Yes, I know that’s actually a misquote of Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas in Wales. I hope he’ll forgive me for misappropriating it, as it’s a great lead in to Joan Aiken’s first three books in The Wolves Chronicles, Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket.
These three were written in the mid-sixties but aren’t quite as dated as they might be, as they’re written in an alternate history version of nineteenth century England, in which the Jacobeans kept the throne and the Hanoverians are upstarts attempting to put their heir on the throne. They’re more complex than a lot of the ‘tween’ books I’ve read recently; I have to appreciate the fact that Aiken didn’t talk down to her audience.
Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a confection of a book; as it begins, meek but well bred Sylvia is coming to live with her harum scarum cousin, Bonnie, whose parents are going on a sea cruise to improve the mother’s health. A governess has been engaged to oversee the estate and the children in the parents’ absence, but is quickly revealed to be a Nefarious Plotter who wishes only to garner the entirety of the estate. She fires the servants, and hustles Sylvia and Bonnie off to a Orphanage of Deprivation. With the help of Simon, an orphan living alone on the estate and supporting himself by breeding geese, the girls free themselves and make their way home only to find that Miss Slighcarp, colluding with the owner of the Despicable Orphanage, has turned Willoughby Manor into a boarding school. As with the other two in this entry, this book has a particularly satisfying ending for those of us who like books where everyone gets what they deserve.
Black Hearts in Battersea picks up with Simon, the self-reliant foundling from Wolves of Willoughby Chase, arriving in London, at the invitation of Gabriel Field (another minor character from book #1), to attend Riviere’s Academy. He finds the Twite family’s boarding house at which Field ought to be staying, but no one seems to know who Field is; all the Twites deny ever having seen him, despite Simon’s discovery of a sketch of Dido (“molting sparrow” precocious guttersnipe daughter of the house), done in Field’s artistic style. Being a capable independent young man, Simon rents a room from the Twites despite this anomaly, enrolls in the art school and gets hired at the nearby carriagemakers. The plot–more suitable a term I never heard–rattles on apace and Simon is rapidly entangled in the dark designs of a pack of Hanoverian scoundrels who are [drumroll and fanfare] plotting to off the Duke of Battersea and King James. Attempts on the former’s life (and that of his wife) are thwarted by the quickthinking Sophie, Simon’s long lost sister, who uses the duchess’ never ending and by now quite large tapestry embroidery project in a variety of ingenious ways; this is fortuitous for all involved as it turns out that Simon and Sophie are, in fact, the true heirs to Battersea, having been exchanged at birth with one craven Justin by…whom else?…the Hanoverians again. One abduction and one thwarted attempt at regicide later, everyone lives happily ever after. Except the Hanoverians.
Nightbirds on Nantucket picks up with Dido, the precocious guttersnipe from Black Hearts in Battersea, having been rescued by a Nantucket whaler, captained by a slightly peculiar Quaker obsessed with finding a pink whale he recalls from childhood. (His crew indulge this as along the way they do bring in a full cargo with each trip.) Dido longs only to get home again, but agrees to stay with the captain’s timid daughter Dutiful Penitence and her ostensibly terrifying Aunt Tribulation until Pen settles in. The plot thickens when they reach Nantucket and not only does Tribulation turn out to be every bit the Tartar that Pen remembers, but the island is harboring a group of desperate Hanoverians who’ve designed a gun large enough to fire a ball across the ocean and destroy St. James’ Palace, home of the King of England. In the process, it will break Nantucket loose from its moorings and slide it up into that den of iniquity, New York City. Needless to say, the stalwart Nantucket inhabitants cleverly thwart this new Hanoverian plot by hitching the gun to…surprise! Rosie the pink whale who has arrived offshore just in time to restore Captain Casket to his senses.
I know she returned to the series and continued it with Dido as the primary character, but I never read the subsequent books until adulthood. I’m not sure whether I wasn’t so crazy about the later books because I was well out of the target demographic when I read them or because Aiken had stopped using the pattern she set up for the first three: write a sequel about a secondary character in the preceding book. While I wouldn’t mind sequels about the primary characters already introduced, I’ve often wondered “What happened to so-and-so after the book ended? I’d like to find out more about them.” Aiken answers this with Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket. Don’t get me wrong, I like Dido–she’s a delightfully self-reliant impudent little guttersnipe, and I’m glad things ended up well for her and for Simon. I’m more curious to know why Aiken changed the pattern for subsequent books.
What to read next? Who might like these books? The closest match I can think of is Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. The plots of Aiken’s and Handler’s books are very different, and the language and writing styles of the authors aren’t remotely close, so I’m not quite sure I can pin down why one reminds me of the other. but they both involve children making their way through the world on their own, with minimal help from adults. A Series of Unfortunate Events is more Edwardian Steampunk while the Wolves Chronicles are Georgian melodrama…well, Jamesian anyway, but my best guess is that neither series talks down to the readers. Both have a slight sardonic cast to the descriptions.