estate are also presented as kindly simple people.  It is the middle classes in the form of orphanage owner Mrs Brisket, Ms Slighcarp, and Mr Gripe who are the nastiest characters in the book.  Although set in the 19th century The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was published at the height of The Cold War (in the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis).  The wolves in the book originally came from Russia and wreak havoc in the British countryside.  It is interesting to speculate if Joan Aiken used the wolves as a code for the potential dangers of Soviet infiltration of Britain and the certain destruction of landed aristocracy such as the Willoughbys.

This is an excellent children’s book filled with vivid characters and emotions, a strong element of fantasy, and a gripping tale which is at times frightening and at times exhilarating.  I’m sure The Wolves of Willoughby Chase would enthral young readers today as much as it amazed me over thirty years ago.


Related Links

Pretty Books review

Ireland’s Wildlife – The case for reintroducing wolves to Ireland (the last wolf was killed in 1786)

Joan Aiken website

IMDb page for film adaptation


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