"A masterpiece... a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children's book must possess." (Time Magazine)
So, Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is considered to be a classic children's book. Do not allow this to put you off. Even when you pick up the book and read the back cover, do not be put off. Yes, it involves a cruel governess, an ancestral home, running away and orphanages. Put like that, it sounds dreadful and makes you want to brace yourself for an onslaught of dense, Victorian-esque prose.
But the Wolves of Willoughby Chase is far from dreadful. Set in an alternate version of the 18th century, England is chock-full of wolves, who have entered Britain through the Channel Tunnel. (Yes, Aiken was well aware of the usefulness of connecting France and England way back in 1962.) The wolves are everywhere, and make travel dangerous - even the train does not afford complete safety. More practically, the wolves provide another aspect of tension and horror to the story, as if that provided by the adult characters were not enough...
The story centres around two little girls, Bonnie and Sylvia. Sylvia is an orphan cousin, who arrives at the stunning home of Lord Willoughby and Lady Green just in time for the two adults to vanish off to sea in an attempt to improve Lady Green's health. The house is left in the charge of yet another distant relative, the grimly-named Letitia Slighcarp. Rapidly, the idyllic plot thickens and turns rather sour. With her accomplice, Mr Grimshaw, Slighcarp despatches the two children to a distant orphanage and sets about claiming Willoughby Chase as her own.
Inevitably, the two girls are keen for Bonnie's parents to return. With the aid of Simon, an independent and resourceful young lad, they escape from the orphanage and, as you'd expect, set about ensuring a happy ending.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is, at its simplest, a classic Victorian romance. Orphans and vicious criminals abound, there are sudden deaths, miraculous resurrections and forged wills all over the place. It could have, quite easily, turned into a seething miasma of overly-plotted rubbish, yet Aiken, with undeniable skill, draws the whole thing together into a classic, readable children's story which has stood the test of time. Readers will wish to move onto the sequel, the intriguingly-titled 'Black Hearts In Battersea'.
Those of a less literary nature will wish to check out the film version, a 1988 UK production which features a young Jane Horrocks and an intensely creepy Stephanie Beacham as Slighcarp. There's even a soundtrack CD available.