Joan Aiken gave Dido Twite the same birthdate as her beloved mother Jessie, who was her first writing teacher and always her greatest champion, so the first day of March is a very special day for Aiken fans to celebrate.
Dido the scrawny ‘brat’ with jammy hair who first appeared in the streets of Battersea in the sequel to Joan Aiken’s classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has become the unlikely heroine who has taken over the rest of the series of Wolves Chronicles, together with the rest of her eccentric and often villainous family, the Twites.
But as Joan has said this wasn’t always the intention… at the end of that book, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido is lost at sea, and her friend Simon sadly fears she has given up her life for him.
But if this was the original plan, Joan Aiken was forced to change her mind… Letters from readers poured in, begging her to bring back their beloved Dido, and so a new book was born:
Night birds on Nantucket, book three in the series was where Dido came into her own; waking up on an American whaling ship, she finds a new identity, and the costume that becomes her trade mark:
Her costume is not the only thing that makes Dido so special – her whole character and the way she expresses herself have endeared her to readers and made her especially memorable, here she is, watching with horror the sailors at work on the whaling ship after the capture of a whale:
But wherever she ends up on her travels and adventures, it is her enormous and generous heart that gets her into the most trouble – with her villainous family, with the plotters endlessly trying to bring down the Crown of England, with the murksy-capsy criminals who endlessly kidnap or scrobble her and try and get her to follow their evil plans, she finds herself sympathising with their human frailty, crying:
“Oh, why do I have to feel sorry for people all the time, however nasty they are?”
The answer perhaps, is that she shares the mind of her creator, Joan Aiken:
“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed? The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds. Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down. Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her? I’m not at all sure that he will. And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”
And she took root in the minds of readers too, many of whom sent in their own ideas for adventures Dido might have, or their own drawings of how they imagined her:
And these led to more mysteries and searches, but to find out you will have to read another piece of her history!
So when did we find out about her Birthday? In a later book in the series – Dido and Pa she has been kidnapped and is looking to pass a message to someone who might be able to help; she thinks of a tip a sailor friend gave her:
And so she has become everyone’s friend, and definitely deserves her day of celebration!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Visit the Joan Aiken Website to see more of these letters from you, and what that mysterious key unlocks!
Illustrations by Susan Obrant from The Cuckoo Tree, and Pat Marriott from Battersea & The Stolen Lake (and you!)
This little picture shows Joan’s mother, Jessie McDonald, at the age of about one. She was born in Montreal in 1889, to parents whose families had both emigrated from Scotland in the middle of the nineteenth century; from them she inherited a brisk practical manner, and spoke with a warm Scots Canadian accent, although she eventually returned to live in England, spending the last half of her life in Sussex, where her daughter Joan was born.
The studio portrait of her above, shows a good deal of her determined quality, and how pretty she was going to become, and what a devastating effect this would have on her future.
Many years later her younger sister Grace in a family memoir wrote:
“Jessie led her class at graduation from McGill and won a scholarship to Radcliffe, the women’s part of Harvard. She did very well the first year and got her H.A. She was told she ought to continue and work for her PhD. However, during this year she caught the eye of a young man called Conrad Aiken, and she fell in love with him. They were married the following summer, in 1912, at Cap à l’Aigle, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.” (Near the family home.)
In the 1920’s the Aikens, Conrad attempting to support his family as a struggling poet, moved to England with their first two children, John and Jane, hoping to further his career. Joan was born there, in Rye, so she was the only English member of the family.
However times were hard, and when teaching work was offered back in Boston he returned to America. Sister Grace writes, curiously matter-of-factly, that not very long after Joan’s birth:
“Conrad went off to America and became involved with a woman in Boston. In that year he wrote to Jessie and suggested that he bring this new love to England and set up an establishment “A trois “. Jessie would have none of this so she decided to divorce him. It was courageous of her, as most of her money had been spent. While the divorce was in progress Mother sent Marian (another sister) over to live with Jessie and the children to prevent any scandal arising. The divorce went through and not long after, Jessie married Martin Armstrong. She told me afterwards that she asked Martin (another writer and an old friend of Conrad’s) to marry her, and he agreed, most willingly. They went to live in a dear little house called “Farrs” in Sutton. Martin was in every way a good husband. He taught Jessie many good things about how to live in England, and how to manage the household “helps” that they had, who came in daily from the village.”
It was the time of the great Depression, Jessie had three children to support, and ever practical, had turned to a friend. So it was here that Joan grew up, home-schooled by Jessie for the first twelve years of her life, as Jessie decided that the little village school would not provide much of an education for her. During the day Joan would also help out in the house, alongside one of these ‘helps’ – in this case a girl called Winnie – as she remembered:
This impersonal and unjudgemental attitude, described by Joan in her own memories of childhood, came back to me last year, when, remembering it was almost Jessie’s birthday, on the first of March, I went to look at this small copy of her photograph on my mantelpiece, and noticed that the little oil lamp that stood in front of it, next to a shell box of Joan’s labelled ‘A Gift from Rye’ and a china musical box, a curiously touching gift that she had given me near the end of her life – which played ‘I’ll be loving you, always’ – was gently leaking, and the oil had seeped up into the picture. Shocked, I reached to save it, and with my sleeve caught the glass of the oil lamp which broke.
I wished I that could also write “small lamp chimney” on a shopping list, together with many other wishes, and that everything that was lost could so easily be restored.
* * * * * * *
The links above will fill in other parts of this remarkable shared history, which is imbued for me with an ongoing serendipity in the line down from mother to daughter and grand-daughter, in a way which still surprises and cheers me. It was my daughter who had given me the small oil lamp.
Some readers who know Dido Twite, from Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles and have read Dido and Pa will know that Joan Aiken gave her favourite heroine the same birth date as Jessie of March 1st. The two shared the same indomitable spirit, and sense of optimism that carried them through all kinds of troubles.
‘It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels.’
The opening of Joan Aiken’s classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is famous for the snowy landscape it depicts, and soon the element of snow becomes as important in the story, and as threatening as the wolves in the title.
Orphaned Sylvia enduring a terrifying train journey through snow covered, wolf infested miles of empty English countryside, with only a strange man in her railway carriage for company, is haunted by a terrible nightmare:
‘She dreamed, without being really asleep, of arctic seas, of monstrous tunnels through hillsides fringed with icicles. Her travelling companion, who had grown a long tail and a pair of horns, offered her cakes the size of grand pianos and coloured scarlet, blue, and green; when she bit into them she found they were made of snow…’
But presently, within the safety of Sir Willoughby’s carriage, the falling snow adds to the cosy closeness of the two little girls, riding home together:
‘There had been a new fall of snow and their progress was silent as they flew over the carpeted ground, save for the muffled hoof-beats and the cry of the wolves behind them.
There was something magical about this ride which Sylvia was to remember for the rest of her life – the dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’
At first they are safe within Bonnie’s grand home, and happy to explore and play in the snow outside, even skating for miles down a frozen river, knowing they have a warm refuge to return to:
‘Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’
But when the ‘wolves’ take over, invading inside their refuge, even the weather takes on a different aspect:
‘The next morning dawned grey and louring. Snow was falling fast out of the heavy sky, the flakes hurrying down like dirty feathers from a leaking mattress.’
Or like feathers from a wandering goose, seized unaware by a wolf?
Soon, on another carriage ride through the ever present snow, they are being carried away to another kind of home, as cold within as it is without, and away from every kind of shelter…
‘At last they drew near the great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare of Blastburn, where the huge slag-heaps stood outlined like black pyramids against the red sky.’
‘Young ladies!’ said Miss Slighcarp sharply. They caught sight of her face by the swaying carriage light; the look on it was so forbidding that it made them shiver. ‘One word from either of you, and you’ll have me to reckon with! Remember that you are now going to a place where Miss Green of Willoughby Chase is not of the slightest consequence. You can cry all day in a coal-cellar and no one will take notice of you, if I choose that it shall be so. Hold your tongues, therefore!
Long before the end of the trip they were almost dead of cold, and their feet were like lumps of ice, for Miss Slighcarp had all the fur carriage rugs wrapped round herself, and the children had to make do without. They were too cold for sleep, and could almost have wished for an attack by wolves, but, save for an occasional distant howl, their passage was undisturbed. It seemed that Miss Slighcarp was right when she said that the wolves feared to attack her.’
Wolves and snow are images that Joan Aiken drew from the European Fairy Stories and Folk Tales she read as a child, and uses to conjure images in her own books, which bring a sense of warmth and comfort from a place of safety, or can be employed to send a shiver down your spine when you imagine you are outside and far from home…..
* * * * * *
Illustrations by Bill Bragg from the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Read more about this edition and Joan Aiken’s fascination with wolves here
Who was Joan Aiken, and how far did she go in writing about her own life?
“This story is just too hard to swallow!” was the editor’s note on an early story she submitted. Remembering this years later, she said: “He was talking about the only story I ever wrote, flat, from real life, and it taught me a useful lesson about the risks of using unvarnished experience.”
Most writers have learned the wisdom of a little concealment in their work – no one wants to be sued, (and in her early writing days she had a few warnings about this possibility – see below) or to be at the mercy of endless angry letters about the misrepresentation of a reader’s home town or village, or even heaven forbid, incur outrage about dangerous disclosures from their own relations…
(signature illegible I hope!)
So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious 1980’s novel, Foul Matter, tread a fine line?
It was for instance accepted literary practice in Milton’s day to give all your characters names from Greek mythology, not necessarily to conceal their identities, but to set them in a more idyllic or ‘pastoral’ landscape. A clue to Joan Aiken’s intentions in this possibly autobiographical novel lies in the chapter headings she has chosen to take from Milton’s famous Pastoral Elegy, Lycidas and whose muses she invokes at the opening of her book: ‘the sisters of the sacred well.’ Milton’s poem was written as a song of mourning for his friend and fellow student who had drowned when his ship sank off the English coast – as does Dan, the heroine’s husband in this novel. Joan’s first husband Ron took her out to sea when they were moving house from Kent to Sussex and sank the boat and all their possessions just off Whitstable, but happily that time nobody drowned – in fact the family were rescued by some passing sea scouts, but who would believe that?
Clytie, or Aulis or Tuesday, the heroine of Foul Matter, has many different names, and does speak in the first person, but is this her author’s voice? She has such an astonishing amount of unfortunate history and such numbers of lovers that reviewers of the novel said it had to be a lurid Gothic fantasy – surely even in the 1980’s people didn’t live like this? When Tuesday first appeared in an earlier Aiken thriller (The Ribs of Death – another quotation from Milton) she was introduced as the author of a spoof (and sexy!) shocker while still in in her teens:
“You wrote that novel, didn’t you—Mayhem in Miniature? Aren’t you Aulis Jones?”
Certainly this can’t have been autobiographical, as when no publisher will touch Tuesday’s second literary attempt, she is forced to become a caterer instead, and although Joan Aiken was an excellent and inventive cook, and descriptions of recipes in Foul Matter give plenty of evidence for that, in real life she is better known as the author of over a hundred works of fiction.
Conrad Aiken, Joan’s father, wrote a fictionalised autobiography in which the characters all had other names, even his wives and children, although in the tradition of the Roman à Clef an index of real names was provided in later editions. He also wrote an elegy, a poem called Another Lycidas, for an old friend who died. This tradition of using different literary forms and references was in the reading and writing blood of the family, so Joan Aiken had plenty of background both real and fictional to draw on; and her own family history, like that described in this novel, was full of extraordinary deaths.
So how to consider it? We are given another clue in the novel’s title, Foul Matter and in the heroine’s conversation with her publisher about a completed, and nicely ironically titled recipe book:
‘“By the way,” he said, “do you want the foul matter from Unconsidered Trifles?”
Foul matter is a publishers’ term for corrected copy that has been dealt with and is no longer in use: worked-over typescript and proofs.
“Throw out the old copy,” I told George. “I don’t want it.”
Foul matter. Who needs it? You might as well keep all your old appointment books, mail order catalogues, nail clippings, laddered tights, broken eggshells, bits of lemon peel. Some people do, of course, and just as well, or history would never get put together. But I’m not one of those. History will have to get along without my help. Life, memory, is enough foul matter for me.’
True or false? When I came to clear out her attic (‘Don’t call it the attic, it’s my study!) I was astonished to see how much she had kept – school reports, ration books, letters, letters, letters… all grist to the mill of her imagination, or background for other, fictional characters? How much of Joan Aiken’s life did get filed away in her writing? There are plenty of descriptions of houses and towns she knew and loved, but which ones are they really, were they her own? Is Foul Matter set in Rye or Lewes or both? It has the castle mound of one and the salt marsh of the other:
‘Dear little ancient house. Watch Cottage. I always turn to look back at it with love. White, compact, weatherboarded, tiny, it stands in dignity below the brambly Castle Mound, at the head of a short, steep, cobbled cul-de-sac, Watch Hill, which leads down into Bastion Street… On down the steep hill; the town of Affton Wells displayed below my feet like a backdrop in flint, brick, and tiled gables. Tudor at the core, seventeenth and eighteenth century on the perimeter. Grey saltmarsh beyond, receding to the English Channel.’
In her father Conrad’s version, Rye, his adopted English home town where Joan was born, became Saltinge, the forever yearned for little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up.
Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, to move on to a new era, or to pay tribute to friends loved and lost; to store their memory forever in a fictional world where she could go back and visit whenever she wanted. Who is to say what is truth and what is fiction; all I know is that whenever I want to spend some time with her, this is the Joan Aiken novel I turn to.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
P.S. Looking back through some of those letters I found mention of an invitation to a private film-showing where she met: “a splendid British film tycoon called Sir J. A. who was just off to his château on the Loire, and very frosty at first, but finally thawed enough to buy me a whisky…” The model for Foul Matter’s Sir Bert Wilder perhaps?
All Joan Aiken’s modern novels now available as EBooks
Find new editions of Orion early thrillers here
and Modern novels from Bello Macmillan here