Sunday, April 30, 2017

Joan Aiken: The Wolves Chronicles


Joan Aiken (1924 - 2004) was an amazingly prolific author of books, plays, poems, and alternative history novels. One of her most popular book series is the Wolves Chronicles. The Chronicles consist of twelve novels that feature child protagonists. Dido Twite is the heroine in most of the books, and her ingenuity and resourcefulness take her from one adventure to another.

The Wolves Chronicles can be a confusing muddle when first encountered for several reasons. The twelve books were written over the course of 23 years and, like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the stories were not written or published in the order in which they are finally intended to be read, although some readers prefer to read them in the published order.

Within the series, British historical events have been distorted and changed to suit the author's imagination. In Ms. Aiken's 1800's England, the line of succession in Great Britain now rests with James III, not Queen Victoria because James II was not dethroned in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In addition to this political hocus pocus, the actual geography of England has been altered to suit the stories. Once a reader is aware of these eccentricities, the series becomes much less confusing.

There are multiple English and American hardcover and paperback editions of the stories, and each new printing seems to have different cover designs created by various artists! From a bibliographical standpoint, this series rivals Mr. Gorey's own books for the confusion faced by a collector who wishes to collect a complete set of the Chronicles in all of their variant covers.

Edward Gorey created cover designs for eight of the twelve American editions in the series (some paperback, some hardcover, some both). In fact, Mr. Gorey created a total of thirteen cover designs for eight titles. At the time of his death, he was still working on his own newly redesigned covers for reprints, which was intended to give the books a uniform look. The redesigned artwork is unusual in that a wallpaper background with two round vignettes was drawn by hand, and floating figures relating to each story were placed on top of the background. Each title also has a different scene dropped into the lower vignette. The wallpaper and framing devices for the vignettes were changed after three titles. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase does not seem to have been given this new style of cover design.


The Whispering Mountain (1968) - And so the confusion begins. Most lists, including the list on the Joan Aiken website, start the series with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Whispering Mountain usually appears - if it appears at all - as book twelve in the series, but it is intended to be a prequel to to the series, so it can be read first or last! No Gorey designed cover appears to exist for this book.


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) - The first edition hard cover of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a highly desired collectible for both Aiken and Gorey collectors, and this volume commands a premium price. The dust jacket design for the original hard cover (on the left) is a classic Gorey cover, conveying the menace and flavor of the story in a deceptively simple illustration. The original artwork was reused for a paperback reprinted version (right), but by masking the image, much of  the drama of the original layout has been lost.


Black Hearts at Battersea (1964) - The original American paperback version (above left) has a cover design by Edward Gorey that sets up a format that will be used for much of the series. The framing of the artwork is a disappointment, since the addition of the yellow border minimizes the impact of the art by making the image appear cramped. The female figure's yellow dress has become an afterthought instead of a focal point. Mr. Gorey's redesigned wallpaper style cover is on the right.


Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966) - The redesigned cover is shown on the left. I have yet to locate a copy of Nightbirds with the original Gorey cover artwork. Original artwork from many of these stories was released by Mr. Gorey, and several pieces have come up for sale over the years. On the right, I am showing the preliminary (center) and final (right) original artwork for this title that was offered by Gotham Book Mart. None of the original artwork from the series is in my collection.


The Stolen Lake (1981) - The original Edward Gorey paperback is on the left, and his redesigned cover on the right.


Limbo Lodge (1999) - Due (no doubt) to the lateness of this publication, no cover by Gorey appears to exist.


The Cuckoo Tree (1971) - The original Edward Gorey cover on the left, the redesigned cover in the center, and the original artwork on the right.


Dido and Pa (1986) - The original Edward Gorey hardback on the left, the paperback is in the center, and the redesigned cover on the right. I have records showing the original painting for this cover was sold in 2003 in an online auction.

Is Underground (1992) - The hardback dust wrapper by Edward Gorey (shown on the left) is the most striking cover produced for the series. The impression that one has entered Hell is simply and effectively executed through the use of perspective and intense color. In 1997, Mr. Gorey pulled out his flaming orange paints once again for the back cover of The Bell, The Book, and The Spellbinder by Brad Strickland. An earlier version of the original artwork for this title is shown on the right. This book was titled IS in England and the title was changed for the American edition. The original art shown on the right appears to be a fully finished version, not a sketch, meaning that Mr. Gorey completely recreated the art when the title was changed. This is somewhat surprising since the escutcheon with the revised title could have easily been redrawn and added over the old title - a technique used often by the artist. For the final published version, Mr. Gorey's painting technique on the fiery orange clouds is more carefully blended and less visceral than in the first attempt.


Cold Shoulder Road (1995) - Edward Gorey employed his famous "mushroom colors" for the American hardcover and paperback versions of this title. This title and Is Underground finally dispensed with the irritating colored border that usually appears on the paperback versions, and both paperback and hardcover copies show the full image without distraction. 


Midwinter Nightingale (2003) - This title was published after 2000, so no cover by Edward Gorey exists.


The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005) - This title was published after 2000, so no cover by Edward Gorey exists.





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