As I wrote in the previous post, I’ve been illustrating scenes with food from children’s book classics to build up my portfolio. For the second book, I picked The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. You may ask why this book? All I can say is that I was in the mood for something Gothic and dark. Also, I like wolves.
When I was browsing books in a book shop, the cool book cover with wolves illustrated by Rohan Eason caught my eyes. The synopsis on the back of the book read, “Long ago, at a time in history that never happened, England was overrun with wolves.” I thought, ‘Great!’
The story is set in a fictional early-19th century England and it tells of the adventures of cousins Bonnie and Sylvia. Sylvia, who lives in London with her old and poor aunt Jane, is sent to Willoughby Chase, the grand and remote home of Sir Willoughby, to keep her cousin Bonnie company while her parents are away for holiday. However, their happy new life is soon turned upside down by the arrival of their new governess Miss Slighcarp, who eventually takes over the household.
What I liked about this book is that food was skillfully used to describe the characters and situations. For example, Mr Grimshaw, who later turns out to be an accomplice of Miss Slighcarp, tries to lure Sylvia with food on the long and cold train journey to Willoughby Chase.
“‘Now come along – do,’ said the man coaxingly. ‘All little girls like sweeties, I know.’
[…] he turned round next minute with a confectioner’s pasteboard carton filled with every imaginable variety of little cakes – there were jam tarts, maids of honour, lemon cheese cakes, Chelsea buns, and numerous little iced confections in brilliant and enticing colours.”
It’s a mean way to tempt children! His box of treats sounds like a dream. Maybe too good, like the witch’s house made of sweets. Sylvia knew better, however, than to accept food from strangers. (What a strong will power she has!)
On the other hand, Bonnie and Sylvia’s smart and kind friend Simon, who lives in a cave with his geese, feeds the girls with his humble homemade chestnut cakes after having rescued them from hungry wolves.
“The boy had separate the fire into two glowing hillocks. From between these he now pulled a flat stone on which were baking a number of little cakes. The two children ate them hungrily as soon as they were cool enough to hold. They were brown on the outside, white and floury within, and sweet to the taste.”
Bonnie and Sylvia’s unfortunate adventures are like roller coaster rides. Their first day together at Willoughby Chase begins blissfully.
“Next morning the children had breakfast together in the nursery, which was gay with the sunshine that sparkled on crystal and silver and found golden lights in the honey and quince preserve.”
However, after having taken over the household, the wicked, scheming Miss Slighcarp sends the girls to an orphan-school run by heartless Mrs Brisket. The orphans there are exploited like slaves day and night. Even the meal times are a torture. Their breakfast is a bowl of thin, grey porridge without milk or sugar, a small chunk of staled bread with a bit of dripping. Dinner is even worse:
“[…] people punished in this way were obliged to stand at the back of the dining room and watch everybody else eat. Mrs Brisket sat at the head table eating grilled trout and plum pudding…
[Bonnie] ‘It wasn’t much of a meal to miss, anyway!’
Nor had it been. One thin slice of cold fat pork, a piece of beetroot, and a small withered apple.”
Bonnie and Sylvia’s misfortunes don’t end there, but I’ll leave it for you to read yourself. I just say I really enjoyed reading those two brave girls’ adventures and how they courageously fight back not one but three adult villains! My only criticism is that there was not enough scenes with real wolves. (I like wolves.)