Who was Dido Twite..and what is her real story?

Simon & Dido

Dido Twite was Joan Aiken’s unforgettable and irrepressible heroine, the ‘brat’ turned child Odysseus, friend to the lonely and unlucky, heroic saviour (many times over!) of her King and country and a much loved inspiration of readers of The Wolves Chronicles. The character first appears in the second of these books – Black Hearts in Battersea, and from her humble beginnings, goes on to rule the series almost from the moment when she first accosts its other hero, the newly arrived art student Simon leading his donkey Caroline up to the Twite’s house in London’s Rose Alley:

“She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”

But readers may not know that there was a real life model for the character of Dido Twite, who thrust herself into Joan Aiken’s life in much the same way as the fictional character appears in the book…

In 1957, wanting to create a permanent home for herself after she was widowed with two small children, Joan borrowed £300 from her mother and put a deposit on White Hart House, a semi-derelict Tudor ex-pub in the little town of Petworth, five miles from the little Sussex village where she still lived and where Joan had grown up; Joan Aiken had to sign an undertaking not to sell liquor as the town already had so many other pubs, so the pub sign came down.

Steam Engine 1908

On moving-in day, supplied with £50 worth of furniture from a local auction and a good many orange crates, the family were met outside their new home by a nosey small girl who looked just like Dido as she is described above. Sitting on the steps up to their house, barefoot and enjoying a slice of bread and jam, she was keen to investigate and interrogate the new neighbours. It turned out she was completely intrepid and had the run of the town, and from then on would arrive at all hours to chat with Joan, endlessly curious, and full of tall tales about running on the town’s rooftops, sailing around the world on voyages, or being educated by a governess with the local gentry at Petworth House, most of which turned out to be true!

After the book that this small girl had inspired was written and published with its rather mysterious ending, Joan Aiken famously told of the many agonised letters she received from fans who having finished Black Hearts in Battersea, were aghast to discover that their newly found heroine had disappeared at sea. Realising she couldn’t drown such a magnetic character, Joan Aiken decided to have Dido picked up by a whaling ship, bound for the island of Nantucket off the coast of New England, original home of many of Joan’s own ancestors, and so the young Dido was sent off on her extraordinary series of adventures.

Jacques Dido

Over the years curiosity about Dido Twite brought more questions and fan letters, and writing to one particularly persistent young American reader, Joan Aiken gave another mysterious clue about Dido’s origins.

The meeting with the bold child in the street had struck a literary chord for her, recalling another diminutive eccentric from a Dickens novel, whose language and manners Joan Aiken couldn’t resist combining with the forthright attitude of the neighbour’s small daughter, a character who might well have lived during the reign of her own invented good King James lll. But who was this other mysterious child, and in which of Dickens’ many novels did she appear?

The little marchioness

An illustration by ‘Phiz’  and perhaps an inspiration for the Twite Family?

Little did Joan Aiken know that setting this rather teasing puzzle was to send her faithful fan off on a long course of reading, and started a correspondence between the two of them which was to last until the end of Joan’s life.

Finding these letters after Joan Aiken’s death set off another quest – how to bring this almost impossible mystery to an end and send a message without spoiling the story for new readers? In the end the answer was to post some of the letters on the newly created Joan Aiken website, together with a key to the Dickens mystery and leave the internet to work its magic, which it did in more ways than one…

Dido Dickens clue

One day, the American Dido fan looking up her favourite author found the page, recognised her own letter and was able to get in touch; she even came to visit on a trip to London and saw her original letters, carefully kept by Joan Aiken through the years.

Also via the website, an old friend from those Sussex days, now living in Australia, was able to contact that small girl from Petworth who had also moved there, and nearly sixty years later she came from Australia to visit, and only then learned how she had inspired Joan Aiken’s fictional heroine. She now has grandchildren, and went off, armed with books to share Dido’s adventures, and early inspiration with them for the first time.

More magical Aiken serendipity meant that this second visit happened on the very same day when the American reader, now grown up and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer herself, had posted an essay online about her long search for Dido Twite:

Being Joan Aiken’s Pen Pal Changed My Life – I’m a writer today because 15 years ago, she sent a fan on a scavenger hunt through Dickens

Readers have also speculated that Dido Twite could be an alter ego for Joan Aiken herself, which does ring true; certainly Dido gets to have all the adventures Joan imagined as a small girl – sailing on whaling ships, climbing the mountains of South America, visiting the mysterious Island of the Pearl Snakes, putting spokes in the wheels of various villains, and even inhabiting the pages of novels by her favourite authors, such as Dickens. The character of Dido was the embodiment of many of that small girl’s dreams, and would go on to encourage others to be bold and follow their dreams as well.

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Many illustrators have tried to capture Dido – these pictures above are from  American editions of Wolves Chronicles drawn by Robin Jacques

Want to know the answer to that Dickens secret? Click here for the Letters page!

More posts about Dido Twite and her adventures are here

We lived in a bus…! Joan Aiken and Family at home.

Bus 52

Taken 70 years ago, this is one of very few complete family photos that shows Joan Aiken, husband Ron Brown, son and daughter, John and Elizabeth, and cat – in this case Taffy – all together in 1951, and necessarily rather cosy too – as we were living in a bus!  Housing was hard to find after World War II for impecunious young couples, so Joan came up with this practical idea, and managed to sell the story to Housewife magazine, who sent a photographer and thereby preserved these pictures for posterity!

Bus text1

Having a garden was just as important as a roof over their heads, as food was still rationed, so Joan spent a good deal of time growing vegetables, and writing, while Ron still travelled up to ‘Town’ by train, working for the Reuters New Agency.

Bus collage

Even in this tiny space, Joan’s creativity found full expression; endlessly inventive, she used her painting, sewing and practical  skills of every kind to make this little home entirely her own; many of her hand painted furnishings lasted for decades.

Bus text2

The bus was immortalised in many of Joan’s stories in later years, not least in “A Necklace of Raindrops” where even the cat turns out to have magical properties when he sits on the mat. 

Meanwhile she put it into a Christmas card for her mother and step-father, (in 1950 before the birth of the last arrival!) with a thank-you poem for a delivery of warm winter wear, made by her equally practical mother:

BusXmas

Joan was also working on a collection of  magical short stories which would form her very first collection, to be published in 1953, and  rather suitably entitled:

“All You’ve Ever Wanted”

Many of these and other favourite Joan Aiken Stories can now be found in

The Gift Giving from Virago Books

The Gift Giving copy

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Read more about Joan’s early life and first book on the

Picture Timeline on the Website

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About Joan page

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J.A.desk

Joan’s writing desk

Visit the Joan Aiken You Tube Page to see her at home using this typewriter

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Arabel Meets Mortimer – Riotous Raven of Rumbury Town…!

MortFridge

It was a dark and stormy night (of course!) when Mortimer entered the life of Arabel and the Jones family – and Rumbury Town N.W.3 and-a-half would never be the same again.  Arabel’s Raven is the first of the many tales of his adventures with the Jones Family told by Joan Aiken and masterfully characterised by Quentin Blake’s illustrations.  The devoted pair appeared on a series of Jackanory readings, and then in books and a puppet series for the BBC which earned them a following of fans of all ages.

It was love at first sight – and forever – for the pair who Joan Aiken rather wickedly described as her version of the relationship between the ego and the id – Arabel never does anything wrong, and Mortimer does what he likes:

MortFridge1

Before too long chaos reigns in Rumbury Town, and Mortimer (through no fault of his own of course!) is in the thick of it:

MortRaid

Amazingly he does, with the evil squirrel strapped to his back, and is soon holed up in the gangsters’ hideout – while Arabel goes into a decline, wondering where her friend can be?  But soon everyone is on his trail…  and now strange things are happening at Rumbury Tube station, but no one can solve the mystery?ReporterReporter1Reporter2Pretty soon everyone is going round the bend, and it is up to Arabel to keep her wits about her and unravel the hilarious trail of chaos that leads her back to Mortimer…will she ever be parted from him again? 

“Nevermore!” says Mortimer.

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Read more about Arabel & Mortimer and the BBC Puppet Series

on the Joan Aiken Website

NEW EDITIONS  now out from Puffin Books

ArabelAndMortimerStories NEW

 Bumper edition with Six Hilarious Stories!