It is not surprising that Dido Twite is such an enduring heroine, her very survival was a piece of luck, or perhaps was ensured by her own strongest character trait – she never gave up hope. Joan Aiken has admitted that she had imagined Dido drowning at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, giving her own life to save her friend Simon. But then anguished letters from readers, and also something in Dido’s own character changed Joan Aiken’s mind; it did not seem possible that Dido would have given up, and just drifted away.
Joan Aiken often quoted an idea from Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote: “If a child is, for some reason, unable to imagine his future optimistically, arrest of development sets in.” She identified strongly with this, remembering her own childhood, and how she had been spurred on by many unfulfilled hopes – to bring her divorced parents back together; to get the chemicals for experiments she read about in her brother’s science books; to grow wings…and these powerful imaginings eventually became translated into the need to write stories, and to create in fiction the outcomes that otherwise were unobtainable. But she also became aware of the inadequacy of the ‘happy ever after’ ending of stories she read. For her, the characters of the books that filled her life, lived on past the ending of the story; they continued to be her companions in ongoing adventures, they didn’t just disappear, disposed of by a tidy, happy ending.
Joan Aiken realised during her twenties, and after many very un-hopeful events in her own life that would have crushed a lesser spirit, that her need to write, and to re-imagine and infuse her own life with hope was in fact the real purpose of her writing. This was why a large percentage of her stories were about people travelling hopefully, despite enormous discouragement, rather than about people arriving at their destinations. Many of her stories have open endings, suggestions of future possibility rather than pat conclusions. Some seem to end very sadly indeed, after more than a few unfortunate events, but with characters who have come through their alarming and salutary experiences now able to come together or salvage pieces of their previous lives and continue; there may always be change, but there is also hope.
And the embodiment of this spirit is her heroine Dido. Joan Aiken wrote:
“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.”
An avid Dido enthusiast will guess that these words might have been written between the adventures of The Cuckoo Tree – if anywhere, a suitable resting place for Joan Aiken’s fledgling heroine? – and the devastation to be wrought in Dido & Pa where Simon does briefly catch up with her, but so does her fiendishly treacherous father, making more than one attempt to capitalise on his ‘Delicate Sprite’ – even at the expense of her life. By the end of this story Dido is the ultimate orphan, and knows that she will be travelling on. There will no happy ever after for Dido, as Joan Aiken realised even at this early stage.
But this, she wrote, is “the whole raison d’etre of Dido. She can’t settle down; for if she had no more urgent problems to tackle then the future would be empty and featureless; there would, in fact, be nothing to hope for.” Nevertheless there were a few more injustices to put right before Joan Aiken at least, could let Dido go.
It is absolutely in character that Dido’s closing words, in Joan Aiken’s last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws, should be happy and hopeful, finally making sense of some of the most bitter episodes of her past. She reconciles herself to the dark and unloving side of her old Pa, by celebrating what was miraculous about him, the spirit that lives on beyond the story – his music. And at the same time Joan Aiken allows herself to re-write the original desperately sad ending of Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido found a future for herself after all, and now a different and more hopeful moon is shining down: