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

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!

A Joan Aiken Story – about Bob Dylan!

Chris & Guitar

Bob Dylan first appeared and sang in the UK on a BBC Sunday Night play in January 1963 which made a big impression on Joan Aiken. Called Madhouse on Castle Street, it included a strange and sinister song called The Swan on the River, which reminded her of the often grim and lurid folk ballads her Canadian mother used to sing, such as Lord Rendall, about a young nobleman who was poisoned by his lover. At the time Dylan was relatively unknown, having only brought out one album, and this was his first visit to England, but his performance, and that song were unforgettable, and she didn’t forget the singer.

That year, in 1963, Joan Aiken visited America for the first time to celebrate the publication of her now classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, where she also visited  her writer father in his home country for the first time, and met Charles Schlessiger, the man who was to be her literary agent and undying supporter for the next fifty years. This publication also catapulted Joan Aiken to fame in America with a stunning review in Time magazine which began:

‘This year can boast one genuine small masterpiece, called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  Written, as any children’s book should be, with obvious fond delight by Poet Conrad Aiken’s daughter Joan…it is almost a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children’s book must possess: charm, a style of its own, and the skill and authority to create a small world without writing down to small readers.’

Back home in Petworth, Sussex Joan Aiken’s two teenage children (and their Beatnik, guitar playing babysitter) like characters from a folk tale, or one of her own stories, had requested a particular gift to be brought back from New York – a Bob Dylan album.

She came back with two, Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. These records made us the stars of our small town, and started a lifelong passion in the family. Joan Aiken went on to write many songs for her own plays, which were set to music by her guitar playing son, perhaps prophetically named John Sebastian, and Dylan’s words and music continued to entertain and inspire her. Sadly she died before Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I am sure she would have applauded.

But a combination of Bob Dylan and our own equally influential guitar playing Beatnik, gave birth to a character from Joan Aiken’s much loved Arabel’s Raven stories – the baby sitter Chris Cross whose singing totally entranced Arabel, as seen above in Quentin Blake’s picture, from a story that appeared a few years later – Arabel & Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba.

Having run out of milk (after an unfortunate accident!) while he is minding the pair one evening, Chris takes Mortimer and Arabel down to the station where there are all kinds of amazing automatic machines to get some more, and while there (after various adventures!) they make their own record of one of Chris’s songs to bring back home.

Sleep End of Mamba

Chris Cross remained an integral part of the Jones’ family life, and Bob Dylan’s songs went on to influence Joan’s own compositions, here for instance from a Shakespearean parody called Mooncusser’s Daughter, with music by her son..

Mooncusser Full fathom Five

Joan Aiken went on to marry an American painter and take up residence in Greenwich Village, New York.

I like to think of them walking the same streets.

The recording of  Bob Dylan’s Gliding Swan song can still be heard here

Bob Swans 1963

Happy 80th Birthday Bob, with all best wishes

from Joan Aiken (and family!)

An Easter Egg story from Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski – the origin of the egg hunt?

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer them a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down…

Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg!

But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady rather crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

So now they have a little chicken-leg house of their own!

Bed for the Night Pic

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Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter

Lizza Aiken