Writing Without Limits: Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series
It’s hard to write a short review of Joan Aiken’s sprawling, anarchic children’s series The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, spanning twelve volumes, forty-three years of publishing history, and an internal chronology that will not bear close scrutiny (more on that later). They’re books in which the wildest ideas are chased down to their absurd conclusions: an abandoned infant is raised by otters, an entire lake is removed from its bed by freezing it into blocks of ice, and a pink whale dotes on the whaling captain who rescued it at birth. They are tremendously fun—and within the rollicking life filling these stories to bursting, we get a glimpse of the power of connection between ordinary people to stand up against villainy of all kinds.
With so many characters, and an organising principle that resembles free association more than anything else, the main element tying this series together is its alternate history setting. King James II was never deposed during the Glorious Revolution and now, in what seems to be the 1750s or 60s, a rather elderly James III sits on the throne. This gives Aiken an opportunity to write a charming Scottish accent, but she also uses this historical difference not so much to delve into political and religious tensions in the eighteenth century as to signal that the world that we’re entering is topsy-turvy. The Jacobites, familiar conspirators from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, are aligned here with the established powers, and it’s the Hanoverians who skulk around, plotting to assassinate political figures and blow up public buildings.
Aiken takes her time settling on a main character for the series. Book One, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), in which two brave young orphans face off against a villainous governess trying to steal their inheritance, seems to connect to the other books more thematically than otherwise. However, it does introduce Simon, a secondary character who lives in the forest herding geese and fending off vicious wolves with a bow and arrows. Even for a writer like Aiken, whose well of ideas never seemed to run dry, he was too good a character to waste, so in the next book, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), Simon leaves his geese to study painting in London. Here he meets his landlords’ young daughter Dido Twite, whose age in this book is given as “about eight or nine.” Dido’s parents are not only neglectful (Simon spends a lot of the book trying to make sure that she’s clothed and fed), they’re also wicked Hanoverians, and it’s up to Simon and Dido to foil their plans.
Something that struck me on this read-through was a progression in the choice of protagonist. From the wild-spirited but definitely upper-class Bonnie Green in Wolves we move to the down-to-earth Simon in Black Hearts, and no sooner is Simon revealed to be the heir of a dukedom at the end of the book than Aiken casts him aside to fix upon Dido, a genuine guttersnipe who will be the heroine of nearly all the rest of the books. To me, it feels as if Aiken started out playing around in genres that conventionally required aristocratic characters, only to discover gradually that she was less interested in the wealthy and well-born than in charcoal-burners, lavender-sellers and other ordinary folk. When we first meet Dido there seems little to distinguish her from dozens of other scrappy child characters whom Aiken excels at creating, but subsequent events make it clear that she’s the heart of the series. Returning to Black Hearts as an adult, and having read the rest of the series, I felt a deep thrill at the moment when she first sticks her head out of the window and demands a ride on Simon’s donkey.
At the beginning of the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966), Dido, believed dead by her family and friends, has just woken from a ten-month coma aboard a whaling vessel off the coast of Alaska. This useful device, aided by some arithmetic that it’s better not to examine too closely, allows Aiken to “age up” her heroine to a more independent eleven years old. No longer is she the little girl who had to beg her parents’ permission to go to a fair: during the three books and several (elastically counted) years that it will take Dido to make her way back to England, stopping in many exotic locales along the route, she doesn’t hesitate to stand up to whaling captains, South American royalty, and a seemingly endless supply of scheming Hanoverians.
Dido may be a fantasy of autonomy for a young reader, but if the sheer guts and resourcefulness of Aiken’s child characters stretch credibility, I think that she also paradoxically captures essential aspects of childhood largely overlooked by other writers. First is the importance of play: with all her self-assurance, Dido isn’t too grown-up to enjoy a game of hopscotch, or jumping around the room from one piece of furniture to another, trying not to touch the floor. She’s still a child, and for me, at least, she remains one until we reach my favourite book in the series, Dido and Pa (1986). This isn’t the end point of the series (Aiken would write five more books before she died in 2004, including two about Dido’s younger sister Is), but it is the book in which Dido finally returns from her round-the-world voyage and faces her father again. Though her adventures have turned her into her own person, Dido has to work to reconcile memories of her abusive upbringing, the admiration that she feels for her father’s musical talent, and her realisation of the depths of his selfishness (at one point Pa lets his mistress burn to death without lifting a finger to help her). It’s the kind of complicated mix of grief, responsibility, affection and anger that has fuelled a thousand literary memoirs. Yet even in this rather grown-up book, Aiken gives a central place to the games and nursery-rhymes of the street children, which, an attentive reader will notice, provide sinister clues to the Hanoverians’ latest conspiracy. Time and again, the books insist that children ought to be playing, no matter what heroics they are called upon to accomplish.
Secondly, while Aiken may write the most resourceful young characters in children’s literature, she never loses sight of the dependency inherent in childhood and the dangers that it poses. From the villainous governess in Wolves beating and starving her child slaves via Dido’s neglectful father to the distracted Captain Casket abandoning his daughter in Nightbirds, the legal authorities are constantly leaving children at the mercy of inadequate or evil care-takers. This shortfall is filled by faithful servants, unrelated adults, slightly older children like Simon (probably about thirteen years old in Black Hearts), and eventually Dido herself. All decent folk, Aiken suggests, will feel responsibility toward a child in need, and act.
This kind of solidarity from the bottom up is woven through the series. I wrote in my opening sentence that these books are anarchic, and this is true in a nearly literal way: rarely do Aiken’s characters receive, or expect, any help from the institutional authorities. In this lawless, dangerous world where villains get away with murder, it hardly matters whether James III or Bonnie Prince Georgie sits on the throne. What does matter is that goose-herds, apple-sellers, and cart-wrights are all ready to lend a hand, whether with odd jobs, a decent meal, or foiling an evil plot and rescuing yet another bunch of orphans. Again, the best example comes from Dido and Pa, where Simon’s twin sister Sophie learns about the Birthday League from a young lavender seller. “The Birthday League,” Sophie says. “What is that?” “When’s your birthday, my lady?” “The tenth of April.” “Mine’s the fifth o’ Febr’ry. Now you’re a member!” The League, it emerges, is a loose association of homeless children who help each other to survive. It is voluntary, inclusive, unorganised, with neither money nor power, and yet, by courage and quick thinking, it is able to rescue Dido and her friends. The moment when Dido’s father gets what he deserves at the hands of the League is an unsettling case of justice without the formality of the law, but it is typical of Aiken’s willingness to push the limits beyond what’s safe, and to allow her downtrodden characters real power, including all the consequences that go with it.
I said at the beginning that this would be a short review, so I haven’t touched on Aiken’s gorgeous, inventive language, her delightful pastiches of everything from gothic literature to Moby Dick, her critique of the Industrial Revolution, or her ruthless streak in despatching sympathetic and wicked characters alike to their grisly ends. The critical review extract on the back of one book calls Aiken “unrestrained,” and when I look back to when I was buying these books with my first baby-sitting money, I think what engaged me was that they were always more than anything else that I had read: weirder, scarier, darker, funnier. Re-reading them as an adult, I also discovered that they were much more compassionate and inspiring than I remembered.--Mary Thaler
June 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s docking at Tilbury. Those iconic photographs of the arrivals in their more-than-Sunday-best have, in the past year, become more than a little reproachful, as the rest of us have finally discovered just how alone it is possible to be despite decades spent living and working in England.
When The Lonely Londoners appeared it was critically received— according to Susheila Nasta in her excellent introduction to the Penguin edition— as a picaresque comedy of wide-eyed colonials gallivanting around London. This was a gross misjudgment of a book which is not simply a comic novel: the critics completely ignored the pain, fear and ennui experienced by these adventurers confronted with a maze-like social system which they observe chiefly, at least for now, from the outside. Discrimination, cold weather, hunger and thin clothes, and exhausting manual labour in grim surroundings (“The people who living in London don’t really know how behind them railway station does be so desolate and discouraging”) all conspire to depress their spirits, which resiliently soar again when confronted with the beauty of the city outside their own dreary workplaces and bedsits.
As the previous quote suggests, the entire novel is written in creolised English (otherwise known, in the field of Caribbean literature, as ‘nation English’), which, however, is not at all difficult to understand and gives the prose a special music. One of the most masterful opening sentences in all literature instantly establishes time, place and subject in a few lines, drawing the reader into the action described: “One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus as the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.”
Moses does not know the newcomer, but in the early days of West Indian migration, Caribbeans were thrown back upon their own support network for practical help upon arrival in London. So Moses, who has been there longer than anyone and whose wisdom corresponds to his name, must perforce pick up, assist, and occasionally put a flea in the ear of the new arrivals. They soon have a great deal to contend with in their new lives, from struggles in employment to homesickness and broken hearts.
The exhaustion and decay of London in the immediate post-war era also shocks them. One particularly powerful passage concerns their integration into working class neighbourhoods and their telling observations of these communities, particularly of the war widows “who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they still can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n.” Nevertheless, as the West Indians adapt to their environment, it begins to adapt to them. A synergy soon develops between their style sense and local Jewish tailoring. In working-class neighbourhoods, shops begin to stock saltfish, rice, and other staples of the Caribbean diet. It would be reductive to portray The Lonely Londoners as concerned only with race, since this is also a story about rural migrants in a hard-scrabble urban environment: the formidable and wonderful Aunt Tanty educates a local shopkeeper in the value of trust, and eventually succeeds in convincing him to introduce a West Indian system of buying groceries on tick, thereby vastly increasing his business.
Perhaps it is a mark of the novel’s success that the portrayals of its characters sometimes make the reader wonder uneasily whether they are not overly reliant on the stereotype of the good-humoured, sharp-dressing, hard-working and hard-partying Caribbean—and then remember that this image was probably not yet common currency in the England of 1956. (Indeed, the book may have contributed to its formation.) Reading it today, one is sometimes exasperated at the one-dimensionality of some characters, compared with those of (say) Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and other later writers. This shortfall is probably due to Selvon’s expenditure of tremendous energy and descriptive power on the novel’s setting, for London itself is the dominating character, a great centrifugal force that threatens to become a vortex, a bright flame to the author’s brilliantly-attired moths as they flutter around it, bewilderedly at first and then with greater confidence, retreating with great reluctance to their dank basements. The city in Selvon’s rendering bears out Johnson’s maxim: for his Caribbean characters, it is life itself, “the beginning and ending of the world.” The resulting work is not just a fascinating novel of immigration, but also one of the great meditations on London: “The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular.” The city may, however, prove to be a trap —a prospect raised repeatedly throughout the novel, and left ominously open at the end.
There are irresistible comic vignettes, of course. One of the funniest is the party scene, which sees the harassed, upwardly mobile Harris plaintively lapse into creole to reprimand a friend for failing to stand to attention at God Save the Queen and continuing to get down (‘jocking waist,’ in the very expressive phrase). Aunt Tanty embarrasses her relatives by crashing the party, and the revellers dance to a 1940s calypso hit entitled Fan Me Saga Boy Fan Me. Selvon’s humour is not exactly family-friendly: it is sometimes extremely broad, such as the scene in which he slyly suggests that his characters, who fancy themselves ladykillers, may in fact be fairly clueless, and occasionally grim, as when one character is driven by hunger to cook a London pigeon.
The overriding mood of the book, however, is melancholy. The last few pages are particularly moving, as Moses reflects on the Sunday morning therapeutic meet-ups in his room: “he look in each face, and he feel a great compassion for every one of them, as if he live each of their lives, one by one.” There is prophetic foreboding of trials to come in Moses’ vision of “a forlorn shadow of doom,” West Indian faces isolated, “bewildered, hopeless,” amongst the frightening and overpowering millions. Most poignant of all is Moses’ personal struggle with immobilising indecision about whether to stay in this fascinating but challenging environment, which may be sending him to an early grave, or go back. Every year he decides to return, but backtracks when the winter ends and London’s seductive pull comes over him anew: “the old sun shining, is as if life start all over again…. I will wait until after the summer, the summer does really be hearts.” --Isabel Taylor
Review of The Spirit of the Age by E. M. Delafield
Punch Limited/The Odyssey Press, 2017
While The Spirit of the Age initially seems a rather grandiose title for a collection of humorous little Punch sketches of home front life from 1938-1943, on closer inspection it turns out to be appropriate. This assortment of pieces is by the well-known humourist E. M. Delafield (real name Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture, and every bit as angular and aquiline in appearance as this might suggest), the creator of the immortal Provincial Lady: a clever, endlessly kind and patient woman not unlike herself, whose wryly hilarious interior monologue allows her to deal considerately with an emotionally distant husband, exhausting children, an excitable French governess and overbearing neighbours, without showing the least flicker of annoyance. However, Delafield also wrote straightforwardly bitter feminist critiques of stifling pre-war female existences, such as the wintry Consequences, which has been causing a stir since its reissue by Persephone Books in the early 2000s. Delafield was a women’s author, then, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Interestingly, her extremely feminine comedy, in which refinement balances precisely on the knife-edge of uproariousness, came brilliantly into its own in the service of wartime propaganda. Studies of the English home front often envisioned the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany’s militarised, exaggerated masculinity and perverted technological progress by an island nation written as parochial (in both senses), feminine, old-fashioned, domestic, eccentric, and (a key concept) small. Its virtues were those of well-honed communal organisation, empathy and mutual aid, so that an alien watching or reading English wartime propaganda could be forgiven for thinking that the war was going to be won by the Women’s Institute and the Mothers’ Union. That this was a rather absurd characterisation of a country with a formidable military and industrial tradition and sizeable colonial possessions did not seem to bother the creator of Mrs Miniver, the apotheosis of this trend, or the producers of the myriad official films set in an eternal rural England of kindness and harmony. (Reading this collection of Delafield’s stories, I was powerfully reminded of the famous Leslie Illingworth cartoon from the summer of 1940, The Combat, featured in Punch Goes to War, edited by Helen Walasek. In it a nightmarish monster representing the Luftwaffe, with red eyes and macho-looking musculature, claws a hand across a ravaged Europe —shattering coastal cities as he does so—towards a tiny, mild-faced Spitfire pilot hovering resolutely above the English Channel.) While ostensibly satirising the would-be hermetic, tiny world that she portrays, Delafield, with her regular updates on the activities and discussions of Little-Fiddle-on-the-Green’s determined ladies and somewhat less interesting men, lovingly swaddles it week on week in yet another protective layer of quiet affection.
This description might cause the casual reader to dismiss the book as unbearably twee, but that would be a mistake. Like the Provincial Lady books, these sketches initially appear feather-light but soon reveal themselves to have substantial heft and bite. For one thing, the ladies of Little-Fiddle-On-the-Green, despite their gentility, are inwardly seething with rage and murderous intent. When the remarkably captious and obstreperous Miss Littlemug expresses a wish to blow up Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Stalin, she speaks for all her sisters. From an historical point of view, there are many arresting moments which give the reader an alarming and vertiginous feeling of immediacy, as though seven-and-a-half decades have been suddenly collapsed —for example, in the very early phases of the war, when old Lady Flagge bellows “Why isn’t Winston Churchill Prime Minister?” or when Miss Littlemug, in response to a mention of Shakespeare’s Shylock, says “Don’t talk about them, dear. If only one could get at Hitler personally.”
The sketches do vary in quality, of course. Some are merely pleasant and a few border on tedious, but there are a number of absolutely inspired set-pieces, such as Miss Littlemug’s contingency defence plan in the event of German parachutists descending on the Missionary Sewing Circle (“Foresight”), or “Digging for Victory,” in which the ladies bury tinned provisions all over their gardens and then, like squirrels, forget where, since it would never do to mark the spots for the benefit of the invading Wehrmacht. (The latter would probably be hungry after coming such a long way and would either make straight for Ye Olde Plum Bunne--now renamed The Tudor Spitfire Cafe-- or try to dig up the tins.)
As this might suggest, overwhelm and futility are two hallmarks of the ladies’ activities, although the admirable Miss Pin generally manages to preserve her cool efficiency in circumstances of great strain. From a psychological point of view the book is extremely telling and indeed sobering. Behind much of the characters’ irrational and amusing behaviour is an enormous fear that must be countered by frenetic activity, since it would otherwise paralyse. The most hilarious sketch in the book, which chronicles the reaction at a local committee meeting when Miss Littlemug mentions the possibility that the Germans could invade in British uniform, also captures the terror that tiny English villages felt in the aftermath of Dunkirk. (“It should be simple,” said the General— “ask the fellow to produce his identity card and while he’s looking for it, shoot him”). Miss Littlemug’s extraordinary strategising of her own civil defence response speaks to the insecurity of a spinster feeling alone in the world, although, in this close-knit environment, she is anything but. The oneupmanship between the ladies in the matter of furnishing and decorating their bomb shelters captures not only displacement activity but also attempts at self-compensation: if one has to hide in a bomb shelter, one might as well attempt to nest in it. Their instinct to compensate themselves is more broadly hinted at in the closing sketch, in which a sudden windfall of biscuits with no container to put them in forces the characters to binge on them. The stress of the invasion threat tells on the village’s manners —the ladies become snappish and sometimes completely unreasonable with one another, and there is at least one grim episode of Not Speaking, but the need to huddle together again always prevails in the end.
The collection is a warm satire on predominantly female social interactions, and so realistic in this regard that it sometimes prompts tears of laughter as the small group of ladies drive one another mad in their attempts to win the war. The characters are mostly upper-middle-class and aristocratic archetypes immediately recognisable from previous eras of English literature: it is as if a lot of Charlotte Bartletts, Lady Bracknells and Elizabeth Bennets have been unleashed in the circumstances of total war, and are finding it really rather trying.
On the whole, the book is an affecting testimony to an English rural innocence by and large preserved (though the war does succeed in shifting Aunt Emma’s literary tastes from love stories involving ‘nice people’ to something called Hitler’s Cauldron about the decay of humanity). The villagers were never required to burn down their houses in a misapprehension of the Russian scorched earth policy, and the gulf between reality and Miss Littlemug’s fevered imaginings of taking the invaders by surprise with her sewing scissors never revealed itself. For that, we can all be thankful.--Isabel Taylor