The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.
I read this as a child. I read it to my kids. I read it again recently and the magic is still there.
It’s full of my favourite ingredients for a period adventure: a happy quota of orphans and absent parents, an evil governess, resourceful children and wily adults, and tons of snow. Joan Aiken’s 19th century parallel universe revels in Victorian invention – according to her the Channel Tunnel, far from a 1980s vanity project, was really built in the early 1800s. It’s through this tunnel that the hungry European wolves come tearing in search of food!
There are also wonderful contrasts: freezing cold and warmth, hunger and hearty food, terror and comfort. Sylvia lives in great poverty with her old aunt in a Park Lane attic, while in isolated Willoughby Chase her cousin Bonnie has everything a child could wish for, including her own toyroom with a dolls-house large enough to get inside and with real canaries nesting in the roof. But Bonnie is a good-hearted child, and anyway it’s not long before all this is snatched away from her, in a reversal of fortune and test of character that follows one of the best traditions of children’s literature.
My favourite character is Simon, who lives a gloriously self-sufficient life in the woods and raises geese. He walks his geese from Willoughby Wold to market in London, a journey that takes two months. They leave in the snow and arrive in the April sunshine. The trip is also a daring escape for Sylvia and Bonnie and they are helped on their way by Mr Wilderness, who provides a memorable meal of porridge, eaten with ‘brown sugar from a blue bag and dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two red cows, who stood sociably outside the kitchen door as breakfast went on’. As well as the thrills and spills, it’s this kind of fond detail that I love in Joan Aiken’s stories.
The only element missing is Dido Twite, Aiken’s brilliant sarky, snarky, sneaky anti-heroine, who does not make an appearance until the next book in the sequence, Black Hearts In Battersea. I can’t wait to meet her again.