"Light after light in the windows of the great house was extinguished, until at length it stood dark and silent. And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf-hunts and wine-drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green."
That is the closing paragraph of Joan Aiken's children's classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, first published in 1962, a book that has so many 'essential' elements for an engaging, satisfying, fireside yarn: an evil governess, some plucky children in peril, the ever-present danger 'out there' in the form of the predatory wolves, parents conveniently away so that the children's story can unfold, plenty of home comforts (at times - they are made all the more appealing by the privations described in other parts of the story), and a lovely happy ending. Yes, there are some neat coincidences which mean the dice fall to suit the author's purpose, but that's allowed and the story's none the worse for it, and in its atmosphere and adventure it lights the imagination and thrills the spirit.
I knew it first as a child and have re-read it now so many years later with great pleasure, and for all the reasons above I find it very appealing. What about you? Did you feel the baddies were too bad and the goodies too good? Did Bonnie's stoic acceptance of her parents' apparent fate seem far-fetched? Did the swift move from snowy, wolf-stalked winter to the softer, southern landscape of spring take the edge off the book's mood? How about Simon the goose-boy (whose voice "had a comfortable, brown, furry sound to it") and his unlikely life in a cave - implausible, or delightfully romantic?
There are Dickensian touches and gothic ones - the 'dark, satanic mills' of the wonderfully-named Blastburn, for instance; there are moral overtones such as Bonnie's acquiring "patience and self-command"; there are sylvan scenes and rustic idylls ("smiling pasturelands all astir with sheep and lambs"), and there is lots of delicious food* - including a reference to champagne as a remedy of first resort for malnutrition! Fifty years after it first came out it the book is still going strong, and I'm not at all surprised.
*The 'books and cakes' post for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is here.