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

The ever mysterious Joan Aiken…

HGazebo crop

Who was the real 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 well loved home town or village, or heaven forbid, incur outrage even closer to home with dangerous disclosures familiar to their own relations…

Libel letter 1950's

(signature illegible I hope!)

So does Joan Aiken’s most mysterious possibly autobiographical 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 Deathanother 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 any of them her own?  Is Foul Matter  set in Rye or Lewes, where she did live, or perhaps 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,  a picturesque little East Sussex town with weatherboarded houses and marsh views, so reminiscent of New England where he had grown up, and which he yearned for constantly when back in America.

Perhaps Joan Aiken’s novel, written in her sixties at the height of her career, was an attempt to throw out the old memories, junk the lingering Foul Matter,  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.

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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?

Foul Matter is now available as a new paperback

 Foul Matter PB.

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

Suspense Group 1

The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy postImagine the moment when a copy of Joan Aiken’s own first published book arrived in the post – what if it was yours?

At the time, in 1953, despite her dreams of honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her from going on to write over one hundred more!

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ (as she called fellow children’s writers!) who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she herself had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it took hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s own classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, chose a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination, to the gritty dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – was Harklights, by Tim Tilley.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the Victorian past, but also conjures up the possible future with the threat of a disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – the loss of our old shared world of myth, magic, and natural mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero of Harklights, escapes the brutal mechanised world ( an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction of the Natural World.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

mushrooms

What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled in three main areas that appeal particularly to children:

“Love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Tilley”s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is so tiny! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in The Wild Way Home Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Susan Bailey and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Where the World Turns Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, and often sketched while brooding on a book – as in her drawing of the dish of mushrooms above. Like Tim Tilley she included sample illustrations with her submission of that first book – All You’ve Ever Wantedhere is one of them where a cat called Walrus taunts an enchanted frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite, and Tim’s illustrations were so speaking that they form an important part of his début publication which has now been beautifully produced by the publishers Usborne – definitely a delight to discover on your doormat!

Harklights book

All in all, running the competition was a fantastic experience, and we were proud to have encouraged so many of you to send in your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

>  >  >  >  * <  <  <  <

  Do visit the Joan Aiken Website to see a picture Timeline of her life

and discover all the books that she went on to publish!

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